HC Deb 05 November 1991 vol 198 cc342-50 4.16 pm
The Minister for Overseas Development (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on my visit to Bangladesh from 31 October to 3 November. The main objective was to see the after-effects of the cyclone of 29 April, the worst this century, and to assess the progress of rehabilitation.

I did not visit at the time of the initial relief operation, because I did not want to divert local transport and personnel at the height of relief operations. On the visit, I was accompanied by officials and Mr. Michael Whitlam, director-general of the British Red Cross.

With our high commissioner in Dhaka, we visited coastal areas in the districts of Chittagong and Cox's Bazar, including several of the offshore islands where the cyclone damage was worst of all.

It is difficult to overstate the tragic consequences of the cyclone. I visited areas where almost half the population lost their lives. In all, more than 150,000 men, women and children died. On Sandwip island, the villagers performed for me a moving re-enactment of the events of the cyclone and its aftermath.

The psychological effects of the disaster will take years to heal, but the physical work of rehabilitation exceeded our expectations. Schools are being reconstructed, new houses completed, and fishing boats built. Most important of all, the main rice crop, planted after the cyclone, is by all accounts a very good one. The resilience of the people of Bangladesh is heartening.

The progress that I saw would not have been possible without great efforts by the Government of Bangladesh, local and overseas non-governmental organisations, and the donor community. At the beginning of May, Britain gave £6.5 million for immediate disaster relief directly and through the EC. Our aid was handled through NGOs, and it appears to have been most effective in helping to avoid any major fatalities in the aftermath of the cyclone. I also heard warm tributes to the work of the Royal Marines in the distribution of relief supplies.

Britain has since made available a further £5 million for rehabilitation, again through British and local NGOs. During my visit, I announced that, of that, £750,000 will go to the excellent local voluntary organisation, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, and £500,000 for the further British Red Cross shelter building programme on Sandwip.

Already, British funds have been put to good use, as I saw with projects involving Concern, Help the Aged, and other NGOs. The assistance contributed by Britain's Bangladeshi community was also greatly appreciated. I confirmed our willingness to finance reconstruction items such as bailey bridging and ferry engines from the £15 million commodity aid agreement signed last month. I discussed the lessons to be learned from the relief and rehabilitation exercise with all whom I met, including the Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, and a wide range of NGOs.

It is clear from my visit that the key features of our approach have been well justified. First, we used NGOs as our channel of assistance, working with the Government of Bangladesh. Secondly, we purchased relief materials in-country, rather than succumbing to the temptation to fly in supplies that all too often prove inappropriate. I have emphasised to all parties the need for good communications and a real partnership between Government and NGOs in Bangladesh to make aid effective—and not just in times of disaster.

I believe, however, that there is more that we can and should do. The donor community should press ahead with the construction of multi-purpose buildings suitable for use as cyclone shelters. We are financing 24 such shelters under our rehabilitation funds, through the Red Cross and through local NGOs. The EC, Germany, Japan and Saudi Arabia are also financing shelters. The World bank is preparing a project to cover the balance of requirements. I shall be discussing that with the bank in Washington next week.

More needs to be done on disaster preparedness, notably in regard to radio communications. I am glad to report that the British Red Cross, with its League partners, plans to upgrade the communications facilities of the Bangladesh Red Crescent, which more than proved their worth in this cyclone. We are ready to assist in this, should there be a funding gap.

As on previous occasions, I am holding a post-disaster review of our responses. I want to be sure that, wherever our urgent help is needed next, we are as ready as is humanly possible.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Let me convey to the House the regret expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) for her absence. Earlier today, my hon. Friend left for northern Iraq to witness and discuss the problems confronting the hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees who face the grim prospect of winter, and renewed acts of repression by Saddam Hussein. My hon. Friend hopes to address the House about those matters when she returns.

We welcome today's statement. The Minister will recall that it was the Opposition who, on 8 May, asked her to visit Bangladesh. The small amounts of money that she has committed to important work in Bangladesh are welcome, but the £5 million to which her statement referred must be seen against the background of her frank admission to me, on 15 October, that Britain's aid last year, as a proportion of gross national product, had been the lowest ever recorded—I repeat: the lowest ever recorded. That admission at the Dispatch Box sent a shudder through the Government's own Back Benchers.

