In May this year I travelled to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, as part of a delegation from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
These sorts of trips are important; they educate me about international aid programmes and their effectiveness in a way one cannot grasp from books, TV or newspapers; they also help to educate us about the very real and over-whelming difficulties faced by MP’s in developing countries.
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, devastated by poor government, war and insurgency. Life expectancy is just 37 years of age. One in four children die before their fifth birthday, mainly from preventable diseases.
We visited ill-equipped schools and health clinics and the shanty town of Kroo Bay. 6,000 people live in KrooBay, over half are children. It has no electricity, running water or sanitation, and just one very run-down health clinic.
As well as the unbearable poverty in Sierra Leone, the sadness of its children will stay with me. Years of civil war have had a brutalising effect on the country.
We visited two schools, and this is usually a highlight of a trip. Even in the poorest of countries, children greet us with excitement, pulling at our clothes, wanting to talk to us. But in Sierra Leone, at the two schools I visited, there was little resilience to the painful and poverty stricken lives. The eyes of the children were sad and hopeless.
A visit to one school was particularly shocking. The teenagers complained about corporal punishment and asked for intervention with the head. They said that as our aid was paying for the school, they wanted that aid conditional upon a more humane educational system. A former child soldier, who had survived the war and been placed back in the education system complained about the cruelty of the school. Having been freed, he was still experiencing violence.
The head stated that he understood the pupils concerns and would consider changes, but I left there not believing for one moment that there would be any reform at all.
In a column of 550 words it is not possible to offer more than a snapshot of this country. The poverty is intense and there are no easy answers to the problems faced. However, political stability is needed for development work to succeed and, sadly, the apparatus of parliamentary democracy is fragile and under-funded.
These visits leave me determined to do something positive, and reinforced the importance of building on this Government’s achievements in international aid. Since 1997, Britain has been a leader in the field and, although there is much work to be done, our support makes a big difference to children worldwide.
Tory proposals threaten this. They want to impose a market system on developing countries. They are ideologically fixated on developing a private sector, rejecting Labour’s calls for free universal education and health care. Their proposals include a range of gimmicks and experiments which will humiliate and harm developing countries, like a demeaning online ‘vote’ to decide which countries should get aid – the poorest people in the world paraded like contestants on X Factor.
Even in a global economic crisis, we can afford basic humanity. We must not abandon our commitment to the developing world—especially its children.