Sudan

Oral Answers to Questions — International Development – in the House of Commons at 1:48 pm on 3rd June 1998.

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Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood Chair, Social Security Committee, Chair, Social Security Committee 1:48 pm, 3rd June 1998

If she will make a statement on the current provision of aid to Sudan. [42499]

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

If she will make a statement on her Department's aid programmes to the people of southern Sudan. [42500]

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

I am happy to say that, since my statement to the House on 28 April, the Government of Sudan, partly due to the pressure of international public opinion, have gradually improved access to the worst-affected areas, particularly in Bahr El Ghazal. I approved further British contributions during May totalling £6.23 million, which brings our overall assistance to Sudan since February to £10.23 million. The European Union General Affairs Council on 25 May again called for a ceasefire for humanitarian purposes, which remains the most urgent requirement. Unfortunately, the Sudan People's Liberation Army has refused to consider that request. A recent mission by an official of my Department reported that access remained a problem, despite the fact that we had been given assurances that it was now adequate, and that feeding standards for children were too low and were below international standards.

Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood Chair, Social Security Committee, Chair, Social Security Committee

It is self-evident that the problems of delivering aid to southern Sudan are politically complex. The Secretary of State has been bedevilled by the problem of access. In today's edition of The Times, she rehearses some of her worries about fundraising by aid agencies, particularly the Red Cross. Will she confirm that her reported remarks should not be interpreted as the Government saying that fundraising is not necessary to deliver help to the needy of southern Sudan?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that no one should believe what they read in The Times. The little man involved wanted to put an aggressive slant on an important issue of public discussion. The truth is that Sudan does not need public appeals. I have guaranteed that funds would be provided, and so did other Governments. The problem is complex. We must be able to provide the money rapidly and get the food delivered when we have the opportunity. There is no shortage of resources for food, but the international community must continue to put pressure on the Government of Sudan—it has already had some effect—and on the southern factions. Ideally, there should be a ceasefire so that a trainload of food can get to everyone who needs it in that large area.

Many of the non-governmental organisations are doing wonderful work on the ground delivering food to the people. I regret the public appeal. The NGOs were divided in their view, because such appeals confuse the message about the nature of the problem. Good people in our country think that there is a shortage of money. That is not the problem: it is the politicians on both sides of the conflict who deliberately prevent access and cause people to starve.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Although I accept that more food is needed for the very deprived people of Sudan, especially southern Sudan, and that access is one of the main causes of the delay in getting the food to them, I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that it is the continuing civil war between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Army that has created the major elements of the problem. What fresh initiatives will be taken to bring both parties in the civil war to the table and to negotiate the establishment of a forum or agency that can bring the suffering of these extraordinary people to an end? We are all impressed by the passive way in which they are prepared to accept their lot.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; it is a humanitarian disaster. Many such disasters have already occurred, and more will come.

This disaster is a direct result of the war. The area where the famine is has been fought over by a faction that changed sides; consequently, people have been displaced and crops uprooted. The famine has been compounded by the fact that the Sudan Government would not allow us access, and by the fact that, now that they have, the southern factions will not allow a ceasefire. It is our duty to provide humanitarian relief, but we shall not solve the problem in that way.

We have done our best to send a message during the crisis—a message from all the people of the world who are concerned. The Sudan Government changed their position: they allowed more access and offered a ceasefire. The southern factions, however, have not responded. Following my statement in the House, we put pressure on both sides in our European Union presidency role. The Governments of the surrounding countries—comprising the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD—are trying to broker peace talks; the last round did not lead far, but further talks will take place in July or August, hosted by Johannes Pronk, the Netherlands Minister for Development Co-operation.

