Ethiopia

– in the House of Commons at 11:23 pm on 3rd December 2002.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Derek Twigg.]

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons) 11:24 pm, 3rd December 2002

I am pleased to have secured the Adjournment debate on a subject that is of interest and concern to many people: the food shortages and subsequent possible famine in Ethiopia. I thank the Minister, Mr. Drew—who will accompany me on a visit that I shall mention shortly—and other hon. Members for attending.

The debate is timely not only because of the recent warnings and appeal for help by the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, but because an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation leaves for Ethiopia on Saturday. I have the honour of having been appointed to lead it. I also have the pleasure of being a member of the British Ethiopian Society and secretary of the all-party British-Ethiopian group. I remain in regular contact with the Ethiopian ambassador to the United Kingdom, His Excellency Fisseha Adugna, who is an active and impressive representative of his country and a friend.

Why am I so interested in Ethiopia? Like many people, my interest developed in the 1984 crisis when Bob Geldof and Live Aid did so much to highlight the problems in that country. Two years ago, a threatened famine reawakened that interest. I am personally concerned not because I have travelled to that country—I have not yet done so—nor because of any business links to the region, but because Ethiopia is so poor. Its residents regularly face hunger and possible starvation. The aid agencies believe that things can be done to alleviate that poverty and at least mitigate if not remove the threat of hunger and famine in future.

I shall discuss medium-term and longer-term measures shortly. First, I want to concentrate on the urgent need for food aid, for which the Ethiopian Government pleaded recently. Earlier this year, the short Belg rains failed, and the long Kiremt rains occurred in late summer rather than earlier, resulting in a long dry period. The loss of those rains meant crop failure and further reduced pasture and water resources, with the latter leading to extensive livestock deaths in affected areas and poor physical conditions for surviving animals. In turn, that led to severely limited access to a green harvest of important lean season foods and the limited availability of livestock products. Serious food shortages are reported in several parts of the country.

There is therefore an urgent need for emergency food aid. The Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission says that the people who need assistance between October and December this year will peak at 6.3 million, requiring approximately 270,000 metric tonnes of food. The World Food Programme reported last month that such aid has been promised, although delivering it as quickly as possible is now urgent. However, the impact of the current drought is expected to extend into next year, as the failure of the rains has affected the growth of long-cycle crops.

Ninety-seven per cent. of crops are rain fed and more than 85 per cent. of Ethiopians are subsistence farmers who depend on their Maher—November, December and January—harvest. That food will simply not be there. In most years, Ethiopia depends on a certain amount of food aid to feed its people, but the position is now far more acute. The Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission estimates that as many as 14.3 million people could need assistance in the coming year.

A total of approximately 2 million metric tonnes of food will be required to meet the need, with 500,000 metric tonnes being required in the first quarter of next year. Such a requirement is unprecedented, even during the highly publicised famine of 1984–85. I admit that that is the worst-case scenario, but the world should be prepared for it. The world must respond immediately because it takes a long time from reaching an agreement to help to delivering the food to the needy. Much food would be delivered through the single port of Djibouti, and therefore planning is essential to ensure that it has the capacity to cope with the influx.

The response from the United Kingdom and the European Union is disappointing. I hope that a further announcement will be made by the Department for International Development before we leave for Ethiopia, but I am concerned that the Government appear reluctant to commit themselves to providing urgent food aid that could save people's lives.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

I concur entirely with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I look forward to accompanying him. I hope that that will be on Sunday rather than Saturday, however, but we can sort that out in due course. Does he agree that one of the problems is that there is a big debate going on in Ethiopia and other African countries about whether they should take food aid—from America, in particular—containing genetically modified organisms? This is a crucial question, because the subsistence farmers are very reticent about accepting such food aid. Would the hon. Gentleman like to say that one thing that the British Government could do is to ensure that they do not send GMOs to Africa?

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. I am not qualified to say whether genetically modified food is safe, but I know that many people are concerned about it. I am certainly concerned about its safety, and perhaps representations could be made for non-GM food to be sent. After all, as I am about to say, there is hardly a shortage of food in the world.

