Madam Speaker, it gives me great and tremendous pleasure to be a part of this debate today, having had the unique opportunity of being able to go to Afghanistan last June. I participated in a seven-day mission to Kandahar and Kabul as a member of the House of Commons Special Committee on Afghanistan.
The purpose of the trip was to effectively observe the situation facing our troops and aid workers in Afghanistan. Before the trip I had government briefings on the situation, but the media was definitely one of the largest sources of my information on Afghanistan.
A few days after returning, I was at a social event where MPs, senators and the national news media were mingling, and as I walked by some reporters, one of them asked me about my impressions from the trip. I told him, first, I was blown away with the complete enthusiastic dedication of the Canadian soldiers, aid workers and diplomats in Afghanistan. Their selfless commitment is overwhelming. They know what they are doing and they know why they are doing it. Every day they spend in Afghanistan, they are risking their next breath, yet they persevere.
I continued, though. I said that, second, the coverage of Afghanistan by our national news media has been at best inadequate. All Canadians should be proud of our contribution to the world by our Afghan commitments. We should be overwhelmingly, enthusiastically thankful to those who are serving. Instead, we are timid. The news editing mentality of “it bleeds, it leads” is not good enough for these situations because it is overly simplistic and breeds fear.
Regrettably, the news coverage, or lack of it, on Afghanistan has actually distorted the impressions that most Canadians have, or many Canadians anyway. Canadian media coverage of Afghanistan for 10 years has been the equivalent of covering news in Canada and Canadian events by having three reporters driving around in a Vancouver police cruiser on Vancouver's east side. What would that coverage tell Canadians about Canadians' aspiration or the beauty of our land or our potential? This parallel is appropriate, because news organizations from Canada have had an average of three people in Kandahar, driving around in LAVs or confined to the air base.
Let me tell the House what I saw and how it was very, very moving for me personally. I saw Canadian soldiers, diplomats and people involved in development activity who made my heart want to burst with pride over what we as Canadians were doing for the people in Afghanistan and that part of the world. Take the example of education. Canada has had 26 schools rehabilitated or reconstructed, with another 24 under construction or contracted to be reconstructed. There have been 23,000 Afghan adults completing a 10-month literacy program and 5,900 completing vocational training programs.
These investments are building the future of Afghanistan. Thanks in part to the funding of the international community and the hard work of Afghans themselves, there are now more than 158,000 teachers in Afghanistan, which is up from only 21,000 in 2002.
More than six million Afghans are now getting the education required to help lift their country out of poverty. One-third of these students are girls, compared to none in 2002. These investments will need to be continued over the coming years; therefore the government has already signalled its intention to make the education of Afghan children, especially girls, a thematic priority until 2014.
Regarding health, in 2000, believe it or not, only 9% of the population was within two hours' walking distance of primary health care services. Now 66% are within two hours' walking of primary health care. More than 1,450 health care workers, including doctors, nurses, midwives and community health workers, have received training.
We have also seen reductions in the infant mortality rate, thanks to increased access to health care services and improved quality of and access to emergency obstetric care in southern Afghanistan.
The Canadian signature project to eradicate polio in Afghanistan with investments through the polio eradication initiative has enhanced successes. Canada is currently the largest international donor toward these efforts in Afghanistan.
To date, Afghanistan's estimated 7.8 million children continue to receive vaccinations through multiple vaccination campaigns across the country carried out through the year. While there have been difficulties in accessing populations in order to deliver the vaccinations, the disease has been largely contained to the south.
Persisting insecurity challenges are still there, but despite this, the polio team has devised innovative approaches to extend the reach of immunization efforts. Improving the health of Afghanistan's children underlines the importance of our continued engagement in Afghanistan. We will not waver in this commitment.
Building on this commitment, our response to the G8 Muskoka initiative on maternal, newborn and child health, through which we will provide $30 million annually to help address critical gaps in the Afghan health sector, will build upon our investments of the past.
In general terms, thanks in part to Canadian investment, the World Food Programme provided 275,000 tonnes of food to more than nine million Afghans in 2009 alone. Also in 2009, the Government of Canada provided $20 million in response to the UN-led humanitarian action plan.
Just as crucial for the future of Afghanistan is our commitment to help build the confidence of Kandaharis in their own government in Kandahar. In 2008, the Government of Canada set out specific objectives to help the Kandahar government increase access to basic services and jobs.
The Afghan government has often highlighted the necessity for rural development programming in its country, Afghans' access to economic opportunity. A key goal there for the Government of Canada was to help reinvigorate Kandahar's agro-economy with the rehabilitation of the Dahla Dam, a signature project of this government at $50 million. Its irrigation system serves as a central building block to Afghans' future.
Once identified as the bread basket of Afghanistan, Kandahar's ability to produce food and crops remains severely weakened by years of conflict and continuous drought. Afghanistan has one of the lowest levels per capita of food ability in the world, due in part to the destruction of these agriculture systems in the Arghandab Valley and across Kandahar.
Kandaharis rely on these agricultural systems not only for sustenance but also for their livelihoods. The destruction of this agricultural system has led to reduced employment opportunities in the agricultural sector, on which 80% of local farmers and labourers are dependent.
Today, thanks to Canada's support and the hard work of Afghans, over 137,000 cubic metres of silt and debris have been removed from the irrigation system's canals. The resulting increased water flow has helped an additional 5,300 hectares of land benefit from improved irrigation. To date, the construction work associated with the canal rehabilitation has helped provide approximately 2,000 jobs to Kandaharis. The additional economic opportunity that Kandaharis will have upon completion of the work on the irrigation system will provide for local populations in the province for future generations to come.
However these are just statistics until we take a look at the face of the Canadians in Afghanistan who are delivering these services. They are making a commitment of their lives on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis, which is why I was so overwhelmed when I met them. The honour that the Afghan people give to Canadians who are there to serve is the deep, overwhelming respect they have for the Canadians and for their contributions and connections, person to person, man to man, woman to woman.
Canada's contribution of trainers, which is what we are discussing today, is to give Afghanistan the ability to keep peace. Canada is moving to a peacekeeping mission. I asked the Bloc member this morning if he wanted foreign troops to keep the peace in Afghanistan or whether we should be training the Afghan army to do the job themselves.
Our government is honouring the commitment of all those who have sacrificed already. I call upon the special committee on Afghanistan to step up and work more constructively to define Canada's contribution for this untold story. Because we have been honoured with that level of respect by the Afghan people, we are in a strategically unique position among citizens of the world to be able to deliver training to these people.
For me, it was an extreme privilege to shake hands with the dedicated Canadians working so diligently, contributing so much, in our armed forces, RCMP, correctional services, CIDA, DFAIT and civilian agencies. To them, I can only say that I thank them.