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Islamic World Group

Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2007

1. Whether he plans to support from his departmental budget the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Engaging with the Islamic World Group. (110689)

We have no plans to offer financial support over and above the increased support that the Engaging with the Islamic World Group already receives from the FCO budget. However, we work closely with the FCO on poverty reduction, improving governance and education reform, which all contribute to progress on the group’s objectives.

I think there is a problem. Engaging with the Islamic world is a central British policy objective. The Foreign Office budget is under enormous pressure and will be reduced in the comprehensive spending review. The Department for International Development’s budget is increasing, so would it not make sense for it to help fund the policy of engaging with the Islamic world, which would surely make its work in relieving poverty in countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Yemen and Jordan, to name but a few, much easier, and would also support wider British policy objectives that are of central concern to this country’s security? Surely they involve the Department.

I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman recognised that our increasing aid programme in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Yemen contributed to engagement with the Islamic world and the broader objectives of the Engaging with the Islamic World Group in the FCO. The Prime Minister announced a doubling of our aid programme to Pakistan only last year. One of the key priorities of that increased aid will undoubtedly be investment in education. Given the focus on and concerns about madrassahs in Pakistan, that is a positive example of the way in which DFID support complements other broader Government objectives.

For Arab nations in the Islamic world, the best way of communicating is undoubtedly through Arabic. If the Under-Secretary agrees, what is the Department doing, in liaison with the Foreign Office, to increase the number of Arabic speakers in both Departments?

We have a substantial number of staff based in, for example, Yemen, and we have plans substantially to increase our aid programme there. The head of our office in Yemen has to go on a course to learn Arabic and other members, some of whom we employ locally, can also speak Arabic. Training in Arabic is offered and, as our aid programme in such countries grows, having Arabic speakers is, as the hon. Gentleman said, essential. It is part of the training that our staff are given.