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Food Crisis (The Sahel)

Volume 546: debated on Tuesday 12 June 2012

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I am delighted to have secured this debate. I also thank my colleagues for joining me here this afternoon.

To put the debate in context, 18 million people across seven countries, from Senegal to Eritrea, are now feeling the effects of food shortages. The horn of Africa crisis is beginning to fade in our memories, and as it is not the force it was in the media, our attentions start to turn to another crisis. Although we have an opportunity to do better this time, I am concerned that the world community is not acting swiftly enough. These crises illustrate how food security is a growing problem, which will show no sign of lessening unless there is a global commitment to tackle the issues. That global commitment must deliver its promises to the world’s poor.

I want to focus on a few issues, including children’s welfare during food crises, long-term investment and short-term recovery, and funding and the international community. Living in the region when times are not too bad is difficult. Four of the Sahel countries, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali, are in the bottom 15 human development index countries. Even in a very good year, Oxfam says, 300,000 children die from malnutrition. These communities are some of the most vulnerable in the world and they lack almost all of life’s most basic requirements. To meet the millennium development goals, the Government must work to protect these people by investing in their future and protecting their present.

The current crisis has recognisable traits plus the added complication of conflict. We have seen it before, but this time we must deal with it differently and better. Cereal production across the Sahel in autumn 2011 was 25% lower than in 2010. A change in the climate can be an inconvenience here in the UK. We saw that with the Queen’s jubilee when it rained throughout the pageant. When we have water shortages, we might not be able to bowl on our favourite bowling green because it has not been watered. In the Sahel, however, such shortages can be a matter of life and death.

One of the most dangerous consequences of a food crisis is malnutrition, which often hits children first, and the most vulnerable children at that. Malnutrition is destroying the potential of thousands of children across Africa. In early May, UNICEF warned that 1 million children could die from malnutrition in the Sahel. We have been warned and we continue to be warned about the ramifications of not acting. The Government must act now to prevent not only deaths but the spread of malnutrition.

The Save the Children report, “A Dangerous Delay” highlights how damaging malnutrition can be, as it directly affects education and future earning power. The impact of not acting now will affect generations to come. Oxfam estimated that it cost $1 a day to protect a child from malnutrition before the 2005 food crisis in Niger, but $80 a day to save a child’s life from severe malnutrition once the crisis had peaked. It makes sense both morally and economically to act now.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate. We are all aware of the number of debates that have taken place on this matter in this Chamber and elsewhere in the House. There is a problem of food security right across the globe, but in these countries some 300,000 children will die from malnutrition. Of course there is an issue of aid, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is good not only that we send aid to those regions but that the aid reaches the people who need it? There is also an issue of education and, where possible, irrigation should be introduced. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me on the need for security of food.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and pay tribute to him for the work that he has done on this problem over many years. I wholeheartedly agree that we need to do more, but the problem is broader than just malnutrition; lots of other factors are involved as well.

Although some money has been pledged to Save the Children, UNICEF and elsewhere, not nearly enough is being spent to protect children from the harmful effects of long-term malnutrition. World Vision estimates that in Niger nearly 50,000 children have dropped out of school since the crisis began, and that 44% of school-aged children are migrating for work. The food crisis is not just about food; it affects a child’s health, mental well-being, education and future. We sometimes forget that education is a once in a lifetime thing. Malnutrition does not just affect the child while they are hungry; it is a life sentence. If a child misses out on education at a vital period in their life because of malnutrition, they never recover. Malnutrition is a life sentence for many people in this region.

Although UK funding has increased, it has not taken into consideration that the need has grown since 2010, when funding was £20 million. I urge the Government to act swiftly, not only to provide crisis funding but to invest in the future of the Sahel communities.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing such an important debate. On the point about contributions, the Department for International Development has already made significant contributions of food, water, seeds, medicines and vaccinations for cattle, and the Minister will have even more details. Some 1.4 million people are being helped at the moment. Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that this humanitarian crisis is so grave that we need leadership and involvement from the entire international community, and that further assistance and contribution from some of the wealthier middle east countries would not go amiss?

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution and pay tribute to her for her work on this matter over a long period of time. I noticed that the Minister was shaking his head. I do pay tribute to the Government for what they are doing and I will come on to say that we very much welcome the extra money. The point that I was trying to make was that we need to be doing more on a world community basis. We need to involve Europe and other bodies. I certainly was not minimising what the Government are doing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Following on from the hon. Lady’s point about global leadership, does he agree that it was disappointing that the G8 leaders did not take a stance similar to the one taken in L’Aguila in 2009? We need a global response to food security, ensuring that we tackle not only the urgent crisis in Sahel but future crises in other parts of the world.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The UK Government can do their bit and provide support and additional funding, but unless we get a global commitment and involve multilateral institutions, we will not solve the problem.

