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Last Updated: Friday, 26 May 2006, 15:44 GMT 16:44 UK
Q&A: Hilary Benn answers aid questions
At the G8 summit in Gleneagles in 2005 the leaders of the world's richest nations pledged to boost aid and cancel the debts of many of Africa's poorest countries. But a year on from those promises, is debt relief and aid helping to lift millions out of poverty?

International Development Secretary Hilary Benn
You put your questions on aid for Africa to the UK development minister. Read Hilary Benn's overview and answers below.

Hilary Benn: Firstly, I'd like to thank everyone for the challenging questions. The interest in Africa - and the issues it is facing - has been overwhelming. 2005 was certainly a year of promises to the developing world, and Africa in particular.

Many of you asked how we turn the commitments made last year into reality. How do we get more children in school, see less mothers dying in childbirth, provide clean water to more people and how do we ensure that aid is used as it should be.

Over the last five months the Department for International Development (DFID) has been undertaking a major review of UK development policy. During this time, I was able to conduct a series of frank debates on the future of development and I have used this to progress a new White Paper, which is due to be published in the summer.

Several of the enquiries you posted cover similar subject matters, ranging from corruption to aid effectiveness to health. I'll try to answer as many of these questions as possible.

Read your queries followed by Hilary Benn's responses below:

Gideon Ashby: Corruption is said to be rife in authorities throughout the continent of Africa. Are any measures being taken to help ordinary Africans reduce corruption?

Hilary Benn: Corruption is both a symptom and a cause of poor governance. As such, DFID supports a wide range of governance reforms to prevent, detect and take action against corruption. Across Africa we are helping countries to reform their judicial system, support public financial management reform and are providing technical and financial support to dedicated anti-corruption commissions.

H Roskott, Bromley: Over the past 35 years the West has sent aid to Africa to the tune of $58bn. Precious little of that has benefited the Africans as a whole. What guarantees have we that future aid donations will not disappear again into unknown pockets?

Hilary Benn: DFID only provides budget support where we believe the conditions are appropriate: a key factor in our decision is the strength of the partner government's public financial management system and its commitment to reform and strengthen those systems. Aid accounts for only part of the resources available to any developing country and in many cases only a small proportion of their total budget. By supporting partner countries to strengthen their public financial management systems, not only can aid provided by DFID be protected but the effectiveness of total spending should be enhanced.

Andrew Gardner, Grantham, UK: History shows us that despite billions of pounds being poured into Africa, it has proved fruitless. I have lived for many years in West and Central Africa and what is not needed is money. What is needed is good government without corruption. I personally resent my taxes going to a corrupt African government. There are more Malawian doctors in Manchester than in the whole of Malawi. Invest in training medics instead of robbing from the fourth poorest country in the world?

Hilary Benn: I share your concern about the lack of human capacity in Malawi's health sector, where skilled staff are in critically short supply. DFID is working to support the Malawi government efforts to improve conditions for health workers and increase the number of professional and technical health staff in Malawi, including doubling the number of nurses, tripling the number of doctors and improving incentives for key health workers to stay in the profession through salary increases. The UK Department of Health has also strengthened its Code of Practice for the international recruitment of healthcare professionals in order to weaken the 'pull' factors that attract health workers to come to the UK.

John Lwanda, Glasgow: Why has Malawi - one of the poorest of the poor - not been relieved of its debt so far? I am unaware whether this is because of the politics and inefficiencies in Malawi or because Malawi is caught in a poverty trap partly created by the donors. Please make your answer as clear and unambiguous as possible for us non-economists.

Hilary Benn: Malawi has been receiving interim debt relief since December 2000, which has freed up money to spend on health and education. After initially slow progress, Malawi is now making good progress on reducing poverty. When it reaches what is called HIPC Completion Point, Malawi would receive 100% cancellation of its debt owed to the IMF, World Bank and African Development Bank under the new Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative. At the same time we will cancel 100% of Malawi's outstanding bilateral debt owed to the UK. During this period of interim debt relief, we are not asking Malawi to make any payments on these loans.

Tim, Warwick: As an ex-VSO (the Voluntary Service Overseas development charity), I am concerned at the emphasis in development on health and education. Any balanced society also needs an economy to exploit and fund these resources.

Hilary Benn: The truth is we need both. Education is a basic human right. But the high cost of education is the biggest deterrent to poor families educating their children, particularly for girls. There are around 100 million children missing out on a basic education: at least 55 million of these are girls. DFID helps countries to develop and implement their own education plans. We give particular attention to getting children into school by removing school fees, providing equipment and building new schools. Many of the countries DFID supports have removed tuition fees or are working towards their removal and has resulted in a dramatic surge in enrolment of boys and girls. On economic growth, you're right. In the medium to long term, it is by delivering the economies of developing countries that the funding will come to pay for better schooling and healthcare.

