Here’s a blog following my visit to Sudan. I went in my capacity as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development. You can see more photos from the trip here.
Britain’s aid programme is about people, not numbers. But sometimes, the figures are so shocking it is impossible to escape them.
This year marks 10 years since the start of conflict in Darfur and the numbers speak for themselves. During 3,655 days of violence, hundreds of thousands have died, millions have been forced from their home and 2.7 million still rely on food aid for survival.
As we approach the grim anniversary of when violence began, I visited the war-ravaged region this week to see for myself the impact British aid is having on the ground. In many ways, the fact that I am only able to blog about it after returning from Darfur because of the security threat, speaks louder than any of the words I can write.
There is a lot to remain concerned about – the censorship of the media, the lack of access for NGOs and UN agencies to deliver development programmes, the recent closures of four leading NGOs in Sudan and the endless blame game. These are all issues I raised with the Government of Sudan.
But there is also room for optimism. At Abu Shouk camp for 100,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) – those left homeless by the conflict in El Fasher, North Darfur – I visited a UK-funded project working to bring justice to a lawless community.
There are no police posts in the camp, which exposes the men, women and children to all kinds of crime from killing, rape and sexual assault to burglary and shootings. The Justice Confidence Centre I saw is made up of 13 enthusiastic paralegals who teach those living in the camp about their human rights, mediate and resolve up to 40 disputes every day.
This is not policing and justice as those living in Britain would understand, but it is a first step and offers hope to victims, including women who seek help when faced with domestic violence.
I also saw the impressive work of the World Food Programme (WFP). They are helping the people of the camp grow their own crops to feed their families and sell fruits and vegetables to make a small income.
One of the greatest risks to women remains the need to collect wood for their fires. They are forced to walk alone for miles, putting themselves in harm’s way.
The WFP has taught them how to make fuel-efficient stoves to reduce the need for fire wood and I even helped make ‘burning bricks’ – made from donkey’s waste – which act as a sort of organic fire lighter. One brick saves 70% of wood – reducing the time to collect wood by 70% and the risk of women being assaulted, raped or murdered.
I stayed the night in North Darfur before travelling South to Nyala where I saw how members of the community, who once distrusted the police, are now working with them to create a safer society.
Based on the British model of community policing, I met members of the police helping women who were illegally brewing alcohol and were frequently arrested re-train in basket weaving so they can sell their crafts to earn a living. I also met a doctor who taught the police how to care for trauma patients to dramatically reduce the number of deaths on the way to hospital.
These projects are bringing hope and making a real difference. But helping the poorest work themselves out of poverty isn’t a one-way street. For UK support, I ask for something in return – courage.
This is as true in Darfur as anywhere I have visited so far as an International Development Minister.
I was inspired by the courage shown by the people of Darfur. Communities are courageously standing up to those who wreak violence, families are courageously trying to work themselves out of poverty, women are courageously asking for help when they are beaten and repressed.
We now also need the Government of Sudan to show courage – courage in completing the peace process with the South and in securing peace and justice for the people of Darfur.
They also need to show courage to respond to human rights abuses, to tackle corruption and to secure a political settlement that includes all of Sudan’s people.
They have made progress and the UK will help in any way we can as we care about Sudan.
With courage, I believe one day the figures will paint a very different picture for Darfur and the whole of Sudan – 0 deaths from conflict, 0 families on food support, no humanitarian assistance from Britain because those in need have been lifted out of poverty.
Peace, development and prosperity – they are all within reach if we all have the courage to get the job done.”