International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander introduced a debate in the House of Commons yesterday about the importance of transparency in international aid.
Monmouth MP David Davies caused quite a stir with his intervention. It certainly upset Ivan Lewis, a DFID minister. Malcolm Bruce, a Liberal Democrat MP who chairs the International Development Committee, dismissed what follows as a "pub rant".
Sometimes as an editor you really don’t know what to cut out. It’s normally possible just to pick out a few key points. Mr Davies’s offering was not short of those (his principal point was that DFID has too many offices worldwide and spends too much on them), but highlighting these arguments alone would not do full justice to the tidal waves of rhetoric that poured forth. ConservativeHome readers deserve to see the speech and his exchanges with the minister in their full glory.
"David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Like some of the previous speakers, I have visited Uganda with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association on a cross-party visit. Like others speakers, I came back with vivid memories of the country. Yes, there was an enormous amount of poverty there, which I will come to in a moment, but surprisingly, in parts of Kampala, and on the road between the airport and the capital city, there were obvious examples of large amounts of wealth. One day, a number of us flew to a refugee camp in the Gulu province. As has been mentioned, we sat around a mud hut where there were people suffering the effects of malnutrition. There was very little food, and people were getting what they could from the UN agencies. People faced the constant threat of being robbed or raped at gunpoint by the Lord’s Resistance Army and other terrorist organisations. There was something particularly surprising about that scene because when one sees such images on the television, one naturally assumes that they are of refugee camps out in the middle of nowhere, but just a few miles down the road, we were able to drive into a fully functioning town with paved roads, its own radio station, and a bustling market. We were treated to a banquet, which all the local dignitaries attended, at which we discussed the fact that not enough aid was getting through and that there was not enough transparency.
Another day, back in Kampala, we were treated to an official dinner by the Ugandan Government—another great big banquet, with course after course in the Sheraton or perhaps the Hilton. Once again, we nodded over coffee and ice cream, and agreed that there was not enough aid coming through to African countries, and that there was not enough transparency. Afterwards, I wandered outside for some reason, and I saw a long line of sleek, black Mercedes-Benz with chauffeurs. Doubtless, if I had been able to go over and talk to them—they were there to collect Members of Parliament and Ministers who attended the dinner—and if they were minded to exchange small-talk, they, too, would have agreed that there was not enough aid coming through to central Africa and that there was not enough transparency.
I wanted to discuss those issues with DFID in Uganda, and I was looking forward to meeting its officials when we visited the British embassy, but there was no sign of DFID there. The British embassy has been heavily upgraded in Uganda, as I am sure many other embassies in that part of Africa have been. Millions of pounds have been spent on it, because it is a huge security risk and terrorist target. It is quite right that the money has been spent, but there was no sign of DFID in the embassy. It did not like being there, and wanted to be elsewhere, so it had rooms on the other side of Kampala in a luxury suite of offices—a first-world building in a third-world country for which, I am sure, the British taxpayer paid first-world prices. I looked forward to speaking to the head of DFID in Uganda and asking him about transparency and why we were not saving money by locating the Department in the British embassy. However, I could not do so, because he was busy doing something else. He was doing important things—too important to speak to a cross-party group of Members of Parliament representing the taxpayers who paid his salary. We were not told what he was doing, but it was made quite clear to us by his deputy that our appearance in Kampala was somewhat inconvenient. Perhaps the Minister will pass on our apologies for troubling them when he next visits the place. However, I never found out much when I was in Uganda.
Mr. Ivan Lewis: Does the hon. Gentleman realise the offence he has caused to the remarkable men and women who work in incredibly difficult circumstances, not usually motivated by financial or material gain, often risking their lives on behalf of this country? Will he apologise for giving a misleading, out-of-context impression about the contribution of our amazing staff on the ground in many of the most challenging countries of the world?
David T.C. Davies: No. If the Minister cares to look at what I just said, I made a factual comment. [ Interruption. ] Hang on, will the Minister listen to me for a moment? I made a factual comment about the head of DFID in Uganda who was not able to see us on a cross-party visit with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in 2006. If he wants to check his facts, I am more than happy for him to do so. What I am giving is a factual statement, and I am not making any comment about DFID members of staff in other parts of the world. The Minister had better check the record, and perhaps he will apologise to me when he has done so and realises that his comments were a complete misrepresentation of what I said. I do not believe, however, that members of DFID are risking their lives in Kampala. They would do so if they went to northern Uganda and Gulu province, but they are based in a first-world office block in Kampala. No doubt, they go to that province on occasion, but it is not where they are based, and Kampala is not a particularly dangerous place. If it was, I was risking my life, along with other Members of Parliament, many of them in the Chamber today, who have been there.
My experience of DFID led me to table a few parliamentary questions. One of the first was about the number of offices that it had. Now, I shall give the Minister credit for one thing, which is that DFID’s mission statement, when compared with most Departments’, is—surprisingly—absolutely clear and, I might add, a refreshing change. Its website states that DFID is all about handling Britain’s aid to the world’s poorest countries, so I looked through the list of places where DFID has offices, and I was surprised to find that among the places that are presumably considered poor are Paris, Vienna, Geneva and Brussels. The United States of America obviously suffers from a great deal of poverty, because it has two DFID offices, one in Washington and one in New York.
I should like to know from the Minister why we have a base in sunny Barbados, where the average GDP is $19,000 per head. It also benefits from the munificence of the British taxpayers and the presence of a DFID office, which, the website states, is there to draw up regional development plans. No doubt if any staff take offence at my speech, they will demand that I come over and see how hard they are working. I might be available around about Christmas time, if the Minister wants to sanction that one.
