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Democratic Republic of the Congo (Development)

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2008

I am pleased that we are having this debate. I wanted a debate on the Congo, and the question was whether the Department for International Development or the Foreign Office would reply to it. In reality the issue is coterminous, because we wish to examine the problems of poverty in the Congo and developments there and how this country and others can assist.

I have just returned from the Congo, where I was part of a delegation including my hon. Friends the Members for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) and for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber). The trip was funded by a combination of the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, International Alert and Christian Aid. That is my declaration of interest. We are grateful to Stephen Carter, the secretary of the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention, who accompanied us and stayed on afterwards to visit some courts and observe some justice processes. He was extremely helpful in organising the visit and ensuring that we had a packed programme. I also wish to put on record our thanks to our ambassador in Kinshasa, Nick Kay, who was extremely helpful in arranging a lot of things at short notice and giving us a full briefing, and to the DFID representative there, Phil Marker, who was equally helpful and very supportive of our delegation.

I have the pleasure of representing a constituency that includes a Congolese community, many of whom have been in this country for a long time and are victims of the history of the Congo. I find it constantly depressing that one of the world’s greatest current conflicts is largely ignored by the world’s media, as are the good works done by many people in the Congo who are trying to bring about significant improvements and changes.

There is not time to go into the country’s history today, but we should be aware that Leopold’s rule in the Congo was among the most brutal anywhere on the face of the earth. It was a wholly extractive and acquisitive rule, intended simply to take out the natural resources. Such infrastructure as King Leopold and the Belgians developed was solely related to the extraction of the riches of the Congo. It was nothing to do with the internal development of that country. Sadly, that pattern has continued for a long time. With the new hope for a long-term period of peace, one hopes that the Congo’s resources will be developed for the benefit of its people rather than to be exported to the nearest coast and off to the rest of the world. However, we are quite a long way from that.

On independence, the country did not achieve the peace and concord that was due it. There was interference from outside and then a long period of Mobutu’s dictatorship, which was finally ended with the current elected Government. I shall return to that later, because it is important that we all support the development of a democratic process, accountable administration and an independent judiciary.

Our delegation came into the country through Rwanda and went first to Goma, in the east. It is difficult to comprehend from the outside just how devastating the war has been in the east of the country. In the past 10 years, 5.4 million people have been killed in the conflict there, which is far more than have died in Iraq and Afghanistan combined or in almost any other war in the same period. It is the biggest death toll by armed conflict anywhere in the world in the recent past. First world war proportions of death and destruction have been visited upon the people of the east of the Congo. As ever, the victims of war are the poor, children, women and civilians. Half of all those who have died in the conflict are children. During our visit, we met a number of organisations that are doing their best to support people and help them get through the terrible process.

One must understand what Goma is like as a town. It is potentially beautiful; it is on the east, next to the lake, and contains the remains of what I suspect are the holiday homes of various wealthy Belgians from the colonial period. Yet the streets are potholed, the administration is shaky at best, there are large numbers of refugee camps all over the town, there is constant traffic chaos and there are destroyed and blown-up buildings. In the midst of that, luxury hotels are in use and various fairly luxurious office blocks have been constructed. Goma is to some extent a frontier town, in which the civil war is being played out. At the same time, large quantities of minerals, particularly coltan but other precious metals as well, are being exported through Goma and either being flown from there or going directly through Rwanda. There is a sense of lawlessness about the place.

While we were there, there was a plane crash in which more than 80 people died. It was a wholly preventable accident. The runway has a lava flow across it from the volcanic eruption three years ago, and nobody has got around to removing it. Planes therefore have to take off using half the runway. As I understand it, the plane was unlicensed for that runway. It tried to take off, burst a tyre, was probably overloaded and ploughed into a lot of very poor houses alongside the airport. The local hospitals had great difficulty in coping, and but for the presence of an Indian United Nations force nearby, the death toll would have been far higher. One should pay tribute to the Indian army for what they did to save lives.

I found it depressing that we all immediately got calls from various media sources in this country to ask our views, what had happened and so on. Although they never said it, the subliminal questions from the news media were, “How many westerners were involved? How many tourists were involved? How many international business men were involved in the death toll?” It turned out that the answer was zero to all three. I checked the news media carefully when I came back, and the story had disappeared unaccountably from the media. That shows a quite disgusting sense of news values. If a light plane overshoots a runway in Florida, the world knows about it the next day. If 80 people die in a plane crash in the Congo, it is just one of those things that are ignored. I appeal to people in the media to have some sense of humanitarian values in their reporting of things.

As soon as we arrived, my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk and myself went to a women’s centre, where we spent some time talking to women who were victims of violence in the war. Rape is a weapon of war in the Congo and those women had been brutally treated. They had been raped and injured severely, and many were disabled as a result. They were frightened to go out of the centre and were in a parlous and desperate situation. They treated us extremely well, but unless there is a legal process whereby legal judgment will take place against people who have committed rape and sexual violence, it will continue and probably get worse. Although I pay the greatest tribute to ActionAid and the other groups that are doing a great deal to support such women’s organisations and centres, a great deal more needs to be done. We raised the matter with representatives of the armed groups when we met them.

We also went to Mugunga II, a very large refugee camp which mainly contained women and children while we were there. There were large numbers of people living in tiny bender tents with a UN tarpaulin covering a few sticks, and food was brought in by the UN every day. They were doing their best to provide some degree of education for the children there. Within the camp, there was also some degree of medical support and some degree of activities to encourage people to keep their lives and families together.

There is a difficult decision that must be made by anybody who is operating refugee camps. Goma is probably one of the most fertile places in the world: it has very high rainfall, a very warm climate and fantastically fertile volcanic soil. It is possible to grow anything there very quickly. I am told that tomatoes come up in six weeks and any of us who have tried gardening in Britain will find that amazing. However, none of the people in the refugee camp are allowed to grow any food there, because those running the camp do not want to encourage people to stay in the camp for ever more. So there seemed to be something slightly bizarre and absurd about a UN truck arriving with rice and maize from the United States to feed people in the most fertile place in the world. The lack of security, the instability and the fear of returning to the villages are the factors that have led us to this crazy and completely illogical situation. So we must look seriously at the whole peace process and what is happening in the east of the country.

While we were there in the east, we met all the non-governmental organisations, and representatives of the European Union, United States Agency for International Development, the United Nations and, of course, DFID and the Foreign Office. We also met representatives of a lot of Congolese NGOs and they were very impressive people.

