Food Crisis (The Sahel)
Stephen O'Brien (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, International Development; Eddisbury, Conservative)
I absolutely agree. I prefer in this debate not to get too far down into the security implications, but suffice it to say that, perhaps a little unusually for a Minister of the Crown, I have driven right the way through the Sahara and this area and know the geography well. It was many years ago, but in the years when I was going there, it was seen as relatively safe, without the pressures that have come from returnees from some of the conflicts—in Libya, for instance—and the access to cut-price AK47s and other munitions. There were already very insecure parts to the region, because it has always been borderless from the perspective of how people perceive and identify themselves and adhere to various ways of life. That presents additional challenges. We have already closely monitored, and will continue to monitor, the humanitarian situation in northern Mali,
to the extent that access and information are obtainable, and encouraged the Economic Community of West African States to continue with its efforts to find a diplomatic solution.
The international community has learnt from previous crises in the area in 2005 and 2010 and has brought those lessons to bear, as best it can, this year. Early interventions have helped many people to cope, including the UK’s cash voucher programme, which has enabled more than 3,400 families to hold on to their livestock during the start of the hunger season. However, we are now approaching a critical point in the crisis, with historical experience suggesting that acute malnutrition rates will rise to reach a peak in July and August. The rains expected to start this month will make it more difficult for aid agencies to deliver supplies across the region and will increase the risk of diarrhoeal diseases and malaria.
The urgency of the situation requires an intensified and co-ordinated international response. The UN’s appointment of a regional humanitarian co-ordinator for the Sahel will support a more coherent and prioritised response, and that is welcome. The UN has revised its estimate of the funding needed to meet humanitarian requirements to almost £1 billion, which is more than double its initial needs estimate and is an indication of the growing seriousness of the situation. It is therefore right to put pressure on other donors, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, as we speak, calls are being placed—I happen to know because I am personally involved—through to Germany, Norway and Canada. There are, of course, continuing and very active discussions with ECHO, through Brussels and through our French counterparts, as they have the strength of historical connection that perhaps replicate ours in the east and in the horn of Africa.
It is right that we focus our attention on meeting the immediate needs of people in distress, but at the same time we must continue to learn lessons from the Sahel’s third humanitarian crisis in less than a decade, so that there is much less likelihood of a repeat in the coming years. The underlying causes of the crisis are deeply rooted and long standing.
The Sahel is a climatically vulnerable area and its vulnerability will be exacerbated by climate change. Even in so-called good years, some areas have rates of acute malnutrition chronically above 15%. It takes only a year of below average rainfall to push many more people over the edge; many poor households are still recovering from the 2010 crisis. It is not, however, simply a problem of uncertain climate; it is one of poverty, rooted in poor governance, political instability, endemic conflict and weak economies.
The key point is that there is enough food to feed the people of west Africa in 2012, and in many areas of the Sahel food is available but at prices that the poor cannot afford. In the markets of Mali, Mauritania and the north of Burkina Faso, food prices are historically high—more than double the five-year average for this time of year in Mali’s capital, Bamako, and 85% higher in Ouagadougou. It is a problem of economic access made worse by protectionist measures of Governments, such as restrictions on grain exports and border closures. We must continue—I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are continuing—to support the free movement of trade and food affordability to ensure that even the
poorest can eat. At the same time, we must help Governments and communities to withstand a harsher and more uncertain climate, unlocking the region’s economic potential and helping to build a stronger contract between peoples and states.
The coalition Government are implementing recommendations from the humanitarian emergency response review to strengthen the resilience of poor people in Africa to withstand and recover from future shocks and to increase food security. We are developing safety net programmes, supporting work to improve agricultural livelihoods, funding research into higher-yielding and drought-resistant staple crops, and building stronger health and education systems. By 2015, 20 million young children around the developing world will benefit from our nutrition programmes.
Although we do not have a bilateral programme in the Sahel, the UK retains significant development investment in the region through our contributions to the multilateral development organisations. The European Union’s security and development strategy for the Sahel will commit €600 million over the next 10 years to provide basic services, increase economic opportunities and rebuild the contract between state and communities. The UK is also the second largest contributor to the World Bank’s global facility for disaster risk reduction and recovery, which is helping 20 developing countries, including Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso, to cope with disasters, adapt to climate change and build long-term resilience.
In picking up the hon. Gentleman’s point, I remind the House that the meeting of the G8 identified food security as a major theme that it wished now to focus on, and we are not only fully behind that but have had some help in ensuring that it is the focus of the agenda. We will continue to push that, both at the G20 and at other gatherings. It is vital that we recognise that worldwide,
as a top development, humanitarian and aid issue—whichever way we define it—addressing food insecurity through resilience and other food security measures is now a huge and important priority for us, as the UK Government, with our development programme and humanitarian response, but also increasingly among the international interlocutors and partners.
The long-term investments in resilience and development not only are needed to give poor people in the Sahel and other vulnerable regions the means to take control of their lives again, but represent far better value for money than emergency humanitarian aid alone—a point underlined by the hon. Gentleman. So now that we have made our commitment clear and have stepped up not only bilaterally but particularly and equally through the multilaterals, urging the prioritisation that is required, it is the moment to build on working with others to try to get them to make up their equal shares. I am pleased to see that the responses are beginning to come forward and that we are seeing much greater prioritisation of, and focus on, this very immediate crisis that we all face.