A world that produces more food than its population can eat can surely provide relief. In the European Union, we actually pay farmers not to farm. The 93,000 tonnes pledged by the EU, out of the first quarter requirement of up to 500,000 tonnes, could surely be increased. Let us not forget that, during the height of the common agricultural policy's folly—ironically, around the mid-1980s when Ethiopia's problems came to light, and when volunteers such as Bob Geldof were doing their utmost and the British public were digging deep into their own pockets—the EU spent half its entire budget on storing and disposing of surpluses. I realise that distribution problems existed at the time, but is it not obscene that people in one part of the world should destroy food while others, only a few hours away, starve to death? It is certainly obscene, but it is not inevitable.

The failure of the rains has exacerbated an already dire situation, which is perpetuated by ongoing poverty. At least 80 different languages are spoken in Ethiopia—which the Secretary of State has referred to as one of the poorest countries in the world—and it contains an even higher number of tribes. The common theme that links them all is, sadly, poverty, with a large part of the population living on less than $1 a day. On many occasions, people have cut trees down to sell for firewood. That leaves the topsoil exposed, increasing the risk of it being washed away if the rain should come. That would leave the ground hard and infertile, thereby adding to the desertification. Additionally, with the population growing rapidly in rural areas, trees and vegetation are being cleared to create more arable land. Other family assets have also been sold in an attempt to ward off short-term poverty. All those actions have resulted in the continuation of that poverty, and of the cycle of drought and famine.

It is a paradoxical fact that Ethiopia does not have a water shortage—a number of rivers, notably the Blue Nile, cross its plateau—but it has a poor record of water management, with only 5 per cent. of its irrigable land being irrigated. The country lacks the money and the expertise to create the necessary irrigation, and it is a tragedy that such schemes were not provided by development aid following the tragic events of 1984–85. Why did that not happen?

Ethiopia also lacks adequate storage facilities. In the last two years, it has enjoyed good harvests, but has been unable to store sufficient food to alleviate the present problem. Again, it would have been relatively easy for the developed world to provide such assistance. How sad it is that such measures were not taken, when those very actions would have had the potential to end famine in the country.

The developed world could have helped in other ways, too, particularly by reviewing trade rules. The value of Ethiopia's exports per capita is the lowest in the world, and even those exports have been hit hard by the slump in coffee prices, which have fallen by 70 per cent. in four years. That has cost Ethiopia almost half its total annual export earnings. Again, how sad it is that the country that gave the world coffee is suffering so much from that commodity being its main export. However, with other products too, the European Union should look to help by removing the protective barriers that mean that many EU farmers remain inefficient and wasteful while third-world exporters are forced to subsist on a pittance.

Debt, too, is an area in which the developed world can help. Total debt in Ethiopia has reached about 150 per cent. of gross domestic product and the cost of servicing that debt has risen to $118 million a year, which is about 12 per cent. of revenues. By contrast, the Government have spent only $13.5 million—a tenth of the cost of their debt interest payments—on food relief since July. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other shareholders should cancel that debt completely and immediately, with strings attached if necessary, to give Ethiopia a chance.

Other problems abound. AIDS has had a devastating effect on Ethiopia, as it has had on other areas of Africa. Many heads of household have lost their lives through the disease and many orphans have been created, thereby perpetuating poverty once again. Poverty leads to further poverty as further short-term measures are taken with disastrous medium to long-term results, yet Ethiopia has so much to be proud of in terms of its history and recent developments.

Ethiopia is the land of the fabled Queen of Sheba, the home of the Ark of the Covenant, the country of origin of coffee and the land where Lucy and, more recently, other remains dating back 4.4 million years were discovered. It can boast not only the longest archeological record of any country, but the fact that it has been independent longer than any country in Africa and that it was the first in the west, after Armenia, to adopt Christianity.

In modern terms, the overthrow of the dictator Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front and the move to democracy in 1992, which was followed by the appointment of Meles Zenawi as Prime Minister in 1995, represent an impressive political turnaround. Low inflation of 1.3 per cent. and growth of 4.6 per cent. are also impressive, but Ethiopia cannot realise its full potential nor repeat its impressive history while it remains in the grip of poverty.

Help is needed, including immediate emergency food aid, development aid, debt relief, a change in trade rules and reduced EU tariffs, and it is within the scope of the developed world to help in those ways. The UK should lead by setting an example. When we leave for Ethiopia on Saturday, we should be delighted to take good news with us, including details of how much aid this country is to provide, what form that aid will take and when Ethiopia can expect to receive it, for if and when we avert this crisis, we can move towards ensuring that it is the last. That would consign hunger and starvation in Ethiopia to the history books.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for International Development 11:38 pm, 3rd December 2002

I congratulate Mr. Robertson on his success in securing this Adjournment debate. He has focused on an issue of deep concern to many people across the country—indeed, across the world—and I know that he has taken a long-standing and constructive interest in it. I am sure that he and his colleagues will return from their visit to Ethiopia with much important information and many insights to the situation there.

