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 3:23 pm on 21st July 2022.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 3:23 pm, 21st July 2022

My Lords, first and foremost, I join all other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for tabling this debate. David is someone I have known for many years, and I concur with everything that has been said. Today’s debate and his insightful, detailed and expert knowledge on a subject that, once again, draws the House together on the importance of our collective response in the face of aggression is something that I know that he champions but that we also celebrate. We thank him for all he does in this respect.

I join others in welcoming the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham to his place. His contribution today was insightful and showed expertise, but it also very much brought home the importance and the role of faith in finding some of the solutions. As someone who just oversaw the delivery of the FoRB conference in London, I think faith institutions and faith NGOs, as well as others, have an important role to play as we face up to many of the development challenges, including those humanitarian causes around the world.

I want to quote from a UN report which was published on 8 June. I commend it to all noble Lords. There have been direct discussions with the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Amina Mohammed, and I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, that we are working closely with our multilateral partners. I have certainly taken that important relationship very seriously in my capacity as Minister for the UN. I reassure noble Lords that while the summer break beckons for most, I certainly intend to be at the UN in the middle of August, partly on this very issue of Ukraine but also on others, such as Sri Lanka, because the world does not stop. Unfortunately, the challenges of famine and the war in Ukraine will not stop. Of course I say to the noble Baroness that if there are updates to be shared I will share them with your Lordships’ House. I also assure her that I work closely with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence in our collective response, not just to the situation in Ukraine but in focusing on the continuing plight of many people suffering in Afghanistan, among other places.

The UN report alluded to focused on food security. I will quote directly from it:

“A war is always a human tragedy, and the war in Ukraine is no exception. The ripple effects of the conflict are extending human suffering far beyond its borders. The war, in all its dimensions, has exacerbated a global cost-of-living crisis unseen in at least a generation, compromising lives, livelihoods, and our aspirations for a better world by 2030.”

I note that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, is wearing the SDGs badge on his lapel. Again, whether it is the Covid crisis or this war, it really puts under the microscope the real challenge of facing up to the delivery of the SDGs by the target of 2030. However, we need to remain focused in this respect.

I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, that we recognise the global impact. The noble Baroness mentioned cash transfers, for example, and that remains a central part of our development programme. I have not shied away from the fact that when you cut, as we have had to, from 0.7% to 0.5% it has had an impact on our development spend, but I stay proud of our strong traditions and the support we continue to give around the world.

I take heed also that sometimes a crisis brings into focus what the opportunities are. While sharing my noble friend Lord Hannan’s view of the world and of the importance of open markets, I also concur with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that the Covid crisis taught us about the importance of the interdependence of humanity. We are at our best when we help each other. We leverage our expertise and provide global solutions, and I believe open markets help in that respect. Look at the 60% of arable land which is currently uncultivated in Africa; there is a huge opportunity for all. In that same report there are innovative solutions including, for example, having a food importing financing facility. They provide the premise for discussions to take place in the future.

There was much in what my noble friend Lord Balfe said that, unfortunately, I do not agree with and I pose him three questions. Are we to accept Russia’s annexation of a sovereign nation or part of Ukraine’s sovereign territories? Are we to accept flagrant violations of human laws and the law of humanity? Are we to accept the suppression of not just the Ukrainian population but the Russian population? I say to my noble friend: ask Alexander Navalny and his family. The three answers are no, no and no. We will continue to stand united, as this House and this country, in support of Ukraine. It is the Ukrainians who should lead on peace negotiations, and we will support them and continue to stand firm.

I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is talking to President Zelensky regularly. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to Foreign Minister Kuleba last week and is doing so again this week. I am in touch with Foreign Minister Kuleba and was in The Hague last week, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, talking about atrocities to Karim Khan, among others. We are very much engaged. Perhaps on a slightly lighter note on a sombre subject, I assure noble Lords that House of Lords Ministers stayed in place to ensure that our Government carried on functioning.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, talked about increasing funding for international organisations, including the World Food Programme. I have been speaking to and keeping in touch with David Beasley, and we have made a £130 million pledge to that programme. I assure the noble Lord that that funding is not diverted from other programmes. It includes funding allocated to in-country offices and flexible funding provided at central level as well.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raised the land ownership in Africa. The UK has played a lead role in promoting good land governance in Africa and will continue to support states’ development in this regard and, of course, community rights. She talked about forces from India diverting food support from their country to the UK. Look at the UK for here and now. There is little I can say other than that when we look around the UK at the rich heritage that is not just part of our history but of our present and future, we recognise that the UK today is a very different place and long may that be the case.

The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, talked about long-term plans for peace. We support Ukraine’s desire for a just negotiated outcome and of course we support any noble initiative led by or involving Ukraine, but this is Russia’s war of aggression. Russia can stop this tomorrow, but the impact is still going to be felt for not just months but years ahead.

I thank my noble friend Lord Cormack, the noble Lords, Lord Hastings and Lord Loomba, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, among others for their kind words about my role, but it is important that we remain resolute. We expect Russia to uphold its international obligations. It is a P5 member like the United Kingdom, and that brings responsibility. We cannot have these flagrant violations continuing. It is for Russia to bring this to an end. It is in contravention of international obligations, including those under the UN charter.

