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Volume 806: debated on Thursday 15 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to provide assistance for (1) humanitarian, (2) development, and (3) girls’ education, work in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of peacekeeping forces.

My Lords, the United Kingdom warmly welcomes the start of the Afghan peace negotiations, which are the best chance of securing enduring peace. While the spending review is ongoing, I cannot comment on future assistance levels. However, the Government remain absolutely committed to supporting the people of Afghanistan, and we expect to announce funding for 2021 at the pledging conferences this autumn. Our ongoing programmes support humanitarian development and girls’ education, which will continue to be a priority.

I thank the noble Lord for his answer. It is firmly established that educating girls is one of the surest ways to achieve development: social, economic and political. In view of this, will Her Majesty’s Government commit to not only continuing but expanding their education programme, including female teacher training, secure school construction and vocational courses in Afghanistan?

I assure the noble Baroness that the issue of girls’ education remains a government priority. Indeed, our Prime Minister, the right honourable Boris Johnson, leads directly on the campaign for 12 years of quality education for every girl around the world. As the noble Baroness knows, the situation in Afghanistan is fluid, but we remain very committed to the central objective and indeed the priorities that she has outlined.

My Lords, it is essential to maintain development aid in this desperately poor country, as were it to collapse the illicit economy would also almost certainly take over. However, can the Minister tell the House what position the UK Government will take at the pledging conference he mentioned just now in Geneva in November on conditions with respect to corruption and human rights?

The noble Baroness raises two important points. We of course lead on anti-corruption in the context of humanitarian support around the world, and Afghanistan is no exception. Particular mechanisms in the programmes ensure that corruption is tackled, and those who seek to cause disruption to those processes are fully held to account. The UK National Crime Agency, for example, works very closely to build Afghani capacity. On the pledging conference, which takes place in November, we recognise the need to continue to support programmes in Afghanistan, but to do so for every agency and every person in a secure manner which also ensures that every pound that is pledged and delivered goes to the purpose for which it is intended.

My Lords, the Minister will know that in Afghanistan there is a high prevalence of child marriage. A third of girls marry before the age of 18, some as young as 12, which brings physical and mental consequences and loss of education. What support can the Government realistically give the Government of Afghanistan to help eliminate that problem?

The noble Baroness is quite right to raise these issues. As Minister for Afghanistan, this is a central concern for me, particularly with the Afghan peace talks under way—although they have stalled. I assure her that these issues remain the key priority in the support and the training we give through the schools and education programme, and the Girls’ Education Challenge fund. We continue to prioritise this as we move through the current talks and for future programmes. Child marriage is of course not unique to Afghanistan, but is found in other parts of the world. Education and education for girls remain essential to tackling it.

My Lords, the official figures for women reported to have tested positive for or to have died from Covid-19 in Afghanistan are significantly below the equivalent figures for men. That does not match with the experience of other countries, suggesting that Afghan women are not receiving adequate attention or treatment, and many may be suffering and dying in their own homes. Can my noble friend tell the House what steps the Government are taking to contribute to reducing barriers to healthcare for women in Afghanistan, and how they expect women’s access to healthcare to be impacted by the withdrawal of international forces?

On my noble friend’s second point, this poses a massive challenge for countries continuing to have a presence there, and indeed for donor countries such as ourselves that are engaged in humanitarian programmes. She is right to highlight the challenge. To be candid with her, I recognise and understand it. The challenge will be how the security situation prevails with any new governance arrangements in Afghanistan, to ensure that the achievements we have made, including in providing health support to women, are sustained and strengthened in the months and years ahead.

My Lords, one of the key advances that has come out of the engagement in Afghanistan has been the improvement in women’s rights. What discussions have the Government had with our former EU colleagues to make sure that our departure from the EU does not lead to them reducing their commitment?

The noble Baroness is quite right to raise this. Engagements are going on regarding the US withdrawal between other NATO partners who continue to have a presence on the ground, because security has to be the primary objective in securing the gains that have been made. I assure the noble Baroness that I am looking at all the programmes in Afghanistan with the very purpose of seeing how we can strengthen partnership working to ensure that we continue to deliver them.

My Lords, we do not yet know the outcome of the peace talks between the Taliban and Afghanistan, but we know for certain that US withdrawal of troops is imminent and that the Taliban’s reach is wide and deep across the community. I seek assurances from the Minister that he will not just continue to support education for girls, but look more creatively at ways in which we can teach in communities, including within homes, which are unlikely to fall foul of the Taliban.

I can certainly give that assurance to my noble friend. Indeed, the challenges of Covid and the pandemic have shown how we can enable learning through technology. I certainly want to look at that area further, not just in Afghanistan, but in other areas across the world.

My Lords, as the Minister has already said, the UK has been prominent in anti-corruption and police reform, alongside the EU and the UN—President Ghani himself attended a meeting on that on 4 October. However, does the Minister have any evidence that in the present political situation, these initiatives are effective and will lead to real change?

My Lords, the noble Earl is right to raise this issue. The UK has supported the Afghan National Police, which helps to support the Afghani defence and security forces. We continue to fund up to £70 million through trust funds for this purpose, and we continue to engage and support through technical support and training. I cannot speculate what the outcome of the negotiations will be. They remain challenging; as I said earlier, they have stalled. However, we are ensuring that all the support we give, including to the Afghan police, stays in place.

My Lords, President Ashraf Ghani referred to climate change as one of the five drivers of turmoil in his country and highlighted recent droughts and floods. Can the Minister say what support we are giving to Afghanistan in response to these humanitarian crises, not just with funding, because I hear what he says about the pledging conference, but regarding expertise to help mitigate some of these natural disasters that are occurring?

The noble Lord raises an important point; whether it is climate change, girls’ education or police training, the engagement of experts is required. I assure him that we work on our programmes in Afghanistan specifically with that objective in mind, including with key NGO partners. However, I cannot stress enough that the situation on the ground is fluid. The issue of the security and the continued presence of NGOs is a challenge not just to the country, but directly to them.

My Lords, what support is the FCDO giving Afghani women during the peace process? A strong platform for them will be crucial to protect girls’ education from Taliban ideology.

The noble Baroness knows as well as I do that Taliban ideology is not just discriminatory; it isolates women. I assure her that I am very much invested in this issue on a personal level. We are supporting Afghani women through the UN— we lead the Afghan engagement group. The current ambassador from Afghanistan to the UN is a woman, and we continue to support women’s direct and pivotal engagement in the peace process in Afghanistan. However, I will be very honest with the noble Baroness: from the Taliban side, that remains an immense challenge.

My Lords, returning to the point the Minister just made about ideology, given the probable return of the Taliban to positions of power in Afghanistan and its ideological commitment to early child marriage, denying girls the chance of an education, is there any sign that the Taliban has modified its implacable hatred of girls’ education, exemplified by its attempts in Pakistan to murder Malala Yousafzai?

I would not hazard to think what the Taliban ideology is. It is not just against girls; it is fundamentally against empowerment through education. The check and balance must be that we as a Government, with international partners, remain firm and resolute that education empowers and, yes, it empowers girls. For anyone involved in the peace process, if you empower a girl, you empower the individual, her family, her city and her country, and it is about time that all those involved with the intra-Afghan peace talks woke up and realised the objective and how beneficial it will be for the future of Afghanistan.