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Volume 734: debated on Wednesday 25 January 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the Save the Children and Oxfam report on the crisis in east Africa and the call for early responses to warning signs, what they will do to ensure a similar crisis is averted in Niger.

My Lords, the Government are very concerned about the emerging crisis in Niger and have been monitoring the situation closely. The Secretary of State for International Development has announced emergency support to mitigate the impact of the crisis. This will reach 68,000 children in Niger, Chad and Mali and provide livestock support to 30,000 families.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her response. The warning signs of looming disaster were there in the Horn of Africa two years ago, but no action was taken and tens of thousands of Somalis starved to death and millions of people in east Africa were affected. Against that background, will the Government give active endorsement to the UN-supported charter to end extreme poverty, which identifies five specific actions that must be taken when we know that a crisis is predicted and preventable? We can and must stop the drought in west Africa and the Sahel turning into a famine. We must say never again and mean it.

The noble Baroness is right that we must say never again and mean it, but I dispute that the Department for International Development was not leading on the response in the Horn of Africa. Credit has been given to the UK Government for that. The report from Oxfam and Save the Children to which her Question refers is extremely welcome. It indeed emphasises that the intention is to manage the risk, not the crisis. That is absolutely the right way to go about it: to intervene early and build resilience. That is why the Department for International Development did that in the Horn of Africa and is doing that across the Sahel.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the report, A Dangerous Delay, which has just been issued, Oxfam states that many of its messages chime well with the humanitarian emergency response review chaired by my noble friend Lord Ashdown? Focusing on anticipation of and resilience to natural disasters, what measures have been put in place to co-ordinate cross-departmental and cross-agency efforts through the stabilisation unit and other means?

The noble Lord is right that the humanitarian emergency response review made some extremely important recommendations for the anticipation of disasters and building resilience to them. That is being taken forward at the moment. DfID is in the process of developing a humanitarian framework for Africa and a Sahel resilience strategy which will help the UK anticipate and respond strategically to crises across the continent. The building stability overseas unit normally focuses on resilience against conflict issues rather than natural disasters. Nevertheless, the two feed on each other, so there is action that that unit can take as well.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the reports this week that Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group in Nigeria, has been responsible for a large number of people escaping from the violence there into neighbouring areas in Niger, and that this is both leading to an exodus of refugees, compounding the existing problems in Niger, and preventing food being transported from Nigeria into Niger? Did she see the warning from the European Union earlier this week from Kristalina Georgieva, the commissioner for human aid, that it is a race against time to safeguard the lives of the 5.5 million people who are currently at risk?

The noble Lord is right to flag up the problems in the area generally. Indeed, the knock-on effects from the problems in Nigeria are having an effect. So, too, are the returning mercenaries from Libya who instead of sending back remittances now need to be supported in that area. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State today spoke to the Commissioner about the situation in the area and the EU has just doubled its contribution. We are acutely aware of the difficulties of working in this area as it is very unstable.

Can the noble Baroness give us a figure on what the British contribution has been so far and what she intends it to be in the future?

The United Kingdom has just contributed £2 million to this directly in response. It is worth bearing in mind that the United Kingdom is also a major contributor to the UN Central Emergency Response Fund which has just put in £7.9 million, of which £1.9 million was from the United Kingdom. The European Commission contribution, as I have just mentioned, has doubled in the past few days to £105 million and we contribute 17 per cent of that. Maybe the noble Lord would like to do some of the maths. For historic reasons, the French are the leading country in this area, and DfID staff are in France right now seeking to gear up the response.

My Lords, according to the World Health Organisation 40 per cent of the healthcare in Africa is delivered through the churches. Can the Minister say whether the Department for International Development will be working through the churches as part of its response to these crises?

The right reverend Prelate is right that the churches are very active in the region and DfID is working with a number of organisations. This is a region where, generally speaking, it is not possible to channel money directly through Governments. Therefore, a number of other organisations are the routes to support in the area.

In the light of the Minister’s very helpful answers to previous questions, will she consider how she might co-operate with her colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in seeing how we can better support the African Union and ECOWAS in terms of their peacekeeping or conflict resolution capacity in view of the deteriorating situation in the Sahel involving the Tuareg?

The noble Lord is right. In terms of co-operation, the FCO, the MoD and DfID are working very closely together. My noble friend made reference to the building stability overseas unit, which is, as it were, a concrete example of that working together. The support for the African Union is very strong and will continue to be so.

My Lords, some of us may be old enough to remember that in times of plenty the Pharaohs used to build up stores of excess supplies to use in times of famine. I wonder whether the international community has made any progress in pre-empting these crises by making sure that there are stores in strategic parts of the world that are likely to suffer famine in advance of the famine occurring.

The World Food Programme and UNICEF are indeed already stockpiling supplies and a lot of work is going into how best to ensure that these crises do not occur. The Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, was all about how to pre-empt such crises and develop resilience in an area where already the population is exceptionally vulnerable. A lot of the problems are because of rising food prices rather than necessarily food scarcity. The noble Baroness’s point is well taken.

Will the Minister join me in commending BBC correspondent Mike Wooldridge and his colleagues for outstanding coverage of the famine in West Africa? One point that he made, which the noble Baroness mentioned, was that food prices had risen 40 per cent in a single year, out of reach of the local population. What is DfID doing for longer-term sustainability? The noble Baroness mentioned cattle; perhaps she would comment on agriculture as a whole.

I am very happy to commend the BBC and its journalists for their brave coverage in these very unstable areas. DfID supports the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, a pilot programme from the World Bank on climate resilience, which is extremely important here, and a global facility for disaster risk reduction. It is also important to emphasise DfID’s support for social protection programmes, and for cash transfers where appropriate, to try to build up these vulnerable communities so that they will be more resilient in circumstances such as this.

My Lords, that is all very well, but will the noble Baroness tell me what is being done to extract and preserve water, on which all agriculture and horticulture depend?