We also had a very long meeting with two of the armed groups that are currently on ceasefire following the Nairobi and Goma accords: the Mai Mai group, who are dealing with north and south Kivu, and the Congress for the Defence of the People, or CNDP. We had a meeting with both the groups, then they divided and we spent some hours talking to them separately.

At one level, everything that they were saying was logical, political and well-put, demands were made and so on. We then raised various questions with the armed groups: their use of violence; their treatment of women; their use of child soldiers; their arms; their equipment; their money and where it comes from; and how serious they were about a long-term peace process.

We are not the interlocutors who will bring about peace; we were there as a visiting parliamentary delegation. However, we obviously did our best to urge that a peace process should go forward. Having said that, if we do not seize this opportunity that is there now, following Nairobi and Goma and the ceasefire that is more or less holding at the present time, goodness knows what will happen in a year or two, further down the road.

In the east of the Congo, there are riches, potentially a lot of money and also an awful lot of weaponry, including guns. At the same time, only half the children—maybe even less—manage to go to school and the health service really does not exist for most people there. The prize for the people in the east of the Congo of a lasting ceasefire and a meaningful peace process is a very great one indeed, but it requires the co-operation of all the neighbouring countries, disarmament and, I believe, a continuation of an arms embargo on the country.

As I have said, the issues of justice, recognition and treatment of women are very important. As this is a debate about development, it is also important to recognise what help, support and assistance we can give.

I pay tribute to the DFID aid package—we spent a long time talking to DFID representatives in the country—and to the other support that has been given by Britain. I am also looking forward to reading Lord Mance’s report. Lord Mance has been to the Congo on an extended mission to look particularly at the treatment of women and the justice process that is going on there. Apparently, he is due to produce a report in July and that is very welcome; all the people that we met in the Congo were certainly very welcoming of his visit.

We then went to Kinshasa and had meetings with representatives of the National Assembly, the Senate and various Government Departments, as well as with representatives of many NGOs. All of us in our group had been to the Congo previously as election observers and we had watched the election process. Personally, I have no great criticisms of the voting process itself that I observed during the election, but I have concerns that an election campaign that was dominated by the very great wealth of two of the candidates and a lack of any kind of robust political debate will not necessarily bring about a very strong democratic result.

The reality is that the Congo is potentially a very rich place indeed, but it lacks the necessary political infrastructures to control the mining companies, the logging companies or anyone else. It is a question of building the capacity for the democratic involvement of the people; that process was a very important part of what we were looking at in the Congo and hopefully we will be looking at it in the future. However, unless we move some way down the road of the peace process, we will not get very far in building up that democratic involvement.

Before I conclude, I will look at some of the issues that are facing the country as a whole. First, although I have already said quite a lot about the peace process, it is essential that everyone recognises that, if they want to see the wealth of the Congo being used for the benefit of the people of the Congo, alongside peace and development in the entire region, supporting the ceasefire is important but so is supporting the development of democratic institutions.

Therefore, where people have been demobilised from any particular armed group, the provision of some degree of financial support for demobilised fighters to return to their village and have something to do there is very important, as has been done in Burundi and Rwanda. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk will talk to some extent about security sector reform. Clearly, however, a very large Congolese army that is mainly unpaid but universally equipped with some type of gun should not be disbanded willy-nilly; instead, the members of that army should be given some incentive to resume normal civilian life. The experience of Iraq, where the whole army was disbanded without much thought for the future, has been pretty disastrous and I would not want to see the same thing repeated in the Congo. However, it is important to look at this issue of security sector reform.

Let me try, if I may, to give some reassurance to my hon. Friend by posing some questions to him. On his visit, did he and the other members of the delegation have the opportunity to discuss the £50 million that we have put into a multi-donor fund that is assisting with demobilisation and, crucially, reintegration of troops into society? Indeed, was he also aware that we have recently committed a further £1 million to assist in the demobilisation of the remaining 30,000 troops? In particular, was he aware that we hope that that £1 million will be specifically used to tackle the problem of the numbers of child soldiers who still remain in the Congo?

Yes, we were aware of that aid and we had that discussion about its use; I thank the Minister for that intervention. That support is very welcome indeed and obviously I hope that it is successful in its aims.

The peace process is central to everything in the Congo, but what is also central is to look to the future. As I have said, more than 5 million people have died in the recent past in this conflict and huge numbers of internally displaced people are either living in refugee camps around Goma or they have made their way to Kinshasa. Kinshasa is a difficult city, to put it at its very mildest. It is a very difficult place to administer: it has very large numbers of people who are homeless, including large numbers of young children; there are many children who are victims of war; and there are a lot of children, particularly boys, roaming around the city without very much to do and without any real means of support.

It is very hard to determine exactly the number of children in school, but it is probably rather less than half of the total child population. The schools themselves vary greatly between quite well run private schools, some quite well run church schools and some private schools that are not particularly well run—one wonders what standard of education those schools are providing for the children in them. There are also a large number of children who do not go to school at all.

There is no way that the millennium goal of conquering illiteracy by 2015 will be met in the Congo; with a growing population, the rate of illiteracy is probably rising rather than falling at the present time. So, a great deal must be done in that sector. To quote from a Save the Children document that the charity sent me, almost half of the internally displaced people are children and Save the Children believes that

“About 5.3 million primary aged children (6-11 years) and six million 12-17 year olds are out-of-school in the DRC.”

Therefore, we are talking about more or less 12 million young people who are not receiving any education at all in the country. Save the Children urges us to do all that we can to ensure that there is support for education in the Congo.

That leads to the question of what demands we make for the Congo’s future. I spoke about the peace process and education. Unless there is some stability in the Congo, education is unlikely to develop.

The health service is rudimentary. Those who happen to be near a town that has a large hospital and who are able to get to it get a degree of service, but many others get no health care or health services whatsoever.

What can we do from the outside? It is not a question of our telling the Congo how to run its affairs but of our recognising that there are humanitarian questions and that there is a humanitarian disaster. However, there is also enormous wealth in the country, which—should be harnessed for the good of all its people.

I spoke about the abuses of women, but there are many other human rights abuses, and the legal justice system is inadequate. We would like the UN Human Rights Council to have a new mandate for a permanent mission and observer in the DRC. The UN should have a presence in the country to recommend, assist and improve its human rights record.

