Thank you for this opportunity to discuss Ireland's aid programme in Lesotho. I was not going to introduce the team, as the Vice Chairman had done so, but as Deputy Higgins has just arrived, I will do so for his sake. I am accompanied by Ms Keratile Thabana, who is the programme manager at the embassy in Maseru, as well as by SeánMacMahon, the director of programme countries in the development co-operation division of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and Mr. Kevin Dowling from the political division of the Department.
We had the honour of hosting a visit last November by Deputy Deasy, the chairman of the committee, and Senator Hannigan. Therefore, some members of the committee are familiar with most elements of our programme. Nevertheless, I propose to outline briefly the history and context of our engagement in Lesotho.
Ireland has a long association with Lesotho, predating the engagement of Irish Aid, and in fact going back to the early days of the Basotho nation. The people of Lesotho are known as the Basotho, and Basutoland was the name of the country prior to independence in 1966. An Irishman, Joseph Orpen, was the official mediator between the founding father of the Basotho nation, King Moshoeshoe the Great, and the British Government, and he went on to write a book,The History of the Basutus of South Africa, which demonstrated his respect, admiration and empathy for the Basotho. Another Irishman, Francis Townley Balfour, was the first Anglican Bishop with responsibility for Lesotho. During his visit to Lesotho in March of this year, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, unveiled a plaque to Bishop Balfour in the Anglican Cathedral. Senator Hannigan has taken a particular interest in Bishop Balfour and has located his grave in Drogheda.
The diplomatic and development community in Maseru is very small. Currently, Ireland is the only EU member state with an embassy in Lesotho. There are only eight resident donors in Lesotho: Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany, the European Union, the United States, China, the World Bank and the United Nations.
Lesotho is a small country, about the size of Munster, with a population of just under 2 million. It is ranked 156 out of 182 countries on the United Nations human development index. It is a poor country, with about 43% of the population living below the United Nations poverty line. Life expectancy is approximately 43 years. HIV and AIDS is the biggest challenge facing Lesotho. It has the third highest prevalence rate in the world, after Swaziland and Botswana, with a rate of over 23% for the adult age group 15 to 49 years of age.
Lesotho was one of the first countries included in the Irish Government's aid programme back in 1975. Our current country strategy paper covers the five-year period 2008-12. The programme is based on four areas: first, better quality of and access to HIV and AIDS services and, second, three areas of Government: systems, human resources and accountability. We are also engaged in the areas of education, health, HIV and AIDS, governance and water. Past experience led us to the view that an unco-ordinated approach to these areas was not conducive to improving government systems and services and so, in this programme, we have adopted a more "joined-up" approach, what we call a "whole of government" approach, so that we do not just work with each government department in isolation.
The members of the committee have been provided with more details of the programme in the brief. There are two aspects I would like to focus on today, namely, financial accountability and efficiency of aid. Financial accountability is a key concern with us. There are a number of controls in place to ensure accountability and to guard against corruption. With regard to our government partners, external auditors are appointed by the government's auditor general to audit the accounts. In addition, our own internal auditor carries out audits. In addition to the audits, the progress of our programme under each area is monitored by our advisers and discussed at regular programme meetings. As well as meetings between our advisers and government officials, I regularly meet with Ministers to discuss issues, particularly any problems that arise.
There is a government policy of zero tolerance with regard to corruption. The Directorate of the Prevention of Corruption and Economic Offences is very active. For example, 18 months ago, it arrested a principal secretary — equivalent to our Secretary General — on charges of corruption in regard to the award of a particular contract. Twelve months later, she was found not guilty of corruption but guilty of breaching the procurement rules, a finding upheld on appeal.
There has also been a famous case involving corruption for which Lesotho has gained world-wide recognition. In 2002, the former chief executive of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment after being convicted of accepting bribes from international consultants and contractors eager to win contracts on the $8 billion dam scheme. On appeal, the sentence was reduced to 15 years. Since then, a number of international companies have been tried and fined for bribing officials.
The government is implementing a public financial management reform programme to tighten up the finance system. In April of last year, a new integrated financial and management information system was introduced which will improve the payments and accounting systems. Irish Aid, among others, is supporting this reform programme. For example, we are funding training in procurement and in finance and accountancy. Some of the training is being carried out in the Centre for Accounting Studies which was established jointly by the Irish and Lesotho Governments in 1979. When I went to Lesotho in 1975, at graduation in October of that year the centre unveiled a new logo as a result of a competition within the college. One of the rules of the competition was that it had to incorporate the colours of the Irish flag in order to record the gratitude to the Irish people and the Irish Government.
