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Food Aid: Eu Surpluses

Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 24 February 1999

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2.56 p.m.

What steps they propose to take to ensure that the estimated 800 million people currently undernourished in the world will be given food aid from the surpluses in Europe.

My Lords, undernourished people need the chance to develop sustainable livelihoods and not to rely on hand-outs. Government policy is directed to this end. In short-term crises, food aid can play a role, but only provided it meets local needs and dietary preferences. Food from the same country or region is therefore normally preferred over European agricultural surpluses.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. Does she agree that it is very difficult for Members of your Lordships' House, when they quite often visit the third world, to justify our agricultural policy in Britain and in the western world, where we pay producers for not producing food which is badly needed in other parts of the world? Will the noble Baroness consider putting new proposals to our European partners to see what can be done to help to overcome this humanitarian problem that exists in the third world?

My Lords, I can understand the noble Lord's concern. As a member of the European Community, one of our key tasks is to work towards the reform of the common agricultural policy. It is also important to remind your Lordships that the Government's position is very clear on development issues. Food aid can play a role only in the short term. It is an inefficient form of resource transfer compared with technical and financial assistance. In the longer term, poverty is best addressed by improving the livelihood opportunities that are open to poor people. That is the core of our strategy and that is why our international development budget is focused on poverty eradication. We are committed to the world food summit goal of reducing the number of undernourished people in the world by half by 2015.

My Lords, is the very worthy statement that the noble Baroness has made about know-how and encouraging people to grow their own food—at least that is what I inferred from what she said—agreed by the other members of the European Community? What sort of influence do we have among the other member states to encourage them to adopt such a policy and be wholeheartedly behind it?

My Lords, we have been taking a leading role in this area since the publication of our White Paper on international development. After all, 30 per cent. of our international development budget goes towards EC aid. Our objective is to try to maximise the contribution of the EC's development programmes to the international poverty target to which we are committed, which is the halving of extreme world poverty by 2015. We are currently in negotiations with our European Union partners because those budgets are now being set. We want that target to be part of the EC's development aid strategy. We have also published our institutional strategy paper which sets out the terms on which we expect to work with our European partners and with the European Commission over the next number of years. I shall be glad to send the noble Baroness a copy of that paper.

My Lords, bearing in mind what my noble friend has said about the long-term aim of eradicating poverty, can she say what proportion of the international development budget is spent on food aid and how that has changed in recent months in the light of the Government's policy?

My Lords, in the period 1985 to 1995—no more recent figures are available—food aid as a percentage of overseas development assistance has dropped from 11 per cent. to 4 per cent. For the United Kingdom, it has fallen from 9 per cent. to 2 per cent. Globally, the figures have dropped partly as a result of a decline in overproduction but, in terms of the UK, part of the decline has been the result of our clear strategy to use food aid only in emergencies and to look at other areas like sustainable development, debt relief, building partnerships with local communities in the countries which we are targeting and our commitment to poverty eradication.

My Lords, although I do not disagree with the long-term objectives of the policy of this country and of the European Community, is not the reality of the situation that we have burgeoning surpluses in the West while there are areas of the world where people are starving because they cannot even till their own ground? Of course it is better in the long-term for food to be grown locally, but in the meantime is there not a way of utilising the surpluses of the West to benefit those areas of the world that need it? This is not a question of emergencies. An emergency might be a matter of a few months. These areas need sustained support for years before they can reach the stage when they can produce their own food, especially as in many of these areas agriculture is a very difficult proposition. Is not the real problem in the end the question of distribution?

My Lords, I hope to reassure the noble Lord that some of our aid budget is targeted towards food aid. But we are concerned that that is not the only mechanism that we use. In non-emergency situations we would not want to go down the route of using only food aid as a mechanism for development. In 1998–99 the UK has already provided £38 million for emergency food assistance to, among others, those affected by the war in the Sudan and to the victims of the devastating floods in Bangladesh and China. Multilateral organisations are also involved. As I have already said, we are keen to look at long-term sustainahility.

It may assist your Lordships if I give an example of the kinds of projects we would fund on the back of emergency aid. In Kenya we are supporting an Oxfam managed programme which is looking at strengthening the livelihood systems and community coping mechanisms in an attempt to ensure that poor people in future will be less vulnerable to the impact of drought. So we are looking at immediate needs and long-term needs as well.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the European Union aid programmes, such as the TACIS and PHARE schemes, represent some of the most maladministered programmes of the European Commission and that these are notorious for fraud and corruption? What specific action are the Government taking to ensure that this is urgently remedied by the European Commission?

My Lords, towards the end of last year I answered a Question on fraud in European Union aid programmes and I set out very clearly the action we were taking in terms of working with the Commission and supporting some of the proposals which were being made by the European Parliament. In addition, as I have already said, we have developed an institutional strategy paper which sets out the terms on which we intend to work with the European Commission. We have analysed extensively in that paper the strengths and weaknesses that currently exist within the European Commission's aid programmes. Again, I would be happy to send the noble Lord a copy of that paper.

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister said about the question of food aid and also the Government's continuing commitment to reduce world poverty, but will she specifically underline a point to which she made reference; namely, the Government's continuing commitment to reduce world debt, which, though not wholly related to this specific issue, is certainly partly related to it?

My Lords, I have had to address the issue of world debt before and I know it is one that concerns many of your Lordships. It is an extremely complex situation. We are committed to working with the international financial institutions to find the best possible way to ensure that we can help to relieve the burden of debt but in a context where, bearing in mind corruption and other problems, these countries actually benefit from debt reduction. It is a complex situation.