The mineral wealth of the Congo has always been its bedevilment. In many ways, the country has been damaged by its riches. The Government of the Congo signed the extractive industries transparency initiative, which is an extremely important document. We had long meetings about it. Unless that agreement is carried out to the fullest extent, the corruption that goes with the mining industry and extractive industries will continue. DFID and other agencies have given a great deal of support to that agreement.

We raised several questions about the forest reserves and natural resources. The forests are massive. Congo has the biggest rain forest in the world, and there are huge implications for the whole planet if it is felled willy-nilly or if there is destruction of the forest ecosystem. The forest is also the livelihood of some 40 million people who survive in an entirely sustainable way within it.

A debate is taking place on the resumption or otherwise of industrial logging in the Congo. I have a copy of a letter sent to the Minister of Environment, Nature Conservation, Water and Forests. It was signed by a large number of people and calls for a continued moratorium on industrial-style logging, sustainable use of the forests and protection of the lives of the people who live in them.

The British Government have contributed a considerable sum of money through the Congo basin forest partnership to assist in tackling deforestation and promoting the sustainable use of the forests. I am sure that when the Minister replies he will say something about it. What has been done in that respect was wholly welcome.

We were confronted many times about the amount of money that western countries contribute. We spoke to people in the Assembly and so on about money given through DFID and other European sources. They said, “Hang on. The Chinese are here, and they are offering us billions.”

While it is understandable in an economic sense why the Chinese Government should want to make large loans that are to be repaid through mineral extraction in the future, there is a question about the kind of pressure or otherwise that the Chinese will put on administration, human rights and so on. Clearly, the infrastructure will improve. Major roads are being built, railways are being planned and so on. The Minister may want to say something about the relationship with the Chinese, which needs to be positive and constructive. In that way, things could get better, but the question is whether the country’s natural resources will be protected during a period in which mining and forestry activity will probably increase.

The UN’s programme in the Congo is the largest of any in the world. The UN was there before the election; it helped to bring about the ceasefire and the election; and it clearly is a major force in the country. Allegations have been made at various times about the behaviour of UN forces. I do not propose to go into them at present, but it is essential, for the good of the UN and the principle of having an international force to assist with peacekeeping, that if allegations are made, they are not covered up but vigorously investigated, examined and dealt with as appropriate. If there is no trust in UN forces, there will be no trust in anybody else either. I hope that the mandate of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—MONUC—continues, but I also hope that there will be some transparency.

The UK has provided $60 million for the humanitarian pooled fund. It was presented while we were there. That is very welcome indeed, but we need to ensure, first, that our programme of support for the Congo continues; secondly, that the UN continues its work and that there are human rights monitors; and, thirdly, that we support capacity building and development of infrastructure in the country. That is crucial.

The DRC is one of the richest countries in the world, yet it has some of the poorest people in the world. They are victims of the most violent wars imaginable to anyone. It is up to us to do our best to support a peace and development process so that people can live decent, reasonable lives rather than live through the hell of one of the worst wars the world has seen since the end of the second world war.

I had no intention of speaking when I entered the Chamber, although I thought that I might make a couple of helpful interventions. It is important to put on the record, first, my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and my other hon. Friends who went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Also, I wish to thank Stephen Carter, who is brilliant at organising trips to that part of the world.

It is so important that we, as British parliamentarians, keep in contact with that desperately difficult part of the world. We owe its wonderful people an interest and a commitment to try to do what we can to bring peace and stability to that bedevilled area. I do not intend to say much, and I apologise that I have to leave shortly after 3.30 pm, but it is important to put a few things on the record about the DRC and to highlight some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend’s brilliant speech.

I went to the DRC nearly five years ago and was shocked by the conflict and its aftermath. As someone who spends a lot of time trying to deal with the problems of Darfur, I think that it is difficult for us in the west to comprehend the scale and complexity of what has been happening in the DRC.

I begin, understandably, with the conflict. Although this is not directly part of his responsibilities, it would be good to hear an update from the Minister on what is happening in the eastern part of the country. How are the various peace talks—the Nairobi and Goma accords—working in practice? Are the National Congress for People’s Defence—CNDP—rebels associated with General Nkunda beginning to lay down their arms and find alternative occupations, rather than fighting?

On the role of the Interahamwe, I know that President Kagami of Rwanda is in this country at present. Clearly, the Rwandan genocide is also very much on our minds. When I went to Rwanda last year, the party expressed the clear view that we need to ensure that all is being done to deal with the Interahamwe and any overreaction from the Rwandan army, which has always been alleged and needs to be understood. One understands the reaction of trying to stop the Interahamwe coming back, but if that involves invading another sovereign nation, there will clearly be repercussions.

Another issue is the DRC army’s role and the degree to which it can cause problems. We understand the difficulty in trying to pacify areas, but the issue is how they do it and how they perform. Human rights are always uppermost in our minds.

Last but not least, allegations have again arisen recently about UN peacekeepers—Pakistani and Indian troops—involving themselves in trading and worse. That is unacceptable, but understandable inasmuch as if per diem troops are not paid or properly supported, they tend to take the law into their own hands. I was shocked when we went to Rwanda last year to find that Rwandan troops in Darfur had not been paid for a year. I hope that the Minister can give us good news about the basic responsibility of all those who are affiliated to the UN to ensure that MONUC is properly supported and the troops are paid.

I want to re-emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North that the losers are inevitably the poor and the vulnerable, particularly children and women. It would be good to hear what the Department for International Development is doing in the east of the country to provide greater protection for women and children, and what impact we are beginning to have in moving from a purely conflict situation to a development situation. What programmes are there to reduce infant mortality and to reintegrate child soldiers? I saw something of that when I went to Kinshasa, but given the huge distances involved, running programmes in Kinshasa will not make much difference to those who live in the east, so it would be good to have an overview of what types of activity DFID is responsible for, either alone or with the wider international community.

Is my hon. Friend aware that perhaps one of the most ambitious aims in the DRC is to begin to introduce free health care. Hon. Members will be aware of how difficult that ambition is, so I do not want to suggest that it will be an easy challenge, but we have begun to put in place the programmes to build the capacity for such support. Is my hon. Friend aware of that, and does he support it as part of the right approach to begin to end some of the terrible experiences that the DRC’s people have suffered?

