Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:24 pm on 3rd December 2002.

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

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.