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Global Hunger

Volume 557: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2013

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bayley, and I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue. I thank Mr Speaker for granting such an important debate, which could not come at a more appropriate time.

This is the year for the UK to take decisive action to end the worst scandal of our time, the blight of hunger. It is also fitting that this is the year when we take the leadership of the G8, nearly 10 years on from our pledge to make poverty history. It is time that we assessed our progress and made a further commitment to the world’s poor.

In the past decade, we have come a long way towards eradicating poverty in the world’s poorest regions. More than 50 million children have started going to school in sub-Saharan Africa, while deaths from killer diseases such as malaria have fallen by almost 75%. But we have not gone far enough. While one in eight women, men and children go to bed hungry every night, and each year 2.3 million children still die from malnutrition, the inhuman tragedy is unacceptable and we simply cannot rest on our achievements.

It is clear that the most vulnerable in our society are still not benefiting from our efforts to make poverty history. The millennium development goals have not yet delivered the structural changes that are so desperately needed. For that reason, today I will outline a vision that I believe this country can turn into reality, provided we seize this very important moment. We need to join the 100 organisations that are launching their campaign today to call on the UK Government to take action.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a unique point in history and that we desperately need to seize this unique opportunity?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I am delighted that he is shadow Minister for International Development, and I know that he will pursue these points with great enthusiasm.

It is a pleasure to intervene in a debate called by my right hon. Friend, precisely because he, perhaps more than any other Member of the House, has committed himself to this issue over decades. That is recognised across the House, by Members from all parties.

My right hon. Friend referred to the new campaign that is being launched by non-governmental organisations. Leading up to Gleneagles seven years ago, the “Make Poverty History” campaign applied pressure and made a real difference, not only in mobilising public opinion but in affecting Governments. Does he hope that we will see similar public support for a massive new campaign that leads to the kind of changes we need?

Yes, I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I hope I might be forgiven for not giving way later on, because I hope to give the Minister at least 15 minutes—or as near to that as possible—to respond to the debate.

I return to the thoughts I was offering. Food prices are more volatile than they have ever been, and even here in our own country hard-working families are struggling to feed their children. The message is simple: there is enough food in the world for everyone if we act now to address the structural causes of poverty. Hunger and malnutrition are not caused by a shortage of resources but by our inability to see beyond our own immediate needs. The time has come to look beyond politics, country borders and economic partnerships, and to make a decisive leap forward for the sake of humanity.

However, that prompts a question: what are the structural causes of poverty? They are the political choices made by Governments throughout the developed world that ingrain inequality and injustice. We have a global mission and duty to ensure that the poor do not become poorer while the rich become richer.

Small-scale farmers in the developing world produce more than half the world’s food—a staggering figure—but look at what is happening to their land. Obviously, sizable and suitable land is vital for farmers to grow food, but globally, in the past decade, an area eight times the size of the UK has been sold off or leased out. Such land deals, done behind closed doors and with no transparency or participation by the people affected, often see local people unfairly lose their homes, land and access to the resources that are vital for them to be able to grow or buy enough food.

I am sorry; I said earlier that I wanted to give the Minister a reasonable amount of time.

The situation seems to me to be absolutely disgraceful. Beyond the way land is bought, sold and used, the system is opaque. Once food is produced, it enters the global market, which is dominated by a handful of multinational companies in a system with little transparency. That is not to say that those companies are inherently bad, but we would be foolish to overlook their incredible power. For example, 90% of the global trade in grain is controlled by five companies. Who benefits from that control? Shareholders, or people who are hungry? Companies have more information about us than ever before, yet as global citizens we have little useful information about their social and environmental impact. There are reporting requirements under the Companies Act 2006, but they are not useful to investors, producers, Government or civil society. Decisions continue to be made in the shadows, without participation by the people they affect. That cannot be right.

We in the UK could take a leading role to end the scandal. With the Prime Minister at the head of the G8, we can do a great deal. We could take action to ensure that small-scale farmers keep hold of their land to grow food. We could crack down on the tax dodgers depriving poor countries of resources to ensure the right to food.

