Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:38 pm on 3rd December 2002.

Alert me about debates like this

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.