I thank the Minister for that. I was aware of that aspiration, but it would be good to hear from him how it is beginning to pan out on the ground. Oak trees start from small acorns, and the reality is that when there is no health service, one must start by providing something in the way of a health service. It would be good if the Minister, not necessarily in formal debate but perhaps in writing to hon. Members who are interested or the all-party group, would indicate how the programme will open out, so that we can advertise it. It is good that the British Government are taking a lead.

An issue that always exercises me is violence against women. The DRC is not unique, but it is at the end of the spectrum whereby women have been deliberately targeted for all sorts of reasons, which has resulted in horrible consequences that one need not look far to see. Again, it would be interesting to know to what degree we would highlight that with an incipient health service. There are, understandably, always cultural and sometimes religious reasons for it being difficult to become involved with that, and particularly—I have tried to push for the joint African Union-UN force to go into Darfur—the degree to which we ensure that peacekeepers reflect the gender balance of an area and the way in which troops are at least trained to deal with violence against women. When I was in Congo, the force seemed to be very male-orientated, and we must ensure that there are sufficient women not only to talk to women who have been violated and worse, but, more particularly, to police such situations and to follow up inquiries.

As an officer of the all-party group on women, peace and security, which is known as the all-party group on UN resolution 1325, one of the proud things that this country has done—the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) knows about this—is to try to ensure that we provide some element of education for all our troops on gender issues, so that we do not stumble into that and think it terrible, but go in with our eyes open and recognise that one outcome of any conflict, sadly, is that women will have been used as part of the conflict, which has never been more clearly demonstrated than in the Congo.

My hon. Friend is making a number of good points. I will take away his point about gender balance when monitoring missions, and I am sure that others will reflect on it, too. Is he aware that dedicated conduct and discipline teams are embedded in the UN mission in the DRC and, more generally, in other UN missions to help to ensure that the type of misconduct and human rights abuse that both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) have described do not happen again? Is he also aware that all peacekeeping personnel must undergo training on UN standards of conduct relating to sexual exploitation and abuse? I am not downplaying past allegations, but I hope that my hon. Friend will take some reassurance from the UN’s upgrade in procedures on its peacekeeping standards.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. One comes to such debates to be educated, as well as to speak and, hopefully, to make sense. That is important, because it shows that the rhetoric of resolution 1325 is beginning to make a difference in organisations including the UN. It is good to hear, and I hope that because of the quality of our armed forces we play a key part in ensuring that we are available to do that training. That is something, if nothing else, that I can take away from the debate with pride.

My hon. Friend has more or less answered the points that I was going to raise. Nevertheless, it is worth while looking at some of the things that are beginning to be got right, and I hope that some of the bad news stories from the DRC can be balanced by things that are beginning to go right. We cannot fool ourselves: this is part of a long process, and many of the parties to it do not always have peace at the back of their mind. Conflict has always paid some people well, which, sadly, is why it continues to exist. Nevertheless, the UK, Europe and the wider world have an obligation and a duty to remain involved in the DRC. That is why the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention is so fascinating and important. Its work has allowed us to have such debates, and it can find ways of getting parliamentarians to that part of the world.

As I have said, I have learned from the debate. I hope that the Government will take the issues on board and that we will be able to do even more in the future.

When we in Europe look back at the atrocities of world war one and world war two and at the scale of death and destruction in places not so far from here, we often console ourselves by saying that such things could never happen again so close to home. In too many parts of Africa, however, the slaughter of the innocents still takes place on such a scale. Death and extreme suffering—whether caused by the gun or by easily preventable disease—are part of everyday life for far too many people in a part of the world that is more easily reached by plane than eastern Europe was 50 years ago. That is why it is good that we are having a debate about that part of the world that is not often in the news or on the television. I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing time to explore the issue further.

I want to pick up a couple of the points made by the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the Minister will deal with them in his response. First, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that the Chinese are providing £8 billion of support to the DRC Government to build a railway, clinics and universities, and that the money will be repaid over 30 years in the form of minerals. How will that pouring in of untied aid or support for the country affect our approach to what should be happening in the DRC? Clearly, such straightforward commercial deals to improve the infrastructure will result in aid being more effectively delivered where it is needed; on the other hand, such money cannot be introduced without distorting what happens there, including aid-driven involvement.

Secondly, although I appreciate that the Government have announced that they will donate £50 million of British money to help to conserve the forest in the Congo, there have been reports—most recently in The Guardian on 23 May last year—of a group of rogues and vagabonds who may benefit from that funding. A range of corrupt individuals who have been involved in forestry in the Congo and elsewhere own sections of the forest. I give the Government credit for having ensured that DFID money has been effectively spent and has not worked its way into the wrong pockets and the wrong bank accounts, but The Guardian article about the individuals who may be involved in the forestry business in the Congo sent a shiver down my spine.

Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman—again through an intervention. I, too, saw that article, and I felt the same shiver go down my spine. Corruption is a serious problem in a number of sectors in the DRC, including forestry. We will put in £50 million down the line, and we are looking to spend £8 million on these issues. As part of that, we are looking at ways of making the spending of money generated by forestry more transparent and at ways of building up the effective governance of the forest sector. I hope that that is some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman.

It certainly is, and it is good to know that the Minister and I have the same concerns about such articles. However, action must be taken to ensure that the money of taxpayers in my constituency and other constituencies is being spent effectively. The Minister’s comments are certainly reassuring.

We have heard that the DRC has been brought to its knees by a civil war that has cost the lives of literally millions of people. Ceasefires have been signed, and false dawns have come and gone, but the country remains in the grip of a humanitarian crisis more than five years after the signing of the formal peace agreement to end the war. As a result, the DRC is now one of the poorest countries in the world and looks likely to miss many of the millennium development goals.

We cannot, however, simply talk about the need to increase aid in the DRC. As the United Nations millennium development goals monitor recently noted, the principal obstacle to the achievement of the MDGs in the Congo remains the continued instability in that land. Information collected by the International Rescue Committee shows that a staggering 5.4 million people have died as a result of the conflict between 1998 and 2007, and 1 million people have died since the signing of the peace agreement. It is not for nothing that the DRC has been called Africa’s first world war.

The DRC differs from many other places in that relatively few of these deaths are directly due to armed violence. The vast majority of people die from easily preventable and treatable conditions such as malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition. Children make up less than 20 per cent. of the population but account for almost half—47 per cent.—of the deaths. It is one of the tragedies of the DRC that so many people have died quietly and unnecessarily, almost unnoticed by the international community. It is estimated that 1,000 people continue to die every day as a result of conflict and conflict-related issues. Many of those who survive are left with physical and psychological scars as a result of a brutal campaign of rape and sexual abuse. As in other conflict zones, the displacement of civilians has been a major problem, with 400,000 people displaced in the recent escalation of violence in north Kivu. The insecurity in the region makes it difficult for aid agencies to help displaced populations.

