Humanitarian Crisis (Southern Africa)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:06 pm on 26th June 2003.

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Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 4:06 pm, 26th June 2003

You have ensured that it will be on the record, Sir Nicholas. As a more recent Member, I, too, have good reason to be grateful for the advice that he has given me in my relatively short time in Parliament; we shall miss him.

I am grateful to the Select Committee on International Development for the enormous amount of work that it has put into its analysis of the humanitarian crisis in southern Africa. I enjoyed reading its report, which was laid out with the Government's response. That lay-out resulted in an interesting dialogue between Members who took the trouble to visit the area to speak to many people and the Government. When those Members returned, they were well informed, on top of their already substantial knowledge of international development issues. The report forced the Government's response, which means that the quality of the dialogue in the report is excellent. When I discuss engaging with the ideas, the nature of the dialogue will become clear.

In essence, the report is a post-mortem about the peak of the humanitarian crisis, which has sadly not gone away. The research is ongoing, which is interesting. The important thing that we must draw from the report is how to avoid a repeat of the experience and how to prevent a dependency cycle. The severity of the crisis in the southern African region is a challenge to all of us who are concerned about those in the developing world.

What lessons have been learned from the crisis? The Select Committee was right to focus on the early warning systems. Although there was intelligence, the warnings undoubtedly came too late to save some lives. I welcome the vulnerability assessment report because there is a clear need to identify risk, and most of those countries are at risk. My concern about the southern African crisis was that DFID responded too slowly in two key cases. There was an early warning system for the severity of the famine in Malawi. When I wrote to the previous Secretary of State for International Development in March 2002, she replied that the shortages were localised. It was a long time before the view of the severity of that crisis changed from localised shortages to a full-blown disaster.

Exactly the same complacency characterised the initial response to the famine in Ethiopia. During an interview that the then Secretary of State gave on the "Today" programme, the famine was contrasted and compared with the severity of the crisis in southern Africa, but the indication was that it was much less serious, although almost the same number of people were at risk. My warning to the Minister is that we should be quicker off the mark in future with early warning systems, and I hope that the vulnerability assessment reports will enable him to do that.

Perhaps the key is better local intelligence on the ground. Non-governmental organisations gave early warnings of the severity of the crisis, but local intelligence gathering is very important. As hon. Members are aware, the media play a role and can help with the early warning system by drawing the world's attention to a looming problem. However, they can also hinder, because journalists who visit countries where there is an impending humanitarian food crisis sometimes misread the situation because of lack of specialist knowledge. There was an instance in Malawi when British journalists for broadsheet newspapers saw a severely browning crop on the ground. They assumed that that was an indication of the crisis, but it is a normal part of the maize cycle. We must be cautious of reports received through the media. Although they can be helpful in drawing attention to a problem, better local intelligence and a swifter response would undoubtedly have saved lives.

I am rather glad that the Select Committee members who are present today have used Malawi as an example of some of the fundamental underlying problems at the root of the crisis in the region. We are in an advantageous situation in that both Dr. Tonge, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on such matters, and I have been there. It is useful to test our views on a country that we have all visited because we start from the same base.

There is no question that Malawi has some special features of which we must take account. It is small, peaceful—thank goodness—and landlocked, but it is massively over-populated as a result of the Mozambique war. Many of its problems arise from features pertaining to the country, but it also has problems in common with the region. The crisis was triggered by erratic rainfall and a modest fall in food production, as the report states. That shows how vulnerable the region is. The coping strategies that the population has evolved for living in such an adverse climate are incredibly fragile, and it does not take much to tip the population over the edge so that many people die. Sadly, death from starvation is an annual occurrence in Malawi.

Those conditions could be replicated next year, if not this year, if we do not tackle some of the underlying problems. Malawi has rain, and there was lots of it when I was there with thunderstorms and no shortage of water falling, but no way of capturing that benefice. The run-off from the soil was enormous. Soil erosion was tangible with vast quantities of topsoil brought down from over-cultivated fields to lie in the roads in huge pools, but there was no way of capturing what nature has to offer. The absence of irrigation is a problem in any form of farming, even subsistence farming and certainly commercial farming, in that country. It has rainfall, and a huge lake—another feature of the country—but in many ways the agrarian economy cannot take advantage of them. However, other drought-prone developing countries do respond to climatic diversity. Drought-prone countries in Asia have developed water systems and used treadle pumps, which are ancient technology, not high tech. If more help were given to the region, such technology could result in offsetting the volatility in the climate that is a feature of the region.