As I have already said, I urge the Government to act swiftly, not only to provide crisis funding but to invest in the future of the Sahel communities. The long-term investment should include investment to build capacity and resilience within those communities. The region’s long-term problems must be tackled before a crisis emerges; it is so important to deal with crises before they happen, rather than wait until they happen to act. Not only do we risk lives if we wait but the cost of the delay will also be huge; that was another point that I made before.

Recent humanitarian disasters have shown the importance of heeding early warning systems and not delaying before taking action. “A Dangerous Delay”, the report produced by Oxfam and Save the Children, highlighted the mistakes that were made in the response to the east African crisis. The report said that national Governments, donors, NGOs and the UN needed to

“act decisively on information from early warning systems and not wait for certainty before responding”


“actively seek to reduce drought risk in all activities, ensuring that long-term development interventions increase resilience and adapt to the changing context”.

I am sure that the Minister has been waiting to hear my next point: I very much welcome the news that the Department for International Development has increased funding. However, what I am saying is that the Sahel crisis is so huge that we need even more money, and we also need the UK Government to make sure that everyone else is pulling their weight too. The extra £10 million from DFID could not have come at a more important time, but the UN states that we are still missing £300 million to fight the worst of the crisis. Food security is no longer just about the human imperative of having enough to eat; it also impacts on government and on the very structures of the societies in which these people live.

I will conclude as quickly as I can, because I want to give the Minister ample opportunity to tell us what he is doing—not only what he is doing as part of the UK Government’s efforts, but what he is doing in relation to the actions of international organisations, other donors and other countries. I hope that he will paint a picture of the UK being hugely active in trying to deal with an incredibly difficult crisis.

As I have said, Oxfam has warned that 400,000 children may need life-saving treatment for malnutrition. A donor-pledging conference is crucial. Can the Minister comment on the possibility of having such a conference? Is a conference feasible? I would very much welcome one as soon as possible, because the crisis is getting worse as we speak. We need a donor-pledging conference to minimise the risk that the crisis poses to children and severely affected communities.

The UK is respected worldwide for its commitment to aid and for the difference that it makes globally. That was the case under the last Labour Government and I hope that it will be the case under this Government too. I hope that they will make a commitment to do the best they can for some of the most vulnerable people in the world. I hope that this Government will continue the UK’s work in this area and, as I have already said, that they will encourage as many other individuals and organisations as possible to get involved. What role can the UK play to encourage more funding? That is the key question for the Minister. The Government must increase their own funding, but they must also encourage more funding from other organisations. That additional funding is desperately needed.

I thank Members for being here in Westminster Hall today and I thank the Minister for coming along. I am sure that we are all hugely concerned about the growing crisis in the Sahel, but this is a debate. We have uttered warm words; we have all said how vital it is to act and how desperate the crisis is, but those are simply words. What we need now is action, and I hope that action is what we get.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to ensure that we give a high degree of attention and recognition to what is unquestionably one of the most pressing issues facing the people of our planet today. It is therefore very timely that the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) has secured this debate. I saw it listed on the Order Paper some time ago, and I think that it has been brought forward to today, when Parliament has reconvened. I am glad that we now all have the opportunity not only to catch up with the facts on the ground as we now best understand them, but to understand what our response on behalf of the British people has been to date.

I particularly seek to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s questions about where we go from here. We are not only focused on the immediate humanitarian needs, although we are rightly focused on them at this stage, but on the resilience issues highlighted by him and my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and the hon. Members for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar). Indeed, we also focus on the year-on-year challenges that face that area of the world.

The crisis in the Sahel is something that we need to debate, to ensure that it is kept in the public eye. As the hon. Member for Workington said, it is currently estimated that about 18 million people are at risk of food shortages, of whom 8 million need immediate assistance. We are witnessing exceptional circumstances, as almost 1.5 million children are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year, which is obviously a large increase on the number of children affected by food insecurity in the Sahel year on year. The worst affected countries are Niger, Chad and Mali, where 72% of those who are affected by the crisis live, but a huge swathe of land is affected, from Senegal and Gambia on the Atlantic coast to the northern parts of Nigeria and Cameroon, as well as areas to the north and east of those areas.

The humanitarian crisis in the Sahel is getting worse. Increasing numbers of people are being forced to resort to coping mechanisms that store up trouble for the future, such as reducing the number of meals each day or going without food altogether for days at a time. The physical condition of the livestock that provide the livelihoods for many families in the Sahel is beginning to deteriorate, and some animals are now too weak to reach pasturelands. Admission rates of severely malnourished children to therapeutic treatment centres are on the rise, and greater numbers are being admitted to treatment centres in Niger than at the same stage of the 2010 crisis.