Modest progress was made last year on the political, security and humanitarian fronts, which has given some people in the DRC hope that the country will be able to break free from the circle of conflict and crisis. The elections in 2007 resulted in a relatively peaceful transfer of power, while an extended peacekeeping presence was able to prevent a number of major clashes among the disparate militia groups and armed forces. Significant increases in humanitarian funding have given relief agencies the muscle to make progress. In that respect, DFID deserves praise for its announcement in March that it was increasing funding for the DRC over the next three years. Despite that, conflict has again flared up in north Kivu in recent months, and lasting peace looks as distant as ever.

The Minister will be aware of the call by 63 non-governmental organisations last month for the full implementation of the Goma peace agreement, and I would welcome his views on their call for a high-level independent special adviser on human rights for eastern Congo to focus attention on protecting civilians at risk. I would also appreciate an update on what role we are playing, along with international actors, to help ensure that the agreement that has been reached does not unravel. Getting the parties to sign the agreement was an important first step, but there must now be political follow-through on the ground.

As other hon. Members have said, the war in the DRC contains a more sinister war against women. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned the problem of rape being used as a weapon of war, and there are tens of thousands of victims every year. Some victims are as old as 80, while others are as young as three. Women are raped in front of their villages and families by militia fighters who spill across the border from Rwanda and Burundi. Some women are killed outright by their attackers, while others are taken into the bush for service as sexual slaves. The atrocities are beyond imagination, and I will not go into great detail today, suffice it to say that rape with broken bottles, bayonets and lengths of wood is commonplace.

Hon. Members may have read an interview in The Economist with Denis Mukwege, a doctor treating women in the DRC. He reported that 90 per cent. of the women in some villages have been raped. He said:

“We are no longer talking about 100 women, or 1,000 women…We are talking about 100,000 women.”

These are not random acts by misguided or crazed individuals, but a deliberate attempt to dehumanise and destroy entire communities. What is the Department doing to improve security for women and girls? Mass rape thrives in the current climate of impunity, so ending conflict and instability, strengthening accountable state institutions and securing long-lasting peace deals that involve all militant groups must be a top priority.

There is also a grave need to ensure that the crisis does not spill over the border. So far, a degree of restraint has been shown in Kinshasa and Kigali, even if it is not always possible to control the more radical factions on the ground. However, the Congo’s natural wealth has in the past fuelled corruption—it will continue to do so, if that is not checked—as well as state collapse and conflict. Better regulation of the sector is not only a development issue, but a strategic one. Hon. Members will know that although the DRC has signed the extractive industries transparency initiative, it has yet to implement it fully. What is the UK doing to ensure full implementation of the EITI? I am thinking in particular of the inclusion of figures disaggregated by mine or project, rather than just by company or sector.

The persisting humanitarian crisis has been called

“the most complex, deadly and prolonged ever documented”.

In such a complex political environment, recovering from years of conflict will take many years, but a political solution, involving all parties, remains the only credible solution. I am sure that all hon. Members want to commend the Congolese and international aid workers on the ground across the DRC for their work in one of the most volatile political environments on the planet. In particular, I commend the International Rescue Committee for its extraordinary research work on mortality rates, and the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch for their efforts to keep the DRC on the political radar.

It is right that we should have this debate today. The continued fighting in the DRC and the resulting humanitarian disaster have not received the international attention that they warrant in this place or the media. Perhaps that is because the conflict has outlasted presidents and UN Secretaries-General; perhaps it is because it does not seem to threaten the world balance of power; or perhaps it is because it is not as easy to distinguish between the criminals and some victims as it is in some comparable conflicts. However, none of those is a good enough excuse for indifference or inaction by the international community. We have probably devoted more parliamentary time to the appalling situation in Darfur, and it is right to debate what is happening there. It is difficult to argue that the situation in the Congo is any less serious, or the outlook any less bleak. It would have been a fine thing to come here today and discuss logistical difficulties in aid delivery and how to increase the effectiveness of our aid. However, finding a political solution to the recurring conflicts is a precondition for development and must continue to be the top priority for all involved.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), and to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this timely debate. He gave an excellent opening speech, providing a broad perspective on the current situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That highlights the importance of first-hand experience; he gave a very clear view.

I was intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s opening comment about whether the debate he applied for would be replied to by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for International Development, because it was a coterminous responsibility. I might go even further, and argue that, although the Ministry of Defence has no direct responsibility, if we were to consider what, for example, the British Government are doing in Afghanistan, we should take a more comprehensive approach; the third string to our bow would be the role of the United Nations in the Congo, which the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members touched on. I intend to explore that issue.

I was very encouraged to discover that Nick Kay is our ambassador in the DRC. He was the chap who was responsible in Helmand, for the last two years before going there. He will have first-hand experience of how that comprehensive approach can come together to maximum effect. The hon. Member for Islington, North also gave an excellent summary of what needs to happen in the justice system, to ensure that justice is given, and of the greater efforts needed on demobilisation.

I did not say, but perhaps should have, that one problem is that, until now—and probably still—the police, soldiers, magistrates and judges are largely not paid. If public servants are not paid their only source of income is either robbery or corruption. Unless the justice system is properly funded, it is unlikely that proper justice will ever be available.

That is a very fair point, which the Minister will probably pick up. It clearly needs to be addressed.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) also made an excellent contribution, albeit rather unexpected by him. He has shown a considerable interest in the subject for some time and is widely regarded as something of an expert on the region. His comments about violence against women were incredibly well made, and that is something to which I shall return. His comments about the need for gender balance in the UN forces were also well made. I have had some experience of that world, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and although it is easy to aspire to that goal the practicalities of an attempt at gender balance are quite different, not least because all too often there are national caveats from contributing nations, which will not allow women to be part of UN teams. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the need to mentor police and armed forces. I guess that I would look to the Minister to find out whether he felt we should be considering with reference to the DRC the sort of role carried out by British military advisory teams in Sierra Leone. Perhaps, if it was not something that came directly from the British Government, that model could be used to help things move forward.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West also made a very thoughtful contribution and I shall return to some of his points, but for my own part I intend to raise three things, broadly along the lines of the comprehensive approach that I have mentioned. Those are DFID’s programme; where we are with the DRC Government—especially the poverty reduction strategy paper and the country assistance paper; and the role of the UN in the DRC. I hope to make some positive suggestions about how that role might be enhanced.