I was in Zambia recently, when a British company owed the Zambian Government £70 million in unpaid tax. Imagine how many hospitals, schools, clinics, vaccinations, mosquito nets and so on could be made available to the Zambian people for that much money.

I am glad that my hon. Friend managed to make that important point.

We could work for global agreement on new sources of climate finance, which is important. We could underpin everything with transparency, the rule of law and strong institutions. To do all that, we must fulfil our existing commitments on aid and investment for agriculture and nutrition, the very basis of a functioning society.

If we look back in the history of our great nation, to the time of social writers such as Charles Dickens, hunger was a plague on our society, but political leadership took Britain out of that abyss. If we look at the world we live in today, there are still many challenges. The poverty in our own country is very real. The recession hits the poorest families hardest, and resources are scant. There is always the temptation to see no further than our immediate needs, but I sincerely urge the Government and the people of our country not to make that mistake.

Britain is where it is today because of key political choices made during times that were also hard; the NHS and the welfare state were created when the country had barely recovered from the second world war. Now is the time, during hardship, when our effort counts most. As Martin Luther King, Junior, once said:

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable...Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

We can make a difference. If the Government were to commit to enshrining in legislation the promise to spend 0.7% of our gross national income on aid, they would ensure that the UK is one of the first to reach a promise made 42 years ago, setting an outstanding example for others to follow. I will put that into meaningful context. Once reached, the 0.7% target amounts to 1.6p in every pound spent by Government, compared with 5.8p for defence, nearly 20p for health and just over 30p for welfare. That contribution would take us one step closer to a world free from hunger, but it is not enough; we must go further.

In the midst of a crisis, the UK has a vital opportunity in 2013 to lead a new drive to tackle global poverty and hunger. We will be one of the first major countries to reach 0.7%; we are the chair of the open government partnership; we will be working closely with the current presidency of the EU, the Irish Government; and, above all, we have the presidency of the G8. We must lead other countries at the G8 in increasing contributions to address hunger. We must collectively commit, at the very least, an additional £417 million a year to sustainable small-scale agriculture to achieve food security for more than 418,500 people.

Will the Minister tell us whether the UK plans to take forward those commitments? Of equal importance, it is crucial to establish when the Government will put aside parliamentary time to pass the 0.7% Bill, thereby fulfilling their promise.

Women and children in the world’s most fragile places are the furthest from meeting the millennium development goals, and their well-being must be our priority. That is not only a moral duty; it makes economic sense. In 2006, the World Bank estimated that malnutrition causes a 10% loss in lifetime earnings for individuals, and reduces gross domestic product by as much as 3%. An estimated 20% of deaths related to lack of nutrition are caused by short stature, which is an outcome of childhood malnutrition. That is not a failure of production; it is a failure in the way we process, distribute, buy, sell and consume food and manage waste. In other words, the global food system is broken, and it is killing people.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, approximately 195 million children globally are stunted, and data from previous years show that almost 80% of those children live in just 24 countries. Studies have shown that if basic affordable measures are introduced to address key immediate causes, child death could drop by as much as 25%. It is by investing in children in the countries most affected by hunger that we will make the biggest impact.

Our children are our future, and to neglect those in greatest need is to harbour the resentment and bitterness that later erupts into the wars that we now see spreading across Africa and elsewhere. I am delighted that today our non-governmental organisations and charities are coming together for the first time in eight years to launch a major new campaign, which shows the politicians who believe in it that we are not alone. I hope colleagues can attend the launch tonight in Mr Speaker’s house.

Those charities and agencies are there every day, on the ground, all over the world helping people in need on our behalf, as I have seen for myself. Their supporters, the people of the United Kingdom, have time and again dug deep into their pockets, and generosity and compassion have prevailed. They are, therefore, in a strong position to invite politicians to add to what they have been doing, and they are about to do so again. Their call this time is that we do everything we can to close the widening gap and fix the food system for our common future.

Beyond state action, we need to ensure that every powerful force in the food system plays a positive role, including multinational companies. We can do that through creating transparency, which leads to accountability. By updating the Companies Act with a simple reference to human rights, the information that companies have to disclose about the impact of their operations can be made useful, and paint an honest picture rather than showing edited highlights. It is not too much to ask that those with great power are held to account. Transparency is about highlighting good practice and exposing bad practice, encouraging businesses to take a longer-term view of their business models and practices. At the same time, we can demand more transparency in how the Governments of developing countries spend their money—a type of transparency that we enjoy here at home—so that their citizens can also hold them to account, and so that we can ensure our money is well spent.

