Food Insecurity in Developing Countries due to Blockade of Ukrainian Ports - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:37 pm on 21st July 2022.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 2:37 pm, 21st July 2022

My Lords, after that I feel many of us would have to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack; I pay tribute to his long parliamentary service—he should know. Whether the Government can respond on that one today, I do not know, but I am quite certain the Minister will resolutely defy what has been said.

All of us feel despair when we hear news of the many civilian casualties in Ukraine, from weapons not of war, but of murder, wielded by the Russian army at the behest of one man. He is playing with human lives like toys and we cannot stop such cruelty without much more focused international agreement. I must thank my noble friend for taking on yet another huge global issue and, as usual, he has the knack of good timing; his reminders of past famines in Ukraine are themselves quite chilling.

Less understood by the public than the war, I think, are the knock-on effects of the grain blockade on civilians in developing countries that were already vulnerable to starvation and famine for many reasons not to do with Ukraine. My noble friend has mentioned Eritrea and the Horn of Africa. I will focus mainly on the two Sudans, and I speak as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sudan and South Sudan, and I am pleased to see that other members are present. I commend the FAO’s latest report, which says, in summary, that the Ukraine blockade has come on top of inflation, rising food prices, soaring fuel and transport costs and the effects of the Covid pandemic. All this has led to lower incomes that have negatively affected both the quality and the quantity of food throughout the world. Millions are malnourished simply because they cannot afford a healthy diet. The world is quite off-track as far as the relevant sustainable development goals are concerned. Naturally, the FAO says, there must be a complete reassessment of the way world food is distributed. I cannot respond to that myself, but I know that Oxfam disagrees with the present system of food distribution and cites the FAO report as confirmation that the present system works against the more vulnerable and the poorest farmers.

I begin with some of the latest assessments of UN agencies on the spot. The World Food Programme reported last month that more than 15 million people in Sudan, or one in three Sudanese, are food insecure, which is a 7% increase on last year. The figures are higher for Darfur and Blue Nile, which are areas of conflict, but weather extremes are also to blame. The WFP says that Sudan imports 50% of its wheat from Russia and 4% from Ukraine, on average, so food access and availability will be sharply and directly reduced by any shortfall and the inevitable price increases. The worst affected area is West Darfur, where the needs of over 323,000 IDPs—internally displaced persons—have to be met. In Kordofan, there are over 270,000 IDPs and 40,000 South Sudanese refugees. Finally, Gedaref has over 77,000 refugees from the war in Tigray. These conflicts are having effects across the borders of neighbouring countries. At a national level, food prices are rising in Sudan, and the economy is quite unstable following the army coup last October. The political scene is dire, with the army incapable of working with highly respected and quite sophisticated civil society representatives, as the Minister knows from his own experience.

Moving to South Sudan, the agencies are reporting very serious malnutrition and food shortages on an alarming scale. Again, some 8.9 million people—which in this case is more than two-thirds of the population—are estimated to need significant humanitarian assistance and protection this year. One major problem is funding. The humanitarian agency OCHA reported on 4 July that life-saving humanitarian operations have been either suspended or reduced, or that they will be terminated if the funding situation remains as it is. The noble Lord, Lord Hastings, has already presented us with a case study from Somalia of what happens after that.

Many local communities have been displaced by communal violence in South Sudan. UNICEF is appealing on behalf of malnourished children, such as those referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, whom I welcome to the House. He spoke very movingly about children in Uganda. Other smaller UN agencies such as the IOM, which manages migration, are doing a remarkable job looking after the more vulnerable refugees and displaced and trafficked people. The noble Lords, Lord Loomba and Lord Risby, both made this connection with migration. Any diminution of food supplies is bound to hit these groups hardest, and I hope the Minister will explain why the international response to UN appeals has been so inadequate.

Our perception of food distribution on the television tends to be that it is off the back of a lorry, sometimes with violent scenes involving the most hungry, so it does not have a very good image. The vast majority of grain is distributed at the next level down, through local organisations, NGOs and churches, and is, on the whole, safely and fairly delivered. Without those NGOs, the UN system would fail. Without secure food delivery, other charitable work will suffer or dry up altogether.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, the deeper problem is that humanitarian funding is drying up. This was also emphasised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. Churches and faith-based organisations have been active not only on the humanitarian side but with conflict prevention. Living in the Salisbury diocese, which is linked with both Sudans, I am aware of several peace initiatives, including medical and educational projects, supported by the diocese. It is tragic that, while so many Sudanese bishops are coming to the Lambeth Conference this month, our church leaders have not been able to visit Sudan or South Sudan because of insecurity. The arrival of so many bishops from Africa presents a formidable challenge to our churches, as the right reverend Prelate pointed out.

The UNHCR has increasingly turned its attention to the internally displaced. For example, the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia led to at least 2.5 million more people being displaced within their country, some 1.5 million of them returning to their homes. The UNHCR says that the DRC, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen all saw increases of between 100,000 and 500,000 people internally displaced. My noble friend mentioned a global total of 100 million, which is almost incredible.

Finally on Tigray, I well remember the famine in the 1970s—I expect many of us can—which is when I joined Christian Aid. I especially recall Emperor Haile Selassie’s total neglect of the northern provinces of Tigre and Wollo. History is repeating itself, because the Tigray people then rose up against the Amhara and took power in the 1990s, and this could happen again. This time, it is Ethiopia refusing to admit or declare a famine, even condoning the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray.

The Minister will know that last July the special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea published a devastating critique of the treatment of Eritreans by their own Government, including sexual violence against refugees in Tigray. Does he think there has been any progress, given that that report has been blocked by Russia and China? What representations has the FCDO made to Addis Ababa about starvation in its own country?