Famine (Sub-Saharan Africa)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:12 pm on 30th January 1991.

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Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 7:12 pm, 30th January 1991

I beg to move, That this House believes that the Government's famine relief efforts are totally inadequate to meet the plight of 20 million people threatened with starvation in sub-Saharan Africa; demands that the Government allocate forthwith additional resources for emergency relief; and calls on the Government to initiate a concerted international initiative to avert a devastating human disaster and to build the foundations for reconstruction and development throughout Africa. Ever since last summer, many voices have been warning of disaster in Africa. Calls for immediate international action have multiplied, but the famine threatening 27 million people in sub-Saharan Africa continues to pass unnoticed, while the world is busy elsewhere. The international community has the resolve to fight military aggression, to fight for liberty and security in the Middle East, but that sense of responsibility and solidarity should extend across the world to the poorest countries, as well as to the oil-rich countries. It is time for an international attack on hunger and famine.

The situation in Africa is desperate. Last night, revised and terrible famine predictions were issued by the World Food Programme—27 million people in 25 countries are threatened with famine, and 3·9 million tonnes of food aid are needed. Food stocks have run out in the Sudan, and are about to run out in Ethiopia. If pledges of food are not made in the next few weeks, and delivered promptly, people will starve to death. They may not be starving on our television screens, because all the camera crews are in the Gulf, but hundreds, then thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands of people, will die from lack of food. Indeed, relief workers are warning that this year will be even worse than 1984–85, when 1 million people died.

In western areas of the Sudan, 85 per cent. or more of the crop has failed and now water sources are drying up. Already, people are scavenging for berries. The World Food Programme estimates that 7·5 million people face food shortages. There is no time to lose. This is the second year of drought and crop failure in north-eastern Ethiopia. Some 6 million people are at risk of famine. In Liberia, up to 400,000 people are trapped in Monrovia, the capital, where food stocks are exhausted. Outside Monrovia, 1·7 million people have fled their homes and need assistance. In Angola, this is the third successive year of drought and the worst in 40 years. Some 15 years of war between the Government and UNITA have brought virtual economic collapse. Nearly 2 million people are at risk, and last October it was estimated that 11,000 people had died of hunger.

In Mozambique, one quarter of the population are affected by drought and war. An emergency appeal was launched in April and, since then, the situation has worsened dramatically. At least 2 million people need feeding, but the appeal has not been fully met. The number of people at risk is rising all the time—30,000 Somalians have fled their homes and taken refuge in Ethiopia. Other countries in the Sahel such as Mauritania and Burkino Faso have suffered drought and face food shortages. In all, 25 countries are affected.

The Gulf crisis is making the situation even worse. It has diverted the attention of western Governments, journalists and the public. The pre-Christmas oil price rise made it even more expensive to ship food in, transport it by truck on long and tortuous journeys or fly it by plane to regions cut off by fighting. In total, the World Food Programme estimates that it needs $300 million just to transport the necessary food to the Sudan. With donors providing only a fraction of the cost needed, higher transport costs mean fewer journeys and more deaths.

A bold international initiative is needed now. By now, there should be hundreds of relief workers in place and food sorties every day. Trucks and planes should be carrying loads of food to every remote and hungry region. There is no doubt that the international community has the capacity and generosity to respond. We have seen this not only in the Gulf but in eastern Europe. The European Community allocated £525 million worth of food to the Soviet Union at the first hint of food shortages there. That much would meet half the needs of Ethiopia and the Sudan.

The response to the problem in Africa has been pitiful and donors have been unbelievably slow to react. The food crisis there has been emerging since last summer. Early warning systems are in place and all the worst fears were confirmed by the December crop report issued by the Food and Agriculture Organisation exactly one month ago. Still, the international response has been almost deafening in its silence.

Emergency aid given in 1984–85 was too little and too late to save 1 million lives. This year's response has been even smaller. Can the Minister explain why so little action has been taken? The situation in the Sudan is particularly urgent, yet it is ignored. Even if the aid is allocated now, it will take months to arrive. As chair of the donor group in Khartoum, the Government have a special responsibility to initiate international action, so what exactly are they doing?

There is no doubt that the Sudanese Government's ruthlessness and intransigence hampers international relief work. But, with an effort, agencies can still reach hungry people. It has been reported that the Sudanese Government's support for Saddam Hussein has left western Governments unwilling to make that effort. Will the Minister confirm or deny those reports? Can he give an assurance that food aid will be given according to people's needs, not the Government's political stance?

The urgency of acting now simply cannot be exaggerated. However great our concern about events in the Gulf, 27 million people must surely deserve our attention, too. With a crisis on this scale, the Government's response so far—£20 million—is completely inadequate.

The Minister for Overseas Development gave an assurance in a letter to The Independent on 10 January that a Gulf war would in no way affect the Government's readiness to continue to provide emergency aid for famine stricken countries, and insisted that sufficient funds could be found from within the overseas aid programme of £1·6 billion. But if that is true, can anyone explain why she has apparently resorted to allocating money out of next year's budget?

When we first heard of the Minister for Overseas Development's announcement yesterday in Addis Ababa of £8·5 million of famine relief for Ethiopia, naturally we all welcomed it, although other countries desperately need aid as well. I had every confidence that the aid would be distributed as quickly as possible and would mean the difference between life and death for many Ethiopians.

But now it has been suggested that the money is out of next year's ODA budget and will not be available until April. Nothing could be clearer proof that the Treasury appears to have refused additional funds and the ODA itself does not have the money. As the Minister for Overseas Development admitted yesterday in a written reply to me, the ODA's contingency reserve has all been used up, and only 1·5 per cent. of the humanitarian relief budget is unallocated.

The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs recommended in 1988 that, in exceptional emergencies, such as that in Ethiopia, the ODA budget should be increased as necessary. But perhaps the Government do not consider famine facing 27 million people an exceptional emergency. The starving in Ethiopia will have to wait until our next financial year rolls around and the starving in other countries will have to wait even longer. I warn the House that many will not survive the wait.

An emergency on such a scale deserves an exceptional response. We do not expect the Ministry of Defence to deal with the Gulf crisis from existing budgets. We should not expect the ODA to cope with a famine crisis without new money. The ODA has already taken £60 million out of the pot for developing countries to give to Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. But if this year's budget had already been spent in famine-stricken countries, would the Government have told Egypt, Jordan and Turkey to wait until April?

The £20 million of famine relief so far sounds like a lot of money until one considers how much there is to be done. I challenge anyone to say tonight that we cannot afford to do more. The £20 million allocated so far is less than the cost of just one of the Tornados lost in the Gulf war. The cost of all five Tornados lost in action, at more than £100 million, would buy enough grain to feed for one month all the 27 million people facing starvation. It is estimated that the total cost of emergency relief to see 10 million Ethiopians and Sudanese through to the next harvest is just over £1 billion—the estimated cost to the United Kingdom of the Gulf war so far.

Of course, money alone is not the answer. It must be well spent and carefully distributed. Maximum diplomatic pressure must be maintained on Governments and rebel forces to reopen or to keep open the supply routes. Every available supply route must be used. I am concerned that the £2 million-worth of non-feed assistance announced by the Minister in Addis Ababa yesterday will all be used for transport on the Ethiopian Government's side and none will go to support the cross-border route. Can the Minister give us any assurance tonight that every route is being supported?

Given the demands for food aid elsewhere in the world and the cost of transporting food, I hope that the ODA is considering buying food from other countries in Africa, such as Kenya, that have a surplus this year. Buying such surplus promotes African agriculture in one place while feeding hungry mouths in another.