Skip to main content

International Development Committee Report (Afghanistan)

Volume 551: debated on Thursday 25 October 2012

We now come to the main business. I would like to remind the House that the first piece of business under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee relates to the publication of a Select Committee report. This is not a debate; it takes the form of a statement by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce), who chairs the Select Committee. There will an opportunity to intervene on him, but we also have a very heavily subscribed debate to follow. I know that Members, including the right hon. Gentleman, will wish to take account of that important fact in tailoring their contributions.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the publication of the Sixth Report from the International Development Committee, on Afghanistan: Development progress and prospects after 2014, HC 403.

I am happy to accept interventions, while taking Mr Speaker’s restrictions into account.

It is worth recording that, since 2001, approximately $30 billion has been spent on development and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and $243 billion on security. Our own Department for International Development has spent over £1 billion since 2001 and currently spends £178 million a year in Afghanistan.

Sadly, the report has been published on a day on which two more British service personnel have been killed. A total of 435 men and women from our forces have lost their lives in Afghanistan—along with thousands of Afghan people—to enable the country to reach its current position, and the main thrust of our report is that we must not abandon it now.

The Committee visited Afghanistan in June. We thank our adviser, Ashley Jackson—who is a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute—and we commend the dedication of DFID’s staff, including those recruited locally, on their commitment in difficult and challenging circumstances.

My right hon. Friend will recall our visit to the hospital of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was doing incredible, innovative work with amputees who had been injured in land mine and other accidents. He will also recall the workshop next to the hospital, where false limbs were being manufactured. All the people working there were amputees, demonstrating very effectively the possibility of returning to work. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that was a really good example of part-funding by DFID and that we should encourage the Department to increase its funding to ensure that more people are helped?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Contrary to what Members might think, our visit was truly inspirational in terms of what it told us about amputees’ recovery and recuperation. The Red Cross runs seven such centres throughout Afghanistan, and its valuable work is supported very effectively by DFID, but it could indeed benefit from further support.

Our main concern is that we cannot predetermine where Afghanistan will go after 2014. There will be elections, but we do not know who will be elected. There will also be security challenges. Threats to security and development potential will vary and may fluctuate across the country. We recommend that DFID’s engagement should be flexible according to the prevailing circumstances at any given time. That may mean acknowledging that delivering development assistance may be more achievable in some provinces than in others. There are provinces in which virtually no violence has occurred, but not all of them are receiving the aid and support that they need.

Given the current security situation, especially in Helmand province, it is much harder for DFID officials to get out and about and supervise and quality-control DFID projects than it was during the Committee’s earlier visits. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is important for us to maintain the ability to carry out development work in that province—particularly given the loss of so many British lives in Helmand—and that it might be sensible to appoint more Afghan staff to manage DFID projects in the more conflicted areas of the country, given that they have less difficulty in getting out and about for security reasons?

The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on a very important point. We acknowledge that Helmand will present difficulties, and we accept that DFID has decided that it will not be able to maintain an office there once the troops have been withdrawn. However, I agree with him that, given that the British forces’ engagement in Afghanistan has focused on Helmand, it would be a total negation of that if we could not deliver projects in that province. As he says, we need to find local partners who can probably operate much more effectively than armed foreigners.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the Committee’s report. What role does he see for non-governmental organisations in the delivery of DFID’s aid in Afghanistan?

NGOs will have a substantial role. We recognise that a limited number of very effective NGOs—some international and some local—can operate in circumstances in which foreign Government agencies cannot. The fundamental reason for that is their ability to reach an accommodation with local leaders and to defuse situations that international organisations would sometimes appear to provoke. We argue that we need to develop links of that kind much more effectively in the future.

The British public are owed honesty, and the media have rightly reported today on whether the development efforts in Afghanistan are worth the sacrifices that are being made. Does the Select Committee Chairman agree that when Committee members visited Afghanistan we witnessed the problems that our aid efforts were having with full military support, so logic dictates that when that military support is drawn down the current problems will, at best, remain the same, and at worst there is the potential for the situation to deteriorate further?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but the point is that we do not know what the situation will be. Our argument is that we need to be flexible. We should make a fundamental commitment to continue to provide support where we can, although we might have to find different ways and mechanisms.