Campaigning is not always comfortable for Governments and politicians, but we can reflect upon what we can achieve: Live Aid, the jubilee debt campaign, the millennium development goals, the Make Poverty History campaign and the Green Climate Fund. Those things changed the world for the better, and we can do that again.

Timing is vital; the scale of the challenge should fill us with urgency. If we do not act now, the situation will get a great deal worse as food prices become more volatile and environmental shocks become more frequent and destructive, not to mention another generation’s full potential being lost to the scourge of starvation.

That sense of urgency should also make us hopeful, not only because of the opportunities that are before us this year or because of the commitment of our people, but because of the commitment here in Parliament. While world hunger is high up our agenda, and rightly so, it is time that we all worked together, using all our skills, resources and commitment to get child hunger off the table.

I thank the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Workington (Sir Tony Cunningham), and hon. Members for their restraint in speaking, so as to give me adequate time to answer the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke). Indeed, I also thank him for securing this important debate, which is very timely, because today UK NGOs will launch their IF campaign, which highlights the precise issue that we are debating this afternoon—global hunger. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is looking forward to speaking at the launch of the IF campaign this evening.

The Government recognise that global hunger represents a human tragedy that happens every day on a massive scale. Around 870 million people simply do not have enough food to eat, 165 million children are chronically malnourished and 2 million children die needlessly every year from malnutrition. So I am pleased to have this opportunity to set out the ways the Government are addressing the problem in 2013, a year in which the UK can play a transformative role in helping to end hunger.

The UK has a good, strong track record of taking action to prevent hunger. By 2012, the UK had met in full its commitments, made at the G8 L’Aquila summit in 2009, to provide resources to improve global food security. That has helped millions of people to fight chronic hunger and malnutrition in more than 20 countries. We expect to continue to provide a similar level of resources for the foreseeable future.

Looking to the future, the Government have committed to reach 20 million pregnant women and children under the age of five through our nutrition programmes; to help to ensure that 6 million of the world’s poorest people escape extreme poverty; and to ensure that by 2015 another 4 million people have enough food throughout the year.

Tackling hunger and malnutrition involves increasing the availability of food by boosting agricultural productivity. The UK Government support the agricultural research network—CGIAR—with resources for research to improve agricultural productivity, which will help to feed millions of people.

On the issue of land and its increasing attraction to investors, the Government believe that private sector investment in poor countries is key to achieving global food security and economic growth. We also believe that responsible commercial investment in small and large-scale agriculture has the potential to be transformational. However, it is vital that the rights and interests of people living and working on that land are taken fully into account.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) on securing the debate, and the organisations that have put together the IF campaign. By 2025, nearly 1 billion young people will face poverty because of malnutrition and hunger during their youth. The Minister rightly mentioned agriculture and the use of land. What work are the Government doing to ensure that Governments in developing countries and large corporations are actively working with an effective and ethical tax system to ensure that money stays in those countries for sustainable development?

Let me complete what I was saying about land, and I will then turn to tax. On the land issue, the key point is that we welcome the successful negotiation of the voluntary guidelines on responsible governance of tenure, which were concluded by the Committee on World Food Security last year.

The UK Government absolutely recognise the importance of tax transparency in development. As the Prime Minister said at Question Time today, the UK will use its G8 presidency this year to tackle tax evasion and aggressive avoidance.

The Department for International Development has an excellent programme in Rwanda for registering the land of smallholders. Is there a possibility of rolling it out in other countries to ensure that smallholders have their title registered for security?

Absolutely. A proper legal framework for ownership of land is crucial if property rights are to be exercised fairly, particularly among some of the poorest people. That building block in any country’s framework of law is crucial for the guarantee of such rights.