Is it true that the Prime Minister's recent debt initiative—the write-off initiative—does not cover Bangladesh, the world's fifth poorest country? Why should that be so? Because Bangladesh does not appear to meet the Government's criteria. Will the Minister say clearly whether that is true? The House and the country need to know.

Is it not true that the cost to Bangladesh of servicing its foreign debt is over a quarter of the amount that it receives in aid from all donors? How can Bangladesh possibly rebuild its economy after the cyclone, when it is saddled with such debt obligations? Is it not also true that the Government aid given to this poor country is concentrated disproportionately on large-scale energy and infrastructural communication projects? It has not been focused on poverty alleviation.

Despite some notable projects—yes, promoted by the present Government—still too little Government money has been spent on schools, health networks, farming, small-scale rural projects, fisheries and the formation of credit groups to help the regeneration of economic activity at a local level. To provide funds for cyclone shelters is one thing, but unless the use of such shelters forms part of local community-based programmes, experience suggests that such relief projects can fall into disrepair.

Can the Minister deny that the ODA resisted funding a number of such poverty-focused rehabilitation projects that accompanied cyclone shelter programmes? The next Labour Government will change the emphasis of their aid programme in favour of the poor, and will support programmes of poverty alleviation.

On 8 May, the Minister told the House that she was discussing with her EC counterparts the need for a co-ordinated EC approach to international relief. What has been the result of those discussions? Has that co-ordination been established? Ministers have repeatedly stressed the need for good governance to be a criterion in the allocation of aid. Recognising Bangladesh's commitment to democracy under a newly elected democratic Government, will the British Government now substantially increase their contribution as a reward for meeting the new criterion? If good governance is to be an incentive, surely those who meet the new criterion must be rewarded.

The Minister told the House that the World bank has identified $2.3 billion for strengthening the economy of Bangladesh. Could she comment on what projects she expects these moneys to be allocated to and in what time frame?

On 8 May, the Minister was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) about seed aid to help local farmers replenish seed stocks lost in the cyclone. What proposals does she have to help these small farmers, who otherwise face debt or bankruptcy? Has the Minister considered linking the EC's fisheries decommissioning scheme to the aid programme, with the replacement of Bangladeshi fishing vessels in the way advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and me on 8 May?

What consideration is being given to the recent severe river flooding in the north of the country? Will the Minister make a point of ensuring that aid is allocated for rehabilitation in that area, which was badly damaged in the floods of September of this year?

The unfolding tragedy of Bangladesh in the aftermath of the cyclone is of deep concern to the whole House. I hope that the Minister's visit will have reassured the people of that country that the world remains conscious of their plight. The whole House will want to unite in expressing its support for the efforts of the Government and people of Bangladesh in rebuilding their lives and communities.

Mrs. Chalker

I welcome the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) to his Front-Bench post. I am sure that he will bring his incisive mind to his work in public, rather than all the background, unofficial work that we know he has done for so long for the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), for which perhaps he has not been thanked as much as he should have been by others.

I realise that the hon. Member for Cynon Valley departed today for northern Iraq. I have been only too conscious of the anxieties of the House regarding the problems facing the Kurdish and other Iraqi people. I have been in touch with Prince Sadruddin, who I hope will very soon go to Baghdad to put the very point to Saddam Hussein that is in all our minds today.

As for this statement, in total £11.5 million is not a small amount. It is in addition to more than £50 million in the annual aid programme that goes to Bangladesh. To answer the hon. Gentleman's comments about Bangladesh and the Trinidad terms, I thought that he would know that Bangladesh is not rescheduling its debt; nor is its debt service ratio as high as for countries that are eligible for the existing Toronto terms. This Government have long since written off Bangladesh's aid debt. We provide all aid on grant terms to Bangladesh and will continue to do so.

The hon. Member for Workington spoke more generally about health, family planning and farming. Our aid programme is taking account of needs in such matters. We have found a valuable link through the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee; and we have ensured that, where we can gain the Government's agreement to engage in such projects, we shall do so. I spent a good deal of Sunday talking about such projects with members of the Government, including the Minister of Health and Family Planning, whom I pressed hard on doing more in the areas of health and population.

