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Lesotho

Volume 519: debated on Wednesday 24 November 2010

Thank you, Mr Bone. It is a real privilege to appear before you in your elevated status; I think that this is my first time. I also thank you very much indeed for giving me that extra two minutes. I am sure that the extra time will serve me, the Minister and indeed the people of Lesotho very well.

Lesotho is an extraordinary African country. It is surrounded by South Africa, whose influence there is substantial, indeed crucial. Along with the UK alone, Lesotho has the dubious honour of having hereditary peers in its legislature. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I gather that that “Hear, hear” is support for the maintenance of hereditary peers by the Tory-Lib Dem alliance that is currently running the country, and I will note that accordingly.

Lesotho has a population of about 1.8 million people and its terrain is mountainous, with less than 10% of its land being suitable for cultivation. Unlike many African countries, it is very green and I think that its biggest export is water. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it may be that some friends of Lesotho see those characteristics of the country as being similar to those of Wales, for which I am proud to be one of the Members of Parliament.

In the 1980s, those common characteristics led Wales to be twinned with Lesotho. The relationship has grown since then, and a strong bond has developed between the two countries. An organisation called Dolen Cymru, the Wales Lesotho Link, has worked hard over many years to develop that bond, and initiatives across Wales, funded by the Department for International Development and the Welsh Assembly Government, have created joint working to confront the issues of our time: primary education, health—especially AIDS—and sustainable economic development.

Lesotho’s schools are a credit to the country. If anyone here has the chance to visit Lesotho, as I had the privilege of doing in 2006, they will see schools packed full of individuals who want to learn and get on. Free primary education is a recent innovation, so Lesotho has some of the oldest primary school children one is likely to meet. Secondary education is keenly sought after, although unfortunately many of those who seek it do not have the means to advance themselves by that route.

Lesotho also faces many health challenges. It has the planet’s third highest rate of HIV infection. Some 23.2% of the population between 15 and 49 are infected: 26% of women and 19% of men. Due to economic pressures, those infected are often unable to travel to seek the health and medical care that they need, even when that care is available.

Lesotho’s economy is another challenge. The country is striving to move away from being a subsistence economy to being a modern diverse economy, but it is a struggle. The world recession has had a major economic impact on developed nations, but nations seeking to develop have been hit even harder. Textile subsidies that helped Lesotho export, particularly to the United States, have ended, which has had a major impact on the country, which makes wonderful wool products and marvellous tapestries, if anyone would like to adorn their walls with something beautiful. The products are made in Lesotho, but the country’s ability to export those products to the rest of the world is limited.

There are pressures. Unemployment is high—rates of more than 40% are not unusual—and at present the country does not have the capacity to support a vibrant private sector. Little professional support exists for business. In advance of this debate, I received an interesting report from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy about work that it is doing to develop expertise and support for business in Lesotho. I commend that work. I think that the report is in draft, but it will be available shortly. Such support for business, and the development of a private sector that provides work and the ability to export, is important for the future of Lesotho.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on the links between Wales and Lesotho. It is important to make the point that the Welsh contribution has been significant. On economic development, does he agree that the priority given by Dolen Cymru to educational links is a long-term strategy for securing economic growth?

Yes, there are short-term things that should be done, but in terms of educating a work force who can compete internationally, forming links between 130 schools in Wales and Lesotho is a step in the right direction. It is a good example of long-term planning in aid projects between this country and Lesotho.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The introduction of free primary education in Lesotho is having a massive positive impact. I will say a few words about the thirst of people in Lesotho for education. They see it as a way to progress within their lives, become teachers or entrepreneurs and develop the skills that they need to take their country forward. It is such a recent innovation—it has only happened within the past decade—that many lives previously did not reach their full potential.

People in Lesotho understand the importance of education, and it is valued in their schools. Both teachers and pupils are enthusiastic about education and its transformative power. I wish we saw that more often in some UK classrooms; I never heard a pupil in Lesotho say to me, “I’m bored.” I would love never to hear such a comment in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the links between schools in Wales and in Lesotho. I commend the Department for International Development for focusing over many years on global schools partnerships, which have been positive as far as Wales is concerned. I particularly commend the fact that the partnerships require commitment from UK schools to work with schools in developing countries, so that they can learn from each other. What I have seen in the Wrexham schools involved in the project is a strong sense that not only is Lesotho learning from us, but we are learning from Lesotho.

That is an important part of the process of developing the global schools partnerships; the schools are working together. Countries at completely different stages of development are engaging and working together to confront the problems of developing countries and the developed world, and that engagement creates a much stronger understanding of what developing countries’ problems are.

