Humanitarian Crisis (Southern Africa)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 26th June 2003.

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Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee 2:30 pm, 26th June 2003

I am sure that we all welcome the opportunity to debate the Select Committee's report on the humanitarian crisis in southern Africa. I am also sure that all hon. Members, in their own way, will base their contributions on the impressions that they drew from their extensive inquiry, which lasted several months and comprised several visits to various countries in Africa. I am delighted to see that three Select Committee colleagues—the hon. Members for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington), for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) and for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett)—are present, and I am sure that they will add to what I have to say.

Usually, when a Select Committee publishes a report, it does not prove to be timeless. That is not the case with the southern Africa report, and many of the lessons from the 2002 humanitarian crisis still need to be learned. That is particularly true of the three central recommendations on dealing with the underlying causes of food shortages in southern Africa. They relate to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, to early-warning systems and the co-ordination of relief efforts, and to Zimbabwe's role in exacerbating the region's food insecurity.

Today's debate is one of the first opportunities to put the Select Committee report into the context of the events at the recent G8 summit in Evian, which was meant to be a summit of delivery for Africa. It would be more accurate to say that it was a discussion of what should have happened but did not. I appreciate that France put forward what has become known colloquially as the "Chirac plan" on EU subsidies. I am also aware that EU countries, and France, in particular, made further commitments, which will help Africa, to the UN global fund on HIV/AIDS.

Yet, that is where it stopped. Doubtless, grumbles will grow about the fact that African countries receive more attention from donor countries than other parts of the developing world. However, that is simply because Africa is in danger of becoming the ghetto of a globalised world, as Prime Minister Meles of Ethiopia said in evidence to the Select Committee. As paragraphs 17 and 18 of the report note, Africa is suffering an almost annual food shortage and is the only continent that is relentlessly moving backwards on the millennium development goals. That is in spite of the previous G8 summit at Kananaskis, which introduced an African action plan. Frustratingly, it is making little progress, despite the UN world summit on sustainable development, which the World Bank said should focus on Africa. That is why the Select Committee's conclusions on famine and disease are still salient.

Our report outlines the way in which food insecurity is identified as a major contributor to poverty. At the same time, poverty is a major contributor to food insecurity. We examined not a drought-induced famine but a chronic crisis, in which consecutive years of poor rainfall had exposed the region's underlying vulnerability, the declining viability of rural livelihoods and the impact of HIV/AIDS. In that context, I would highlight paragraph 157 of the report:

"Africa is missing the Millennium Development Goals partly because the donors are missing the 0.7 per cent. target. We once again urge the UK Government to make swift progress towards its target of providing 0.7 per cent. of GNI in aid, to set out a timetable for meeting this target, and to encourage other donors to do likewise."

The Select Committee's conclusion is nothing new. I suspect that the Treasury would have no trouble finding the funds for that level of aid as a proportion of gross national income if it received £1 each time Ministers were approached about the 0.7 per cent. It is worth noting that the Treasury and the Department for International Development offer an alternative in their response to the report, outlining how:

"The recent proposal . . . for an International Finance Facility is intended to allow a doubling of global ODA in the years to 2015. We are discussing this idea with key partners."

The Select Committee welcomes that initiative and, indeed, any initiative that might lever in further funds for development. Until the Treasury outlines further details, however, concerns will remain about where the international finance facility leaves the 0.7 per cent. pledge. Will it still be in place, will it be honoured or will it be sidelined? What will happen to overseas development aid after 2015? Members of the Select Committee who recently went to the World Bank found that there was a degree of scepticism among its members about whether the international finance facility would benefit development aid in the way that the Chancellor and others hoped it would. That is not because members of the World Bank do not think that the facility is well intentioned. Rather, they wonder how its mechanics will work after 2015 and whether it simply seeks to redirect money already in existence.

The Select Committee report highlights the urgent need to provide overseas assistance now to prevent the international community from facing a continual cycle of humanitarian crises and from "getting overstretched", to use the words of the former Secretary of State at DFID. Overstretch poses a serious challenge to the international community's ability and willingness to respond not only in southern Africa but, as the Select Committee noted throughout its report, in the horn of Africa. That is clearly important because the international community's willingness to respond will, by definition, depend on donors' assessment of the scale and the severity of the humanitarian crisis.

The Select Committee took evidence on food insecurity in southern Africa from representatives of the United Nations World Food Programme. They estimate that as many as 14 million people in southern Africa, and another 14 million in Ethiopia and the horn of Africa, are at risk of starvation. That means that nearly 30 million people are suffering almost silent starvation. I say silent because parts of the media recognise only intermittently the scale and severity of that humanitarian crisis. That is understandable at a time when overseas coverage in the broadsheets has been dealing almost exclusively with Iraq. When articles have appeared, however, some journalists have gone so far as to suggest that we are not dealing with anything like the Ethiopia of 1985. I was in Ethiopia in 1985, and I can see that film crews looking for tents full of skeletal children today in southern Africa would be disappointed. None the less, the situation that we face today is no less a holocaust of hunger, and just as many people are affected by food shortages.

