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House of Commons

Wednesday 22 January 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Sub-Saharan Africa

1. Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): What plans she has to visit sub-Saharan countries in the next three months to discuss development criteria and objectives. [92204]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): I visit Africa on a regular basis and I have returned overnight from a short visit to Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya. The objective of our development partnerships is the sustainable reduction of poverty. While in Ethiopia, I signed a 10-year partnership agreement to that end.

Mr. Win Griffiths : I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Everybody will be aware of her huge commitment to trying to ensure that sub-Saharan Africa is helped to the greatest possible extent. Given the continuing human rights problems in Zimbabwe and its involvement in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, what more does she think can be done to try to get peace in the DRC, and to get a restoration of human rights and democracy in Zimbabwe?

Clare Short: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Zimbabwe has withdrawn its troops from the Democratic Republic of Congo, as have Rwanda, Namibia and Angola, which is progress. Since South Africa became involved, considerable progress has been achieved on agreeing a transitional Government of all the different factions. That Government are not quite in place, and there is still a lot of destabilisation by forces that support genocide in Burundi and Rwanda. We are getting progress, however, and we are doing everything that we can to drive it forward.

In Zimbabwe, everything that a British Government could have done to try to prevent the ever-growing crisis, abuse of human rights, the stolen election and, now, horrendous levels of hunger, has been done, through the Commonwealth and the European Community, without success. The present situation is catastrophic. We are doing all that we can and are a major player in keeping people fed and cared for. My

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view is that this catastrophe will bring down the Mugabe regime, but at the cost of terrible suffering for the people of Zimbabwe.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell): The Secretary of State is absolutely right to describe the situation in Zimbabwe as catastrophic. Is there any possibility of airlifting food to opposition areas, as has been requested by some opposition leaders in Zimbabwe?

Clare Short: No, that is not needed. Of course, the regime's delivery of food is deliberately biased and used politically: food is not brought to those villages and places that dared to vote as they wished. But the UN delivery is not politically biased: it is made according to need, but it is faced with all sorts of political problems, and even fuel shortages, which make it a very difficult operation. In addition, HIV levels are so high that people are very weak. For the UN, the key shortage is not enough money in the international system. We have put in a lot, and I have written to Development Ministers across the world about it. There has been some improvement, but we must keep the pipeline full. I am afraid that the recovery will take a long time.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): My right hon. Friend will know that the news coming out from Zimbabwe indicates that the position continues to get more critical every day. Many of the people there are suffering from famine, and the regime's treatment of its people is increasingly appalling. What discussions is she having with South Africa and other countries in the region about what they can do to help the people of Zimbabwe get free of the current appalling regime?

Clare Short: As my hon. Friend can imagine, I and other Ministers have had discussions with other Governments across the world and in Africa about what can be done. To date, however, our record is not successful. My energy is devoted to keeping people fed. Seven million people out of just over 11 million people in Zimbabwe are in need of food aid. As I have said, one third of the adults in Zimbabwe have HIV, which, when people are malnourished, quickly triggers into full-blown AIDS, making them sick and deepening their lack of ability to farm. The situation is terrible.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): President Mwai Kibaki is a man whom I have known and admired for more than 30 years. He is undoubtedly the personality best equipped to grapple with Kenya's very serious problems. I congratulate the Secretary of State on visiting him so soon after his triumphant election. Will she use all her influence to make sure that Britain and the international community give every possible help to Kenya, where we could change the situation, whereas we are not likely to have much influence on Zimbabwe?

Clare Short: I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman that the recent elections in Kenya were a great opportunity for that country, which has been in continuing economic decline because of the fundamental corruption under the previous regime. The new President is a great hope for the country. Unfortunately, he is in hospital because of a deep vein

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thrombosis, but I gather that the prognosis is good. However, I met his Government, who have inherited a massive hole in public finances, and they have a determination to reform. I have had meetings with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the EU and others, and we are going to try to mobilise an enormous international effort to help the country forward, deliver to its people and deliver the reform that Kenya needs.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): Several hon. Members have highlighted the plight of Zimbabwe and the fact that its suffering is among the worst of the sub-Saharan nations. The Secretary of State has said that the Government are doing all that they can, so I am sure that she will agree that, when innocent Zimbabweans face rape, murder, torture, starvation and ethnic cleansing at the hands of their Government, it would be an insult to their suffering if Robert Mugabe were allowed to visit Paris in February as a guest of the President of France. Can she reassure the House that reports that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is planning to waive a veto on the granting of a visa to Mugabe are untrue and that her Government will raise at the European Foreign Ministers meeting on Monday the strongest objections to this breach of the sanctions?

Clare Short: I agree with the hon. Lady that it would be disgraceful if President Chirac invited Mugabe to Paris, but it is rumoured that he intends to do so. I do not know what view the Foreign Office will take on waiving the veto, but my view—it will not be my decision—is that it would not be right.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): One of the most optimistic developments in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa and the whole of Africa last year was the ceasefire in the very long-running war in Angola. I know that my right hon. Friend has visited the country and taken her usual tremendous interest in its problems. Can she assure me that the Government are doing everything that they possibly can to assist that country in this crucial phase in which it is emerging out of war and in which a whole range of issues needs to be addressed for the development of civil society and the economy and to help those who have spent their whole lives as soldiers to build new hopes, jobs and opportunities?

Clare Short: I agree with my hon. Friend that peace in Angola provides great hope for its people and will enable the country's rich resources to be better used. That will help that region of Africa. There has been fighting in Angola since the 1960s, when it began its fight for independence, and there has been civil war ever since. The war is over, but there is desperate hunger and need because of its effects. We support the international mobilisation that is having some success in getting fighters settled and in delivering food to the areas that could not be accessed before. Angola is a fertile country with masses of land and rich diamond and oil resources that have been very badly managed. There is desperate corruption, so there will have to be a big reform effort.

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However, we are very engaged, as is the international community, and I hope that the Angolan people will be able to look forward to a much better future.

Mrs. Spelman: Many sub-Saharan countries are classified as heavily indebted poor countries and qualify for debt relief. However, only six countries have completed the process of debt relief under the HIPC initiative. That means that 70 per cent. of those countries are failing to meet their targets for receiving debt relief. Of that 70 per cent., three quarters are sub-Saharan countries. Given that the HIPC initiative has missed the target by such a wide margin, will the Secretary of State now agree with Jubilee Research, Oxfam, Christian Aid and many other non-governmental organisations that it is about time that the HIPC initiative was radically overhauled?

Clare Short: No, I am afraid that the hon. Lady does not understand the HIPC initiative. Twenty-six countries are in receipt of debt relief, but are not paying their debts. Countries reach the point at which they are allowed to stop paying when they put in place a poverty reduction strategy and start a process of reform. Only six have reached the completion rate when the debt is permanently written off, but a much bigger number are receiving debt relief than she suggested. Her 70 per cent. figure is simply wrong.

The HIPC initiative has triggered a major effort for reform in some of the poorest countries, and we can all be proud of that. However, it now needs some adjustment. Partly because of the fall in commodity prices and the great rise in oil prices, there needs to be more generous debt relief to get countries to sustainability. There is another technical problem: the debt relief formula limits what countries can borrow, and Rwanda, Ethiopia and Niger are not being allowed to receive World Bank resources under the initiative. That needs correcting.

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