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Afghanistan: Food Shortages

Volume 815: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they are having with the Government of Afghanistan regarding food shortages and what assistance they are providing civilians in that country.

I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice. In doing so, I declare an interest as the co-founder of a school for girls in Kabul, more than 20 years ago. I also note that there is a drafting error on the Order Paper. The Question should say: “the authorities in Afghanistan”, not “the Government of Afghanistan”.

My Lords, as we all know, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is dire and of deep concern. It has been a central subject of all our conversations with all players, including at an operational level with the Taliban. We have pressed the Taliban directly to respect humanitarian principles and to allow aid agencies to operate freely. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has announced that the UK will double its assistance to Afghanistan to £286 million this financial year and, on 31 October, my right honourable friend allocated £50 million for immediate needs. This will provide around 2.5 million Afghans immediately with life-saving food, emergency health services, shelter and warm clothing.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. It is agreed generally that there is no time now to use food or indeed money as bargaining tools. The severe food shortage in Afghanistan has long been anticipated, and the purchase, transport and distribution of large amounts of grain takes time and organisation. I ask the Minister to work not only through the UN but with a larger number of NGOs, both here and abroad, that still have a presence in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries, which, if co-ordinated with judicious cash injections, could help to stabilise market grain prices and distribute food in the worst-hit rural areas.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, and I assure her that the Government are doing exactly that. I myself, as the Minister responsible for our relations with Afghanistan and south Asia, have been working closely with near partners. We have been working directly with UN agencies, including OCHA, UNHCR and UNICEF. We have been having regular calls on this issue. I am happy to discuss the engagement in detail with her. Yesterday, for example, I had a further meeting with UNICEF on the importance of humanitarian support and health provision in Afghanistan. We continue to work with key partners and other international near neighbours as well as the wider global community.

My Lords, many people are in danger of starvation in Afghanistan and the death rate will be highest among young children. To stop huge numbers of deaths, action is imperative. Will the Government intervene to secure the release of some of the Afghan assets that have been frozen in the USA and elsewhere, doing so in a targeted way that will support the prevention of complete economic collapse in that country? Will the Government provide additional funding for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is continuing to operate in Afghanistan across public services, including education, but especially in the provision of healthcare?

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s first point, we are working with international partners including international financial institutions on the issue of cash that is held, but of course there are notable provisions and conditionality in terms of releasing funds to the current Administration. On her second point, I further assure her that I have met Peter Maurer at the ICRC on a number of occasions, and part of the £50 million funding that I have announced will be in support of the ICRC programmes on the ground.

My Lords, the International Relations and Defence Committee of this House, which I served on when we carried out our inquiry into Afghanistan, laid bare the challenges, particularly for women and young girls, and this crisis will have a disproportionate impact on them. One month ago precisely, Simon Gass, the Prime Minister’s envoy, met the Taliban. Part of that discussion was about the normalisation of relations. On a number of occasions the Minister has directly indicated to me that we will not be working directly with the Taliban. Have the Government received any commitments that humanitarian aid and foodstuffs through international bodies will actually be directed via Taliban authorities to the people who need it most? What assurances have the Government been given that the humanitarian assistance committed to will get through to the people?

I am engaging directly with a number of women leaders. Most recently I met Hasina Safi and Fatima Gailani to inform our policy in the medium term, particularly on the issues of girls’ education and women’s health. On the point about direct humanitarian aid, we do not intend in any of our support to give money directly to the Taliban. Its co-operation is required but the money will be handed to established players operating on the ground, such as the ICRC and the Aga Khan Development Network—I recently met with it—which is operational and is a respected partner for the UK as well.

My Lords, no one who heard the interview yesterday with John Simpson could have failed to have been moved and angered. Will my noble friend assure me that Her Majesty’s Government will raise this matter as one of urgency at the United Nations Security Council with a view to getting an international delegation to assess the situation and act urgently on it?

My Lords, as far as the Security Council is concerned, I assure my noble friend that I myself directly engaged in a recent debate on Afghanistan. On delegations, we are engaging at senior level with near partners, including other key countries such as Pakistan and Qatar, and we are of course working directly with the UN agencies that are already on the ground. Now is the time to get aid through the door and to the people, and that is what we are focusing on.

While I welcome the Minister’s comments, on 18 October only £35 million of the £286 million had been allocated, according to the Government. I welcome the £50 million he has announced today, but David Beasley—who I know, and the Minister knows—is not one for hyperbole, and he has said that the position is absolutely dire and that the WFP requires $220 million a month. What is the Minister doing to ensure that we get that aid out quickly to stop the disaster that David Beasley said would happen?

My Lords, I share the view that the noble Lord has expressed, and indeed of what my noble friend said about the report of John Simpson. I have met directly with those fleeing the Taliban, and I have been long engaged on the evacuation process. These heart-rending stories are not just stories for me; they have been direct testimonies. I assure the noble Lord that I am engaging on practically a daily basis to ensure that our funds are allocated at the earliest opportunity through trusted partners, some of which I have already named. Equally, we implore other countries to stand by their verbal commitments to ensure that money and, importantly, humanitarian support get through immediately.

My Lords, I declare my interest as an ambassador for the Halo Trust, a charity engaged in mine and improvised explosive device clearances in Afghanistan. Looking at this objectively, we invaded the country and left the people to fend for themselves—is not the least we can do to save them from starvation?

My Lords, it is quite clear that one of the reasons for starvation in the country is that so many women and girls are now no longer able to work and are being deprived of that. One of the conditions that must be imposed on the Afghan Government is that those women and girls can go back to proper employment and not be barred, as they are today.