The whole international community must put pressure on both sides. No side can win the war by fighting: if the fighting continues, the people of Sudan will continue to suffer. We must do all we can to call for a ceasefire and a reasonable settlement.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Labour, Cynon Valley

There seems to be a difference of opinion about whether money is needed. The United Nations said today that it needed US$109 million to deal immediately with the humanitarian crisis. As Governments have committed only 20 per cent. of that so far, and as only 7.2 per cent. has been paid, there is clearly a shortage of money. Can we do anything to help?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

I assure my hon. Friend that there is no problem of money or food. The trouble is that, in the humanitarian aid business, there is competition over who is in the headlines and who is raising the money, and that gets in the way of the true message. Operation Lifeline Sudan—which, as my hon. Friend knows, is headed by the United Nations—tells us that the Sudan Government have improved access, and that there is enough food. As I have said, an official from my Department has come back and told us that that view is too optimistic, but, as I have also said, we will continue to provide the necessary funds. The EU is about to disburse a considerable amount.

I insist on this point first because it is true, but also because we must not muddle the message to the public. I ask the public to use all their influence to put pressure for a ceasefire on both sides. We will deliver the money: there is no shortage of money, and anyone who suggests that there is misleads the public.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

We understand that there is no shortage of money in some places. However, although I agree that the Sudan People's Liberation Army ought to call a ceasefire, does the Secretary of State not accept that, at a time when the National Islamic Front, with its cohorts, invades four counties containing about 2 million people—scattering and butchering them in an attempt to maintain control of an area that may produce oil—there is something wrong with the balance, given that it claims that it is giving humanitarian aid on the airstrips?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Sudan Government have done many undesirable things, but deep, dreadful and monstrous wrongs have been done by all sides in the civil war. I do not think that anyone should line up with one side or the other. The people of Sudan desperately need a ceasefire and a peace settlement, securing the rights of people in all parts of the country. No one will win through the war; the suffering will go on, and those with any feeling for any of the people of Sudan must use all their influence to secure peace.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to The Guardian for its recent campaign relating to the crippling problems of the poorest countries on the planet—including Sudan—under the slogan "the new slavery"? Does she agree that finding new and better ways in which to bring effective help to the 1.3 billion people throughout the world, including Sudan, who live in abject poverty—including the redemption of debt, albeit linked to good governance—is one of the biggest issues facing politicians in the developed world? Have we not a Christian duty to do all we can?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I welcome his promotion to this important portfolio. I hope that he will forgive me for paying tribute to his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Eddisbury (Sir A. Goodlad), whose commitment to the cause of international development was sincere and deep. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not misunderstand me when I say that, however big his commitment, it could not be any greater than the right hon. Gentleman's. I agree that there is a moral duty on people of all moralities and religions to give the poor of the world a chance to climb out of their poverty. Our people have an interest in reducing inequality, division and instability because they are dangerous for everyone. As I have said before, this is the most noble cause in politics, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman to it.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

In view of the critical reaction of several leading agencies to the Secretary of State's remarks on Thursday about the use of shocking images to attract public interest to events in Sudan and to other tragedies, in the light of recent figures which show that the British public are certainly not suffering from compassion fatigue, and in the light of the confusion that has been caused by her remarks, would she take this opportunity to reconsider them?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

No, I would not. The hon. Gentleman should not believe misleading accounts in The Times or in other newspapers. The issue is enormously important, and there was no need for a public appeal for funds for Sudan. There was a big division among NGOs about whether there should be one, and most of them joined together in a group appeal. First, many of them took the view that a public appeal would confuse the message to the public about the cause of the suffering in Sudan and about how public opinion could be used to try to get some relief for the people of Sudan.

Secondly, I have referred to a book by Richard Jolly, who is a great development academic. He used to be with the United Nations Children's Fund, and now edits the United Nations Development Programme report. There is compassion fatigue in the industrialised countries at a time when it is apparent that more development has been achieved over the past 50 years than ever before. It is undermining the commitment of Governments to development and confusing the public.

Appeals that use constant images of famine and failure are helping to feed a compassion fatigue that is reflected in reduced commitment and spend by Governments. It is a real issue, and I am making a speech to the media this afternoon about how we might do better. I shall send the hon. Gentleman a copy of that. Many NGOs agree that we must try to do better.