Let me put the issue in context. Paragraph 58 of the conclusion to the Select Committee report states:

"Implementing these improvements to early warning systems in southern Africa will require a commitment of financial resources and technical expertise from the donor community, national governments and regional organisations, notably SADC. We urge DFID to support reasonable requests for financial and technical assistance."

In that respect, the media cannot be guaranteed to act as an early-warning system. An early-warning system has to be initiated by the Government. To underscore that point, it is worth considering the recent assertion by the Institute of Development Studies:

"The case of Malawi in 2002 reveals the limitations of this argument. The media is a late indicator of distress, not an early warning. Journalists and television crews arrived in Malawi like spectators at a car crash: to observe the tragedy, not to prevent it."

Africans starve, journalists come, food aid dribbles forth, the journalists go and Africans still starve. The media did not fully recognise the scale of Africa's plight. If they cannot be guaranteed to act as an early-warning system, can Governments? I am not convinced that that is the case.

Judith Lewis of the World Food Programme told the Select Committee in December 2002:

"From my latest assessments in the field for southern Africa, certainly the peak period for assistance will begin in December and it is about 14.4 million people. In Ethiopia, they have assessments in the field now, and the 14 million, I think, was the worst case looking at all the factors."

At the same time that she was telling the Committee that, a DFID Minister was telling the House:

"A total of 427,000 tonnes of food aid was requested to help meet the needs of some 5.9 million people who are at risk. That followed the generally good harvests of 2001."—[Hansard, 3 December 2002; Vol. 395, c. 885.]

There is a huge difference between 14 million and 6 million people.

DFID's response to the African crisis appeared to be based not on the requests of UN agencies in the field but on DFID's judgment of what the scale of the crisis should be. I do not accept that there was ever a cogent argument to suggest that the WFP had miscalculated the need by a factor of three. It is therefore striking how DFID's assessment of the number of Africans affected has changed. It was clear from its response to the Select Committee report that it accepted the scale and severity of the southern African humanitarian crisis. However, it published its response in May 2003, not six months earlier, when food insecurity was at its most acute.

Likewise, this week's written statement from the Minister of State, Department for International Development recognised that 14 million people were at risk from famine in southern Africa, but it was less reassuring about the extent of the Government's willingness to commit to intervening in the continuing humanitarian crisis. The Minister states:

"The international effort is continuing but adjustments are being made to take account of changing circumstances."

How do Ministers believe that circumstances are changing? How do they intend to adjust the Government's humanitarian response? Two indications of the Government's current thinking appear later in the Minister's statement, but both are somewhat disconcerting. First, he asserts:

"There is expected to be little need for food aid in Malawi and Zambia where food supplies are good. In Swaziland and Lesotho, harvests are again poor but the small populations and relatively good access mean that the problems there are manageable."

He goes on to say that the Government

"intend to review this level of funding in September and decide whether to allocate further funds to the crisis."—[Hansard, 23 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 29–31WS.]

His assessment of food insecurity in much of southern Africa does not suggest that further funds will be committed to the relief effort. That would be a mistake.

I am again concerned that the Government are completely underestimating the extent of the continuing humanitarian crisis in southern Africa, as they did in December 2002. That is despite the fact that Ministers have acknowledged that 14 million people in southern Africa are still at risk.

In that respect, I contest the Government's assessment of Zambia in particular. Last month, the Zambian Government banned the distribution of food aid in all but the south of the country to stabilise grain prices. On 12 June, after meetings with other UN agencies, Government representatives, donor Governments and the Southern African Development Community, the UN World Food Programme and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation issued reports in which they starkly warned:

"Southern Africa still requires substantial food aid despite the fact that more food was produced in the region than during last year's severe food crisis . . . Over the next year, the six southern African countries will need to import at least 2.6 million tonnes of food to meet their minimum food needs . . . In addition, for the region to resume agricultural growth, increased and carefully targeted support will be needed for the agriculture sectors of the six countries."

That figure of 2.6 million tonnes of food aid cannot be stressed enough. That is what is needed now. It was also what was needed in Ethiopia alone in 2002, according to the Ethiopian Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Committee. None of that suggests that neither the humanitarian crisis in southern Africa nor that in the horn of Africa is receding to such an extent that UK and EU aid can be reduced to a similar degree. That raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the Government's response to the regional early-warning systems. The WFP and FAO reports resulted from extensive meetings with all the stakeholders identified in paragraph 58 of the Select Committee report. Those stakeholders are meant to put the early-warning system in place.