Our Government have turned our minds to the community development aspects of shelter projects and we have included those in our aid to BRAC through the British Red Cross and Red Crescent programme. It is true that some projects do not meet the criteria upon which we have to insist, but that does not alter the fact that we are fully engaged, and will continue to be so, in community-based development projects.

In terms of the European Community's approach to international relief, at an informal meeting in July, I proposed various solutions, which were accepted by my colleagues. We had not at that time received a paper from the Commission. There has been debate within the Commission about this, and it will be discussed again at the end of the month in the Development Council. We shall respond on good government, and where a country, Bangladesh or otherwise, makes progress, we shall respond as generously as we can.

Next week I shall be discussing with the World bank to what projects it intends to give aid. We have already given seed aid to Bangladesh to help in the aftermath of the cyclone. We have also offered assistance to the Rangpur area in the north-west which has suffered from flooding. However, the harvest there is expected to be good. The staff of the British high commission who visited the area last week have told me, as have the non-governmental organisations in Bangladesh, that there is not a famine. However, I have made it clear that we shall assist in that area if the Bangladeshi Government wish us to do so.

We have done a great deal to set the scene for the future, to ensure that there is much more protection for people in the event of future cyclones. I intend to see that that work continues to be done by us and all other donors.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a worthwhile visit in the wake of such an apalling disaster, and on the sizeable amount of money that we have given to assist Bangladesh. Can she develop a little the ideas about improved international co-ordination, especially UN co-ordination, in terms of preparations for possible disasters and the implementation of an effective strategy once disasters have struck?

Mrs. Clarke

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments. Since we and the Germans proposed the plan, which is now endorsed by our partners in the European Community and the UN, we have had nothing but encouragement for the idea of a UN disaster supremo and a worldwide system for disaster response co-ordination that we envisaged from the beginning. However, it seems clear that the current Secretary-General of the United Nations will not appoint such a person, as he is coming to the end of his time in New York.

We have made it clear to all our partners in the UN, particularly in the Security Council, that we believe this to be a matter of the utmost urgency. We believe also, with fellow donors in the OECD committee, that we can cause a swift arrangement to take place. In the meantime, we are all ready to do what may need to be done before we achieve the UN disaster co-ordination that we all think is necessary.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Does the Minister recall that, during the overseas development debate last year, she interrupted my speech when I was complaining about the lack of progress towards the United Nations target of 0.7percent of national product? She said: The Government have always accepted the target in principle. We cannot stipulate a timetable, but we shall work towards it as fast as we reasonably can".—[Official Report,14 December 1990; Vol. 182, c. 1264.] Does she therefore share my party's disappointment that, whatever effort is being made in Bangladesh now, it is coming out of a smaller pot because we have moved away from the target that she promised last year instead of towards it?

Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, and 86 per cent. of its people live below the poverty line. Does the Minister accept that we welcome the steps that she has taken and join in congratulating the nongovernmental organisations on their work since the cyclone disaster?

The Minister said that the Government were contributing to the construction of 24 essential concrete shelters to prevent Bangladesh from again being ravaged by cyclones, which are inevitable. Clearly, 24 shelters are nothing like enough. The right hon. Lady says that she will discuss the subject with the World bank in Washington next week. From her own discussions with the Bangladesh Government, how many shelters does she conclude will be required, and how optimistic is she that they will be constructed before a disaster strikes?

Mrs. Chalker

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman was in the House when I spoke about resources at a previous question time. I made it clear that the average percentage of gross national product spent on aid in recent years was about 0.3. There were fiscal fluctuations, and at the end of 1990 certain bills were held over to 1991. We work on financial years, not calendar years. Therefore, although I am disappointed by the figure, I shall not allow it to deflect us from close targeting and the proper concentration of aid on the poorest countries, of which Bangladesh is certainly one.