May I begin by joining in the expressions of sadness about the deaths of the two British service personnel? We value enormously the role played by our military in Afghanistan. We simply would not be able to operate without the support that they provide.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we welcome his Committee’s valuable report, to which we will reply formally in due course. No one is suggesting that Afghanistan is a fully viable state yet, but, as his report says, DFID’s efforts have made a big difference to a lot of people by helping to improve basic services and support economic growth. We completely agree that our focus should be on the position of women and girls, and that will remain a key focus of our development work in Afghanistan, so the report’s recommendations in this critical area are very welcome. I assure the House that our commitment to that desperately poor country will continue for many years to come.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that very constructive intervention. Although we are suggesting changes in priorities, our main point is that the UK Government and DFID need to be flexible in what is a very challenging situation.

Of course the Committee would wish to see Afghanistan functioning as a normal state in due course—we certainly do not want it to be a rogue state—but we are a little sceptical about whether a British Government fund of £178 million a year can itself achieve a viable state. The danger is that if that aim becomes the overriding focus, it might be at the expense of delivering material, practical progress in terms of livelihoods, the rights of women and health and education. We are asking the Department to balance those aspects in a way that does not compromise what has been achieved.

We have articulated the view that the post-2014 litmus test on the extent of the changes in Afghanistan and whether improvements have been secured and are progressing will be the status of women. It is about the worst country in the world in which to be a woman, but progress has been made. If that progress is reversed, we will be able to assume that the condition of all Afghans is deteriorating—and if that progress is continued, we can assume that the situation of all Afghans has improved further. The status of women will be the best indicator of whether everyone’s quality of life is improving.

The entire House is grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee for adding a dose of reality to the myths that have surrounded this topic. Our efforts have been well-intentioned but ludicrously over-ambitious in that we have tried to change a 13th century society into a modern state. Is not the message of the report that we cannot win hearts and minds with bombs and bullets and that we must do our best not to raise hopes—particularly for women—that will be sadly and cruelly dashed in the future? We should see what we can do not as soldiers and a military force, but as people offering aid, to rescue what we can from the wreckage of the past 11 years of failed policies.

I accept part of what the hon. Gentleman says, but I do not entirely accept his apocalyptic version of events. Real progress has been made; we should not underestimate that. Although Committee members’ opportunities to travel and engage were limited, we were impressed that people, especially women, told us, “Please be in no doubt that what you’ve done has dramatically improved the quality of our lives, and please don’t abandon us when your troops withdraw.” That is a crucial point.

As co-chair of the all-party group on Afghanistan, may I welcome the report and the Minister’s comments? I have been visiting the country regularly since 2005 and am worried that the improvements to security that we have seen have not been matched by advances in sustainable economic development and governance. Afghan fatigue seems to be setting in. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, once the US elections are over, the international community must redouble its efforts to assist Afghanistan in preparing for the situation post-2014, when the international security assistance force finally withdraws?

I absolutely agree. It is important that we say to our taxpayers and to the people of Afghanistan that we have no intention of seeing a curtain come down in 2014, which means that we have withdrawn. There will be a transition, a change and something different.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and the International Development Committee on this excellent report. I wish to pick up on his point about the UK Government talking a great deal about women’s rights in Afghanistan but not following up with substantial action. Does he agree that the UK Government need to place a much greater emphasis on women’s empowerment and human rights? Those things need to be at the heart of the development agenda. There are concerns that the idea of development and poverty eradication is too narrow in the Minister’s mind and that rights and women’s empowerment are not fully understood.

We argue that there is not enough evidence in DFID’s programme that the rights of women are central to its objective, and we suggest that DFID should prioritise those. I am sure that Ministers will say that a lot of what they are doing is beneficial to women, but it is not clearly focused in that direction. ActionAid, which I cite merely because it is an evidence base that we had, said that only one out of 92 listed DFID projects had

“an explicit commitment to gender or women’s issues.”