We move forward to face up to the crisis of food and the impact of the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports mentioned by many noble Lords. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, it is weaponising food and is impacting global security. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans also talked rightly about raising awareness. I look forward to the outcomes of the conference and perhaps practical suggestions from on the ground that can be shared with the Government. The region’s worsening food crisis is caused by an accumulation of pressures, as several noble Lords pointed out, including the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis. They include local conflict and climatic shocks, but the war in Ukraine is making it worse. When crises happen, people look at differences and divisions. They are then exploited—or worse.

It is Mr Putin’s war, and the associated rise in food, fuel and fertiliser prices is making the problem much more acute. Yesterday it was 11 years since the UN first declared a famine in Somalia. My noble friend Lord Polak spoke of this and while I hear what he said about Somaliland, he is aware of the United Kingdom’s position, and we feel it is right for Somaliland and Somalia to bring forth an inclusive agreement. It was a brutal famine which has led to the deaths of 250,000 people, the majority of them children, and left 500,000 children malnourished. It is important that the UN acts in this particular way.

We are helping not just the region but Ukraine directly. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that we are providing more than £3.8 billion in support—£220 million in humanitarian support. She mentioned rebuilding infrastructure, and we have allocated another £200 million in that respect. The city of Kyiv has been assigned to the United Kingdom. As a country we are helping the people and Government of Ukraine to rebuild.

Today’s debate is extremely timely, as several noble Lords have said. Let me state categorically: we will stay united with Ukraine. I am grateful to all noble Lords, in particular Her Majesty’s official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats, for their strong and united support on this issue. Looking at food crises around the world, right now, more than 48 million people in east Africa are facing severe food insecurity, and more than 13 million people are on the cusp of famine conditions, in particular in the Horn of Africa and Ethiopia, which the noble Earl mentioned, and there are issues of CRSV which he brought to light.

We have a conference in November later this year where we will report on some of the work that has been done. Frankly, I fear that the lack of humanitarian access has meant that, once the lid is fully lifted, the situation on conflict-related sexual violence will be very dire.

Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are all in the grip of a severe drought emergency. In those three countries, over 18 million people are severely food insecure, and famine conditions are already a reality for more than 600,000 people. As all noble Lords have alluded to, including my noble friend Lord Risby, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and its blockade, coupled with reduced agricultural production—400 million people used to be supplied from Ukraine alone—have caused a sharp increase in global grain prices. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, I was never an MP for a farming constituency, but I worked in the commodities sector, where the impact on prices has been enormous and incredibly impactful for the long term. Of course, farmers need to protect their prices; this is a knock-on effect.

The UK is at the forefront of this, with £3 billion in global humanitarian support over the next three years. This was discussed, for example, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. That was a difficult negotiation, into which the issue of conflict fatigue stepped in, and the question: why does Ukraine matter? It matters, not because it is a conflict between two countries or on one continent but because it is a conflict impacting the whole world, as we have seen through the issues of energy and food prices. We will remain focused in this way, and I assure noble Lords that we will continue engaging with the multilateral system and IFIs on food insecurities via the World Bank’s $30 billion set aside for food security.

The issue of food waste, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, provides a stark reality check for us all. I will share this point with our colleagues in Defra. The reality is that food is being wasted, which can perhaps be managed very differently.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Smith of Newnham and Lady Smith of Basildon, and my noble friend Lord Risby spoke of the recent talks in Iran, where the Turkish President met with President Putin. Ministers and senior officials, including those in our embassy in Ankara, have been in very regular contact with the Turkish authorities on these international efforts to get grain out of Ukraine, and we welcome the important role that the Turkish authorities are playing. As I receive more details, I will share them with noble Lords. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon: as much as we will put in land corridors and are supportive of efforts through them, they cannot replace the ports. The ports are under attack; Odessa has been under increasing pressure in recent days. We also need to make sure that we retain our focus with other countries to ensure that whatever can be leveraged from land routes is fully realised.

Use of fertilisers has declined due to a nearly 30% price increase. In turn, cereal production has fallen by a fifth. As I have said, the UK is working with its international partners to hold Russia to account, being clear that western sanctions do not target food production. This is understood by our international partners. The sanctions imposed by the UK, the EU and the United States do not prevent Russia exporting its fertilisers or grain in any respect. In fact, Russian grain exports are continuing apace, with exports to key trading partners similar to those in previous years.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its blockade of Ukraine’s ports have produced the logistical situation in Odessa, as my noble friend Lord Risby said. It is mined through floating mines from Russia, which means that the navigation issue will not have a solution in a matter of days or weeks; it may take months to demine this whole area. However, we need to remain resolute and focused. The UK is working with Ukraine to help export its food and fulfil its role as the breadbasket of Europe. The UN currently estimates that up to 23 million tonnes of grain for export remain in storage in Ukraine. It is ultimately President Putin’s responsibility to lift this blockade, but we are working with international partners to alleviate the situation.

