Sahel — Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:30 am on 9th February 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Labour 11:30 am, 9th February 2012

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they will take to help prevent the famine and food shortages predicted in the Sahel region.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

My Lords, the rapid response of UK humanitarian aid to mitigate the impact of the crisis in the Sahel will reach 68,000 children in Niger, Chad and Mali, and provide livestock support for 30,000 families. The Government are also lobbying other donors to provide funds to help ward off a disaster.

Photo of Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Labour

I thank the Minister for her Answer. The European Union said yesterday that alarm bells are ringing in this area, with 12 million people potentially affected by food shortages and five countries having already declared an emergency, including four of the poorest countries in the world. Just last month Oxfam and Save the Children reported on the recent famine in east Africa. In their report they said that it was important to manage the risks, not the crisis, and to pre-empt famine more quickly rather than react afterwards. Have the Government learnt some of those lessons, and will they lobby internationally for action to ensure that the international community reacts more quickly in this case than it did in the east over the past 18 months?

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

The international community is, I think, indeed learning these extremely important lessons about acting quickly. The severity of the problem is recognised and the early warning systems that were in place have picked up the absolute necessity of acting rapidly to try to deal with this crisis. The early mobilisation of funds is happening and it is encouraging to see that shift, although we should not be complacent.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that that region is, unfortunately, becoming an extremely dangerous area? It includes mercenary elements who worked for Colonel Gaddafi and are now operating in the region. Significant elements of al-Qaeda and associated bodies may have moved to the region, and the very serious terrorist attacks in northern Nigeria are not unconnected with some of the problems there. Is the African Union considering how it will tackle the humanitarian situation? The security issues there are critical.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

The noble Lord is right: the fighting in the region has been exacerbated by the cash, weapons and soldiers that have come from Libya following the fall of Gaddafi, overlaying this humanitarian crisis and making it much more dangerous for people to be working in the area. It is therefore extremely important, as the United Nations analysed recently, that a vacuum is not created for others to come into. The international community is acutely aware of that and the AU is being given technical support.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, what response has there been to the appeal by the International Development Secretary to take steps in addition to those that have already been taken by the Government of this country and by the European Union to avert the possibility that 6.8 million people in the Sahel may starve? Are any steps being taken by the international community to bring to an end the conflict in northern Mali that has led to the displacement of some 50,000 people in an area where, according to the ICRC, there is a threat of a major crisis of food availability after a very poor rainy season?

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

The international community is acutely aware of all the problems right across the region. One of the lessons from west Africa has been, as the crises that have happened there and across the region generally have shown, that you have to pick up the early warning signs of increasing food prices as well as food shortages. The displacement of people from Libya, as I just mentioned, and problems spilling over from Nigeria contribute to this problem. I am pleased to say that the EU is very much taking a lead in this area. The meeting yesterday shows that there is a lot to be done but there are encouraging signs that actions are being taken.

Photo of Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

My Lords, the Minister has acknowledged that the struggling countries of the Sahel are now facing the fallout from the crisis in Libya. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have returned from Libya; communities have lost the income from remittances on which they depended; and huge caches of very sophisticated weapons, which were previously in the Libyan arsenal, are now flowing into the Sahel in the hands of ex-combatants. Would the Minister clearly outline the involvement of the UK, together with the EU and, very importantly, with the UN and regional bodies, in the efforts that need to be made to deal with this growing humanitarian and security problem?

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

This is currently very high on the UK's agenda and those of the EU and the UN. There will shortly be a debate on this in the UN, as the noble Baroness probably knows. I spoke to relevant officials this morning and I can assure the noble Baroness that they are acutely aware of the problem of the weapons there. As she says, people have come back who are no longer sending remittances home and themselves need to be supported.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, the Minister has given the House the welcome news that the British Government are providing 68,000 children with food aid. Did she see UNICEF's report last week, which said that 1 million children in the Sahel region are at risk of immediate malnutrition? How are we directing our aid, particularly towards the children who are at risk at this time?

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

UNICEF is supported by DfID, as the noble Lord knows. As I mentioned, the United Kingdom is working bilaterally but it is also working multilaterally through the EU and a number of NGOs, and is acutely aware that there are 1 million children at risk.