Southern Africa Food Crisis

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 6th February 2003.

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Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for International Development 2:30 pm, 6th February 2003

I welcome a debate on the southern Africa humanitarian crisis, which has gripped public consciousness, combining as it does some of the worst natural disasters with some of the most chronic human disasters. I want to set out some of the latest developments and explain how Britain's assistance has helped those most in need. The world is of course very concerned about the immediate humanitarian disaster, but underlying it is a long-term problem of food security in southern Africa, which we need to address urgently.

I shall set out some of the history of the crisis, which has been the subject of considerable debate in the House and among the wider public. Seven countries in southern Africa—Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe—are facing food shortages. The crisis began with poor rains throughout the region in the 2001–02 growing season. Reporting from non-governmental organisations that started in August 2001 stated that many families in Malawi and Zimbabwe would face major food insecurity during the following year. In Zimbabwe, that view was corroborated by evidence of disruption to agriculture and of late planting. However, the Government of Zimbabwe continued until early 2002 to predict high levels of maize production. In Malawi, the Government and donors agreed in August 2001 that action needed to be taken, but the Government decided not to ask for outside help. An emergency was finally declared in February 2002.

The World Food Programme launched an appeal in July 2002 for $507 million to cover nearly 1 million tonnes of food for six of the seven countries of southern Africa. Angola was handled separately because of its particular requirements linked to the end of the civil war. WFP planning assumed that additional food aid imports of 200,000 tonnes would flow through channels other than the World Food Programme, and that Governments and commercial suppliers would import further supplies. In many cases, it was assumed that governmental and commercial supplies would be much greater than the level of food aid.

When the WFP appeal was launched, it was widely recognised that the crisis was not only about food supplies. Health and other issues were affected too, including disease, water and sanitation services and, perhaps more significantly, HIV/AIDS. The appeal for food aid was part of a wider United Nations appeal to cover those other needs as well.

There has been considerable debate about the scale of the crisis. By any standards, it is large. Assessments made by international teams in September 2002 show that more than 10 million people throughout six countries were in immediate need of food aid. They also agreed that that number would rise to more than 14 million by March 2003. Subsequent assessments have found an even higher number in need when taking into account some urban populations, particularly in Zimbabwe. In addition to the sheer number of people involved, the complexity of the crisis is unique.

The countries involved face different problems. Malawi has chronic food security problems, but, traditionally, Zimbabwe has food surpluses. Mozambique has had both chronic food shortages in the south of the country and surpluses in the north. On the whole, the region was less used to and prepared for a major crisis than other regions, such as the horn of Africa. I am referring to some of the least developed countries in the world as well as to one of Africa's few middle-income countries. The crisis has covered countries in which there have been significant problems of poor governance. In terms of the range of problems that the international community has had to deal with, the number of countries involved and the relative lack of preparedness, the crisis was, by any measure, severe.

The causes of the crisis were also complex. Poor rainfall was a central factor, but that alone should not have caused the scale of suffering that we have seen. Two factors have played a crucial and aggravating role. The first is poor governance, most notably in Zimbabwe, as all hon. Members know. Of a total population of about 11.5 million people, more than 7 million Zimbabweans are now receiving food aid. Sadly, that number could become even higher over the next 12 months if economic conditions do not improve. The Government's handling of the economy has been truly appalling: gross domestic product has shrunk by 25 per cent. in the past three years; inflation is 150 per cent. and rising; the official exchange rate is wildly out of line with reality and has resulted in a foreign exchange crisis; all prices are controlled; fuel is almost unavailable; and even people who have money cannot buy food.

Most worryingly, there has been poor co-operation from the Zimbabwe Government with the international aid agencies—those trying to help most have been hindered most. Import permits for food have been delayed, charities trying to distribute food at community level have been obstructed, and access to some of the most vulnerable groups, particularly displaced farm workers, has been blocked. Although the United Nations has ensured that international food aid is distributed in strict accordance with humanitarian principles, the distribution of food through the Government-owned grain marketing board has been distorted for political reasons and the Government have so far refused to allow independent monitoring of their work.