DFID has been very active in the DRC and the increase in aid to the country from £5.56 million in 2001-02 to about £75 million in 2007-08, along with future pledges of up to £130 million a year, is welcome. However, given that there is still considerable conflict in the country, I want first to ask the Minister whether he can offer some reassurance about how the money is being spent. Given, too, the concerns about corruption that other hon. Members have raised, how can we ensure that that will not be a factor affecting DFID spending?

The hon. Member for Islington, North outlined the broad problem in the DRC quite well. Part of the impact of the conflict is that it is not directly visible, but is none the less devastating. Large-scale displacements, violence and human rights abuses, as well as impoverishment, have caused tremendous psychological suffering and a deterioration of the social fabric, breaking up families and other solidarity networks. As a result, many traditional safety nets no longer function effectively. The deterioration of education and health services during the war years has dealt a powerful and lasting blow to the well-being of the population and their capacity to recover.

Overall, the DRC is likely to miss most of the millennium development goals by 2015. Detailed statistical information is lacking, but available indicators suggest that the conflict has caused development in reverse in the social sectors. Life expectancy is 43 years. The DRC’s human development index has declined by more the 10 per cent. in the past 10 years. Detailed study of the MDGs reveals that target 1, to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, stands at just 71 per cent. For target 2, to achieve universal primary education, there is no current status. In 1990, the figure was 54.5 per cent., but we do not know where things stand today. Target 3 is to promote gender equality—a factor raised by the hon. Member for Islington, North; once again there is no current status. We do not know where things stand as far as achieving that goal.

The question of gender equality is linked to the large number of dispossessed young men who hang around, particularly in Kinshasa, but in other cities too, who grow up with no family structure or boundaries, just trying to survive. Unless education, including some degree of social education, is available to them, the violence now happening against women will be replicated again and again. Investment in education in all its forms is a top priority.

The hon. Gentleman has got it exactly right, and I will return to the topic of education in a moment. We must ensure that such violence is not simply replicated.

Target 4 is to reduce child mortality. It has already been said that half of the 5.3 million deaths in the country are of children under five. The child mortality rate is currently 205 per 1,000, which is exactly the same level as in 1990. Target 5 is to improve maternal health. There are currently 990 deaths per 100,000 live births, so we are simply failing to achieve that target.

Despite a Government who have set out a bold agenda for development, an integrated international community funding development system in the country assistance framework and numerous peace agreements over the years, combat between rebels, militants and the Government army continues at an alarming rate. In turn, the conflict has led to intolerable suffering for the million or more DRC citizens who have been displaced. Child soldiers have been mentioned, and around 11 million children under the age of 17 are currently not in education. It is obvious that the majority are not child soldiers, but a substantial number have been or are currently serving as child soldiers to the militias. A recent report by the Institute for Security Studies has suggested that children between the ages of 11 to 17 are favoured because they are more susceptible to indoctrination. It is imperative for the DRC’s future that its future doctors, bankers, architects, nurses and teachers get back into the education system. We should highlight activities such as the Royal Society of Chemistry’s “archives for Africa” programme because they are an excellent way of trying to give education facilities directly to countries, such as the DRC, that otherwise simply would not have them.

On health, the UN news platform—the Integrated Regional Information Network—recently suggested that between half a million and 1 million people die of malaria every year in the DRC. According to its sources, more than 5 million people a year are infected with malaria and despite drugs being sold up to 10 times cheaper than the internationally recommended retail price—thanks to partnerships with key international organisations—they are still not readily available to the majority of the DRC’s population. Indeed, with 70 per cent. of the population living on less than $1 a day, the drugs are still out of the price range of many people. The alarming rate at which refugee camps have sprung up means that effective sanitation and clean water are not a luxury many people escaping from rape, torture and killing are provided with.

In the Kichanga camp, there is only one water pump for 5,000 people and no latrines. If we are going to get serious about meeting MDGs 4, 6 and 7, we must rectify simple development problems such as that.

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s comments and I agree with pretty much all that he has said. I am sure that he has considered the scale of the problem. The UK Government are arguably the largest bilateral donor. My hon. Friend the Minister recently mentioned the £50 million put into the pool to which the MOD, the FCO and DFID all contribute. The scale of the problem in the Congo is enormous and there is only so much any one country can do, which is why the EU, the UN and other potentially large donors—it is notable that the French and to some degree the Belgians were the biggest donors on record—should do more. Essentially, this is a matter for the international community, rather than just the UK solving the MDG goals.

That is a fair point, and I hope that my comments are balanced. I should also pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has a keen interest in this subject. I am attempting to be balanced in my comments and am simply saying that DFID has done a good job in the DRC. I commend it on that, but there is much more that all of us can do. The British Government have a role to play as a leader to try to draw together the other nations to ensure that more is done in the region. The hon. Gentleman referred to that point.

Time is quite short, so I will move on to talk about peacekeeping, which was mentioned by all hon. Members. As has been mentioned, the United Nations has its largest peacekeeping force in the world stationed in the DRC. There are about 17,000 UN troops and approximately 1,000 police. Although progress has been made, it is clear that the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is spread too thin and is finding it difficult to defend civilians. The hon. Member for Islington, North also raised concerns about the potential crimes that have been committed by the UN. Although I do not want to discuss that in detail, because I understand those crimes are being investigated, I would like to make some sensible suggestions about how the UN could do more in relation to peacekeeping.

First, we could insist that the Security Council approve peacekeeping missions with rules of engagement designed to protect civilians from grave harm. The Security Council can in theory exercise that authority under chapter VII of the charter, but in the past, council members have attempted to water down peacekeeping operations. That has meant operations have not always happened when perhaps they should. Secondly, we should challenge UN member states to increase their support for the rapid and effective deployment of peacekeeping missions in the world’s most troubled regions, such as the DRC. A report by the US Council on foreign relations released last year summarised the problem. It stated that

“The enduring problem of the UN peacekeeping ability is the inability to field forces in sufficient numbers when it counts.”