At the spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in April, the UK and its partners secured the largest ever financial commitment from the World Bank of $170 billion until June 2023. This will be targeted specifically at the countries and regions impacted. Of this, $30 billion will be focused on food security. The UK has also announced emergency humanitarian assistance to address food insecurity in the Horn of Africa, Yemen and Afghanistan. Over the next three years, we will direct £3 billion in total across the world to vulnerable countries and people.

We have recently committed another £10 million to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, bringing our allocation for the poorest countries to £186 million. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, among others, that we are working with G7 allies through the Global Alliance for Food Security to scale up a rapid needs-based, co-ordinated response.

My noble friend Lord Risby, the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and others mentioned the importance of and impact on north Africa. I have already visited Tunisia and Algeria, and I am shortly about to go to Morocco. I have also visited Egypt. It is a food crisis. They are finding feeding their populations a real challenge for the here and now. Of course, I shall engage with all the key interlocutors and, if there are updates, report back. The fact is that there is a crisis, and it can be averted only if we act together, but at the same time seek to bring this conflict to an end—and that is very much on Russia.

The right reverend Prelate raised east Africa, which several noble Lords, including the noble Earl, drew attention to, as did my noble friend Lord Polack. In January, the UK announced £17 million of emergency humanitarian assistance to address critical needs in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia and Kenya. In February, we announced £5.5 million of support allocated for Somalia, and in March a further £1.6 million to support the drought response in Ethiopia. In April, £25 million in aid was announced to provide vital food services to people in Somalia. We are playing a leading role bilaterally and with our key partners.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised the issues of war crimes and accountability. We are working closely with the ICC. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, talked about the protocols. I discussed them directly with Karim Khan, who is making those assessments. Noble Lords will be aware that we have set up the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group with our friends and partners in the EU and US, focused on atrocities across the piece. I look forward to working with noble Lords in identifying how we can put specific parameters in and ensure through the Murad code, for example, that crimes of sexual violence are fully investigated and documented to allow successful prosecutions to take place. We are also working within the Human Rights Council parameters and its commission of inquiry, the OSCE’s Moscow mechanism and the Council of Europe’s monitoring bodies, so there is a broad approach to ensuring that accountability is focused on.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others, particularly on the issue of asset seizures that he raised, that as the Foreign Secretary said at the Foreign Affairs Committee, it is an issue that we are working on with the Home Office and the Treasury, and we will update your Lordships’ House as well as the other place on the specifics. It is important that we get this right, but that particular issue is a live one, which we are looking at quite directly.

In concluding this debate, I assure noble Lords that we remain very much focused on our responsibilities through the G7 and G20. The UK’s director-general for humanitarian development has made numerous visits to the region, and we have a special envoy to the Horn of Africa. In June, my honourable friend the Minister for Africa, Vicky Ford, wrote to David Malpass at the World Bank to highlight the gravity of needs. We also maintain a productive dialogue with non-governmental organisations, which are extremely important. In June, the Minister for Africa met members of the Disasters Emergency Committee. Our officials remain fully engaged on the ground and here in London on working with key partners.

To conclude on the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports, we have all documented it, with our different perspectives. We have had a wide-ranging debate—although I say to my noble friend Lord Cormack that he went so wide in his contribution that it may have been wider than I have ever experienced in my time at the Dispatch Box. Nevertheless, I am sure that people have noted his contributions quite carefully. I assure my noble friend that the Government continue to be very active, and I hope that through the examples that I have illustrated he is somewhat reassured that we stay very much focused on this.

I lived through the crisis last summer in Afghanistan and it was important that we continued to stand by our commitments. I am proud that the Government have continued to stand by our humanitarian commitments in Afghanistan and our commitments to the people of Ukraine, whether on the economy or humanitarian support, or diplomatically and militarily. It is important that this war ends: it is in Russia’s hands to end it but, in the meantime, we will continue with our obligation and support, including in east African countries, the Horn of Africa, to ensure that after a fourth consecutive season of failed rains, we continue to have decisive, co-ordinated, bilateral and multilateral swift action from the international community to avoid severe humanitarian outcomes. I hope that I have, in part, convinced noble Lords that the United Kingdom is continuing to play its part.

In closing, I record my sincere thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, for their contributions over the recent period of the current Government, for the positive and practical insights they have brought and for their solutions. This is not always a challenge to the Minister at the Dispatch Box. I value their insights and experience. I also offer my thanks, through the good offices of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, to the noble Lord, Lord Collins. I record my sincere thanks because the advice and insights I have received is extremely valuable to any Minister seeking to do their job. We face unprecedented challenges, challenges of humanity and of humanitarian crisis, but I acknowledge our collective efforts as your Lordships’ House, whether we do so with the other place or on a cross-party basis. When we act together, as we did during the Covid crisis and as we are doing on Ukraine, we are at our best when we act as a country, collective and unified in our response to those who seek to cause division and discord. For that, I am eternally grateful to all noble Lords. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for once again bringing your Lordships together on this important subject.

I was reminded of a quote as I listened to the debate. My father was an Urdu poet, God bless his soul, and one of the famous poets he used to appreciate and hold in high regard was Rumi. I was reminded of Rumi, who said,

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself”.