Southern Africa Food Crisis

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:17 pm on 6th February 2003.

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Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Chair, International Development Committee 4:17 pm, 6th February 2003

My mother is a Scot whose family originally came from Aberdeenshire, so I am conscious of the contribution that Scottish Presbyterianism made to the founding of the empire and of the commitment of many of its members to propagating the Gospel. One of the sadder sights that one sees in Malawi is a mission hospital, funded largely by NGOs such as Christian Aid, which is about an hour's drive from Lilongwe. It is a very effective hospital, but behind it is a graveyard full of the graves of early Scots, their babies and young children, who went to that part of the world and were cut down in a year because they did not appreciate the problem of malaria. It is good to see that many NGOs working in Malawi and throughout the world are still supported by churches in Scotland.

I have already apologised to the Minister and I apologise to other hon. Members for the fact that I will not be staying for the winding-up speeches. The burden that used to fall on Tony Worthington has today fallen on me, because a long time ago, I undertook to give a talk to the foreign services programme at Oxford university which trains young diplomats from overseas in the role of the Opposition. I must give a talk, which I hope the hon. Gentleman or his colleagues will be invited to give sooner rather than later, so I hope that hon. Members will excuse me if I cannot stay for the winding-up speeches.

It is good to speak in a debate in which at least three colleagues from the International Development Committee are taking part. I agree with John Barrett that one should give credit where it is due. It is fair to say that wherever we have been in Africa this year, Governments, non-governmental organisations and others have given credit for the work of the Department for International Development. DFID officials have often been able to respond speedily to immediate concerns. A good example is the way in which the Department galvanised the World Food Programme and other agencies by rehabilitating the rail link in Malawi and so improving logistics.

The debate is also welcome because, all too often, media and political attention moves from subject to subject. A couple of months ago, it was southern Africa, then it was Afghanistan and now Iraq is obscuring everything else. However, the issue that we are debating this afternoon is enormously important. The Select Committee, of which I am fortunate to be Chairman, will shortly publish a report on our findings drawn from our work on the food crisis in southern Africa. The papers and the evidence that we took are tagged to today's debate. I hope that hon. Members will have a chance to read some of those documents.

I sometimes think that the figures are so enormous that they are difficult for us to grasp. I shall share with hon. Members three quick glimpses of experiences that I had in Africa this year which, in their different ways, sum up something of the tragedy and the difficulties that we confront. On an afternoon in September, I went for a walk in the Simian mountains in Ethiopia and found myself on a hill looking down on a farmer who was trying to make a living. He had two oxen and a yoke, and he was ploughing a field under a blazing sun on a hill with a 45-degree incline which was strewn with the hardest of boulders. That was the only way in which he could earn a living, as other land in the village had become so depleted that, without access to fertilisers and nutrients, the villagers were constantly being forced out to the edge of the village.

There is an underlying issue that we will all have to address: in Ethiopia and, I suspect, in other countries, the number of food-insecure people increases even in years when there is no drought, because when there is a drought, people sell off their assets—cattle and any other possessions—so that they are almost unable to recover in years with no drought. We are faced with the dilemma of not wanting to over-dramatise what is happening but not wanting to be complacent about it either.

I was struck by the informal evidence that James Morris of the World Food Programme gave to the Select Committee. He shared with us his concern that the numbers of food-insecure people in the horn and in southern Africa were reaching such a level that he was no longer confident that he could raise the money to buy the necessary food for them, and even if he could raise that money, he was no longer confident that the food pipeline could manage to distribute it. I noted with interest the Secretary of State's candid remarks in her evidence on this topic to the Select Committee last week. She told us:

"I am really worried that we are getting to a point where the capacity of the international system to deal with the crises that we have got in the world is being stretched to the level where I do not know whether it will carry on functioning."

We must all share that concern.

My second experience was at a feeding station in Malawi, run by a non-governmental organisation supported by Christian Aid. It was about four times the size of the Chamber. Mothers with young babes in arms were patiently waiting to receive food supplements. A young child, who could only have been 14, came to the head of the queue with her two younger siblings, aged six and five, and they wanted something to eat. She was the head of her household. Her parents had died and she was one of the many orphans in Malawi, a country with a population of 11 million, of whom more than 1 million are orphans.

Later that day, I went to a village. There are now ad hoc orphanages growing up all over the country. The person running the one that I visited invited me to speak to the orphans, who ranged in age from about 18 down to three. I did not know what to say, and I found myself telling them the story of the three little pigs—Malawi has many brick houses. I could think of no other way in which to engage them. I was struck by a 16-year-old girl who asked, "Who will now provide for my education? Without any money for education I shall get into a cycle in which the only way for me to have protection is to marry, to have children and not to advance."