What has been the Government's response to the Committee's conclusion? They said:

"We agree . . . DFID is collaborating with SADC in designing a regional food security programme in which understanding and measuring vulnerability is a major component. This will be key to understanding and quantifying vulnerability both during food crises and in making links to longer term poverty."

What progress has been made in developing that regional food security programme? Is the Government's current assessment of the humanitarian situation in southern Africa based on the programme's initial findings? It does not appear that SADC, UN agencies and others are speaking the same language as DFID.

I should highlight paragraphs 69 and 83 of the Select Committee's conclusions and recommendations. They make it clear that DFID and donor Governments cannot take a laissez-faire attitude to helping southern African countries develop their early-warning systems. Nor can they take such an attitude to developing co-ordination within and between regional institutions and members of the donor community on the issue of food insecurity in southern Africa. I refer particularly to the following observation in the report at paragraph 83:

"On the basis that we believe food crises are likely to recur in the region, we believe it is unrealistic and unfair to expect regional governments in the immediate future to implement alone effective co-ordination between multiple organisations and institutions."

I am not reassured that DFID has fully taken that on board. It may agree with the Select Committee's sentiments, but is it acting fully on the recommendations that will count? Paragraph 83 went further to recommend that DFID undertake an immediate assessment of its working relationships with regional stakeholders. The contrasting language of ministerial statements on 23 June and UN reports on 12 June would not suggest that much progress has been made on that matter.

I do not dispute that DFID is working multilaterally—I would not expect anything less from it—but that does not alter the fact that the UK is responding to a level of crisis that, in many people's view, is completely different from that the WFP is witnessing. My concern is that there is too little recognition of the scale of the crisis. Until it is recognised, Africa's suffering cannot be stemmed.

Judith Lewis of the WFP made it clear to us that her calculations account for all factors; perhaps DFID's do not. It was not only Judith Lewis from whom the Select Committee heard. James Morris, the executive director of the WFP, met members of the Select Committee towards the end of our inquiry. He observed that there was

"a disaster unfolding, with 14 million people in the Horn of Africa, and 14 million in Southern Africa needing food aid. This could not be sustained by the World Food Programme".

In a later press release, he asserted:

"These figures are large and dramatic and the international community should take notice . . . Unless we come to grips with this problem very soon, we face the real possibility of witnessing a devastating wave of human suffering and death as early as next year."

I am sure that someone such as James Morris would not have put those issues in such stark language unless he felt that he had to grip the attention of decision makers. Those assessments were made in October 2002, and nothing that I have heard from the Government since—more than six months later—seems adequately to tackle those concerns, which are still held by UN agencies such as the WFP.

It is worth noting that the European Union's food security adviser on the ground in Ethiopia is now saying that, unless something dramatic changes, all that will happen is that, year on year, there will be more food-insecure people in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa—predicting a potential 20 million starving people in Ethiopia alone.

The EU paper in which those comments are made rightly concludes:

"The main challenge is to reverse the 'one step forward, two steps back' tendency in the Food Security policy dialogue".

To do that we must be forceful in our message that crisis reinforces rather than supersedes the need for a long-term, structural approach to food security. For that reason, we need to give longer-term support to agricultural extension programmes—supporting farmer training by making available a broader range of agricultural technologies—to help with road building to enable farmers to get goods to markets more easily, to improve market information and to develop organisations that can advance credit to farmers.

Of course, many in southern Africa and the horn will look with interest at today's announcement about the supposed reform of the common agricultural policy. It will be difficult for them to find anything in the package of reforms that was announced in the early hours of this morning that will give them any reason to believe that large amounts of surplus EU commodities will not continue to be dumped in markets in Africa. It is difficult to see what in the reformed CAP of today is less trade distorting than the CAP of yesterday.

The eventual elimination of food insecurity and dependence on food aid must be an objective, but that should not disguise the poverty of so many countries in the world. To help them we need to tackle their poverty. When we met Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, he made it clear that he considered it imperative that his Government should have a longer-term food security strategy. He recognises that Ethiopia cannot go on, year after year, depending on financial and food handouts from the donor community.

I am sure that DFID will likewise want to pursue a longer-term approach, so I am pleased that the Government's response to paragraph 124 of the report accepts that in the past some of the Department's policy making on southern Africa has been short-sighted. Perhaps its estimate of those at risk of starvation will fall because it believes that many people are dying of HIV/AIDS rather than of food shortages. If that is the case, I suggest that the two are interlocked: hunger helps to beget HIV/AIDS and HIV/AIDS helps to beget hunger.

