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Overseas Aid: Famine Relief

Volume 729: debated on Wednesday 6 July 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to provide famine relief to the people of Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia and Kenya.

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Tonge will be pleased to know that on 3 July the Government announced significant funding for the World Food Programme to help feed 1.3 million people in Ethiopia. The UK is the second largest bilateral donor in Ethiopia. Additional responses are rapidly being prepared for Somalia and Kenya, and we are closely monitoring the situation in Uganda. We are vigorously pressing other donors to play their part in helping to prevent a major catastrophe.

I thank the noble Baroness for that response. Is she aware that the population of the four countries currently threatened by famine has grown from 41 million in 1960 to 167 million now and that it is still rising fast? This huge rise is unsustainable and makes populations more vulnerable than ever to drought and crop failures. Will she now repeat the Government’s pledges to give more money to maternal health and, in particular, ensure that when we deliver food aid to starving populations we should also deliver contraceptive supplies and health education to try to ensure that the children whose lives we save today will not be bringing their children to the feeding centres in 10 or 20 years’ time?

My Lords, my noble friend is aware that the DfID programmes are concentrating on ensuring that maternal and reproductive health is at the centre of all our programmes. Of course, the noble Baroness is right that the populations in these particularly poor countries are growing far more rapidly than those in more developed countries. However, it is through education and supporting women to get better healthcare that we will be able to address this problem.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former director of Oxfam. Does the Minister agree that in their welcome response to this terrible crisis the Government must take care to ensure that, in the distribution of assistance, they do not inadvertently undermine sustainability in the area and that this will be done sensitively, in a way that enables people to build their lives again and build their sustainability? Is it not very important to co-operate with the NGOs, with all their insight into the situation, in achieving this?

The noble Lord is right. We have to work on a long-term plan, but we also have to react and respond to the crisis at the moment. The noble Lord will be aware that we have just had a review of the way we distribute humanitarian aid and we want to build on the recommendations of my noble friend Lord Ashdown so that there is resilience in the system as well as responding in the short term.

My Lords, on the basis that famines do not occur overnight and that conditions exist for some time before the crisis develops, would it not be better if the Government were able to have some plans that they could put into action in order to be ahead of the curve, so that the effects of the famine, or other crisis, could be mitigated?

The noble Lord, Lord Patel, is right. Following on from the previous question, it is about ensuring that we have warning systems in place. We are also working hard to build long-term resilience by providing assistance on how to develop economic growth and by ensuring that populations are better educated in healthcare in order to be able to respond to the needs themselves.

Is the Minister aware of the proportion given by neighbouring African countries, such as Nigeria and Zimbabwe, to the total needed to help prevent this famine continuing?

My noble friend raises an important question. While we are world leaders, we are pressing Governments, not just from developed donor countries, but also from regional donor countries, to ensure that they are playing their part in responding to this crisis.

Will the Minister comment on the fact that we knew full well that the Horn of Africa was experiencing the driest year in six decades and the worst regional food crisis in this century, so it need not have been such a surprise to donors? Does she agree that, yet again, the response to what is clearly a desperately serious food crisis has come too late—indeed, only after disaster has struck and thousands of desperate people have been forced to seek food and refuge in refugee camps?

The noble Baroness is right: this was forecast. However, we in the UK are playing our part and pressing other donor countries to play theirs. We know that there is a shortfall and we are pressing other Governments to ensure that they respond. We are working very hard with agencies across the globe. Ultimately, it is about ensuring that we are putting long-term resilience plans into place, which take time to build up. At the same time, we will press for short-term responses from other Governments.

My Lords, my noble friend talked about the encouragement of other donor agencies. I am sure that she is aware that the Disasters Emergency Committee is still in discussion with the member agencies on whether the catastrophe meets its appeal criteria, although some of its member agencies such as Oxfam and Save the Children have already issued separate appeals. What can my noble friend and the Government do to encourage wider and more effective co-ordination of the voluntary agencies in responding to this and future disasters? In particular, will they encourage wider co-operation between our agencies and those of the Irish Government?

My noble friend is right: we need to have better co-ordination. We are working closely with the noble Baroness, Lady Amos. Ultimately, this is about us showing our leadership and pressing other donor countries and organisations to join in the response to this urgent crisis.

Will the Minister confirm that, while the aid budget is ring-fenced, there are going to be cuts in the administration of our aid? How will these impact on the emergency services? Will they be protected?

I assure the noble Earl that we are looking at cutbacks only in back-office work. Our aid effectiveness will not be affected; in fact, we will be able to deliver better because it will be more focused on results. How we deliver our aid will be at the heart of what we are doing.