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House of Lords Hansard
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East Africa: Famine
23 March 2017
Volume 782

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assistance they are giving to those suffering from famine and acute food shortages in East Africa.

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Disasters Emergency Committee.

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My Lords, the scale of the humanitarian crises facing the world in 2017 is unprecedented. The UK is leading the way on the response, stepping up life-saving emergency assistance for those affected by food insecurity in east Africa, and calling on the international community to urgently step up its support before it is too late.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and for the work that his department is doing. The humanitarian crisis in east Africa is, as the Minister said, of horrifying proportions, with 16 million people on the brink of starvation and cholera a growing threat. But lives are being saved as we speak thanks to the work of British humanitarian agencies on the ground in east Africa, funded by the £30 million that has been raised already in the DEC appeal. Will the Minister join me in acknowledging the generosity of the British public, who always respond very generously to appeals like this? The theme of the DEC appeal is “Don’t delay, donate”. Does the Minister agree that that is a message not only for individuals—who might think about their winter fuel payment, in fact—but for Governments? Will Her Majesty’s Government agree to continue to urge other nations to replicate the generosity that the UK has shown and to keep the UK contribution under review?

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I am very happy to do that. I also pay tribute to the work of the Disasters Emergency Committee in this instance. The immediate response to the crisis and the generosity of the British people in raising £20 million, which was then aid matched by DfID, is typical of the character of the British people, to which the most reverend Primate referred earlier, and their humanitarian concern for their neighbours. That commitment is there and is being built upon by the £100 million that has been announced for South Sudan and Somalia. We are keeping those numbers constantly under review because the situation is at crisis point.

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Will my noble friend look closely at the work that Nestlé and other multinational companies have been doing in countries such as South Africa? Will he inform the House of what we believe to be the underlying causes of the famine and whether we can use technical assistance from companies in this country to improve irrigation in east Africa to enable it to secure its crops against future droughts and floods?

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Certainly, part of the cause is the drought that is affecting many countries because of the record level of the El Niño effect in the region. However, overwhelmingly this is a man-made crisis; this is because of conflict. If it was not for the conflict we would be able to reach people in the same way we are able to reach people in Ethiopia and Kenya. It is the fighting and insecurity in South Sudan, Yemen, north-east Nigeria and Somalia that are causing the difficulty, and people are dying as a result. The fighting has to stop.

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My Lords, the Disasters Emergency Committee has done a fantastic job over recent years in focusing the attention of the British public on particular crises as they happen. However, one of the knock-on effects of that focus can be to reduce the donations going to other humanitarian problems, in some cases happening nearby. North-east Nigeria, mentioned by the Minister, may be a case in point. It is not covered by this appeal but the situation there is desperate at the moment. Can we be reassured that the Government will do what they can in the international arena to ensure that the global community, while perhaps focusing for the moment on east Africa, do not forget the other humanitarian problems close by, and ensure a balanced approach over time to make sure that even more lives are saved?

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I can give that assurance; the noble Lord is absolutely right. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, will recognise, there is great thought and soul searching about whether to launch a second appeal on the back of Yemen so soon—normally there is a one a year. This reflects the fact that the situation is extraordinary. Stephen O’Brien referred to the situation in 2017 as being the greatest humanitarian challenge that the United Nations has ever faced. These are huge issues when Syria is included, and our response has to be there. There also has to be a recognition of the wider response needed in Nigeria.

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My Lords, the UN estimates that £4.5 billion is needed to address urgent needs, but only 2% of that is in the pipeline. The noble Lord mentioned the need to mobilise the international community. He also responded to my noble friend a few weeks ago about taking up the idea of working within the European Union. Surely the time is now for the G7, the G20 and the World Bank to convene an urgent financial summit. Will the Minister commit the Government to making that call?

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I have taken my opportunity to do so. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for his excellent suggestion. I attended the EU Foreign Affairs Council for Development last week and made exactly those points and the plea. The Secretary of State also wrote to High Representative Mogherini on the same issue. Later today, the Foreign Secretary will be chairing the Security Council on this issue at about 8 pm GMT. That will be an opportunity to reinforce the need for the international community to do more—and do it quickly.

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My Lords, I commend the Government on their high-profile response to the famine in east Africa, which has helped to galvanise not just public support but support among the international community. DfID’s hunger safety net programme in Kenya provides small, regular cash transfers through secure biometric systems and has been shown to be very effective in reducing extreme hunger. Notwithstanding attacks from the Daily Mail, are there plans to extend this proven programme to other countries in east Africa—and if not, why not?

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Certainly this is a tool that has been used to get relief to the people who need it most, but often there is a scarcity of food supplies. To come back to insecurity, when there are terrorist organisations, conflicts and civil wars, sometimes just handing out cash to individuals fuels the conflict because the money finds its way to the terrorist organisations. We need to be extremely careful in these areas that we provide relief to those who need it and not resources to those who are causing the conflict.