That understanding is transmitted not just between staff but between the pupils who are fortunate enough to visit the others’ country. Perhaps I should declare a sort of interest: my wife is a schoolteacher just outside my constituency, in Clwyd South, which recently had a visit from some schools in Lesotho. That link has developed over three years. It has added hugely to the understanding of those in the senior school, as well as those in the two Wrexham primary schools involved, and it has massively benefited our experience and knowledge of international development.

DFID has played a major role in that. I know that securing finance for the global schools partnership is demanding and requires a lot of commitment. There is an element of form-filling that is not popular with the applicants, but it is positive in that it requires those applying to think constructively about how they approach the global schools partnership and how they can engage, for benefit in two directions, in the work being done.

The link between Lesotho and Wales is massively important, and it is keenly felt in Wales. Established some years ago, it has developed hugely and is important in both countries. Lesotho is somewhat similar to Wales in that it is dominated by a slightly larger neighbour. Lesotho has South Africa; Wales, of course, has England. I think that Lesotho sometimes feels a little undervalued by the UK Government—for example, when its high commission closed. It supported the movement against the South African apartheid regime, but was not valued as much as it should have been.

The DFID office in Maseru is the only UK Government presence in Lesotho and it is greatly valued. It would be a major step backwards if there were any thought of closing that office because it is the only representation that we have in the country. For many years, Lesotho was our window into southern Africa. It was a place where people sought refuge from the apartheid regime and that offered assistance to people from outside who were threatened by the appalling policies of South Africa at that time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and commend the links with Wales to which he has been referring. I strongly support the remark that he has just made about the value of DFID’s presence in Lesotho. On the overheads involved in aid programmes in relatively small countries, the last evaluation report on DFID aid to Lesotho that I was able to find referred to the importance of partnerships with other European donors and better close working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Would he care to comment on that?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that both Germany and Ireland contribute to development in Lesotho and have been very active in the country—along with China, which is also becoming an increasing presence in Lesotho. The link with Wales is really valued within Lesotho. In celebration of the links between the two countries, the Queen of Lesotho recently visited Wales and went to a school in Penley to see the development of the global schools initiative. She saw how well that project is progressing and how much benefit both countries are securing from it.

If we are to have a partnership, it is crucial that the Government do not withdraw from activity in Lesotho and that they retain their presence there. We need to have a presence to facilitate the involvement of more private sector and non-governmental organisations, because the need in Lesotho is massive. I have already referred to the rate of AIDS infection within the country. That is a major problem with which Lesotho has to cope in a way that few other countries do. That issue requires our immediate attention. We all understand that there are tough times at home, but the people of Lesotho are having a tougher time. They have a massive rate of HIV infection in their country, and it is draining away enthusiastic young people who are keen to get on.

That is an important point. I support the hon. Gentleman’s call for the UK representation in Lesotho to continue. We talk about the big society and, in a Welsh context, this is very much a big society project. Community groups have come together—Merched y Wawr, the Women’s Institute and so on—to raise money, and the Welsh Assembly has embarked on support funding for the project. However, none of that would have been possible without the facilitation of UK Departments. A successful partnership approach has created an enthusiasm for a country that, previously, few people knew much about in a Welsh context.

That is absolutely right. It is impressive that public, private and charitable sector organisations have come together to show their commitment to developing links between Wales and Lesotho. I commend the Tory-Lib Dem Government for maintaining DFID’s budget, because I know that there are pressures from sources within both parties to end such protection.

Within that context, we must prioritise the investment that is made and recognise that voluntary links between Wales and Lesotho have been established over many years. The Government have supported those links, which need to be fostered, encouraged and developed. Through education, to which we have already referred, capacity is starting to be developed within Lesotho. Governance also needs to be improved—a common theme across many developing countries—but progress is being made.

The past two to three years have been a very difficult period across the world, but that is particularly the case for developing countries. Now is not the time to step back from supporting a country such as Lesotho. We should build on the strong links that already exist between Wales and Lesotho and encourage more contact. We should certainly not withdraw the UK Government presence in the country.

I thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) for initiating this important debate. It is clear that global poverty is an issue about which hon. Members care deeply. Britain can be proud of that. I am proud that the coalition Government have not merely reaffirmed Britain’s commitment to meet the goal of 0.7% of gross national income spent on aid from 2013, but that they have reflected that in concrete terms through the recent spending review.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to speak of Britain’s important relationship with Lesotho. Our relationship has a long and complex history. Back in 1868, Lesotho became a British protectorate under Queen Victoria and, in 1966, the Kingdom of Lesotho gained its independence from Britain. We now value Lesotho as a fellow member of the Commonwealth and, in 2008, Lesotho attained lower middle income status. Considering that long-standing relationship, I was pleased to learn of the personal links to the country maintained by the hon. Gentleman and his interest in the country’s development. I confess I never quite expected ever to hear in this Chamber the words “Wrexham twinned with Lesotho”—although I appreciate that there is a wider Welsh interest—and I am slightly envious that he was able to welcome Queen Masenate Seeiso to his constituency. That trumps me.