I will respond in particular to a point made by the hon. Gentleman about the cereal deficit. He said that cereal production in 2011 was 25% lower than in 2010. That is certainly factually true, but 2010 was actually a bumper year, so we need to be extremely careful about how we understand the phenomenon for the resilience argument going forward. In 2011, cereal production in the Sahel was actually about 3% in deficit compared to the overall running average. There is, of course, a structural problem about what that average represents in terms of meeting the ongoing and continuing need.

Does the Minister accept my point that, even in the good years, life is desperately hard for people in the Sahel?

Absolutely; I was seeking to make that point. It is helpful to reinforce the point that, in any event, we are dealing with an extraordinarily challenged area of the world, which has a year-on-year crisis; that is no exaggeration. However, as I have just pointed out, we have an exceptional situation now—this minute, this year—and a fairly tight window in which to do something about it before the weather conditions in the normal weather patterns arise in the next few weeks and make it even more difficult to gain access to the area and deliver aid, even where security issues do not make that more difficult than it already is climatically and geographically.

That is why, as Ministers in the Department for International Development and on behalf of the British people through the coalition Government, we announced yesterday an additional £10 million to be provided immediately, to help just over 1 million people in six countries of the Sahel, by giving food, health care, clean water, animal feed, treatment for children and aid to refugees. That brings our total funding commitment to the region to date to £20 million, which will assist more than 1.4 million people at risk of hunger in the Sahel—a point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald in her intervention.

The UK has shown leadership by being one of the first international donors to respond to this crisis, at the same time as we have pushed others to do more. Our initial £10 million, which was given some weeks back, is already starting to demonstrate results. An example of UK aid impact in April includes assistance to more than 43,000 men, women and children. Of those 43,000 people, 15,000 people in Niger have received food; 27,000 people, or approximately 3,464 families—that is a rather precise number for an approximation—in Niger and Mali have received inflation-proof cash vouchers to purchase food and other critical supplies; and 1,700 Nigerien children have been vaccinated against measles.

In addition to our direct support, the UK has provided a substantial share of multilateral contributions to the response to the crisis in the Sahel. The UN’s central emergency response fund has released £57 million, and the European Community Humanitarian Office has provided £105 million. So the UK is taking its fair share of the burden. But for our intervention and contribution, the situation would unquestionably have become even more serious at an even earlier stage. Families would have used up seeds and plants, and breeding animals would have been eaten and household assets sold to meet immediate food needs.

We have to be clear, however, that our links with the Sahel are not as strong as those that we have with other areas of Africa. We do not have the local presence or knowledge to take a lead in the Sahel, as we have done in the horn of Africa, for instance. Therefore, in response to the hon. Gentleman’s urging on this point, it is vital that we get other donors to be encouraged to step forward to carry their share of the international response, particularly those that have the shared history, the knowledge and the presence on the ground in the countries of the Sahel that the UK does not. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I continue to lobby our counterparts in other Governments, to urge them to increase their support.

Things are made even more difficult, of course, by things such as the coup in Mali. The rebellion in the north of the country has added a new and potentially dangerous dimension. More than 300,000 people have been directly affected by the conflict. Humanitarian agencies are increasingly concerned by reports of human rights violations, of increasing malnutrition and of armed groups seeking to place restrictions on humanitarian access. We have witnessed the effects of the deadly combination of drought, food insecurity and conflict in Somalia.

Now that the Minister has mentioned conflict complicating things, does he also accept that what has happened in Libya has had an impact on the Sahel region, with returning soldiers and so on? That does not help at all.

I absolutely agree. I prefer in this debate not to get too far down into the security implications, but suffice it to say that, perhaps a little unusually for a Minister of the Crown, I have driven right the way through the Sahara and this area and know the geography well. It was many years ago, but in the years when I was going there, it was seen as relatively safe, without the pressures that have come from returnees from some of the conflicts—in Libya, for instance—and the access to cut-price AK47s and other munitions. There were already very insecure parts to the region, because it has always been borderless from the perspective of how people perceive and identify themselves and adhere to various ways of life. That presents additional challenges. We have already closely monitored, and will continue to monitor, the humanitarian situation in northern Mali, to the extent that access and information are obtainable, and encouraged the Economic Community of West African States to continue with its efforts to find a diplomatic solution.

The international community has learnt from previous crises in the area in 2005 and 2010 and has brought those lessons to bear, as best it can, this year. Early interventions have helped many people to cope, including the UK’s cash voucher programme, which has enabled more than 3,400 families to hold on to their livestock during the start of the hunger season. However, we are now approaching a critical point in the crisis, with historical experience suggesting that acute malnutrition rates will rise to reach a peak in July and August. The rains expected to start this month will make it more difficult for aid agencies to deliver supplies across the region and will increase the risk of diarrhoeal diseases and malaria.

