Humanitarian Crisis (Southern Africa)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:09 pm on 26th June 2003.

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Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West 3:09 pm, 26th June 2003

I congratulate Mr. Battle on an excellent speech. He highlighted an important issue, which is that this is a long-term problem. In past decades, not much progress seems to have been made. He also made the important point that one of the problems in Africa is that many of the decision makers will not be around in the long term.

Tony Baldry described how the report relates to current events. Things are moving on, but much has stayed the same in Africa. I fear that the poverty, suffering and other elements that are mentioned in the report will still exist many years from now.

At first glance, Select Committee reports do not look like impressive documents. They are always blue—although I believe that that may change to purple—and contain lots of text, tables and statistics, but no photographs. Their layout is not designed for maximum impact. However, we are bombarded on a daily basis with glossy reports, in which more thought appears to have been put into the design than the content, and this report stands out because of its content. This is no "dodgy dossier" that needs leave a question mark as to whether something exists or not. The title "The Humanitarian Crisis in Southern Africa" says it all—there definitely is such a crisis.

As a relatively new member of the Select Committee, I begin by thanking my colleagues on the Committee who contributed to the report, the expert witnesses, the Committee staff and outside organisations, and those involved when we visited Malawi.

The Select Committee report ranges from the food crisis, to poverty, HIV/AIDS, early-warning systems, the Department for International Development's response, good governance, the NGOs, and much more. Many statistics are included, some of which are harrowing. There are 3.2 million AIDS orphans in the six crisis-affected countries; AIDS will kill many more people in southern Africa than hunger. In Malawi, between 6 per cent. and 8 per cent. of teachers die each year, and the cost of their funerals takes up a major slice of the education budget. As was said earlier, AIDS kills the very people needed to respond to the current crisis and whom the region needs most to survive: health workers, teachers and other able-bodied adults.

One of the greatest tragedies of the current crisis is its complexity. It is not just about people starving in Africa because of drought, although that is a major part of the equation, and is included in some detail in the report. There is also the problem of understanding the situation from the point of view of those suffering in Africa. It is impossible for many who read the report in the United Kingdom to appreciate what it means not to have a regular supply of nutritious food instantly accessible every day. I tried to live on a Red Cross food parcel for a week earlier in the year, and I am still suffering from that.

Nor is the crisis only about health problems that can easily be tackled with extra resources—again, that issue is covered in the report—or about the fact that corruption exists. Corruption has existed in Malawi, as the hon. Member for Leeds, West pointed out, and the questions that were raised about the sale of strategic reserves are not confined to the past. That led us to wonder whether such incidents might happen again. It is possible that some people made a lot of money out of the sale of grain that never moved out of the grain silos. Even in wealthy regions, we hear of money being salted away into western bank accounts, and of a small elite in some countries having a comfortable lifestyle.

As we saw on our visit to Malawi, education is the great hope for many young people. However, we saw school buildings with nothing in them but a few basic desks. Children who start going to school often drift away either because of basic problems such as no toilets being provided for teenage girls, or because they have to help in the fields. We were told that, for every 1,000 children who start primary school in Malawi, two would graduate and one would die of AIDS.

The report also covers the impact of genetically modified crops and the debate over whether it was right for Zambia, with people starving, to refuse 18,000 tonnes of maize from the USA. President Mwanawasa said that he would rather die than eat something toxic. That debate has not been helped by some people in the UK who are opposed to GM research under any circumstances. If drought-resistant crops can be developed by scientists and that process can be accelerated, they should be able to do what they can to help with the problem. Mistakes have been made, but a lot of good work is also being done by the Department for International Development, NGOs, local communities and some Governments, who are all responding to a desperate situation.

I should like to add to the debate something that the report cannot easily include. I mentioned that there are no photographs in the report. That can work to its advantage because people will not skim through it looking at the photographs and their captions without reading the text. However, I will try to convey some of the images from the Select Committee's visit to the region.

Those of us who visited Malawi saw at first hand things that will stay with us for a long time: the AIDS victims in the clinic in Lilongwe, where we were told about the spread of AIDS and the particularly high infection rate among young girls; the orphans who are looked after by extended families—often grandparents—which often means that no one is physically able to plough the family fields and to plant seeds by hand as the survivors are too young, or too old, to do the manual work required; those suffering from tuberculosis; and children in the malnutrition ward, where one child in every bed meant that it was a quiet period—there are two or three in every bed when it is busy. Those images have stuck with me.

We saw people queuing up in dark, overcrowded hospitals, and the enthusiasm of children who wanted to learn and who travelled miles to get to school, sometimes in the blistering heat. The image that stuck with me the most was that of an elderly woman whom I saw at a seed distribution project funded by DFID. She had a bag of grain, which I could have hardly lifted off the ground, balancing on her head and was ready to walk 6 km home.

We also saw a vast lake and an abundance of water not too far away from where people needed it, and we were aware of how irrigation could help. I tried to participate in irrigation by using a treadle pump. It was as exhausting as a trip to the gym. It was hard enough for a well fed MP, but it was a greater task for someone who was already weak from hunger or ill health.

We saw beggars in the streets and people breaking stones all day. It was a really troublesome time. Perhaps future reports should carry photographs, because they would sum up the situation. A photograph is often worth a thousand words.