I was part of a small group invited by the charity Malaria No More UK to visit Kenya during the Parliamentary recess. Our three-day trip was an eye opening experience, bringing home, in the most powerful way possible why the fight against this terrible disease is so important. Those three days will stay with me for a long time and the memory is still fresh and poignant. They will also serve to remind me that a sense of perspective is a huge asset.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Malaria is just one of over 600 of these groups constituted at Westminster. A world away from the adversarial knockabout that has become the accepted face of British politics, it is one example of the cross party work that goes on there, often unreported. This work goes on throughout every parliamentary session. The trip has been one of the most positive experiences I have had as an MP.
In today’s hectic, Brexit fuelled environment at Westminster this constructive, consensus driven work is often forgotten. This is deeply concerning, as globally important issues such as the fight against malaria, a disease that kills nearly half a million people a year, must be given the exposure they demand.
Kenya is a beautiful and diverse country but it is one of 15 that account for over 80 per cent of malaria cases worldwide. Kenya alone has over three and a half million infections per year. The illness is especially prominent around Kenya’s lakes, in the country’s interior and that is where our itinerary took us. Siaya County, nestled along the shores of Lake Victoria, is home to more than one million people, however, it is being hit hard by malaria. Charities, overseas agencies and the Kenyan government are part of a coordinated campaign focussed on early diagnosis and prevention of the disease. Siaya is therefore on the front line of mankind’s battle against malaria. Figures from Siaya and elsewhere show that the most vulnerable to malaria are young children and pregnant women. What the figures cannot convey is the personal tragedies that each family has to endure. This was brought home to us during a visit to a local hospital where we were told that some of the children we met would be dead within a few days. This will stay with me forever, it was a powerful experience.
The people of Siaya remain unbowed and determined to carry on in spite of this enduring tragedy. The local people were welcoming, friendly and full of hope. They were glad to hear that the UK is on their side. The UK is committed to spend £500 million per year to fight malaria until 2020/21. That is paid for by UK taxpayers, with the efforts of local doctors, volunteers, and healthcare professionals saving lives and building a better future for these places. The UK is one of only a handful of countries that meets the United Nations target for International Development. This is something we should, as taxpayers, all be proud of. It is, quite simply, the right thing to do. International development funding goes directly to charities and organisations on the ground, not to governments. This means that stories of the past, of funds being siphoned off by corrupt officials are largely irrelevant.
International development funding supports the dedication of those health professionals and community volunteers. We work with communities. It means that we are seeing real change. I will always support funding international projects such as those undertaken by Malaria No More.
As we enter this crucial phase of negotiations over our exit of the European Union, when tensions will run high, there will be occasions when we should take a moment to reflect on our place in the global community and what so many have endure on a daily basis. For me, seeing the lives led in such places and the difference our country can make will remind me that there is far more to politics than the soap opera we so often see on the TV. Politics at its best is where we work across parties united in our vision of a Britain that does its bit in the world.
Stephen Kerr is the Conservative MP for Stirling