The urgency of the situation requires an intensified and co-ordinated international response. The UN’s appointment of a regional humanitarian co-ordinator for the Sahel will support a more coherent and prioritised response, and that is welcome. The UN has revised its estimate of the funding needed to meet humanitarian requirements to almost £1 billion, which is more than double its initial needs estimate and is an indication of the growing seriousness of the situation. It is therefore right to put pressure on other donors, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, as we speak, calls are being placed—I happen to know because I am personally involved—through to Germany, Norway and Canada. There are, of course, continuing and very active discussions with ECHO, through Brussels and through our French counterparts, as they have the strength of historical connection that perhaps replicate ours in the east and in the horn of Africa.

It is right that we focus our attention on meeting the immediate needs of people in distress, but at the same time we must continue to learn lessons from the Sahel’s third humanitarian crisis in less than a decade, so that there is much less likelihood of a repeat in the coming years. The underlying causes of the crisis are deeply rooted and long-standing.

The Sahel is a climatically vulnerable area and its vulnerability will be exacerbated by climate change. Even in so-called good years, some areas have rates of acute malnutrition chronically above 15%. It takes only a year of below average rainfall to push many more people over the edge; many poor households are still recovering from the 2010 crisis. It is not, however, simply a problem of uncertain climate; it is one of poverty, rooted in poor governance, political instability, endemic conflict and weak economies.

The key point is that there is enough food to feed the people of west Africa in 2012, and in many areas of the Sahel food is available but at prices that the poor cannot afford. In the markets of Mali, Mauritania and the north of Burkina Faso, food prices are historically high—more than double the five-year average for this time of year in Mali’s capital, Bamako, and 85% higher in Ouagadougou. It is a problem of economic access made worse by protectionist measures of Governments, such as restrictions on grain exports and border closures. We must continue—I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are continuing—to support the free movement of trade and food affordability to ensure that even the poorest can eat. At the same time, we must help Governments and communities to withstand a harsher and more uncertain climate, unlocking the region’s economic potential and helping to build a stronger contract between peoples and states.

The coalition Government are implementing recommendations from the humanitarian emergency response review to strengthen the resilience of poor people in Africa to withstand and recover from future shocks and to increase food security. We are developing safety net programmes, supporting work to improve agricultural livelihoods, funding research into higher-yielding and drought-resistant staple crops, and building stronger health and education systems. By 2015, 20 million young children around the developing world will benefit from our nutrition programmes.

Although we do not have a bilateral programme in the Sahel, the UK retains significant development investment in the region through our contributions to the multilateral development organisations. The European Union’s security and development strategy for the Sahel will commit €600 million over the next 10 years to provide basic services, increase economic opportunities and rebuild the contract between state and communities. The UK is also the second largest contributor to the World Bank’s global facility for disaster risk reduction and recovery, which is helping 20 developing countries, including Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso, to cope with disasters, adapt to climate change and build long-term resilience.

In picking up the hon. Gentleman’s point, I remind the House that the meeting of the G8 identified food security as a major theme that it wished now to focus on, and we are not only fully behind that but have had some help in ensuring that it is the focus of the agenda. We will continue to push that, both at the G20 and at other gatherings. It is vital that we recognise that worldwide, as a top development, humanitarian and aid issue—whichever way we define it—addressing food insecurity through resilience and other food security measures is now a huge and important priority for us, as the UK Government, with our development programme and humanitarian response, but also increasingly among the international interlocutors and partners.

The long-term investments in resilience and development not only are needed to give poor people in the Sahel and other vulnerable regions the means to take control of their lives again, but represent far better value for money than emergency humanitarian aid alone—a point underlined by the hon. Gentleman. So now that we have made our commitment clear and have stepped up not only bilaterally but particularly and equally through the multilaterals, urging the prioritisation that is required, it is the moment to build on working with others to try to get them to make up their equal shares. I am pleased to see that the responses are beginning to come forward and that we are seeing much greater prioritisation of, and focus on, this very immediate crisis that we all face.

Will the Minister please assure me that he will take a personal interest in monitoring the situation as the days, weeks and months go on?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that absolute assurance because for the past 14 weeks I have been making sure that I have a daily report. For reasons that he will understand, plans about how close I can get to having eyes on are in development.

In the meantime, I am grateful to have had this opportunity to update the House on the significant work that the coalition Government, on behalf of the British people, are doing to encourage the rest of the international community, as well as to contribute our fair share to what is a very difficult crisis that the world faces today.