The number of shelters that are needed depends entirely on what type of shelters are constructed and where they are placed. That is why we said that, under our rehabilitation fund and with the British Red Cross and local NGOs, we shall press ahead with the construction of the 24 shelters that are required. The European Community, to which we contribute, Germany, Japan and Saudi Arabia are financing shelters. The World bank is also preparing to finance other shelters and community institutions to act as shelters. We are a major contributor to the World bank.

Although the cyclone was much more severe than in 1970, fewer people lost their lives. The problem is not only the number of shelters that are available but persuading people to use them. Earlier today, I examined the possibility of constructing shelters that take cattle on ground level and people above. To a Bangladeshi family, although it may not seem so to us, losing their cattle is almost as serious as losing a child. We have been working on the wider considerations and have been seeking to persuade other donors to be conscious not only of the need to construct many shelters but to try to tackle the whole problem. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will bear with me. I shall take his words ringing in my ears to Washington next week.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on her efforts in this extremely difficult situation. Bangladesh is a sad country, because it attracts so many natural disasters. There seems no way of providing enough to prevent a cyclone, flooding and the many diseases that occur in that part of the world. I wonder whether it is realistic to build shelters rather than to try to move the indigenous population from the more dangerous areas. I know that many Bangladeshi people are fishermen, but it seems that, potentially, they will always be in danger. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will persuade the United Nations to do what it can.

Mrs. Chalker

There is a treble problem, the first part of which is the rapid increase in the population. Although the population has fallen from an average of seven children per family in 1970 to five, it is still very high. There are estimated to be about 110 million people in a country with little land space, much of which is exceedingly low-lying.

The second problem is that this low-lying land is extremely fertile. Fisherpeople go out into the bay of Bengal, and the area also attracts farmers and others. The water acts as a magnet, causing overpopulation in the region, and there are not sufficient inland areas to which people can go. People tend to gather in low-lying areas. The numbers of people involved cannot be moved forcibly.

Community buildings are necessary, anyway. If they can be used as cyclone shelters as well, a double purpose will be fulfilled by building them. We cannot tackle just one problem and provide cyclone shelters. As our aid programme is increasingly doing, we must concentrate our efforts not only on providing an infrastructure and sufficient power, but, more particularly, on alleviating poverty and instituting health and population programmes, on which we now concentrate.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

The House will welcome the right hon. Lady's statement on the progress that is being made towards the rehabilitation of these terribly devastated areas around the bay of Bengal. I am sure that there will be great appreciation of the right hon. Lady's tribute to the people of Bangladesh and to the Bangladeshi people here who are contributing to relief efforts. I am sure that her tribute to the work of the NGOs will also be greatly appreciated.

As I think was clear from the right hon. Lady's remarks, rehabilitation is only one stage in what needs to be done. Ahead lies a massive programme to take measures under the World bank's flood action plan to mitigate the effects of a repetition of such disasters.

We should like some assurances from the right hon. Lady. First, we should like an assurance that the world community has been fully apprised of the priority that must be given, within aid programmes, to flood prevention and cyclone disaster plans. Secondly, we should like an assurance that the Government of Bangladesh now give greater priority than they did in the past to long-term coastal defence and cyclone protection measures.

Mrs. Chalker

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I wish to reassure him that, in addition to the work that we shall continue to do to protect people from cyclones, we are heavily engaged in the Bangladesh flood action plan—four projects are being worked upon by Britain alone. The conference here in December 1989, which I chaired, took other aspects of that plan forward. We wish to ensure that all donors maintain the action which has been taken. We are, of course, encouraging the new democratic Government of Bangladesh to support all those measures, but it will take time for them to be quite as active as we would wish.

Dr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)

As someone who has been very interested in Bangladesh over many years, I wish to offer my right hon. Friend warm and generous congratulations on the factual excellence of her report. The coastal stretch between Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar is screaming out for large-scale civil engineering works. Britain could play an important part in providing such a facility.

Mrs. Chalker

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Having spent more than a day flying over the coastal region between Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar, all the islands and some of the inland areas, I am well aware of the lack of infrastructure. Several local community groups are involved in rebuilding boats, and it may be that we can better help through that approach and others, rather than by providing masses of concrete. We are considering the problems. As I said, we shall provide bailey bridging and ferry engines, which will help considerably in the short and long term.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

The Minister may recall that, on 8 May, I urged upon her the need to provide immediate assistance to the fishing communities that were so badly devastated. I was therefore pleased to hear her mention the assistance given to the fishing communities. Will she confirm that that assistance has taken the shape of appropriately constructed vessels and gear? Can the majority of those fishermen now continue with their fishing? Has any of this assistance gone into building onshore facilities for the fishing communities?