Again, I agree with my noble friend, who speaks with great insight on this issue. Let me assure him that we are focused on dealing directly with women leaders in identifying which provinces we have seen real progress in. Indeed, in certain provinces we have seen girls returning to higher education and to work and employment. We are focused on ensuring that the objectives that he just highlighted are part of our discussions.

My Lords, the urgency of the situation is such that we should surely not be overeager to impose conditions on aid. Can the Minister say where the bottlenecks are? Is the Taliban fully co-operating with efforts to provide aid?

My Lords, I have not minced my words. I do not believe the Taliban has changed; I have always sustained that belief. However, with every dark cloud there is a glimmer. For example, we have recently seen the Taliban supportive of the continuation, or restart, of the polio campaign, and we need to take encouragement from that. But logistics are a challenge, and that is why we must work with trusted partners which have the established networks. The ICRC, UNICEF and the Aga Khan Development Network are three organisations which have such structures in place.

My Lords, would the Minister care to look at and reflect on the experiences learned from the early days of aid distribution in Afghanistan, which quite frankly were a total mess even from the aid community and the head of the whole body? Maybe there will be some lessons learned going forward.

I assure your Lordships that we have learned the lessons of other conflicts as well, including those in Yemen, and ensure that those lessons are put into practice here.

My Lords, 22.8 million people are identified as food insecure in Afghanistan, a position that has become more acute with the Taliban takeover. While I welcome the financial announcement today, could the Minister indicate what further work will be undertaken with the World Food Programme in Afghanistan, with particular reference to addressing poverty and reducing malnutrition?

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that we have engaged at the highest level with the World Food Programme, established agencies on the ground and, indeed, all UN partners. I have engaged directly with the Secretary-General, the Deputy Secretary-General and all the heads of the different agencies and we are working directly with the World Food Programme. What is needed is co-ordination on the ground and that is why we have implored the UN to ensure that all humanitarian activities are co-ordinated. I assure your Lordships’ House further that both my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the new Foreign Secretary, my right honourable friend Liz Truss, are engaging directly on issues with key partners. Indeed, she is currently visiting Asia, where she will be having discussions specific to the role of the Muslim world in leading on ensuring that the Taliban stands up for its promises. She will be having discussions with the likes of Indonesia, and continuing discussions with the likes of Qatar and Pakistan.

My Lords, will the Minister agree to revisit the list of ODA cuts to NGOs that are running programmes of volunteering within Afghanistan to do with health, education and food distribution, such as VSO, for example, to check whether, in these circumstances, instead of their budgets and programmes being cut, they could be cranked up and reinforced instead of being decommissioned?

My Lords, I have already said that the Government have announced an increase in funding to £286 million, but it is appropriate that we allocate this funding in a structured way, with trusted partners, to ensure support gets through to the people who need it most. On the issue of volunteering, the challenge in Afghanistan is that volunteers at the moment, particularly non-Afghans, are unable to enter. Equally, Afghan nationals are unable to operate.

My Lords, may I say how pleased I am that the Minister mentioned the role of Muslim countries? What discussions has he undertaken with the Administration of Afghanistan and the leadership of Qatar to ensure that not only the ICRC, the World Muslim League and the Qatar Foundation are taking a lead, but also that we do not become oblivious to the vulnerable families while they become statistics of gross poverty, death and destruction, as has happened in Yemen?

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that operationally, as I said, Sir Simon Gass and Martin Longden met with the Taliban and pressed on the importance of human rights within Afghanistan, as well as humanitarian corridors. Through our close liaison with UN agencies, we have seen that those corridors are operational and that support is beginning to get through, but it needs co-ordination. The picture is sketchy, depending on which province of Afghanistan we talk about. On the role of the Muslim world, and the Islamic world in particular, I am very clear that there is no better way of challenging the negative narrative on women and girls that the Taliban peddles than through esteemed leaders who are from the Muslim world—and, yes, they are women as well. We need to ensure that we reel in behind them to show that Islam does not negate women’s rights but actually promotes them.

My Lords, co-ordination with the Taliban is clearly crucial if aid is to get through to the people, but, alas, the Taliban is not wholly in control of Afghanistan—certainly not of large swathes of it. To what extent does the Minister assess that the conflict between the Taliban and ISK will hinder the delivery of aid to the people?

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord speaks from great insight and experience of the region. He is quite right about the situation with ISKP, but he will also be aware that there is fragmentation within the Taliban; there are different parties within the Taliban who are also wrestling for control and, depending on who has the greatest influence, they will have the greatest influence over respective regions. We are working through the nuances of that. There is one thing I will say about the Taliban—it is realising that it may have wanted administration, but being in government is not an easy job.

I am sure the Minister knows well enough that even prior to the national takeover by the Taliban, large swathes of Afghanistan were in effect controlled by the Taliban, and in those areas, although it is patchy, there was co-operation between the Taliban administration and NGOs, food agencies and the like. Can he tell us whether that is still the case now that there has been a national takeover? If not, what circumstances have changed?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite correct. Indeed, in the initial stages of the takeover by the Taliban of Afghanistan, it was very clear that in those areas that had been under its control—not in all, but in some—there had been operational co-operation with aid agencies: UNICEF, for example. My first meeting very early on, in August, verified that fact and, indeed, UNICEF has increased its footprint, not decreased it, since the Taliban takeover. The other area we are still working through, of course, is that until we have the security in place to ensure that aid can be delivered, we need to work province by province and ensure that, whichever agency has the greatest influence on the ground, we can leverage its operational capacity and support it accordingly.