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

Absolutely. I could not agree more. It would make perfect sense to manufacture treadle pumps in Africa. Equally, mosquito nets are imported from Hong Kong to a country in which everybody needs them. It makes no sense at all. It would make absolute sense to increase the economic activity in the country and to produce—perhaps at an ever-cheaper rate—goods that were needed there.

The current buzz phrase is trade liberalisation. Yesterday, there was a good debate in the House, and positive contributions were made on both sides. However, although opening up new markets will help many, we must accept that we in the developed world are a major part of the problem. Poverty is a major factor in the humanitarian crisis, yet the European Union and the United States continue to protect and to subsidise their own farmers, which destroys potential markets for those in southern Africa.

The UN estimates that if the trade rules were made to work for poorer countries, it could be worth up to 14 times the total amount of donated aid, or 30 times the amount that must be paid in debt repayments. If we are to move forward on trade, we must ensure that basic agricultural products have access to more markets and that their producers can benefit from the added value. It is a scandal that what we pay for a cup of coffee in Starbucks is the same as what a coffee farmer receives for enough coffee to produce 1,000 cups of coffee.

Trade between countries in the region must also be encouraged, as I mentioned earlier. Sadly, the systems in many countries in southern Africa, and in many of those most in need, have great difficulty in maximising the effect of outside aid. As the hon. Member for Banbury said, one example is the problem of transporting food aid to remote areas that can be cut off during the rainy season. The need to repair bridges and roads may not appear to be a top priority during the dry season, but the hungry will starve if food aid cannot be distributed on the ground because of a poor road system and lack of bridge repairs. That is one success in which DFID is involved.

When the Select Committee visited Malawi last year, we were able to see what village life was like and what people were up against. We saw a compound of Red Cross trucks ready to be used to distribute aid, but we were told that they were the heaviest and most expensive trucks to run. They were designed to be used in areas of conflict and could withstand heavy use, but locally, smaller vehicles were more suitable and cheaper to run.

The food and AIDS crises have become interlinked in many southern African countries. Nowhere is that link highlighted more than in discussions about the use and availability of anti-retroviral drugs. People need a good diet and to be relatively strong to cope with the medication available. For many of those who are weak, the use of some medication is out of the question, even if it is available.

My hon. Friend Dr. Tonge mentioned yesterday the progress being made in Botswana in the fight against AIDS. The Government there have involved the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and money has been taken out of the equation. Drugs and medical services have been made available, and resources have been poured in to tackle the problem. There is an educational programme to inform people how to avoid infection, in a country with one of the highest infection rates in the world.

Sadly, with every possible resource being thrown at the problem, very little is changing. In a relatively wealthy country for the region, increased wealth has brought its own problems, from alcohol to mobility. Both have increased the spread of AIDS. Young men like to get drunk; they have lots of partners and they have unprotected sex. Treatment is hampered by the stigma attached to the virus so that many will not come forward for treatment until it is too late.

I am normally an optimistic person. It is nearly 20 years on from Live Aid in 1985, when young people in their millions were moved by the plight of starving Africa and, if I had thought then we would have all the same problems to deal with 20 years later, it would be bad enough. However, if we also take into account the scourge of AIDS, we have a disaster on our hands of a biblical scale. I am not a religious person, but after reading this report many will say, "God help Africa".