Oral Answers to Questions — International Development – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 9th November 2005.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

Malawi had a poor harvest earlier this year due to severe drought. Almost 2 million people have received food aid since June and that figure will rise to more than 4 million before the next harvest in April 2006. A new assessment published this week indicates that some additional maize is needed due to an increase in the price. The Department for International Development's commitment of £15.2 million to help deal with the food crisis is the largest donor contribution and we are ready to do more if required.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

This year's harvest in Malawi was exceptionally poor and the Secretary of State will be aware that there are another five months until the next one. The situation is bad and getting worse. Given that the Church of Scotland estimates that some 5 million lives may be at risk in Malawi, what steps can he take to ensure that those people are not left to die?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the seriousness of the situation. The harvest was down by about a quarter and Malawi now seems to suffer a very severe drought every 10 years. However, the assessment system for anticipating the scale of the crisis has worked quite well. We currently estimate that, overall, about 4.4 million people will require food. Of course, the problem is not just the failure of the harvest but the impact of AIDS on people's capacity to cope, along with the high price of maize. From memory, maize costs some 16 kwacha per kilo in the north of the country and 46 kwacha per kilo in the south, where the problem is most acute. Trying to bring down the price so that people can afford to buy maize is important, but above all, it is about ensuring that food is distributed. I spoke to the Malawian President last week, and to the Finance Minister this morning, about the situation. The steps that are being taken suggest that the international community and the Government of Malawi, working together, will be in a position to deal with the crisis, but we keep the situation under very close review.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

Drought is not the only cause of the food crisis in Malawi—a population weakened by AIDS is one that cannot get good agricultural yields. What longer-term help will my right hon. Friend's Department give to increase irrigation in Malawi, so that farmers are less subject to the vagaries of rainfall?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the importance of ensuring that farmers have the means to get the most produce out of their land. That includes trying to harvest water where possible, but drought clearly makes doing so difficult. It is also about providing and distributing seeds and fertilisers, and part of the money that we have made available in response to the current crisis is for that purpose, so that farmers, particularly those who may have had to eat the seeds or who cannot afford to buy fertilisers, are in a better position in the new planting season to plant and—if the rains come, which I hope they will—to get a better yield next year.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

The Secretary of State will be aware of the Scottish Executive's useful and timely mission in Malawi just now. Can he assure me that he, his Department and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are doing all that they can to encourage and support the Scottish Executive in that mission? Does he further agree that the success of the mission demonstrates that the Scottish Parliament and other devolved institutions have a real and meaningful role to play in international development?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I welcome the initiative on the part of the Scottish Parliament and Executive to build on the historic links between Scotland and Malawi. My view is very simple. In the field of development—in trying to help people around the world to build for themselves and their communities a better life—there is more than enough work to be done, so I welcome the Scottish Executive supporting health and civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations and others. Everybody wants to contribute and we should welcome that fact.

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed Labour, Loughborough

My right hon. Friend is right to concentrate on the long-term solution to the situation in Malawi, but is he aware that the World Food Programme estimates that it is $165 million short this year, while there is a food surplus in South Africa, just a few hundred miles away? Will he apply pressure internationally to ensure that enough money is put into the WFP, so that that short-term solution to the situation faced by 2 million Malawians is brought to fruition sooner, rather than later?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

The overall position is that the United Nations Malawi appeal asked for $88 million, only about half of which was directly related to the food crisis; the rest was for funding other development and humanitarian activities. The UN has received $29 million so far, but the Government of Malawi have received $60 million, so, overall, Malawi has $89 million with which to respond to the crisis, rather than the $88 million that the UN asked for. I know from talking to the Malawian President and Finance Minister that every effort is being made to procure maize from wherever it can be found. Indeed, part of the procurement process in which DFID and the European Union have been engaged is resulting in trucks carrying maize entering the country almost daily. I also pay tribute to the United States of America, which is doing a great deal in this crisis.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

The Secretary of State's Department has been criticised for the use of consultants in Malawi and for the extensive expenses that were built up. Can he tell the House how many consultants his Department employs around the world and what safeguards are in place to ensure that their expenditure is effective?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

The number varies from time to time and I will see whether I can come back to the hon. Gentleman with a figure. DFID's total expenditure on consultants as a proportion of our bilateral budget has fallen from 10 per cent., as I recollect it, in 1997–98 to about 5 per cent. now, so it is a falling share compared with the position that we inherited in 1997. We use consultants for a range of activities, partly to help deliver programmes and partly to give us advice.

In respect of Malawi, I have to say that some of the criticism was ill founded, because the training programmes that the National Democratic Institute was engaged in were supporting civil society and parliamentarians in Malawi to think about how they could do their jobs more effectively. That included hiring rooms for training courses and feeding people who were attending them—a normal day-to-day activity that Members of the House and of all organisations engage in. The feedback from participants in those programmes was that that support and training was very helpful in assisting them to do their job as elected representatives.