James Schnadhorst, Hitchin: I spent a year working in Sierra Leone with the government to encourage ownership, of many of the problems facing this, geographically very wealthy nation. The solution is not aid, which creates dependency, but management. The surprising reality of the attitude of the man in the street was that they wanted the return of, in their words, "their colonial masters". Whilst the UK is supporting Sierra Leone, the most important agency - the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) - was under-funded. Why?

Hilary Benn: Money is not the only issue here. In fact UK have been supporting the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in Sierra Leone to the tune of about 5m since 2000 and other government support has also been generous. It is more about building capacity within the organisation and putting in place effective management. Ultimately the success of an institution like the ACC will depend on the broader support it receives from the government and the real political will to root out corruption. Only the people and government of Sierra Leone can provide this.

Rebecca Monks: With inflation in Zimbabwe now standing at over 1,000%, an estimated 80% of Zimbabweans living below the poverty threshold and the ongoing repercussions of Operation Murambatsvina ("Drive out rubbish") still clearly evident, please outline how the British government is approaching this delicate situation, as one fears that the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe is due in no small part to the diplomatic niceties of political correctness.

Hilary Benn: You are right to highlight the terrible situation facing ordinary people in Zimbabwe, where up to two-thirds of the population have needed international food aid and the country's enormous crisis of HIV/Aids leads to over 3,200 deaths per week. DFID has provided over 120m of humanitarian assistance to poor people in Zimbabwe during the last five years. A great deal of effort, which we believe has been successful, has gone into ensuring that our assistance reaches the most poor and vulnerable people for whom it is being provided. In doing so, DFID has been working with other donors to channel resources through UN agencies and non-governmental organisations. We will not give any funds directly to government unless things change significantly. Sadly, there's no sign of this happening currently.

Adrian, London: Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) could be very damaging for former European colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific. What is the UK government doing to ensure free trade is not forced on poor countries as a result of EPA agreements?

Hilary Benn: EPAs being negotiated with the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries must deliver long-term development, economic growth and poverty reduction. If any ACP country wishes not to sign an EPA, then they are entitled to request an alternative trade arrangement, which the EU has made a commitment to provide (so long as it is within WTO rules). The UK government is feeding independent research into the negotiations to inform the policy dialogue on all sides. We are also supporting the ACP with technical assistance so as to promote a level playing field in the negotiations.

Carole Hamilton, London, UK: The UK government rightly states that developing countries should not be forced to liberalise their trade markets. Yet the UK is part of the EU push at the World Trade Organization for poor countries to open up their markets even when it is not in their best interests and will increase poverty. When is the UK actually going to stop EC trade commissioner Mandelson pushing for a bad deal for poor people that developing countries have rejected time and time again?

Hilary Benn: It is not in anyone's interest for the Doha Development Round to fail. The UK is committed to a successful Doha Round that creates an open and rules-based international trading system that enables poorer countries to trade their way out of poverty. We believe that all developing countries stand to gain from more open markets in the longer term, but the Doha Development Agenda rightly asks for market opening according to a country's level of development. Ultimately we believe that trade reform will offer developing countries both better prospects of selling their own produce and the chance to buy on better terms the goods and services that they need.

Graham Craig, Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan: In times of severe humanitarian crises aid is often needed on the ground immediately. What are you doing to reduce the time that elapses between donations being made by the rich countries of the world and the people receiving the food, water and other resources that this money buys?

Hilary Benn: DFID attaches high priority to ensuring effective international responses to crises and has a good record in turning pledges into actual assistance. For instance, within 48 hours of the tsunami hitting the Indian Ocean region, DFID had already committed over 1m of assistance. We understand that delays in getting humanitarian assistance to those that need it cost lives. The international community needs to have the means to deliver support straightaway. That is why the UN has set up a new emergency fund - the CERF - which the UK contributed 40m to help establish. The CERF has already been used already to provide urgent assistance in the Ivory Coast and for the Horn of Africa.

Adam Welch, Grimsby: I regularly buy Fairtrade products from the supermarkets and can't help but notice how high the Fairtrade prices are compared to other brands. Whilst I accept that this is to give the growers the better prices they deserve couldn't your government enforce your commitment to Africa by abolishing tax on these products and limiting the share that supermarket fat cats can take?

Hilary Benn: Most Fairtrade goods coming into the UK face little or no border taxes. Tea and coffee for example are duty free. I think you will find Fairtrade goods are more expensive as a higher price does go to the producer and a small percentage also goes to the certifier (eg the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK) to ensure that the social and ethical standards of Fairtrade goods are being met. This is a small cost but unavoidable if consumers are to know what they are buying really meets Fairtrade standards. DFID is giving more than 1m to the Fairtrade Foundation to help it promote and extend its Fairtrade mark which now covers over 1,500 products in the UK. We also supported the development of the successful Divine range of chocolate bars made from Ghanaian cocoa beans.

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