UK Food Aid: Ethiopia - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:31 pm on 14 June 2023.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour 3:31, 14 June 2023

To ask His Majesty’s Government, following the decision of the USAid and the UN World Food Programme to suspend food aid to Ethiopia, what steps they are taking to protect the integrity of UK food aid funding paid to the Productive Safety Net Programme run by the government of that country.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, we are deeply concerned about the recent revelations of food aid diversion in Ethiopia. We welcome the Government of Ethiopia’s joint statement with USAID that commits to addressing the issue and holding those responsible to account. We have asked the World Bank to lead a review of aid diversion risks in the productive safety net programme, which provides 8 million people in the poorest areas of rural Ethiopia with critical assistance.

Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour

My Lords, the infliction of starvation by Ethiopia and its allies on the civilian population of Tigray during the two-year war now seems to be continuing in the context of a peace process, a fundamental of which was to ensure unhindered access to aid, especially for women, children and the elderly. A criminal scheme co-ordinated by elements of the country’s federal and regional Governments has been stealing the food aid donated to the UN World Food Programme by the US, Ukraine, Japan and France and diverting it to feed military and ex-combatants and selling it on the open market. Now, because of diversion concerns—and this move is difficult to comprehend—the US Government and the World Food Programme have suspended food aid to Ethiopia and Tigray respectively, pending, as the Minister acknowledged, a USAID countrywide review in co-ordination with—of all people—the Government of Ethiopia. In the meantime, what if any alternative means are being considered by His Majesty’s Government, and recommended to the US Government and the UN, to get life-saving food to malnourished, starving children in Tigray?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, we understand why the World Food Programme has taken the decision to temporarily halt food assistance to Ethiopia. It is worth adding that nutritional support and other programmes will continue. The demands placed by USAID and the World Food Programme are reasonable: they want independent investigations that target the people behind the aid diversion schemes, independent rather than government-managed targeting of humanitarian food assistance and independent—again, not government-managed—warehousing and distribution of food assistance. That is what they are demanding, and we understand why. As it happens, we have not yet found any diversion of UK aid, and we hope that does not change with the emergence of new evidence.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, the Minister knows that this region is suffering from the worst famine and hunger crisis for 30 years, but the UK support has been slashed from £861 million in 2017-18 to just £221 million last year. Notwithstanding that, we are still contributing a large amount of support for the people of this region. It is recognised that if combatants attack food supplies, it is considered a war crime. Is it the position of His Majesty’s Government that direct and deliberate food diversion away from civilians as part of a conflict will also be considered by the UK as a potential war crime?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I will have to put that specific question to the Minister for Africa. In principle we do not question the basis for the definition that the noble Lord has put forward, but it has always been our view across the board that determination of things such as genocide or war crimes should be made by a competent court rather than by the UK Government or a non-judicial body.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, the recent fifth failed rainy season and extreme climate events across the Horn of Africa mean that catastrophic hunger levels are likely to worsen across Ethiopia, as well as in Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan, yet those countries are among the least responsible for climate change. Can the Minister, who I know has a specific interest in this, tell us more about what the Government can do to help communities adapt to the impact of climate change?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The noble Lord makes a hugely important point. It is worth saying that Ethiopia was long considered a success story. Over the last few decades, millions upon millions of people have been pulled out of poverty—with UK support, I should say; the UK has been a principal player in that process and can be proud of it—but those gains are being lost as a consequence of drought, conflict and the war in Ukraine, et cetera. The noble Lord raises the issue of adaptation. The UK has committed that half or thereabouts of our international climate finance should be spent on adaptation, the other half being spent on mitigation. A very big proportion of both will be invested in nature-based solutions to climate change, which provide both adaptation and mitigation. That is the lens through which we approach climate change, and it is the focus of all the investments in the £11.6 billion commitment that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson made at COP 26.

Photo of Lord Watts Lord Watts Labour

My Lords, I very much support the Government’s view about helping Africa in the way they have set out, but last time I was in Ethiopia it was clear that millions of women did not have access to family planning. Is it not the biggest scourge of Africa that those women have no ability to control the number of children they have?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The noble Lord is right to identify that as a major issue, which is why family planning remains a big focus of UK aid across Africa. So many threats, risks, challenges and pressures face that continent, and climate change and environmental degradation, as mentioned in the previous question, are rapidly becoming the dominant threat facing many countries in the continent.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

My Lords, it happens time and again that Governments start diverting food aid and other aid away from the people who need it on the ground, and time and again we have learned that international organisations such as Christian Aid and the Red Cross, and local faith communities from all faiths, are often the very best at delivering aid and making sure it gets to the people most in need. Can the Minister tell us what is being done to try to get around the Ethiopian Government and use those organisations?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I strongly agree with the premise of the question. Many of those organisations are better placed to deploy aid than Governments, government agencies or some of the very clunky, large multilateral organisations. I mentioned earlier that the UK has not found evidence that our own aid has been diverted, but we are part of a UN-led diversion task force. We are pressing for a systemwide investigation into diversion risks across Ethiopia and working with our representatives at the UN and the World Bank to bring impetus to this process at the highest possible level. But there is an urgent need to maintain the humanitarian support that the right reverend Prelate identified in areas affected by ongoing regional conflict, flooding, cholera and so on. We follow strict processes to prevent aid diversion and have controls and risk management systems in place, and they seem to be working. We are acutely aware of the need to continue to provide humanitarian assistance for those in the greatest need.

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall Conservative

My Lords, many noble Lords will recognise that the African Union has been trying to play a role in resolving the conflict in that region, but of course the African Union is also headquartered in Ethiopia. What is the Government’s view of how well the African Union is doing? Does it need more support from the UK and its allies? Do the Government have any concerns about its role in trying to resolve this conflict?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

It is absolutely right that the African Union should be front and centre in tackling this crisis, but I think I am the wrong person to provide an assessment of its role in the context of today’s discussion. I will have to get back to my noble friend via my colleague the Minister for Africa.