I shall try to deal with all the points that the hon. Gentleman raised as well as that raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Drew on GM food. I shall also set out the work that my Department is doing to help to deal with the humanitarian crisis and the measures that we are taking on the development issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. If there are any outstanding issues that I do not have time to discuss, perhaps we can take them up in writing.

The hon. Gentleman graphically set out the nature of the problem in Ethiopia, which is an overwhelmingly agricultural society—the famine and the longer-term development issues. The situation there is a matter of deep concern and people are right to ask, XWhy again?" However, I would argue that this time it is different, and the differences are both positive and negative.

First, I shall deal with some negative factors. The needs of the whole of Africa this year are huge. The UN is looking for just over US$2 billion for Consolidated Appeals in Africa for 2003, to meet the needs of people in a variety of countries. In Sudan, many people yet again face severe malnutrition. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, following the violent conflict, there is increased mortality as well as gross human rights abuses, particularly against women. Southern African countries are suffering from a mixture of drought, bad governance and HIV/AIDS.

However, there have also been positive changes since 1984. The hon. Gentleman was right to highlight some of the progress that has been made in Ethiopia. Those positive developments include the effectiveness of early warning systems, and the willingness of the Government and the international community to work together. At the beginning of 2002 the Government made their normal request for food aid, not as an emergency appeal but as part of a package put together with the international community to address some of the more fundamental structural issues behind Ethiopia's continuing food insecurity.

A total of 427,000 tonnes of food aid was requested to help meet the needs of some 5.9 million people who were at risk. That followed the generally good harvests of 2001. Signs of additional need in some areas emerged in June and July. They were centred in the Afar region and some neighbouring areas where most of the people have traditionally led pastoral lives. We expect to have the first estimates from surveys of the present situation within the next few days, and we may be able to ensure that the hon. Gentleman has them before he leaves for Ethiopia on Saturday. Perhaps he could keep in touch with the Department.

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what the Department is doing about the problems in Ethiopia. Along with our partners, we have taken action to help deal with the crisis. At the beginning of the year we supported the International Committee of the Red Cross appeal. In March we contacted the UN emergencies unit in Ethiopia to find out its priorities. We then contributed some £2.3 million to the World Food Programme for food relief, employment generation schemes and early warning systems. We have supported programmes initiated by UNICEF, the World Health Organisation, the UN emergencies unit in Ethiopia and the UN Development Programme. In response to emerging needs, we contributed again to the International Committee of the Red Cross and UNICEF, and in September we committed about £2.6 million to interventions by non-governmental organisations.

We have also worked closely with our partners—the Ethiopian Government, other donors, UN agencies, the ICRC and NGOs—to alleviate the crisis. We have taken a series of actions at every level: that has included the involvement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development.

Inevitably there have been many comparisons with 1984, some of which were made by the hon. Gentleman; but lessons have been learnt since then, especially about the importance of effective co-ordination and early warning. Ethiopia now has an early warning system, and a disaster preparedness and prevention commission. It has also established a food security reserve, which provides a buffer stock for times of crisis. Food can be released and distributed as soon as donor commitments are made. Donors can then restock the reserve through local purchase of grain, international purchase or in-kind donation of grain, principally from the United States. I will deal with the point about GM food shortly.

By contrast with what happened in 1984–85, Government, donors and non-governmental organisations now routinely work together to co-ordinate relief efforts and improve the response system. But, as the hon. Gentleman said, there is also a need to address some of the longer-term issues. We are focusing part of our long-term support on looking at ways of coping with the cyclical droughts from which Ethiopia has suffered. We are considering joint efforts with the Government of Ethiopia and key donors to tackle some of the underlying causes of food insecurity. For example, we will contribute to improvements in agriculture sector policies, and support efforts to increase people's access to markets through improvements in rural transport infrastructure. We will also help to reduce the vulnerability of the poor to drought by promoting the development of safety nets for people at risk. In pursuit of this, we are planning work with IrelandAid and USAID on different aspects of long-term food security. As one of the most vulnerable groups, the pastoralists to which the hon. Gentleman referred are an important target group for our work.

