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Global Famine: Solutions

Volume 832: debated on Thursday 7 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the five solutions to global famine proposed by the President of the International Rescue Committee to the United Nations Security Council High-Level Open Debate on Conflict-Induced Food Insecurity and Famine on 3 August.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is stepping up action to improve global food security and nutrition. We will spend at least £1.5 billion on improving nutrition from 2022 to 2030. Our Permanent Representative to the UN, Dame Barbara Woodward, briefed the US-led open debate at the UN Security Council to strengthen global food systems, prevent future famines and reduce conflict. At the debate the International Rescue Committee suggested five helpful, practical solutions to insecurity and famine. The UK is taking concerted action to tackle hunger, including by protecting global food systems.

My Lords, the shocking statistic that David Miliband highlighted at that conference is that 80% of the world’s acutely malnourished children are not getting any treatment at all. The lifelong consequences are horrendous. Solutions I have witnessed in Africa are the simple test of a band around the arm by parents and community health workers to judge whether a child is malnourished, and the supply of very cheap and cost-effective ready-to-use therapeutic food. In Mali this approach resulted in a 92% success rate and a 30% cost saving on other methods. Will this action be prioritised as part of the Minister’s pledge of £1.5 billion? When will we know how this money will be spent between nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive programmes?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord. I know he has been seized of this issue, including in his work with the all-party parliamentary group. I can give him an assurance about the practical nature of what he suggests. In his report, David Miliband talked about these actions being taken in Kenya and Malawi. They are sensible, low cost and efficient. As the noble Lord said, they identify malnutrition at an early stage. That early intervention is crucial, particularly in helping impoverished children. We are committed to it. Our funding underlines our strong support in this area. As I said in answer to the previous Question, we do a lot on the world stage, where we are very much aligned in helping the most vulnerable. Among those are malnourished children. We need to be focused on those children to ensure that this remains a legacy of which we can be proud in the years to come.

My Lords, this is my first opportunity to welcome the proscription of the Wagner Group. The president of the IRC specifically singled out the Sahel and Sudan as part of this crisis of famine, so I welcome the Government’s moves this week, since I was the first person in Parliament to call for its proscription last spring.

I hope the Minister will reflect on the fact that the UK Government have cut support for famine relief in the Horn of Africa in particular—this conflict-afflicted region. This led the Catholic humanitarian charity CAFOD to say in a statement on 31 May this year:

“This is a shameful betrayal of the people suffering and, despite their claims, shows the government is not taking this crisis seriously”.

Now that both Labour and the Conservatives are not going to immediately restore the 0.7% lawful target after the next general election, when does the Minister forecast that the UK will return to the level of support for famine relief that we had before the cuts?

My Lords, as I look around this Chamber, I am sure we are all very much at one on the noble Lord’s earlier point about the Wagner Group. Proscribing a group, as I have always said from this Dispatch Box, is a sensitive issue that needs to be measured. I pay tribute to our colleagues in the Home Office who took that considered approach to ensure that all legal avenues were covered. I am pleased that has now taken place. The group caused instability in the very regions the noble Lord mentioned. We are making assessments to see whether that makes a difference. Personally, I do not think it will make that much difference in terms of its structures: I am sure it will have some kind of contingency in place.

On the wider point, of course there has been a limit to what we have been able to spend with the reduction from 0.7% to 0.5%. We are committed to restoring that at the earliest opportunity when the fiscal situation allows, but at the same time we recognise that the United Kingdom has continued to support many communities across the Sahel, further afield in Africa and indeed in Asia, on some of the key priorities that we remain very much aligned with.

The Minister used the phrase,

“at the earliest opportunity when the fiscal situation allows”.

Would he care to elaborate on exactly what that means?

“Earliest” means at the earliest time possible, and “fiscal situation” means when our finances allow us to. I think the noble Lord knows that already.

The Minister is so experienced and has been in the job a long time. He must know better than anyone in this House when that is likely to be. Can he tell us?

This is when you look upwards for divine inspiration, notwithstanding being a person of faith. In all seriousness, it is important that a decision was taken that was not an easy one but a challenging one. The fact is that, even with our 0.5%, we have continued to support many communities around the world. As I said, the Prime Minister has made it very clear that we will look to return to 0.7% at the earliest opportunity. We are going through very challenging times, both domestically and internationally, and I am proud of the fact that we have continued to stand by many of our international obligations, especially when it comes to helping the most vulnerable around the world.

My Lords, as the president of the International Rescue Committee rightly noted, conflict is one of the primary drivers of food insecurity around the globe, so what steps are His Majesty’s Government taking, in co-operation with our partners, to convene dialogue and work with local peacebuilders and faith leaders to help in areas of conflict?

We are working in many areas, including an area in which I lead on the initiative of preventing sexual violence in conflict. Famine is a key driver of conflict; we all recognise that. That is why I said in my original Answer that our Permanent Representative in New York briefed the Security Council, which is purposed to look at conflict alleviation and to prevent conflict in the first place. We are working with faith leaders and civil society organisations in key areas and key countries on the ground. In Yemen, for example, near neighbours include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We are engaging in places such as Afghanistan, where faith leaders have an important role. Some of this is discreet and we cannot go into the detail, to protect and support those who are working on the ground, but I assure the right reverend Prelate that we are doing exactly that.

My Lords, one of the things David Miliband also mentioned, on conflict being the driver, is that there is so much impunity and that the world needs to act when people commit horrendous crimes against humanity. We should stop just using words and take action. Does he agree with David Miliband’s statement in that regard?

My Lords, it is not just David Miliband who says that; we all agree that there must be accountability and justice for those who suffer and for survivors of whatever violence takes place. That is why I am proud, as I said on the earlier Question about Ukraine, that among the many areas that the United Kingdom is now supporting, we are supporting Ukraine on exactly that—during the conflict, on justice and accountability. As the noble Lord knows, we are working with key organisations, including the International Criminal Court, to ensure that those who commit these terrible, abhorrent crimes are brought to justice at the earliest point possible.

My Lords, the Russians having broken the agreement about grain shipments, which will obviously have a major impact, has the international community given any consideration to measures that can be taken to help resolve the problem caused by that lack of grain now shipping out of Ukraine?

My Lords, I have two points to make. First, on the broader point on issues of food insecurity, we in your Lordships’ House and in the other place all need to ensure that that narrative is established. Russia says erroneously that it is sanctions that are causing the humanitarian crisis. As all noble Lords know, every sanction that has been applied has a humanitarian carve-out. The grain initiative was an innovative initiative sponsored by the UN, where Turkey played an important role, and with the likes of Turkey we are ensuring that we can restore this initiative because it provides support to many. Let us put this into a context that needs to be understood: 400 million people across the world used to get their grain from Ukraine, which is why this initiative is so important.

My Lords, Russia has attacked grain stores along the Danube. Will my noble friend make sure that we carefully record this crime against humanity when it comes to the reckoning?

My Lords, as ever my noble friend is absolutely right, and I agree with him. I assure him that we are doing exactly that with key partners. The challenge has also been, when we look at the Danube, that some attacks are on territory currently controlled by Russia. A full assessment is being made on certain parts of the infrastructure, not just the grain. As he knows, various elements have caused environmental pollution; pollutants have gone into the Danube and are feeding into the Black Sea as well. There will be a real environmental challenge to face, post the war, but I assure him that we are working with key partners to ensure that this can be addressed. Importantly, those who have influence over Russia should provide access so that assessments can be made.