Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to rise in this House today to take part in this debate on Canada's mission in Afghanistan. I do so without hesitation, in support of our role in this multilateral, UN sanctioned and NATO led endeavour.
I also speak with the deepest appreciation and respect in support of our fellow Canadians who work and fight on our behalf in Afghanistan. As chairman of the Standing Committee on National Defence, I have had the honour of travelling to Afghanistan to witness their work and meet the sons and daughters of Canada who, far from family and home, toil for us and for Canada. They are so much more than ranks in uniforms. They are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. They are our neighbours. They are our friends. They are our fellow Canadians.
Today our duty in this chamber is one of solemn importance as we are debating a commitment that Canada has made and will make both to the people of Afghanistan and to our allies. This commitment is enshrined in the Afghanistan Compact, an international agreement that provides a framework for cooperation between the Afghan government and the international community. Agreed to at the beginning of 2006 by more than 60 nations and organizations, the compact sets out benchmarks in the priority areas of security, governance and socio-economic development.
Canada's mission is multi-faceted and we continue to respond to evolving challenges by assessing and rebalancing our efforts, promoting security to secure development and governance. Our soldiers continue to provide security for the Afghan people. Our development workers provide means of survival, progress and prosperity. Our diplomats nurture a fledgling democracy in its infancy. As a whole, as Canadians, they are building a better Afghanistan for tomorrow.
As our fellow Canadians continue their work in Afghanistan, we too now undertake our part of the mission as we consider future direction. As Canada's elected leaders, it is our solemn duty to decide the matter of Canada's mission in Afghanistan.
Our soldiers, diplomats and development workers are following this debate. The government and people of Afghanistan wait with hopeful anticipation. The 37 nations with which we are allied in Afghanistan look on, and we can rest assured that our enemies are mindful of this debate as well.
All are watching with keen interest because Canada's active role in building peace and prosperity in Afghanistan is critical and is making a difference. While the challenges we face are complex and diverse, real progress throughout the country in the last few years is providing hope for a better future. Our efforts, combined with those of other donors and our growing network of dedicated partners on the ground, are paying dividends.
Our commitment has helped introduce democracy to Afghanistan. Presidential and parliamentary elections have been held, a new constitution has been adopted, and women represent more than one-quarter of parliamentarians. Canadians can be proud that we stood firmly by the Afghan people as these transformations took place.
Today, this government is also helping Afghans participate in grassroots democracy through the election of more than 19,000 community development councils across Afghanistan. These councils are elected at the local level, much like we elect municipal governments in Canada, to make decisions on community priorities.
Once development projects are identified, the work is carried out by locals. This approach ensures that Afghans have ownership over projects, which range from improving drinking water and transportation systems to providing irrigation and electrical power while strengthening education and health care.
In Kandahar province alone, more than 530 community development councils have been elected and more than 630 projects have been completed to date. These projects are providing lasting benefits to households and communities. This is due in large part to the fact that Afghans themselves are leading their own development.
Canada is also providing a safer world for the Afghan people. Canadians have assisted in the confiscation of 16,000 heavy weapons and the disarming of 63,000 former combatants. We are now focusing on training an Afghan national army and an Afghan national police force.
I have met with members of Afghan national army and the national police and have seen their commitment to peace. These are brave people working under extremely harsh conditions. We are working with these brave Afghan men and women, providing them with the tools and training to one day be the keepers of their own safety and security.
Canada is also addressing the terrible threat of landmines. Our contribution to demining programs has assisted in the prevention of countless deaths and crippling injuries. As stated earlier, many of the victims are children. The number of landmine victims has decreased by 55% over the levels from five years ago.
When my colleagues and I were in Afghanistan just over a year ago and went through the military hospital at Kandahar airfield, the doctors and nurses had just finished patching up a local Afghan person who had stepped on a landmine. They had put him back together. He was in tough shape but it looked to me as though his legs had been saved. This is the kind of work that goes on every day, which Canadians do not know about and need to know about.
We are helping to improve the Afghan economy. The country's per capita annual income doubled between 2002 and 2007. Through our support for Afghan national programs, we are contributing to the growth by helping to create the jobs that are key to reducing poverty.
We are also helping to grow the economy through our world-leading support for Afghan microfinance programs. The parliamentary secretary talked about this earlier. Microfinancing programs make financial services available to Afghans for the people who are unable to access financing through any other source. There is no banking system in that country.
This microfinance program has helped more than 418,000 Afghans undertake income generating activities for the creation of small businesses and for the assistance of farming operations.
At the Standing Committee on National Defence, one female witness who appeared was from Afghanistan. She said that the repayment rate on these microfinance loans is 95%. Most of them go to women and the 5% of them that do not get paid back are loans to men. She said that tongue in cheek, but it was interesting that she would say that.