There is no doubt that Malawi, in common with other countries in the region, is badly affected by adverse world trade rules that work so hard against developing nations. We had a substantial debate on that yesterday, but I reiterate that Malawi has, over the years, been encouraged to grow a range of commercial cash crops, but with an absurdly repeated cycle of very limited success and frequent failure.

The example about tobacco in yesterday's debate on fair trade does not need to be repeated. Those of us who visited Malawi saw the small holdings of Malawian tobacco, but the fact that 300,000 farmers in Malawi grow tobacco means that it is an important cash crop for a country that has suffered badly from domestic subsidies applied to tobacco in the developed part of the world.

Coffee is another example. I saw neglected former plantations of coffee production. Malawi has the climate to produce coffee, but coffee has been badly affected by the devastating collapse in commodity prices. Nor has the country any chance to compete. Huge tea plantations are now derelict, bringing unemployment and aggravating the serious poverty.

There is therefore no question that today's news on common agricultural policy reform, which lacked any commitment to removing the export subsidies that so damage the cash crop-producing potential of these countries, is utterly depressing. I hope that the Minister will confirm the impression that we have been given that no word in the conclusions of that CAP reform statement today, which the Government will present as a success, brings any comfort to the developing world. I record my party's deep regret that the opportunity has been missed.

Malawi survives on a regime of dependency on food aid. That is not desirable, but it is even less desirable that we have been giving Malawi food aid—we are not alone in that, but we have been a guilty party—but have not been giving it what it has been asking for. That is a more widespread problem. I acknowledge that the Government appear to have paid attention to that in the Select Committee's report, but I want to press the Minister to extrapolate some of the lessons that can be learned.

Faced with the incredible threat and reality of starvation in the region, a cry came from Malawian people not to give food for work in the programme. The initial idea had been to prevent starvation by providing people only with food. However, Malawian farmers were asking for something quite different. They wanted the implements with which to be able to produce the crop for themselves in subsequent years.

John Barrett described what he and I had seen in Malawi: women and children undertaking infrastructure projects because the male members of their household were too sick to take part in gruelling work. It is a hot country, and building roads by hand in hot countries is sheer hard work. The women who built the roads complained that if they were paid for their infrastructure work in food or cash, they had no sooner got home than members of the extended family tapped them for it. It is difficult for someone to be confronted by members of their family who are starving hungry when they have the wherewithal to keep them alive. How does that person refuse their family a portion of the food or cash that they have been given for their work?

People want vouchers for seed and fertiliser that they can cash in when the first rains come. That would make it much easier for them to explain to other members of the family that the benefit of their road-building programme will be seen in next year's harvest, when they will have the wherewithal to plant and perhaps to feed the extended family. For a long time, we seem to have resisted that request. The good news is that in the report published on 7 May, the response from the Government makes it clear that a conversion has taken place in DFID and that the pilot programme undertaken in Malawi, which has had such good results, has attracted the Government's attention. My question to the Minister is: if the programme worked well in Malawi, to what extent does DFID intend to replicate it elsewhere in the region?

To me, the timing is poignant. The pilot programme was an NGO programme for which funding expired on 16 May, with no prospect of the inputs-for-work programme being able to continue. The conversion seems to have come on 7 May, and I understand that funds have now been found for continuation of the programme using DFID moneys. I am interested in the Government's intention and the extent to which that will happen.

DFID having been converted on the benefits of the inputs-for-work programme, I ask the Minister to turn his attention to the way in which taxpayers' money is given multilaterally through the European Union. I had a letter from Pascal Lamy in response to my enthusiasm for the inputs-for-work programme. It flatly denied the programme's benefits and said that the European Union was committed to continuing to provide Malawian farmers with cash. I know from talking to those farmers that that cash simply disappears before the point at which they need it to purchase their inputs.

Even worse, Pascal Lamy said that the EU intended to persuade Malawian farmers to stop producing maize. I would like to know the reasons behind that, because maize is a staple crop in that country and, as far as I can see, it is the crop most likely to lift people out of wondering whether they will survive until the end of the year.

I am deeply unhappy about the situation. A third of our overseas aid is given in that way. If DFID is persuaded of the benefit of the inputs-for-work programme, will the Minister use his good offices to persuade those in the European Commission who do not share that view?