Humanitarian Crisis (Southern Africa)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:36 pm on 26th June 2003.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Minister of State, Department for International Development 4:36 pm, 26th June 2003

I echo the thanks of Mrs. Spelman to Sir Nicholas Bevan for the service he has given to the House and to all hon. Members.

The report was impressive. It is not unusual to say that about what the International Development Committee produces, but in this case it was particularly impressive because it took such an important issue—the food crisis—and explored the complexities of the various factors and inter-relationships that make up the crisis. More importantly, it asked what lessons we can learn for the medium and longer term to minimise the chances of being in the same position again.

I concur with the comments of the hon. Member for Meriden about the dialogue that was published alongside the Government's response. I am grateful to all hon. Members who spoke in the debate, because it was evident from every speech that they brought their own experiences to the matter. There cannot be one hon. Member present who has not been to Malawi, and I shall say something later about my own experiences in that regard.

Three broad conclusions can be drawn from the debate and the report. First, the international response to the humanitarian crisis was generally effective in the end, as Tony Baldry said. About 14 million vulnerable people were helped by Governments in the region, by non-governmental organisations and by the international community, and there is no doubt that lives were saved and suffering reduced as a result.

Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman was right to say, the crisis is continuing. Although improved harvests will allow feeding programmes in some countries to stop, we expect up to 7 million people in the region to need assistance later this year. In Zimbabwe, the Government's disastrous policies made the crisis deeper and longer than it should have been and significant international assistance will again be needed. I will return to that point.

Thirdly, we need to adjust our longer-term development activities in southern Africa to take account of the lessons that we must learn from the crisis. The most valuable thing to emerge from the report and this afternoon's debate is that we should engage in discussion about what we can do differently and better in future.

We discussed variable climate as being a fact of life in the region. I understand that quite a lot of research has been carried out on the questions raised by Dr. Tonge, but it might be helpful if I to write to her about that, so that I can give her more information.

HIV/AIDS has featured prominently in our discussion. We must give more thought to how we manage the significant risks that combinations of circumstances pose to poor people in the region.

I welcome the fact that the report acknowledged both the international response to the crisis, and the response that the Department for International Development made and continues to make as a major contributor to that response. The Department has provided £106 million so far. The UK was the second largest bilateral contributor. Bearing in mind the remarks of the hon. Member for Banbury, who chairs the Committee, we need to acknowledge that contribution, and our contribution to EU assistance.

Funds from DFID have supported the UN's regional appeal, as well as the work of NGOs and some government systems. I pay tribute to those working in the region for the UN, international and local NGOs and regional governments. I also pay tribute to DFID staff in the UK and in country, whose dedication and hard work has undoubtedly helped to save many lives.

One specific area of concern raised in the report was whether we reacted quickly enough to early signs of famine in Malawi. That is a legitimate question. I visited Malawi in 2001, and met the famous Harry Potter, to whom my hon. Friend Tony Worthington referred. Harry Potter gave an interview to a journalist at the end of which the journalist said, "By the way, what's your name?" and responded with incredulity when he was told. On a visit to a village in Malawi, I remember someone remarking that the amount of grain in the bins appeared rather low for that time of year. The evaluations and review of donor performance that are under way, including those carried out by the National Audit Office, DFID, the World Food Programme and some NGOs, will help to provide the answer to that question. I undertake to keep the Committee and the House informed of the outcome of those assessments.

There are indications that the scale of the crisis this year will be smaller than last year and that about half as many people will need assistance. That is welcome news, although the problem will still be significant. Zimbabwe continues to be at the heart of the crisis, but significant crop failures in parts of Swaziland, Lesotho and Mozambique mean that help will also be needed in those countries. For that reason, we have already allocated £35 million as an initial contribution to the humanitarian response. We will review the progress of that response, and therefore the level of our contribution, later in the year. I believe that to be a sensible response to the situation.

With regard to Zimbabwe, I do not accept that DFID has failed to articulate with sufficient clarity, force or passion the responsibility that the Government of Zimbabwe bear for the catastrophe that now afflicts that country and its people. The hon. Member for Meriden was right to say that Zimbabwe has moved from bread basket to begging bowl. If someone who had been away for 25 years was told that Zimbabwe needed food aid, they would not understand what had happened because Zimbabwe was traditionally considered the bread basket of Africa. That is illustrates the extent of the disaster unfolding there.

The economy in Zimbabwe is collapsing, with inflation at more than 300 per cent. Foreign exchange is unavailable, as are key commodities, and subsistence farmers have been affected by variable rainfall. We all know about the disruption and chaos in the commercial farming sector. Even though the harvest looks better this year, it is likely that humanitarian programmes will need to be just as big as last year's, as the Zimbabwean Government will not be able to afford significant food imports. The proportion of food aid from sources other than the Zimbabwean Government must increase compared with last year. We must be clear that the food crisis in Zimbabwe is a crisis of governance.

HIV/AIDS is a massive additional burden on the Zimbabwean people, with about 3,000 people dying each week. We all sincerely hope that there will be early change in Zimbabwe. The point that the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Clare Short, made in answering the question—I read the exchange—was about the difficulty in doing more to deal with the problem while recognising that in the end the change must come from within Zimbabwe.

The hon. Member for Meriden will know that the international community has made its views clear. We all hope that change comes quickly: it must come if Zimbabwe is to have the future that its people deserve. In the meantime, we will continue, together with our partners, to press for change. We will continue to make our view clear that the Zimbabwean Government are responsible for the crisis.