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UNESCO: Equatorial Guinea

Volume 720: debated on Wednesday 7 July 2010


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will make representations to the regional electoral group representing the United Kingdom’s interests on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) executive board regarding the withdrawal of the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences in the light of the human rights record of the Government of Equatorial Guinea.

My Lords, we have made representations at ambassadorial and ministerial level to the EU, Regional Electoral Group 1, the Commonwealth group and the director-general of UNESCO, calling for this prize to be withdrawn. We shall continue to press this point until a final decision is reached. We welcome the executive board’s decision on 15 June to work on a new set of rules for prizes and, in particular, to examine this prize more carefully.

I thank my noble friend for that reply. She will know that in the scientific and human rights communities, a UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo prize for scientific achievement is roughly the equivalent of a Robert Mugabe-UN prize for democracy and freedom. How can we, the United Kingdom, UNESCO’s fourth largest donor, convince its executive board by its next meeting in October that it should try to salvage UNESCO’s credibility by not voting for this award?

Will the Minister assure the House that media reports suggesting that the US, France and other western countries are not taking this issue up with other UNESCO members for fear of upsetting the Africans are incorrect, and that we in the UK will do all that we have to to prevent this from happening?

My Lords, our ambassador to UNESCO has urged each group of which the Government are a member to adopt strong positions condemning this prize and seeking a solution. The Minister of State for International Development raised the subject of the prize with the UNESCO director-general in his meeting on 4 June and wrote to the director-general and the chairman of the executive board before the meeting on 15 June urging the executive board to withdraw the prize. Our delegation continues to push for strong statements against the prize and for firm and transparent rules for prizes that would prevent this problem from recurring in the future.

My Lords, in assisting Equatorial Guinea and wider Africa to reach the minimum standards of human rights that the world rightly expects, what is DfID doing to help to build the essentials of a civil society there, especially access to clean drinking water and programmes to end violence towards women?

My Lords, my noble friend raises some important issues. A large proportion of DfID’s funding goes on programmes and initiatives to fight violence against women and on challenging it through civil society and women’s organisations. As my noble friend will realise, we support the MDGs; indeed, we are one of the countries that will meet the commitment on 0.7 per cent of GNI by 2013. Clean water is one of our major priorities in this respect.

On the MDGs, there is an important conference in South Africa next week on Education for All. Who will represent the United Kingdom Government? Will that representative continue to support strong and free public education systems in poor countries, as opposed to the ill advised voucher schemes and private subsidies proposed in the Conservative Party’s recent Green Paper? I ask because Oxfam has condemned that approach as one that is unlikely to build success, while the director of UNESCO has called it “an absurdity” that would set back progress. He said:

“The idea that you can trot around slums and dish out vouchers is so far-fetched that it shouldn’t be taken seriously”.

Will the Minister comment on that?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a number of issues. We are keen to ensure that the MDGs for education are reached. We are not ideological about the way in which education is delivered and we want to ensure that what works for individual countries is fully supported. British aid pays for 5 million children in developing countries to go to primary school every day. That is roughly the same as the number of children going to primary school in Great Britain, yet at only 2.5 per cent of the cost.

We have offered President Zuma of South Africa assistance if he requires it for the South African summit on 11 July, but so far we have had no representations. However, DfID has given the Education for All 1GOAL campaign £804,800 and will give another £195,000 this financial year.

My Lords, on the specific subject of the Question—Equatorial Guinea—where in the pecking order of issues for which we give assistance from our development funds do democracy, human rights and good governance figure? Are they near the top, near the bottom or somewhere in the middle of the list?

My Lords, on the specific point about Equatorial Guinea, I should say that we have no presence there, although the high commissioner to Nigeria, Bob Dewar, visits twice a year. However, we completely agree that there needs to be transparency in what Equatorial Guinea is doing on human rights. That is what we will urge through all the multilateral agencies through which we supply our funds.

My Lords, my noble friend asks a serious question. We have asked UNESCO to ensure that all the principles and criteria in setting these prizes are open and transparent and that the board undertakes, with other agencies that are involved in setting these prizes, to look seriously at ensuring that prizes set in one sector comply with prizes set in others.

Does the Minister recall that when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, she followed the lead of Ronald Reagan and withdrew the United Kingdom from UNESCO, causing us great diplomatic difficulties around the world and upsetting the scientific and educational communities here in the United Kingdom? Can the Minister give us an absolute assurance on behalf of the coalition that any problems with this prize or any cuts in public expenditure will not be used as an excuse for again taking us out of membership of UNESCO?

My Lords, the decision at that time was right. The Government will look at our membership of and investment in all agencies to ensure that the greatest possible impact is being achieved with our aid. This is part of our multilateral aid review announced by the Secretary of State for International Development. The aid review will look at all agencies funded by the aid budget and will report back in the autumn.