There are other offices about which I have questions, and other Members have already mentioned some. Those offices are located in cities in Brazil, South Africa, Thailand and Russia. Poverty exists in all those countries, there is no doubt about it, but those countries also have huge amounts of wealth. They are not really the poorest of the poor, but countries where, if there were a will, something could be done about the existing poverty. In the case of Russia in particular, I find it extraordinary that, on the one hand, we make bellicose statements to its Government about what they have done in South Ossetia, even though it now appears that the whole thing was started by another country, while, on the other, we hand out aid to them. It seems to be a remarkable contradiction. Yes, people are dying of tuberculosis in India, and that is an absolute tragedy, but there are people dying of starvation in British hospitals, and that is also an absolute tragedy.
The fact is that we should send our aid to countries where we can make a difference. Why on earth, therefore, do we bother to send millions of pounds in aid to China, for heaven’s sake? China is likely to overtake America as one of the world’s great superpowers over the next few decades; it is spending millions of pounds on its space programme and on its nuclear weapons; it has just announced that it is going to try to build a bigger navy than America’s; and, irony of ironies, we saw plenty of evidence of China’s own aid programme in Uganda, where it is building Government offices. We give money to the Chinese, and the Chinese give their money to African nations, securing all sorts of concessions in return. The idea that in 20 or 30 years’ time, the Chinese, as one of the world’s pre-eminent superpowers, will look back and think, “Oh, we’ll treat the British slightly differently because they gave us what in relative terms was a small amount of money,” just shows the left-wing, colonial and patronising attitude that is all too prevalent in some parts of the Government and, dare I say it, in Departments. They think that because we give out relatively small amounts of money, somebody is going to care or remember in a few decades’ time. It is complete and utter naiveté, and as someone who has a Chinese family, I can assure the House that the Chinese must be laughing up their sleeves at it.
One of my basic concerns is that we are spending a vast amount of money paying first-world salaries and first-world rents for offices in countries throughout the world. The parliamentary answer that I have before me is about two years old, but it is simply a list of all our DFID offices. I totted them up, and there were about 80.
David T.C. Davies: I am more than happy to give way to the Minister. Perhaps he could try to be more polite when he makes his point this time.
Mr. Lewis: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that even his own party’s Front-Bench spokesman refers constantly to DFID being a world leader in development? For all the legitimate questions that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) raises about the direction of policy, that is a point that his own Front-Bench spokesperson—from the shadow Cabinet—makes time and again. Will the hon. Gentleman apologise for being so offensive about the role of DFID front-line staff? I do not mind what he says about me.
David T.C. Davies: I point out to the Minister that this is an opportunity for me to put questions to him through the Chair; if I want to raise issues with a Front-Bench spokesman, I can do that in a different way. I do not mind how offensive the Minister is to me. I meet people far more offensive than him every Friday night when I work as a special constable, although he is coming close in some respects. However, as a Minister of the Government, he might care to reflect on the fact that we are allowed to express ourselves and raise criticisms in this place. I am surprised that he finds that so offensive.
David T.C. Davies: I am more than happy to return to the subject of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The point that I was trying to make—I am sorry if the Minister finds it offensive—is that DFID has a large number of offices and staff, and a limited budget. We can argue all day about whether that budget should increase, but we should all agree that it should be spent as wisely as possible. I am suggesting that rather than having 80 offices all around the world in places such as Paris, Geneva and Brussels, we concentrate on a dozen or two dozen of the very poorest countries in the world, perhaps those with previous links to Britain. We should concentrate as many of our efforts as possible on reducing the overheads and spending the money—whatever the budget—on those who need it.
Mr. Lewis: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in this context the most important thing that this country can do, apart from being a donor country, is to influence international institutions and other donors so that they step up to the mark and make the right decisions on international development? That is why we need offices where the international institutions are located. It is important and in our national interest that we should lead on influencing development policy across the developing world.
David T.C. Davies: The Minister overlooks the fact that that is the role of embassies and the Foreign Office. Earlier, he made it clear that he condemned the idea of giving out foreign aid with strings attached about how Governments should run themselves. He needs to make up his mind about his own policy; he has contradicted himself throughout this debate. If we give out money with no strings attached, we should not concentrate on foreign policy at all but simply make sure that the money goes to those who need it most.
I put it to the Minister, with respect and courtesy, that we would do far more if we concentrated on 12 or 20 of the poorest countries in the world, rather than trying to spread ourselves thinly throughout the world and making what in many cases will be a very small difference. The Minister gets angry when anyone criticises his Department, but I tell him that the role of a Member of Parliament, who is elected by taxpayers, is to ask difficult questions about how Government money is spent. I have a concern about the attitude of some DFID members of staff—not least because of my own experiences, but also because of the experiences of constituents.
I recently met a retired eye surgeon from Abergavenny. Over the years, he had done some work in Ethiopia. Having retired, he wanted to work for free. This was not some naive 21-year-old just out of university knocking on the door and asking to work on an aid programme, but a retired eye surgeon who wanted to give up his time for free and start a project training people to undertake basic surgery to enable people with certain eye diseases to see again. He told me that he got no help whatever from DFID and was treated as something of an inconvenience. The very idea that Government money could be given to an individual, even one with enormous skills and expertise, to do what the mission statement says the Department is all about, was simply incomprehensible to the officials involved. I believe the gentleman concerned because he is highly respected and because he went out and set up the charity himself. He is now training people in Ethiopia to go out and give people their sight back. In other words, he is exactly the sort of person whom we should be supporting but were not able to—presumably because people were busy drawing up action plans instead of giving practical help.
My points are that we are spread too thinly across the world and that we are in many of the wrong places. Many of the countries in which we are present are perfectly able to help themselves if they wish to and our presence will not make any difference to their foreign policy over the next few decades. If we concentrated our efforts on 12 or 20 of the poorest of the poor countries of the world, we could make a significant difference to people’s lives."