Existing forces lack the ability to respond rapidly to emerging crises and suffer from a deficit in military doctrine and expertise specifically to protect civilian populations. The hon. Member for Stroud mentioned that point. Perhaps the Minister could comment on whether he believes that Britain should exert leadership by channelling more of its international development budget into funding for training, equipment and the deployment of a new breed of regional as well as UN peacekeepers? Perhaps we should consider having forces that are prepared to engage in peacemaking in order to prevent massive human rights abuses—that may be a step too far, but it is at least a thought.

Thirdly, we must greatly enhance the peacekeeping capacities of regional organisations. We should begin with the African Union. The UN charter is clear on that point, under chapter VIII article 53, the Security Council has the authority to support the efforts of regional organisations committed to promoting international peace and security. Will the Minister say whether he feels enough is currently being done in that area? Perhaps finally the Minister could outline whether he feels that the current level of UN peacekeepers is adequate and whether he believes greater work should be done in investing in mentoring schemes for the police and army, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Stroud.

As we know, a new Government were elected in 2006 and despite heavy fighting, democratic elections took place. Notwithstanding the comments of the hon. Member for Islington, North, since their election, the DRC Government have promoted a policy of containment and appeasement. In line with international wishes, they have highlighted the importance of holding free and fair elections. It remains a continuing problem that, unless we can reintegrate some of those militia forces into the DRC army or demobilise them completely, they will continue to contribute to the conflict.

Following the signing of the Goma agreement between the Government and 22 armed militias, the Government have set up a peace programme for eastern Congo—the Amani programme. They have appointed Abbé Apollinaire Malu Malu, a Catholic priest, to spearhead the efforts towards peace. That has been seen by many in the DRC as an important stepping stone towards peace in eastern Congo, especially north and south Kivu. However, to date, the Amani programme has achieved very little. It is crucial that the DRC Government and the international Government work together to move from rhetoric on paper to strong action.

The DRC Government have recently published the poverty reduction strategy paper—PRSP—which will be partly funded by the country assistance framework. The CAF is a common strategic approach for economic assistance to the DRC in the post-election period. It has been drawn up by key international donors and the DRC Government. The PRSP emphasises the need to break with past practices to ensure a dramatic improvement of living conditions throughout the country as a condition for sustained peace and eventual economic recovery. The PRSP builds on the 2001 interim PRSP and enjoys broad support among all key constituencies.

What is most appealing to me regarding the PRSP is the manner in which it has been drawn together. Each district produced its own PRSP drawn up by local consultation with faith-based organisations, labour unions, non-governmental organisations, women’s groups, youth associations and community representatives. Those were then amalgamated into provincial-level PRSPs and were eventually made into the national PRSP. In total, around 35,000 people participated in drawing up a grass-roots- based development programme. We should congratulate the DRC Government on that. We should also congratulate DFID on the role that it played in achieving that aim. One hopes that we can achieve the same in Afghanistan, where a similar process is taking place.

The aims of the PRSP are to promote good governance and consolidate peace; to consolidate macro-economic stability and economic growth; to improve access to social services and reduce vulnerability; to combat HIV/AIDS; and to promote community dynamics. Those are all worthy aims, but I should be grateful if the Minister outlined exactly how DFID will continue to channel its funds to ensure that they are met.

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate. As ever, it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to respond to his questions and those of other hon. Members with an interest in this topic.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) raised a series of issues that have considerable resonance in the context of the DRC, but are also of wider strategic importance in relation to peacekeeping. I will write to him to set out in more detail our view of the current peacekeeping capacity of the UN system and the efforts that we are making to improve that capacity. We do not believe that there is enough peacekeeping capacity worldwide at the moment, and it is incumbent on the entire international community to meet that challenge. As the hon. Gentleman said, part of that must be to raise the capacity of regional organisations such as the African Union, with which we are already working and we intend to continue to do so. I will happily write to him with more detail.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes mentioned British military assistance training teams. My instinct is that the Congo would be unlikely to succeed in a bid in that respect, because those teams are in great demand all over the world, but does the Minister agree that security in the Congo is the No. 1 priority, the greatest imperative, and that there are things that the UK Government could probably do that do not involve providing military assistance but that could help in time to improve the region’s security? For example, we are heavily involved in EUSEC—the European security co-ordinating body in the Congo—and there are things that we can do as civilians in that theatre. In another theatre that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, Afghanistan, we could be involved in training and similar efforts to facilitate other trainers going out there, for example, to assist with security capacity in the region, but it does not have to be military assistance. Ultimately, DFID has a big role to play in that.

I agree that we can do more on security sector reform and more generally. It is also appropriate to make the broader point about the need for more peacekeeping capacity, at least in the strategic context. My hon. Friend refers to broader ways in which we could engage with security sector reform. Given his long-standing interest in this area, he may be aware that we are working on a comprehensive programme to tackle security sector reform, which we estimate will cost collectively £80 million. We are not yet able to launch such a programme: the detailed design work is still under way. However—my hon. Friend and other hon. Members may not be aware of this—we have already given significant funding to help with different elements of improving security, not least during the transition. We provided support to enable the police and justice systems to begin to develop, so that they could handle security during the elections. No one would say that the elections in the DRC were perfect, but most international observers would agree that they went better than many would have expected. Some of the work that we did with the UN Development Programme, for example, in helping to put in place effective election security, was undoubtedly important.

In the defence sector, we are working on the demobilisation and reintegration workstreams that are needed, particularly if we are to tackle the problem of child soldiers and, more generally, demobilising those who have been part of conflict. A key challenge that we face, to which all hon. Members have alluded, is building up an effective justice sector that can end the culture of impunity in the DRC. Again, we have been providing support with a range of organisations to begin to develop what is a fledgling sector.

The other strategic point that the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes touched on but did not go into detail on related to reform of the operation of the UN development system. The UK, through DFID, with Foreign Office colleagues, has been championing that with some success. The humanitarian pooled fund, to which a wide variety of donors contribute and which has NGOs on the board, is, after some initial problems, working effectively and helping to ensure that all donors work together to tackle the many different problems in the DRC, so instead of many individual programmes, there is now better co-ordination. UN development system reform is by no means complete, but that is one area in which there has been success.

Christian Aid has recently pointed out that, from to time, it can be quite difficult to find where the UNDP has added value. By no stretch of the imagination does this apply to all parts of the UNDP effort, but in some cases, it might be worth examining whether there is scope for funding to be given directly to local NGOs to perform roles on the ground, because that gives some of those very competent local NGOs much greater buy-in to the process than if the funding comes through the UNDP. Often, it makes perfect sense for things to be co-ordinated in that way, but there is sometimes scope, from time to time, for funding to go directly to those NGOs, and it is worth while the Minister, from time to time, having a look to see whether that might be possible.