Mrs. Chalker

I am afraid that I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's last question about onshore facilities. The activity which I saw when we were in the area between Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar shows that fishing has taken off once more. Every time we went near a small port, we saw boats being built. There was much activity. I am glad that we and other donors can help.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall allow questions to continue for a further five minutes. I hope that the House will understand if I give precedence to those hon. Members who are not seeking to speak in the debate.

Mr. Ian Grist (Cardiff, Central)

As the population of Bangladesh is due to grow by more than 30 million by the turn of the century, will my right hon. Friend say what was the response of the Minister of Health and Family Planning in Bangladesh when she rightly raised the issue of population measures?

Mrs. Chalker

I am glad to say that I had a better response than I expected. I have made it clear to Minister Yussif and his officials that we are fully prepared to help not only with child care issues and population planning but with contraceptive supplies. I shall keep my hon. Friend and the House informed as we make progress on this issue, as I am determined that we shall do.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Does the Minister agree that western aid in the past has shown an over-emphasis on capital projects which have had little impact on the overwhelming majority of the very poor people of Bangladesh? Is it not now clear that we should emphasise more the need not just for shelter but for solid and substantial housing, which will ensure that there will be fewer casualties the next time a cyclone hits the area? After all, if the cyclone had hit the United States or Britain, 150,000 people would not have died.

Mrs. Chalker

In reviewing the past few years of the Bangladesh programme, it is clear that we have been doing more and more to alleviate poverty and to provide the type of projects to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Without a decent infrastructure and sufficient power, poverty alleviation projects—however good they may be in themselves—will not have the desired effect. A balance is required in any aid programme. Bangladesh needs power, and we now concentrate all our power work on efficiency. That means not new stations but efficient production by and distribution from existing stations. The balance in the Bangladeshi aid programme is coming right. We are never unaware of what needs to be done to alleviate the dreadful distress facing so many Bangladeshi people.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Did my right hon. Friend see the report of the Inter-Parliamentary Union disarmament conference in March last year, which called on all nations to use their military forces in disaster relief action? I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows that, in Portland, the Royal Navy regularly trains for disaster relief, and that we have an excellent record, especially in respect of the Kurds and Bangladesh. What efforts has my right hon. Friend made through her Department to encourage other Governments, especially Governments in these areas with large armed forces, to deploy their forces when disasters occur?

Mrs. Chalker

I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend. I have always encouraged the use of forces in disaster relief. Some of the training given in this country will be an integral part of the training that my special people will get in the future. It is true that the Bangladeshi armed forces performed well after the first few days. They helped a great deal and were greatly assisted by the United Kingdom and United States forces who went specifically to area.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

The Minister is obviously aware from her visit to Bangladesh that it is a desperately poor country with a hard-working population. Will she reveal a little more about her discussions during her visit on the question of debt write-off which may be offered to the Bangladeshi Government in the future, on ways of increasing the earnings of Bangladesh from exports and especially on commodity prices? Bangladesh, like many other poor countries, is stuck in the bind of high interest rates and low export prices, which leads it further into debt. Unless the debt crisis is resolved, the poverty of Bangladesh is likely to continue for a long time.

Mrs. Chalker

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can have heard what I said earlier. The British Government have long since written off Bangladesh's aid debt, and we provide all our aid on grant terms. Bangladesh is not rescheduling its debt, and its debt service ratio is not as high as that of other countries that are eligible for the Toronto terms and, therefore, for the Trinidad terms. Although that may be so, we have done a great deal to try to encourage the export earnings and we will continue to do so.

The most important point is to give the goods of the developing countries access to the developed world, which is why the round of talks on the general agreement on tariffs and trade is so vital. In the fibre sector, the Tootal company in Bangladesh has made great strides in recent years, and there is much to be gained from further work of that type.