Developing Countries (Famine and Debt)

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 11th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 6:32 pm, 11th June 1985

The debate has been all too short. It has drawn on the experience of many right hon. and hon. Members, some of whom have seen famine at first hand in the Sudan and Ethiopia. The themes have been, among others, our own human responsibility for much of the famine which now faces us, and the civil wars in the Sudan and Ethiopia, the population explosion, the deforestation and — a topic well developed by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Thomas)—our own agricultural policies in the West, which exacerbate the attempts of the developing countries to have their own proper agricultural infrastructure and feed their own people.

The Minister gave a valuable diagnosis of the extent of our aid—the targeting, the speed of response, the need for co-ordinating and the need for a new strategic approach. I should be interested to hear his response to the valuable points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Dame J. Hart) about storage facilities and a rapid aid deployment force to meet those famine crises which are likely to face us with increasing regularity unless the world community as a whole comes together to meet its human responsibility in relation to those crises.

The Minister failed to put the Government's response in the context of a shrinking aid budget. The hon. Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne) said, in a rather lofty way, that money is not all, but money can help. The hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) spoke of his commitment to the aid figure of 0.7 per cent. and the need to work towards it. He must realise now that we are moving away from that figure. Last year the United Kingdom's figure was 0.35 per cent. Indeed, it is now down to 0.33 per cent. When the Labour Government left office, the figure was in excess of 5 per cent., and rising.

The aid budget has been consistently cut by the Government since 1979. Comparing the 1985-86 figure with that for 1984-85, one sees that there is a clear cut of at least 3 per cent. in real terms. There has been a cut of no less than 18 per cent. since 1979. In spite of the brave words of the Minister about the importance of science research, the budget of the science unit has been cut, and cut again.

There is a falling percentage of central Government spending on aid, and comparatively our performance, in relation to that of the Development Assistance Committee countries, is very poor. The average development assistance of all non-US DAC countries is 0.45 per cent. of gross national product. Our own figure is now 0.33 per cent. In spite of our colonial traditions and the human relationships within the Commonwealth, which should certainly have put us on a par with France, with a figure in excess of 0.7 per cent., our figure is rather less than three-quarters of the non-US DAC average, and that percentage is falling. That is the reality.

The Minister, as he says, is seeking to obtain greater co-ordination and a more coherent aid strategy. That attempt takes place within a public expenditure programme which, since 1979, has allowed an increase in defence spending of 30 per cent., an increase in the law and order Vote of almost 40 per cent., and an 18 per cent. cut in the aid budget. However skilful the Minister is in redirecting, he is doing it from a much smaller base.

In spite of the brave words of the Government at the Bonn summit and elsewhere, cuts have been made. They are certainly out of tune with public opinion in Britain. The Oxfam public opinion survey at the end of last year showed that only 18 per cent. of those polled were in favour of a lower aid budget. The Government's attitude also has to be contrasted with the magnificent response of our people to the famine in Africa. That point was made eloquently in the Select Committee report on famine in Africa, which has not been touched on as much as it should have been during the debate.

It is clear that the Government's response to the famine in Africa has been based solely on switching funds within a decreasing aid budget, and the Minister cannot resile from that starting point. Apart from the Hercules operation in Ethopia, the money to respond to the unprecedented food crisis in sub-Saharan Africa has come from the existing aid budget. Indeed, from the beginning of February this year, half of the Hercules cost has fallen on the ODA.

The Foreign Affairs Committee contrasted the generosity of the British people with the stony response of the Government and called for substantial new money in the face of the continuing crisis. It is not good enough to say, as the Minister traditionally does, that the money comes from the contingency reserve designed specifically for the purpose, because no contingency reserve within the ODA was_designed to meet the scale of human catastrophe that we have seen in sub-Saharan Africa in the past year.

A further fact about the shrinking aid budget is that the debts of the relevant countries have increased because of the background, which is the on-lending of Western banks —that was true of oil money in Latin America in the 1970s—the vast increase in interest rates, and the fall in commodity prices. That means that countries in sub-Saharan Africa have debts in excess of $80 billion. Their debt service is both crippling and leads to distortions within their agricultural economy, as they are encouraged to produce agriculture for servicing those debt requirements rather than to help the poorer farmers in the poorer areas. That has been a consistent theme of many hon. Members. Partly as a result of servicing those debts, there have been the distortions to which the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and others referred.

The Government have honoured the debt cancellation commitments, but they were inherited from the Labour Government, and from the policy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale of directing aid to the poorest people in the poorest countries. We accept what the Minister said about rescheduling and writing off debts in some of those areas. However, we should like the Government to lean on the Americans and West Germans, and to follow the example of the retroactive terms adjustment of the old UNCTAD agreement.

Further relevant developments on debt have been the Government's acquiescence in September 1983 to the International Monetary Fund's change of practice on the compensatory financing facility, the food surplus policy of the European Community and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Holland) said in relation to the EC, the fact that the Government took the lead in making cuts in EC food aid. Therefore, there have been cuts, the debt crisis has increased, the need has never been greater, and the general nature of the Government's response has been unfavourable.

Further famines in Africa can be prevented only if there is a decline in the African population or an increase in Africa's per capita food production. Too little of our aid has been directed to the agricultural sector. The Minister knows that the ODA figure for 1983 was only £27 million for project aid for agriculture, £15 million for technical assistance for the same sectors, and £23 million for rural roads, water and electricity, from a total budget of £224 million.

The Government's aid has been increasingly inflexible in terms of the reduction in support for local costs. The Minister will know that between 1980 and 1983 the Government's local costs contribution decreased by 25 per cent. in cash terms, and by more in real terms. I challenge the Minister to deny that figure. There has also been a reduction in programme aid and balance of payments support. Again I challenge the Minister to deny that, because it comes from his Department's figures. The reduction in programme aid since 1979 has been 55 per cent.

The Minister will be aware of the DAC checklist, which was formulated at the end of last year, for concerted action in sub-Saharan Africa. It was meant to be a guidance list for donors. I understand that progress on the checklist, which includes priority for agriculture, has been blocked by the reservations of certain donors. I should like the Minister to confirm that that is the case and that the British Government are not among those who are blocking its implementation.

Essentially, our response has been niggardly. We saw that from the World Bank specialist facility for sub-Saharan Africa, when no extra funds were committed. I hope that the Minister will say something about the Government's response to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, which now seeks replenishment. As the main meeting of IFAD has ended in disarray, will the Government contribute to the proposed special fund for sub-Saharan Africa, which is seeking at least $300 million over four years? Will we make a voluntary contribution in that area, which is the subject matter of our debate?

Clearly, there is a crisis in Africa. Our response has essentially been that of a reactive Government. There have been no initiatives and no moves overall towards the United Nations target of 07 per cent. of gross national product. Indeed, our contribution has fallen to 0.3 per cent., and continues to fall. Our contribution to alleviating the famine in Africa, however better targeted, can be seen properly only in the context of a much reduced aid budget.