The basis of our long-term development partnership with Ethiopia is the country's poverty reduction strategy, which demonstrates how Ethiopia plans to prioritise resources and policies towards tackling poverty. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury is doubtless aware of the poverty reduction strategies that have been produced by various developing countries. We hope to move to the provision of a programme of direct budget support in the near future, along with some technical co-operation in certain areas.

One of the focal points of this programme is the long-term problem of food insecurity. Other planned areas for focus are capacity building and education. We are also actively supporting the tackling of HIV/AIDS, which the hon. Gentleman rightly said presents a difficultly in Ethiopia. We are also offering support to the road sector, which will be important in helping to reduce rural poverty.

On the GM issue, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, GM varieties of maize and soya have been provided as food aid by the US for some time—since 1995, according to one report. Initially, this appears to have passed with little comment, but concerns were raised in southern Africa in 2002 because of the increasing domestic debate on GM issues in developing countries, and because of trade concerns.

Where GM maize is distributed in whole grain form, recipients of GM maize for food relief do have some cause for concern regarding the possible contamination of future exports to the EU. There might also be some risk to local biodiversity, because grain could be planted instead being consumed directly, or it could be introduced into the environment by spillage. However, this problem can be addressed if the grain is milled before distribution. In fact, my Department has provided the funds to do that where local objections have been raised.

On food safety, however, the World Health Organisation and the World Food Programme have concluded that the consumption of foods currently provided as food aid that contain genetically modified organisms is not likely to present a human health risk. These foods can be eaten safely, and trade concerns do not arise for products from animals fed on GM crops under current or foreseen labelling regimes in developing countries. My Department's policy on the provision of food aid is that recipient Governments should be given enough information on the type of food that they receive and its characteristics, including whether it is genetically modified. Recipient countries should be allowed to decide on its acceptability, and donors should respect the decisions of recipients, and accommodate them as far as possible. For example, if milled cereals are preferred to whole grain in order to avoid GM grain being planted as seed, such an arrangement should be made. As I have said, my Department has set aside funding for that.

At the moment, Zambia is the only country in southern Africa that has refused to accept grain containing genetically modified material. As Members will know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has made it clear that that decision by the Zambian Government means that a lot of people in Zambia will go hungry. That decision is obviously disappointing. The scientific evidence is clear that there is no risk from GM maize. We will obviously do our best to ensure that hungry people are fed, but the Zambian Government's decision will make it much more difficult for the international community to help the hungry in Zambia. However, that problem is currently confined to that one country. DFID's position on GM has therefore been made clear, and I hope that that thoroughly answers the points raised by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury.

In summarising the aid that we have provided to date I shall also give the hon. Gentleman some good news to take with him on his trip to Ethiopia. In total, we have provided £12.3 million bilaterally to help meet humanitarian needs throughout 2002.

On a multilateral basis, nearly 20 per cent. of the EU support is funded by the UK. That has included a total of 197,000 metric tonnes of food aid, Euro2.5 million in humanitarian support earlier in the year, and a further Euro4.2 million programme of humanitarian support under preparation. The Commission is also considering the provision of further assistance for 2003.

We are constantly monitoring the situation and will play our part in terms of emergency relief, while also committing the resources needed to forge a long-term partnership to tackle the underlying poverty that increases the vulnerability of people if there is a drought.

The UN estimates that the food pipeline is adequate until about the end of January. Because of the nature of the Ethiopian food security reserve, further donor cash pledges can translate into the immediate release of food for at least two months beyond that. However, current needs are still manifest so I am pleased to be able to announce that we are making available, immediately, a further £5 million for humanitarian support for Ethiopia. I hope that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury can take that good news with him, as I said. In addition, we will be closely assessing the position in 2003. A consolidated Government-UN appeal is expected in mid-January, and we will be considering further support.

The situation in Ethiopia is serious, as it is elsewhere in Africa, but I hope that I have demonstrated very clearly to the House that we have moved on from 1984. With the close partnership between the Government and donors, and a swift and generous response from the international community—in which the Government will play a substantial part—we can prevent this from turning into a major crisis. That is the commitment of my Department, and I am sure that it is one that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury and others share.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Twelve o'clock.