In an effort to make aid more efficient and effective, Ireland has been to the forefront in pushing for donor co-ordination. Many think that the smaller the pool of donors, the easier it is to co-ordinate. However, I can confirm that this is not always the case. One approach we have been promoting is working on joint programmes with other donors. Under one component of our country strategy paper, we are in a joint programme with UNDP — the United Nations Development Programme. This supports the Independent Electoral Commission, the parliamentary committees, which are similar to this committee, the Ombudsman and the establishment of a Human Rights Commission. We are also going into a pooled fund with the World Bank in the education sector and are working towards a more joined-up approach in the water sector, along with the European Union delegation.
Donors do not always naturally co-ordinate, and this is counterproductive to the efficiency of aid. In Lesotho, there is a forum in which all the donors meet but it had become a talking shop. Ireland has been the co-chair for the past four years, along with the United Nations resident co-ordinator. This forum has been revitalised so as to be more effective thanks to the work of the two co-chairs. The donors meet monthly and agree action points at our meetings. Every two months, we meet the Minister of Finance and Development Planning and his team.
For the past three years, the economic and social cluster portfolio committee of the National Assembly, which is the Lower House, has invited the two co-chairs of the donors' forum — in other words, the UN resident co-ordinator and myself — to appear before it to discuss the budget. Arising from the latest appearance before that committee, we are organising meetings between the donors and the Ministries to explain our disbursement procedures.
As an aside, I should note that, under our joint governance programme, the UNDP and Irish Aid have been providing training to the parliamentary committees. We have experienced the effectiveness of this training at first hand this year. When the two co-chairs met the committee to discuss the budget, the questioning was more focused and tighter than previously.
The biggest challenge facing Lesotho is undoubtedly the scourge of HIV and AIDS. As I said earlier, the adult prevalence rate is 23.6%, the third highest in the world. However, this figure masks a lot, as the prevalence rate is higher in certain narrower age bands and affects women more than men. For example, for women in the age group 15 to 24, the prevalence rate is 35% in urban areas and 25% in rural areas.
On their visit to Lesotho the delegates from the committee met with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and the Clinton Health Access Initiative, and saw at first hand how that tripartite relationship works. By the end of this year Irish Aid will have spent €16.4 million since the inception of this programme in 2006. There are four components to this partnership. First is clinical mentoring where health professionals with HIV experience intensively mentor Basotho health staff through in-service and on-site training. More than 85 facilities have benefited from clinical mentoring and more than 300 local health professionals have been recipients of this mentoring. The second component is anti-retroviral, ARV, procurement and supply management, which are the drugs used in the treatments of HIV and AIDS.
The third component is the rural mountain initiative, comprising comprehensive HIV care and treatment and primary health care services in the most remote, inaccessible and underserved mountain districts in Lesotho. So far, Irish Aid is supporting seven clinics in remote areas and two further clinics are planned. When Deputy Deasy and Senator Hannigan visited us they witnessed at first hand how effective these clinics are. Anecdotal evidence points to more than 100,000 people using them as their primary source of health care and records show that close to 35,000 people have accessed HIV testing and counselling services at the centres. Some 5,000 patients are on ARV treatment. In some cases, patients report travelling more than two days to access health services at these clinics.
The fourth component is the nursing initiative. Some 150 nurses were recruited to support the roll-out of ARV treatment to health centres in rural areas and to strengthen health care services. This tripartite partnership has recently been reviewed and, following on from that, it has been extended to 2015 which will lead to even more impressive outcomes.
Food security — or, more accurately, food insecurity — is a problem in Lesotho. Less than 10% of the land is arable, with soil erosion a major problem. Lesotho only produces 30% of its domestic cereal requirements. Irish Aid has provided support to the Catholic Relief Services for their Mountain Orphan and Vulnerable Child Empowerment project, known as MOVE. To date we have contributed €620,000, half of it in 2009. This has enabled 5,500 orphaned and vulnerable children to access essential support services. Under the food security component, the project has worked with households to establish approximately 11,000 gardens in nearly 300 villages.
I am aware that media coverage and public knowledge of the Government's aid programme is a matter of interest to the committee. We are conscious of the need to inform Irish taxpayers of what is being done and achieved in their name. The brief provided to the committee includes details of media coverage of the programme in Lesotho. In addition, I have spoken on the links between Lesotho and Ireland at Féile na Bealtaine in Kerry in May 2008. I have also visited Clongowes Wood College, together with the Lesotho ambassador, Mrs. Manette Ramaili, as well as Schull community college in Cork. Tomorrow I will speak at the primary school in my home town of Ballyjamesduff.
Before concluding, I would like to note the excellent relations that exist between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Lesotho Embassy in Dublin. On a personal level, the Lesotho ambassador to Ireland, Mrs. Ramaili, and I are in regular contact and work together to improve relations between our two countries. For example, last September Ambassador Ramaili organised a trade delegation from Ireland to visit Lesotho. I met with the delegation, both in Ireland prior to its departure and then in Lesotho. I also hosted a dinner for the delegates, which was attended by the Ministers of Finance and Development Planning and of Health and Social Welfare. Ambassador Ramaili and I met again yesterday.
Our team is ready to answer any questions the committee may have.