I accept that point. We need to have a series of ways in which we fund organisations to respond, but NGOs, as well as other aid agencies, need to co-ordinate much more effectively than they have done in the past, not only in the DRC but in a range of other development and humanitarian situations. Helping to establish pooled funds is one way to help to incentivise better co-ordination, but I take my hon. Friend’s point that, on occasion, we need some of the more traditional funding routes to be available to NGOs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, there has never been a better chance to help the democratically elected Government and the people of the DRC to achieve the permanent end to conflict and the routes out of poverty to prosperity that all hon. Members want to see. As my hon. Friend made clear, the DRC matters, not only because its 60 million people deserve much better than they have had to date, but because that vast country, with nine neighbours, is of huge strategic importance: it is vital to the stability of central Africa.

The DRC is also of international importance in the context of the fight against climate change. The Congo basin forest, which straddles 10 countries although the vast bulk sits within the DRC, is the second largest tropical rainforest in the world and is suffering deforestation at an alarming rate. Again, the international community needs to work with the Governments in all 10 countries, but particularly the DRC, to begin to slow down that deforestation. In that context, the Congo basin forest fund, for which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set aside £50 million and which we will launch shortly with the support of COMIFAC—the Commission for the Forests of Central Africa—countries and, we hope, with other donors, is potentially of huge importance to helping to achieve that objective.

I support the fund that has been set up, which is very welcome. Will the Minister also say something about what is being done to prevent the sale of illegally logged tropical hardwoods, many of which emanate from the Congo basin and which find their way into the furniture factories and on to the building sites of western Europe, north America and China? This is not easy, but unless we choke off the sales of that illegally logged timber, the deforestation will continue apace.

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. He may be aware of work being driven by the European Union, in which DFID has been playing a part, on forest law enforcement, governance and the trade agenda. The EU seeks to create incentives for developing countries such as the DRC and others to improve the governance of their forest sectors, to demonstrate that the timber supplied to international markets is from a verifiably legal source. The EU is considering what further steps it can take beyond providing simple resources to support improvements in governance, and we are working with it to identify further ways to help curb the trade in illegal forest products.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes asked for evidence of the continuing successes that have resulted from the aid we have already given. Through our programme, we have already provided funding to help to vaccinate more than 1.2 million Congolese children against killer diseases. We have been working on education and on health, as I said earlier. We have provided supplementary food to some 350,000 people; we have ensured that about 70,000 children were treated in feeding centres; and we have provided medical assistance directly to some 23,000 victims of sexual violence. We have also supported the provision of 1 million bed nets, which will protect approximately 2 million people in the DRC from malaria every day.

Infrastructure is another key issue for the DRC. Our funding has helped to ensure the reopening of a key road from Ubundu to Kisangani. Trade has increased dramatically as a result, with 33 times more agricultural produce moving along it. Again, that is a direct result of our DRC funding.

Hon. Members will, I hope, be pleased to hear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to visit the DRC shortly to see the situation for himself. We hope that he will be able to go to the east, to see for himself how the peace process has developed. As hon. Members know, a peace conference took place in Goma early in January. It produced not only a ceasefire, but a series of resolutions and reports on the causes of conflict, and it set out possible solutions.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes referred to the Amani programme, the follow-up mechanism to the peace conference. He rightly noted the appointment of Abbe Malu Malu, who I am told is an extremely impressive individual. He is leading at the commission on peace and security, and he is the national co-ordinator of the Amani programme. The commission, which includes representatives of all armed groups, is making slow but positive progress. We seek to support that conference. We have had a diplomat stationed in the east since November, to support the conference proceedings and to help with the follow-up, and we have seconded a stabilisation adviser to MONUC—the United Nations mission in the DRC—to provide further support following the conference. More generally, we have provided some £35 million in humanitarian assistance, the bulk of which went last year to eastern DRC.

I hope that I have been able to reassure hon. Members that we are continuing to follow closely events in the east. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North is keen to take matters forward, and clearly, much more needs to be done in the DRC. That is one reason why we have a rapidly growing programme.

Peace in the eastern Congo is clearly essential for many obvious reasons. Is my hon. Friend aware of any better contact between the DRC and the Governments of Burundi and Rwanda? Unless there is good cross-border co-operation and without agreement on what is to happen, the return of former fighters to their homes could result in the tensions continuing and the possibility—one hopes not—that conflict will break out again.

Let me say publicly that we are engaging diplomatically with both Governments about the tensions, and we will continue to do so. We are engaged diplomatically both in-country and in-capital there and in the east, and through the various other opportunities for conversations with key Ministers from DFID and the Foreign Office.

We will provide some £70 million this year, £100 million next year and £130 million by 2010-11. Our focus is to support the people of the DRC in building a capable and accountable state to tackle the culture of impunity in sexual and gender-based violence and more generally. We must help the people of the Congo to achieve a peace dividend. We want to continue our work to reopen the road network, which has been largely devastated by the conflict, and we want to improve access to primary education—a key issue raised by the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes. In that context, we are considering how to provide further funding to bring school fees down—indeed, we want to have them abolished. The third element of our strategy will be to continue to focus on tackling the remaining conflicts and their impact, hence the continuing large portion of humanitarian assistance that we seek to provide.

All Members spoke of the terrible sexual and gender-based violence that has occurred in the DRC. We are providing a range of support to tackle the devastating impact of that violence, including medical treatment and psychosocial counselling for victims. Our efforts to reform the security and justice sectors are an important part of that process. We have been lobbying for further efforts in the capital to ensure that all senior Ministers in the DRC Government take action to ensure prosecutions, including of those members of the security forces who are responsible for abuses. As I said, we need to establish a new culture to replace the present culture of impunity. We need a culture of accountability in which the perpetrators of these appalling abuses are brought to justice, so that those who might be tempted to use similar tactics in future will know that there is no hiding place.

I congratulate the all-party parliamentary group on the great lakes on the relaunch of the UK-DRC parliamentary friendship group that resulted from its recent visit. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is looking forward to launching DFID’s new country plan for the DRC in a joint event that the all-party parliamentary group will be hosting shortly.

A series of questions were asked during the debate. I have not had to time to answer them all, but I shall reflect on those questions and provide written answers to all who participated in the debate.