I wondered who on earth would look after those huge numbers of orphans. There did not seem to be any policy of registration. In many villages, grandmothers are looking after the children, but many of them will die before the children become teenagers. We have to face that issue. I agree with the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie that the scope of governance in Malawi is pitifully small. Outside Lilongwe, there was no sense of the Government's having any reach, and within Lilongwe the only thing that people were concerned about was whether the Government had a third term.

The likelihood of people looking after large numbers of orphans seemed small. We have heard a lot about the link between HIV/AIDS and food shortages, which interplay with each other, and we have to address both catastrophes simultaneously. It is important to recognise the scale of the underlying problem. Without wishing to dramatise the issue, there is now a general recognition that, as the Secretary of State candidly acknowledged to the Select Committee, we are going to the limits of what organisations such as the World Food Programme can do.

We must think about how we enable countries such as Malawi and Ethiopia better to feed themselves. Part of the problem is poor governance, but it varies from country to country. Prime Minister Meles, who will give evidence to the Select Committee shortly, has done an enormous amount in Ethiopia, which has made great progress in governance. Other countries, such as Zimbabwe, have suffered. As has been said, President Mugabe has done a lot that has been extremely damaging. I was interested in the comments that President Mbeki made immediately after his press conference with the Prime Minister.

Last week, I was fortunate to be in Sierra Leone and I met President Kabbah, who happens to have trained here in law. He is a barrister who, at one stage, was a member of my chambers. I was interested to hear that he said candidly that the problem is seen in Africa as a legacy of colonialism. We see it as land being confiscated from farmers who have worked it up over a number of years. It was striking that somebody as reasonable and as moderate as President Kabbah should signal that for many African leaders it is seen as a key issue of land. There is still—it may seem unreasonable from our perspective—lingering support for what they see as a concern about sorting out a post-colonial issue. We must be sensitive to that. Shouting at South Africa for not doing enough will not necessarily solve the problem, although South Africans sometimes get confused between support for Zimbabwe and support for Mugabe, which are not necessarily the same thing.

Of course we must address the issues of governance and of HIV/AIDS, but we must accept that there are no simple answers. One of the problems of media attention suddenly focusing on an issue such as this is the belief that if only we did more of X or Y, everything would resolve itself.

I commend to hon. Members the evidence given to the Select Committee by academics from Wye college and agricultural experts from Oxfam. The witnesses made three points, the first of which was the complexity of risk in Africa. Farmers there take a much greater risk than those elsewhere. The second was the role of the state and liberalisation, which is a much more complicated matter.

My hon. Friend Mr. Key and I are natural one-nation Conservatives and we would always take the view that the state should do only what it absolutely has to. However, it seems from the objective evidence that we heard that such issues are much more complex in countries where the liberalisation of organisations such as state marketing departments has been of a kind, and at a pace, that has left many poor farmers bereft of support. The debate about seeds and fertilisers in Malawi, and about who encourages farmers, is extremely complex. It is not simply that DFID should have done more to provide seed packs, fertilisers and so on; we must look at the role of the state and of the organisations supporting individuals.

The witnesses' third point concerned the question why this issue is so difficult in Africa when parts of Asia have seen the best of the green revolution, and China and other countries are becoming much more self-sufficient in foodstuffs. Dr. Dorward of Wye college said that issues other than governance are involved; for example, climate, access to irrigation, population density, health problems and access to markets and to the sea. There are many interlocking issues.

It is crucial to continue to press the Government on these matters. There are no easy answers, and the UN agencies, the UK Government and the NGOs are doing their best to deal with a serious humanitarian crisis, which, in Zimbabwe and in the wider region, has not been helped by the Government of Zimbabwe. We still have to get to grips with the nature and scale of the crucial underlying problems. For example, how do we enable more farmers in Africa to grow and buy food for themselves so that they can be self-sufficient and not dependent on food aid? What can we do to tackle not just the immediate impact of HIV/AIDS but its longer-term consequences, when the families of people who are suffering from the disease are unable to look after them?

We must be sensitive about addressing some of the complex issues relating to agriculture in Africa. No one would suggest that there are simple answers, and that if we tick the right boxes or follow the right theorem all will be well; these issues will take a long time to resolve. However, I hope that the House will continue to take the closest possible interest in these matters, notwithstanding what is happening elsewhere in the world, because from a humanitarian point of view, if we are not advocates for the needs of people and their children in Africa, who will be?