A visit of firsts: visiting Africa

Here’s my article for Liberal Democrat News about my recent trip to Africa:

I’ve recently returned to London from a visit of firsts: my first trip to Africa in my new role as Africa Minister in the Department for International Development – the first Liberal Democrat to hold any position in DFID, of which I’m incredibly honoured.

I travelled to South Sudan, the newest country in the world after gaining independence from Sudan in July 2011. The reason for this country being the destination for my first visit is it encompasses virtually everything DFID does and all the challenges the international community can face when trying to help a country get on its feet.

First, health and education services in South Sudan are dismal and the impact on women and girls in particular is shocking. For the most part girls are considered simply ‘property’ to be sold. There is virtually no ante- or post-natal health care available. The end result? A 15-year-old South Sudanese girl is far more likely to die in childbirth than complete any secondary education.

I visited an alternative education centre for women and girls and had lunch with a few of the students there. These women and girls are desperate to learn, work hard and eventually contribute meaningfully to the advancement of their new country. In fact when I asked one teenage student what she wanted for her future, she perked up and said ‘hopefully to be President someday’! She’ll have a tough road ahead, but how I very much hope her bright light of ambition will never be put out.

Second, South Sudan faces a severe lack of infrastructure: just about 60 kilometres of paved road throughout the entire country. And this lack of basic infrastructure hinders everything from farmers’ ability to bring their crops to market to the state’s ability to deliver textbooks or medical supplies across the country. Moreover, this combined with harsh climactic conditions has meant that this year alone 258,000 people have been affected badly by seasonal flooding.

Third, the South Sudanese economy is almost entirely dependent on oil, and the oilfields remain a serious source of conflict – along with other territorial disputes – between South Sudan and Sudan. Indeed there are 170,000 refugees in South Sudan, who have fled conflict north of the border.

I visited one of the refugee camps close to the border with Sudan, and it is difficult to really convey what I saw and learned there. Despite the monumental efforts of aid agencies and the international community, there is not nearly enough food and water available to the refugees. Sanitation is very poor and there is an epidemic of Hepatitis E, for which there is no effective treatment or cure. There are reports of increased domestic violence and sexual abuse in the camp, which we know to be exacerbated when people are forced into more extreme circumstances. For more than 5,000 children in the camp there are only three schools offering (very basic) education. Given that on average people tend to spend two to five years in a refugee camp, the future prospects for the children growing up in these circumstances doesn’t look good.

So South Sudan has its work cut out. And the UK will stand with them as they build themselves a stable economy and a lasting peace.

After my visit I’m convinced more than ever that giving development aid and supporting our allies is right and smart. Right because we cannot stand by as people suffer when we are more than capable of helping. Smart because eventually countries we help will not always need our aid, but they will remember who was there for them in difficult times.

Our party’s position on the moral and practical case for aid has always been clear. For that I am proud to be a Liberal Democrat. Our Government has said time and again that, despite our economic troubles, we will not balance our books on the backs of the world’s poorest. It is up to all of us to repeat that message and convince the sceptics.