Of course we do have a female Secretary of State for International Development, whom we met yesterday, and a female Under-Secretary—I say that with no disrespect to the Minister of State, who I am sure will share their commitment. I think that we can be assured that women’s rights will be central to the future commitment.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend’s Committee on making the central point that, unless a significant part of our aid budget is devoted to projects designed to empower women, women will lag behind and the whole development effort will suffer. What assessment did the Committee make on its visit of the capacity of the NGOs that represent women, such as Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan? How strong is the women’s NGO sector’s capability to deliver on some of the DFID programmes in the future?

A number of NGOs have a strong commitment, and there are some powerful female voices in Afghan society that speak out for women. However, there is real fear that they will be pushed back after 2014, and they need continued support. There is also a recognition that international NGOs are sometimes compromised because they are seen to be interfering in a traditional culture. So it is important that we develop civil society in Afghanistan, and support those women in Afghanistan who can fight for themselves and ensure that they know that they have extra support outside. I take the view that not only in Afghanistan but across the world the key to development—the single most important thing—is the development of women’s rights. That is the most transformational thing that we can do.

There is no question but that corruption is a real problem in relation to the international community’s efforts in Afghanistan and other places. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the UK has put in place enough safeguards to ensure that UK taxpayers’ money is being used for the purposes for which it was intended?

The answer is no, it has not. There is no evidence that money has been misspent, but the Independent Commission for Aid Impact has said that the proactive mechanisms are not strong enough. The Department is taking strong action to deal with that, and rightly so. Afghanistan is an extremely difficult place in which to operate. As David Loyn of the BBC said in evidence, it is a rentier society, and where a lot of foreign money is swilling around, all kinds of people try to get in on the action, by whatever means they can. We have to be aware of that and be rigorous, but we also have to recognise that we can spend the money effectively. We can make a change, and the job of the Committee, the independent commission and the Department is to ensure that that is precisely what we do.

I welcome this valuable report, which comes at a crucial time in the run-up to 2014. On maximising the effort as regards the money going into Afghanistan, what role is DFID taking in ensuring that the other donor nations recognise the need to work beyond 2014?

DFID has played an active part in the Chicago and Tokyo conferences, and we have of course made our own commitments beyond that period, so we set an example. Ironically, DFID’s ability to provide leadership might be strengthened post-2014, when we are freed from engagement in military activity, as it will become apparent that the UK Government’s overwhelming priority is to provide development support. That will help the leadership provided by DFID across the world.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that because the Committee tries to be realistic and pretty sober about the situation in Afghanistan, we sometimes receive the response that we are suggesting that nothing has been achieved? After our last visit, the front cover of our report featured a picture of some girls who would not have been in school were it not, in part, for the efforts that have been made. It is important that we focus our activity where we can have an impact. That does not mean that we should focus on areas that are easy; empowering women is not easy in Afghanistan. It is important that we do not oversell or over-claim and that we target our efforts on crucial areas where we can make an impact.

I absolutely agree, although I would add a word of caution. We visited the same school in June as we did five years ago and we were unable to visit a girls’ class, because that was thought to be inappropriate. That shows the negative changes, but at least the girls were still being taught, which is important. We also visited Bamyan, where we were told that there was a rising number of undergraduate women at the university and that fathers were actively pushing their daughters to take university education. That demonstrates that the situation is patchy, with progress in some areas and push-back in others. The job of DFID and the international community is to support the progress and to help resist the push-back, in co-operation with Afghans themselves.

In conclusion, it is important that people understand that the evidence that we have received shows that most Afghans do not want the Taliban back. They want a better Afghanistan that they have some ability to determine, and people need livelihoods and to be free from violence and extortion. Our report says that now that we have gone so far, walking away prematurely, as some people suggest, would be a betrayal of the sacrifice of our armed forces, as well as of the Afghan people. Having intervened, we have a moral and practical obligation to walk beside the ordinary people of Afghanistan, as long as we can improve their quality of life on their terms.

Question put and agreed to.