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Volume 492: debated on Wednesday 13 May 2009

1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s spending through the UN Development Programme in Afghanistan. (274658)

Given that the question relates to Afghanistan, may I begin by expressing—on behalf, I am sure, of the whole House—my condolences to the family of the brave officer of the Welsh Guards who passed away today as a result of injuries sustained in Helmand? He is the fifth UK serviceman to have given their life in Afghanistan this month, and they are all in our thoughts and prayers.

The UNDP is an important partner for the Department for International Development in Afghanistan, providing expertise in areas such as voter registration and support for the democratic elections. The Department’s funding has helped to ensure the success of the voter registration process. It also helped to launch the Afghanistan national development strategy, which unites the Governments of Afghanistan and the UK, and other partner Governments, behind a common vision to help to build a new Afghanistan.

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, and I am sure that all Opposition Members join him in passing on our condolences to the family of that brave soldier. My local regiment, 1st Battalion the Rifles, lost seven men in Afghanistan on their recent tour of duty. When I visited the battalion, I saw for myself their dedication and commitment to rebuilding that country. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that our international development efforts and those of our NATO partners match the dedication and commitment shown to Afghanistan by members of our armed forces?

I am unyielding in my admiration for our armed forces, having had, like the hon. Gentleman, the great privilege of seeing for myself the extraordinary sacrifices that they make, and the professionalism and dedication that they bring to their task. Frankly, the international community could have done a better job over recent years, and we are working tirelessly with partners in the international coalition to ensure that we strengthen the degree of co-ordination that is necessary if the aid operation is to be as effective as it should be. For example, we spend a significant proportion of our money with the Government of Afghanistan, recognising the challenges that that poses, but also the potential benefits. We also spend a significant proportion of our funding in country. Regrettably, that is not the case for all our principal partners.

I welcome the Department’s publication of the new country plan for Afghanistan, and the Government’s ongoing commitment to providing aid to the Afghan people, but will my right hon. Friend say what his Department is doing to ensure greater co-ordination of the international aid effort in Afghanistan?

I have met Kai Eide of the United Nations, and have discussed the matter with our American counterparts. We account for a significant contribution to the international effort, and we use whatever forums are available to us to argue that where best practice is established by any country, it should be replicated by other countries. We are, of course, working closely with the Government of Afghanistan, who also have a heavy responsibility. I assure my hon. Friend that the matter is also a subject of conversation between our Prime Minister and the President of the United States.

The Secretary of State rightly paid tribute to the efforts of the British forces in Afghanistan, but stability is crucial to successful development there. What discussions has he had with the American authorities on how their new military stance will be used to reduce civilian casualties, and so ensure a more stable environment in which to deliver development?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, has announced a change of command in recent days. I was not privy to the discussions in the Pentagon and the Department of Defence, but I am confident that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister discuss those issues at every appropriate opportunity. They discuss both the significance of the regional response—there is recognition now of the significance of Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan, to security in Afghanistan—and the need to take forward a genuinely comprehensive approach that involves political reconciliation with those who are willing to be part of the democratic process, genuine development work, and the necessary element of force in security.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the energy and hard work that he puts into ensuring that development cash gets to where it is needed, but how confident is he on the issue of corruption among officials in Afghanistan, and about the commitment by President Karzai’s Government to do something about it, to ensure that money gets to where it is needed most?

Let me return the compliment by paying tribute to the work of my hon. Friend during his service in the Ministry of Defence. I know that he had a tireless commitment to the interests and welfare of our troops, and I pay tribute to that. Only in recent weeks, I had the opportunity to meet the new Minister of Finance in Afghanistan, and the subject—including the terms of the assurances that he could offer and the work that he was determined to take forward—was at the top of the agenda. I was heartened by the response that he offered me, but clearly we will need to keep working on the issue, although principal responsibility rests with the Government of Afghanistan.

I join the Secretary of State in sending our condolences to the friends and family of the Welsh Guards officer who died in Selly Oak this morning.

The Secretary of State will know that the National Audit Office has criticised his Department for handing over £20 million of taxpayers’ money to the Afghan Counter-narcotics trust fund, which the UNDP was too inexperienced to manage effectively. Was DFID aware of the serious concerns about the competence of the UNDP when it handed over that money?

It is for exactly those reasons that we withdrew support to the underperforming counter-narcotics trust fund as soon as we became aware of the scale of the challenge that was faced in the delivery of a very difficult programme in a very difficult environment. It is right to recognise that that is a challenging environment and to be subject to the scrutiny of the National Audit Office, and where evidence was brought to our attention, action was taken.

So can the Secretary of State tell the House what steps he is taking to ensure that the extra £14 million that he had just signed off for the UNDP in Afghanistan is subject to proper, independent, effective impact evaluation so that British taxpayers know they are getting value for money, and British troops know their bravery is reinforced by an effective and successful aid effort?

On the evaluation of the UNDP, an internal evaluation unit has recently been established which reviewed the work of the UNDP. It concluded that many of the UNDP’s programmes are effective and delivering, particularly in the areas of public administration and support for democratic institutions, but the hon. Gentleman is correct in recognising that there needs to be substantive progress from the UNDP in certain areas. The next opportunity for us to raise those concerns, which we will raise, will be at the UNDP board later this month. That is an undertaking that I give to the House.

I, too, send the condolences of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the family of the solider who died this morning, and remember those who have given their lives in Afghanistan. I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the bravery, professionalism and dedication of all our armed forces in Afghanistan, and also to the members of his Department who work in incredibly difficult circumstances on our collective behalf.

Two weeks ago the Prime Minister set out a welcome new joint security strategy that linked Afghanistan and Pakistan. Separately, the Afghanistan stabilisation fund has been pooled with the conflict prevention fund for south Asia, which has a broader remit, including crisis areas such as Sri Lanka. Can the Secretary of State share with the House how the new Afghanistan-Pakistan joint focus will be helped by these new broader arrangements?

Let me thank the hon. Gentleman both for his remarks about the officials of the Department, who do outstanding work, and for the tribute that he paid on behalf of the whole House to the service and heroism of our service personnel. On the joint approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he is right to say that there is a fundamental recognition that Pakistan needs to be the beginning, not the end, of the conversation in relation to Afghanistan. That is why we have worked so closely with the American Administration in recent weeks to ensure that there is a genuinely common approach to the issue, why I will take the opportunity this week to meet President Zardari of Pakistan, and why it is not coincidental that we published our Afghan country plan simultaneously with the Prime Minister making a statement to the House on the regional response. Whether it be through our programme in Pakistan, our programme in Afghanistan or the close joint working that is now established with both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is a genuinely co-ordinated approach.