The WFP believes that the first defence against HIV/AIDS is food and likewise wants to distribute food foremost to HIV sufferers. That is exactly what the report says in paragraph 47. It is also what UNICEF said in its donor update on 9 June, which stated that

"the outlook for children is particularly bleak . . . the impact of the humanitarian crisis on children in the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic has also been reflected in the stagnation or deterioration of what was until recently a steady improvement in the rates of childhood malnutrition across the region".

I appreciate the proposals made by France and the UK at the EU summit, in response to the recent announcement by the US Government of a $15 billion HIV/AIDS fund, to contribute Euro1 billion in 2004 to the global health fund. That is good news. However, it is disappointing and sad that unanimity on taking that proposal forward could not be reached in the Council of Ministers at the recent EU summit at Thessaloniki. Clearly, the global health fund will require new donor support of about $7 billion over the next two years—roughly $3.5 billion a year—to meet the needs of the high-quality proposals that it is considering.

A reasonable financing framework is thus clear. Europe collectively should attempt to match the US initiative with our own contribution of $3 billion a year, while Japan and other donors should contribute at least $1 billion a year in addition, making a total of at least $7 billion a year during 2003 and 2004. Donor Governments should also make commitments to the global health fund—as the report urges in paragraph 153—instead of waiting in anticipation of the international financing facility, which at the moment remains an idea.

I should like to close my comments by referring to Zimbabwe. Clearly, DFID and I disagree to a certain extent about the food security threats in countries such as Malawi and Zambia. None the less, given the Minister's statement on Monday, it is evident that his Department is primarily concerned about the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe. We would all agree on that. However, paragraph 34 of the report states:

"We believe that the UK Government is failing to communicate clearly the ways in which Zimbabwe is exacerbating food insecurity in southern Africa. DFID should explain clearly the culpability of Robert Mugabe's policies on land reform, and emphasise too that restrictions placed on the movement of genetically-modified maize have hampered the relief effort and contributed to the deteriorating situation across the region. If he continues with the same policies and approach, Zimbabwe will remain part of the problem rather than part of the solution to famine and food insecurity in southern Africa."

It is questionable whether the Government are still fully taking into account the extent to which Zimbabwe's policies affect not only Zimbabwe but people across southern Africa as a whole. The single mention of Zimbabwean governance in this week's ministerial statement acknowledges only that

"poor governance has made the crisis worse in Zimbabwe."—[Hansard, 23 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 30WS.]

Poor governance has made the humanitarian crisis worse not just for Zimbabwe but for Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and the whole region.

I understand that DFID had reduced overall development aid to Zimbabwe until that country's suspension, but the total amount given in 2002 was still larger than in 1997, when this Government came to office. The Department's most recent report states that development aid should be

"focused on systematic poverty reduction in ways that support local ownership".

It added that the Government

"has. . . . increased its commitment of assistance for well thought-out programmes in key sectors in reforming countries . . . which in turn will improve the quality of public expenditure management as a whole, and help reduce corruption".

It is clear that, under DFID principles, improving democracy is regarded as a totem for supporting development aid—a point that is echoed by the United States millennium development account—but that is not what is happening in Zimbabwe.

The UK's approach to the land reform programme in Zimbabwe has been confused. That DFID programme, more than any other, puts into sharp relief the confusion of the Government's approach to Zimbabwe, democracy and development principles. As the communiqué from the Abuja agreement in September 2001 rightly observed:

"Land is at the core of the crisis in Zimbabwe and cannot be separated from other issues of concern to the Commonwealth, such as the rule of law, respect for human rights" and democracy. The communiqué also refers to the UK Government's financial involvement in land reform and welcomes the

"re-affirmation of the United Kingdom's commitment to a significant financial contribution to such a land reform programme and its undertaking to encourage other international donors to do the same."

That would be welcome if the land reform programme in any way assisted poverty reduction, but it does not. The Zimbabwean Government's "fast-track" land reform programme is not fair land reform. It does not meet the Abuja agreement terms and it does not deserve bilateral aid from the UK Government.

I should make it crystal clear that that does not mean that the Zimbabwean people should not receive emergency humanitarian assistance from DFID and other donor Governments; the people of Zimbabwe should not suffer because of Robert Mugabe's policies. However, I would welcome further clarification on DFID's approach to "good governance", as outlined in paragraph 166 of the Select Committee report.

If the Government are to understand fully the longer-term approach that is needed for southern Africa, their attitude towards Zimbabwe needs adjustment. What is happening now is different from what happened in 1985, and requires a different response. It requires long-term food security policies and improvement of the mechanisms for supporting the WFP.

In the long term, more needs to be done to deal with the following famine equation: drought plus HIV/AIDS minus fair trade equals famine. Otherwise, Africa will have 30 million people who are dependent on food aid. For Africa alone, the 2015 targets will become the 2030 millennium goals, as the continent continues to starve silently or—to reiterate the words of Prime Minister Meles—continues to be the ghetto of the globalised world.