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House of Lords Hansard
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06 May 2020
Volume 803

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what support they are providing to African countries in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

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My Lords, DfID is rapidly adapting its bilateral programmes across Africa to help counter the health, humanitarian and economic impacts of Covid-19 in support of the most vulnerable and poorest people. We have provided health experts to give direct support to African countries, and we have made significant contributions to the multilateral response. UK aid is also supporting a team at the WHO’s office in Brazzaville, to co-ordinate the regional response.

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My Lords, I commend the Minister and her department for the rapid deployment of financial support to the continent. As she will be aware, the gravest health risks facing African people may well arise from the economic impacts, rather than the disease impacts, of Covid, leading to a reduction in resources available for health services, spiralling hunger and an increase in other fatal diseases such as measles, polio and malaria. Can the Minister therefore tell the House what planning DfID is undertaking to ensure a co-ordinated and long-term approach to supporting and reviving African economies as they emerge from the immediate crisis?

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I agree with the noble Lord that the gravest health risks may come from the economic impacts. The UK is at the forefront of efforts to protect African economies. We are encouraging international financial institutions, UN agencies and others to co-ordinate to make funds available as quickly as possible. We have committed up to £150 million to the International Monetary Fund to help vulnerable countries meet debt repayments. In the longer term, we are providing technical assistance and capacity building to help support the African Union’s African continental free trade area, which offers the opportunity to kick-start regional trade and support the economic bounce back.

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My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, if Covid-19 becomes endemic in African countries, it will remain a threat to the world for the foreseeable future? Would she consider convening a conference of Commonwealth African countries—after all, Nigeria, the largest country on the continent, is a Commonwealth country—to see whether the initiative can be taken on a Commonwealth basis?

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I thank my noble friend for that question. I absolutely agree that we need to tackle this pandemic globally. We are not going to resolve it within our own borders unless we help the rest of the world to tackle it too. I also agree on the importance of our Commonwealth relationships. Sadly, the CHOGM conference has been postponed, but I know that my noble friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister for the Commonwealth, is in regular contact with Commonwealth leaders so we can help each other to tackle the pandemic.

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My Lords, I declare my interest as a farmer as set out in the register. Could the Minister confirm that, in providing support to African and other eligible countries, careful consideration is given by DfID to purchasing suitable surplus agricultural products from British farmers as a result of the steep decline in demand from the food service sector, and that this is distributed as part of the aid budget to those countries experiencing desperate food shortages? A broadly similar policy has just been announced by the Canadian Government.

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My Lords, we remain deeply concerned about the food security situation in Africa. In east Africa alone, nearly 25 million people are at crisis levels of food insecurity. We are supporting farmers in Africa in a number of ways through our global agriculture and food security programme and our adaptation for smallholder agriculture programme. On the export of food from the UK to Africa, I will have to take that back to the department and follow it up in writing to the noble Lord.

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My Lords, the G7 is due to meet in the United States in June—or perhaps virtually. What action will the UK take to ensure that that summit addresses the economic fragility of sub-Saharan Africa, the supply chains and the international trade that has been disrupted as a result of the Covid-19 international lockdown, and not just the economic needs of the developed world?

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I assure the noble Lord that we will absolutely take into account the economic and supply chain impacts on the developing world. We have pre-meetings ahead of the G7 where that discussion is already happening, and I am sure it will be on the agenda for the summit.

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My Lords, aid to developing countries is dwarfed by massive debt repayments to rich countries. Other than the G20’s decision to temporarily suspend debt payments, what further measures are being considered to alleviate the crippling debt so that health systems can be strengthened?

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My Lords, the noble Baroness refers to the suspension of debt repayments, which we argued for with the G20 and the Paris Club. I have already mentioned the £150 million going to the International Monetary Fund for catastrophe containment. We are also working closely with the private sector to see what we can do there and providing advice to developing countries on how best to respond to the economic impact of Covid-19.

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My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Secretary-General of the UN’s High-level Advisory Board on Mediation. What specific steps are the Government taking to support the very successful call for a global ceasefire as it applies to sub-Saharan Africa, particularly among those countries that already have some kind of ceasefire in place, to support the mediation and peace process? I am of course referring to the Secretary-General’s call.

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My Lords, we fully support the Secretary-General’s call for a ceasefire. We are working in countries, where it is relevant, to ensure that we are doing what we can. We do not need any further issues affecting people who are already impacted so heavily by Covid-19.

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The Foreign Secretary yesterday warned about the criminal gangs and other supranational organisations seeking to disrupt a cure for Covid-19. We have seen a rise in attacks on Chinese people in the United Kingdom and suggestions that the virus has been spread by Jewish people or by Muslims. What will my noble friend do in terms of offering advice to African countries to counter this kind of fake news, which could turn various communities against one another and be just as damaging as the disease itself?

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My noble friend will be aware of the programme that we have in this country to tackle fake news, but we have also announced support to tackle false claims and conspiracy theories in Africa, which may spread rapidly on social media and may even promote dangerous behaviour. Our support will be going to the Humanitarian to Humanitarian Network, which addresses the spread of misinformation during epidemics and will help to tackle specific mistruths in Africa.

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My Lords, is the Minister aware of the devastating effect of the combination of Covid-19 and famine caused by locusts sweeping across east Africa? As PPE is needed to fight coronavirus and locusts—both are growing simultaneously—supply chains are being badly affected in the worst affected countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan. Can the Minister give some assurance that this lethal combination of locusts and coronavirus is being addressed as a priority?

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I can assure that the noble Baroness that it is. We are deeply concerned about the potential second wave of locusts coming into east Africa. We are working with other donors to support UN agencies, the Red Cross and NGOs to respond to coronavirus, and with the FAO on locusts. That includes helping the world’s poorest countries to access critical medical supplies, including PPE.

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My Lords, I welcome Monday’s pledge by the UK of £250 million at the virtual EU summit to boost public research funding for a new Covid vaccine. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that any vaccine developed using UK public money will be accessible by and affordable for all?

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My Lords, in fact, the UK co-hosted that summit along with the EU and we are absolutely committed to the WHO Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator to make sure that new vaccines are accessible by everyone.

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My Lords, I refer to my interests as listed in the register. There are Commonwealth countries in Africa that have no DfID representation within them. What are the Government doing to ensure that on-the-ground organisation is arranged for the aid that the UK is providing? Would the Minister consider using the Governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who have relationships in some of these countries, to assist?

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My Lords, as I said, the Commonwealth has an essential role to play in the global response to Covid-19. We obviously have a presence in the vast majority of countries that need our presence and, where we do not, we work closely with international agencies to make sure that they are delivering the help needed on the ground. However, I will certainly take the noble Lord’s suggestion of working with other Governments back to the department.

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My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.