To tackle hunger, we need to improve poor people’s access to food. They spend a large proportion of their income on food, so are least able to cope when food prices rise unpredictably. UK aid provides money to a consortium, led by FARM Africa and Self Help Africa, which aims to increase the production and returns of nearly 1 million smallholders. We also provide support for safety nets so that the poorest people have a buffer to help them to survive and recover from economic or natural shocks that threaten their ability to feed themselves and their families. For example, DFID supports the Ethiopian Government’s productive safety net programme, which provides predictable cash or food payments to around 8 million people.

I fully support the campaign for enough food for everyone, and I particularly congratulate Save the Children. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK should support increased fiscal transparency in developing countries so that their citizens can hold their Governments to account and press for greater civil participation for local citizens to see better how their money is spent to increase food supply?

Mr Duncan: I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for such transparency, and indeed part of the menu of DFID’s activities in many of our bilateral country programmes is to enhance such political accountability and better governance of the people their politicians serve. We want to help countries to extend accountability, which we take for granted in this country, to their own people wherever possible.

Ultimately, our aim is to ensure that poor households, particularly those with young children, do not suffer from the sort of malnutrition that the right hon. Gentleman described. DFID is scaling up its nutrition programmes in more than 10 countries. We recently announced a new three-year £35 million programme in Yemen, for example, to treat and prevent under-nutrition among 1.65 million women and children. I take a particular interest in that country, where it is thought that perhaps a third of all children under five are malnourished.

We also contribute to research and development to improve the nutritional content of staple food crops. In Africa and Asia, with UK support, HarvestPlus is providing seeds and tubers nutritionally enriched with vitamin A, zinc and iron, which should benefit more than 3 million people.

Of course, no country or Government can tackle global hunger alone. Last year, the UK supported the launch of the G8’s new alliance for food security and nutrition, which aims to lift 50 million people in Africa out of poverty through economic growth and agriculture. This year, during our G8 presidency, the Government will attempt to improve and expand the new alliance. We will work to bring in more African countries and deepen its impact; for example, providing a strong focus on empowering women, who make up 40% of the world’s agricultural work force, and on promoting responsible private sector investment in African agriculture.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being generous. An issue that he has not yet touched on in any detail is the importance of tackling corruption, ensuring that any money, whether tax or aid, is used to deal with economic development and poverty. Can he include a comment about that?

Certainly. There are two aspects of the overarching label of corruption. First is the risk of our taxpayers’ money being fraudulently diverted, which happens minimally and against which we have the most rigorous safeguards in all our practices in the Department. The second is a broader issue. In many of the countries where we work, there is endemic or pervasive corruption in society and among politicians. We will therefore soon be publishing, as recommended by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, corruption strategies for each of the countries where we work, primarily directed at the pervasive corruption in the country itself but always with an eye on how our own funds are properly used, I hope, in that country. The hon. Lady is absolutely right, because ultimately those who suffer from corruption are the poorest.

The UK is a partner of the Scaling Up Nutrition movement, which is a coalition of developing countries, donors, international agencies, NGOs and businesses, spearheading efforts to build an effective international response to the problem of under-nutrition. As part of our Olympic legacy, in 2013 the Government will host a follow-up to last year’s hunger event to continue our focus and that of the world on the issue. NGOs play a vital role on the ground delivering key food and nutrition services. They help to build national awareness and consensus on problems that are often complex. The NGOs’ IF campaign will therefore provide welcome momentum.

While working hard to tackle global hunger, the UK will continue to provide humanitarian relief and respond to emergencies as they arise. This year, for instance, we will provide £15 million to support more than 500,000 people in five Sahel countries. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has a role as the co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda. The Government will have a role in shaping the future of development and an end to poverty. Finally, again this year, the UK will be the first G8 country to meet the commitment to spend 0.7% of its gross national income on official development assistance, giving us greater capacity to address the challenge of hunger and poverty, among many other such challenges. In conclusion, I assure the House that the Government’s commitment to tackling global hunger for the very poor will continue with renewed purpose in 2013 and beyond.

An excellent debate, which I am very glad to have heard. At the launch later this evening, I hope to see some of the Members who participated, including those who were present throughout the debate but were unable to speak, such as the hon. Members for Upper Bann (David Simpson), for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) and for Ipswich (Ben Gummer).