The second aggravating factor has been the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world: 34 per cent. in Zimbabwe, 33.4 per cent. in Swaziland, 24 per cent. in Lesotho, 20 per cent. in Zambia and 16.4 per cent. in Malawi. We are still trying to understand the full impact of that, but some things have already been made clear. HIV/AIDS strikes at the heart of the coping mechanisms that people have developed. Those whose contributions are most needed are those least able to contribute. Millions of households throughout the region have lost one or both working-age adults and many of the adults who are alive are too ill to work in the field, scavenge for food or seek work elsewhere. Children and the elderly are bearing the burden of providing for those households in such difficult times.

I draw attention to the prospects for those with HIV. Good nutrition is essential for prolonging life and delaying the onset of AIDS, and that is obviously impossible when food is scarce. Information is still poor, but there are signs that mortality rates from HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe have increased from between 1,500 and 2,000 a week to between 2,000 and 2,500 a week over the past 18 months or so. There is a vicious two-way circle: food shortages impact by weakening the resistance of those with HIV and tipping them into full-blown AIDS, while illness and early deaths from AIDS of many adults make it harder for communities to cope with food shortages. That is a key area for all of us who are committed to development.

The international response to the crisis has been effective, if perhaps limited in scale. As of this month, $396 million has been provided in response to the UN consolidated appeal—65 per cent. of the total requested. The UN has distributed more than 200,000 tonnes of food aid to 5.5 million people in the six countries covered. The number of deaths directly attributable to food shortages has thankfully been relatively small, and that is the best testament to the success of the relief operation that we could have hoped for. We believe that there are now adequate supplies to cover the needs in the region throughout March and therefore up to the next harvest.

The UK has provided very substantial help to the UN, both in funding and staffing, and the effectiveness of Department for International Development humanitarian operations is widely respected in the international community, as hon. Members of all parties recognise. We have played a strong and leading role in responding to the crisis. In funding, only the United States and the European Community have provided more. Of the EC response, 20 per cent. is provided by our Department. Since September 2001, we have contributed about £130 million. In addition, our contribution has been entirely in the form of cash and not food commodities, which is far more useful to the agencies and allows for a much more flexible response.

We have also been the most active donor in pushing for improved co-ordination, providing practical help and trying to address the underlying issues affecting the crisis. The response from the rest of the international community has been patchy, and we have urged others to increase their contributions. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for International Development wrote to colleagues in other countries to press for contributions. The British public have been typically generous in their response to appeals for funds by organisations working in the regions. The organisations have also received funding from the Government and play an essential role in the delivery of help to communities in the regions. So far, we are the single biggest funder in Zimbabwe and we feed about 1.3 million children a day.

The severity of the crisis has rung warning bells in many parts of the international community. Normally, the region has coped with poor rainfall; several places are not used to dealing with such food shortages. However, the region is becoming less able to cope. A combination of poor governance, high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates and less predictable weather patterns could send the region into a downwards spiral from which it would be difficult to recover. That would damage all our development efforts, and especially those of people in the countries concerned. We therefore need to work with others, including Governments and communities, to find solutions to a range of problems. We need to improve agricultural techniques, to encourage better management and to ensure that markets work properly so that food can be bought and sold.

It is crucial that we scale up our work to tackle HIV/AIDS, and local leadership is essential for that. The reversal of the infection rate in Uganda—it is now down to 5 per cent.—shows what can be achieved by strong commitment throughout the system. However, all the development achievements in the region will be undermined if that does not happen.

The crisis has been a major test for the international community and the families whose lives have been scarred by the famine. At least we have been able to prevent the crisis from becoming a complete disaster, and Britain has played an important part in that effort. We need to continue to work with international agencies and the countries in the region in order to deal with the underlying issues that the crisis has exposed and to prevent the vicious circle that I described.

There are key issues that must be addressed. First, we must improve the food security of people in southern Africa. Variation in rainfall is a fact of life and we must get better at coping with that. Higher incomes and functioning markets will enable communities to cope with poor harvests. Secondly, we must ensure that we find regional solutions, with leadership from within the region. The Southern Africa Development Community is examining a regional strategy for improving food security and we hope to support that, including through funding if that would help. Thirdly, we need to recognise the dimension that HIV/AIDS has added to the food crisis.

The agenda is large and represents a major challenge for us and the rest of the international donor community. I hope that all hon. Members will agree that the issue is vital for the poor people in southern Africa and Africa as a whole.