There are good reasons for all of us to be interested in Lesotho’s development. It is the fifth most unequal country in Africa and, as a result, poverty remains widespread and deep. Some 30% of people are living on less than $1 a day. Food insecurity and hunger mean that 41% of children under five years old are stunted, and Lesotho has the third highest HIV rate in the world, with almost one in four people living with the virus. The British Government are committed to using the wide range of tools at our disposal to champion justice, fairness and prosperity for the poor people of countries such as Lesotho. That includes not only our bilateral aid programmes but, often more significantly, our work through the EU and the World Bank, debt relief, trade facilitation, skills transfer and more.

In that context, let me comment first on DFID’s bilateral programme in Lesotho. The programme is relatively modest in scale at some £3 million per year, which is less than 2% of the overall aid that Lesotho receives. However, the programme has changed many lives. For example, our support in preventing and treating HIV and AIDS among workers in the garment industry—predominantly women—has reduced HIV prevalence in young female factory workers from 37% in 2007 to 29% in 2009. We have doubled the uptake of HIV testing by garment factory workers over the same period. An increase of £1 million in support to that programme over the year ahead will help to improve women’s lives, tackle a major cause of maternal death and support private sector growth by sustaining a healthy work force.

However, our bilateral support is much less than the substantial total funding—about £10 million each year—we provide to Lesotho through multilateral channels, including the EU, the World Bank, debt relief and international NGOs. We are stepping up our scrutiny of the performance of those partners around the world to ensure that UK aid is well spent.

It is also abundantly clear that the future of a land-locked country, such as Lesotho, cannot lie in aid alone. It will lie as well in Lesotho’s ability to trade with neighbours and Africa’s ability to trade with the rest of the world. The Prime Minister has made clear his commitment to supporting Africa’s ambition to establish a free trade area, thus freeing up trade between African states and with the world more widely. We are pursuing that aim through support to improve road and rail travel and to reduce the cost of trade across the region.

We all support the goal of free trade in Africa and elsewhere, but does the Minister accept that, given the high proportion of Lesotho’s income that comes from custom dues, there will have to be a careful process of transition so that those revenues can be made up?

I accept that any establishment of a free trade area will have to look at such matters, and the right hon. Gentleman is right that existing patterns have to be taken fully into account when looking at a future goal.

Britain has a long history of skills transfer to African partner countries. For example, the British Council has provided Chevening scholarships to Lesotho for many years, and the British Government are committed to scaling up that programme over the years ahead.

I began my comments by reiterating the Government’s commitment to overseas development and poverty reduction. We should acknowledge the level of responsibility that we take on as a result of that commitment: the responsibility to ensure that we can demonstrate 100p of value for every £1 spent; the responsibility to ensure that UK aid is spent where it can make the most difference, tackling the problems on which the UK can have greatest impact; and relentless discipline, thrift and focus on value for money, which is essential in everything we do.

On value for money, I commend to the Minister the global schools partnership, which, from my personal perception, has tremendous value, particularly in creating strong, lifelong bonds between individuals in the UK and developing countries. I ask him to stick with that project, because it is a good one.

I hear clearly what the hon. Gentleman says. Global partnership can be one of the most effective ways of delivering aid at the lowest possible unit cost. It can be a highly efficient delivery mechanism and will remain an essential part of the menu of DFID’s activities around the world. The key to that is value for money and stretching every pound as far and as effectively as possible.

That is why in June this year my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State launched reviews of all bilateral, multilateral and humanitarian work undertaken by DFID. The aim has been to target our aid where the need is greatest and where the impact will be greatest. Ministers are currently considering the findings of our bilateral aid review and consulting with ministerial colleagues on how to take our recommendations forward. Our development relationship with Lesotho will reflect the choices that we have had to make in those reviews so that we can maximise the impact of our development spending. That will take account of the representations that have been made on behalf of Lesotho, and I have taken careful note of everything that has been said in today’s debate.

There are many pressing needs in Lesotho, and our aid over the years has played a role in helping to meet some of them, alongside a number of other donors. Our responsibility now is to ensure that Britain’s contribution to development is as effective as possible in future, through the choices we make—this is the crux of the debate—about our bilateral programme, about our support for the work of partners through multilateral channels and about the nature of our relationship as a whole.

One thing is certain: whatever the shape of our development support for Lesotho in future, it will reflect in some form the deep regard in which we hold Lesotho and its people, a regard that is clearly shared by many in this country, as has been articulated clearly this morning by the hon. Member for Wrexham.

Sitting suspended.