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Volume 450: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2006

2. What assessment he has made of the impact of the poppy eradication programme on the sustainability of livelihoods among farmers in southern Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (96571)

Information on the impact of poppy eradication is limited, but we know that it works best if it is properly targeted at those with a real alternative livelihood. A survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime—with a relatively small sample size—showed that in 2006, 81 per cent. of farmers re-planted legal crops following eradication. Only 2 per cent. re-planted poppies, and 56 per cent. of farmers who had their poppy crop eradicated said they would not plant it again next year. The success of the 2006 poppy eradication campaign will become clear only at the end of the planting season.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the south of the country at least, the poppy eradication programme is not working? The larger farmers are paying bribes to avoid the destruction of their poppy crops, while the smaller farmers, who cannot avoid the bribes, are losing their livelihoods and as a result facing hunger and destitution, which is pushing them into the hands of the Taliban. Has not the time come to contemplate some of the alternatives, such as the one suggested by that very reputable organisation the Senlis council?

I acknowledge what my hon. Friend says about the difficulty of poppy eradication. We can see what has happened in countries elsewhere in the world that have been successful in that regard. In Thailand, it took 30 years. It is clear that what is required is what the Government of Afghanistan are trying to do: the targeting of eradication where there are alternative livelihoods, pursuit of the drug barons, seizure of the drugs, improvement of governance, enforcement of the law and the provision of greater security and improvements in infrastructure.

I am of course aware of the Senlis council’s proposal, but the Afghanistan Government’s view of it is clear. They do not agree with it and do not consider it to be the right approach for Afghanistan, and I think that we should respect their judgment.

The elimination of poppy growing in Afghanistan will require development. Can the Secretary of State tell me how much of the UK’s development aid budget is being spent on security for aid projects rather than on reconstruction and development? Is there not a risk that funds for development will be dissipated on security, just as they have been in Iraq?

It is the case that some of our funds will be spent on providing protection for Department staff and others who are working in Afghanistan, but the vast bulk of the money that we give in development assistance goes to the Government of Afghanistan. They have requested that we and other donors give our support in that way because it is the best way to build their capacity to deliver services to their people. That is why we are the largest contributor to the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which helps to pay the salaries of teachers, nurses, doctors and others.

The hon. Lady makes an important point about security, which is a precondition for development. In Helmand, where British troops are now deployed, the security situation is more difficult than we anticipated, but we need an improvement in security to be able to work with Afghan partners—because that is where the bulk of the work will be done—to try to help the people of Afghanistan to improve their own lives.

The sustainability of farmers in Afghanistan is crucial, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the sustainability and quality of life for many in our communities in this country is of equal importance and is threatened by the drugs imported from Afghanistan? Will he join me in congratulating our troops who have seized 115 tonnes of opium in the past year from Afghanistan and saved communities here?

I certainly will join my hon. Friend in offering my congratulations to our troops and all the other staff from the UK who are doing an extraordinary job in very challenging circumstances in Afghanistan. He is right about the demand for poppy which fuels the industry about which we have been speaking. Afghanistan is a very poor country: one in four children do not live to see their fifth birthday, and a third of those children die before they reach 12 months. That is the reality. The country has been impoverished by conflict and many other problems over decades and it will take time for the Afghan people to change their circumstances. However, there are some signs of hope, with 4.5 million refugees returning, the economy growing, and 6 million children in school—a third of them girls—and it is right that we and many others in the international community should provide support to the people of Afghanistan as they try to change their lives for the better.

One of the criticisms of our activity in southern Afghanistan has been the lack of co-ordination between projects. For example, the short-term nature of the recent USAID project for drip irrigation for farmers has only helped them to grow poppy. We have taken some action by trying to promote provisional development plans, but that project appears to have stalled, with no plans coming forward from southern Afghanistan. What action is the Secretary of State taking to try to push forward the provisional development plans?

First, may I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the interest that he takes in Afghanistan and the excellent speech he made in the Westminster Hall debate last week. I respect his views greatly. He draws attention to an important issue. I cannot claim responsibility for USAID programmes—I will resist the temptation—but a balance must be struck between building capacity for the long term and demonstrating progress in the short term. The governor of Helmand has expressed some frustration about the latter and that is why we have redirected some of our efforts—as the hon. Gentleman knows—towards quick impact projects, so that people can see change beginning to take place. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that point completely. One of the reasons why the Government of Afghanistan have asked donors to provide more of their support through Afghan mechanisms—in particular, through the Afghan reconstruction trust fund—is so that the Government can provide that co-ordination. If we get our act together—and I urge other donors to follow the lead that we have given—we have a better chance of addressing the problem that the hon. Gentleman identifies.