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Horn of Africa: Famine

Volume 824: debated on Thursday 13 October 2022


Asked by

My Lords, the crisis in east Africa continues to worsen. Drought is causing significant levels of food insecurity. Over 51 million people in the region are estimated to be facing severe food insecurity, and of particular concern is the recent data from the Bay region in Somalia projecting that famine is likely to occur this year. The UK is a major humanitarian donor to the east Africa region and UK-funded activities are making a difference and saving lives. In the financial year 2022-23, the UK intends to provide approximately £156 million in humanitarian aid across east Africa. Of this amount, nearly 50% has already been allocated to help those affected by this devastating crisis.

My Lords, a combination of conflict, climate change, increasing world food prices and a fifth year of drought means that we have an absolute humanitarian crisis hitting this part of the world. In Somalia alone, the UN is estimating that about half a million children are likely to die shortly. We have slashed our aid budgets to that part of the world. We need emergency funding as well as long-term funding. What can we do in addition to what the Minister has said in working with our international partners to get emergency aid into those areas which are dreadfully affected?

My Lords, it is absolutely right to say that the UK reduced the proportion of its GNI spending on overseas aid from 0.7% to 0.5%, but we are committed to returning to 0.7%. Like many noble Lords, I hope that happens as soon as possible, but in the meantime it is worth reiterating—to remind the House—that we remain one of the world’s most generous donors, particularly when it comes to humanitarian assistance, and the proportion of our ODA which goes toward the very poorest people in the world is higher than that of any of the other G7 donor countries, I believe. It is an important point that if you tot up all the international aid provided year on year, which comes to around $160 billion a year, that is not a patch on the actual needs, so we will not solve these problems through ODA alone. That is why our emphasis in the UK on facilitating easier trade with poorer countries and bringing investment to them is so important to leverage the support we can give.

My Lords, further to the excellent question from the right reverend Prelate, does the Minister agree that there are now indications that some of the humanitarian aid is being intercepted and interrupted by that vile terrorist organisation, al-Shabaab? What assessment has he made of this and what measures can be taken to try to stop it?

My noble friend makes a hugely important point. The challenge of delivering humanitarian assistance to countries where there are so many people in need but where the authorities are not always moving in lockstep with us makes things very much more difficult. In Somalia, it is now estimated that nearly 8 million people—approximately half of the country’s population—currently need humanitarian assistance. We will continue to focus as much of our support as possible in that region and the wider region of the Horn of Africa, while using whatever leverage we have to deliver political stability in Somalia.

My Lords, during the 10 minutes of this Question, 12 people will die of severe hunger and malnutrition in the Horn of Africa. I declare that I was in the wider region over the recess. The scale of the Government’s cuts is adding to the problem. The UK committed £861 million in 2017 to support a less severe famine, and there is now less than a third of that from UK support. Hospitals that serve children in Somalia are closing which the UK was directly funding. At the very least, can the Minister intervene to ensure that hospitals that serve children are not being closed as a result of UK cuts?

My Lords, the UK-supported humanitarian activities are saving lives and having immeasurable impacts. In the year 2021-22, we provided a total of £230 million in humanitarian assistance to the east Africa region, to which the noble Lord referred. In the current financial year, the UK intends to provide £156 million in addition to that. The impact of our work can be seen and measured but, in the light of the undoubted ODA pressures that we face, we are doing everything we can to prioritise spending where it is most needed, tackling the most acute humanitarian crises.

My Lords, the Horn of Africa is now entering an unprecedented fifth failed rainy season, which is having devastating consequences for the local population. Can the Minister outline when the Government will reinstate the overseas aid budget to 0.7% of GNI? Will it be this year, next year or in 2024?

My Lords, I would love to be able to answer that question, but I cannot. The Treasury set a test, with which the House is familiar, and it will be the Treasury that decides when we have met that test. My hope, like that of everyone here, is that we pass that test sooner rather than later and that we resume our 0.7% commitment.

My Lords, the UK aid budget is under additional pressure after the cut from 0.7%, as the Government may be planning to charge an estimated £3 billion of domestic refugee costs to ODA, which would amount to about 25% of what we would normally spend overseas. I am sure we are all in favour of supporting Ukrainian refugees in this country, but I hope that this will not be done at the expense of children and their families who are in so much need in the Horn of Africa. Can my noble friend confirm the domestic refugee cost for this year and tell me how it will be funded?

My Lords, my noble friend is right. The Government’s response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the wider ODA pressures, including the ODA-eligible expenditure incurred through the Afghan resettlement programme and the UK support to people fleeing Ukraine, has put unexpected and significant pressure on the ODA budget. The Foreign Office and the Treasury are in discussion as to how much of that funding should be categorised as ODA and how much should not. Of course, the hope has to be that there is as little impact as possible on the broader ODA budget, and that is certainly the Foreign Office’s position.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate referred to the underlying causes. One persistent underlying cause has been conflict. The situation in Tigray is of particular concern, especially as it has involved awful crimes against humanity. What steps is the Minister’s department taking to work with our allies to ensure that we can bring peace to this region, so that all the development support measures can have effect?

My Lords, the situation in Ethiopia is particularly alarming. Ethiopia was the country that, for many people, opened our eyes to some of the problems of acute famine in the world. It was the beginning of a whole bunch of UN and philanthropic programmes designed to tackle acute famine—both the immediate effects and prevention. Ethiopia is now relapsing to those days. Millions of people in Ethiopia face the real prospect of famine returning. That is exacerbated massively by the conflict to which the noble Lord refers. This is a priority for us. It is an issue raised at every opportunity by the Minister for Africa. I do not want to exaggerate the potential power we have as a country to bring such conflict to an end, but we are using whatever levers we have, and on a routine basis.

My Lords, it is clear that climate change is making these events more frequent and more intense, so do the Government support the Climate Vulnerable Forum’s call for COP 27 to commission an IPCC special report specifically focused on loss and damage? If the answer is no, perhaps the Minister can say why such a report would be undesirable.

My Lords, I have spoken regularly to representatives of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, and they make a very strong argument on loss and damage. They would probably agree that it is because of our presidency of COP 26 that loss and damage now has a chapter within the annual COPs where that can be discussed. It will be for the donor countries at COP 27 to determine how far they want to go, but the UK’s position is that the arguments are very strong, we will maintain our commitment to £11.6 billion for international climate finance, and are doing everything we can to encourage other countries to step up as well.

Although I agree with the Minister that the bolstering of humanitarian aid is critical and essential, does he accept that the mantra of poverty alleviation should be to achieve more with less? With that innovation, much more can be done to assist peoples around the world. How might that be achieved, and might not the private sector play a critical part in that process?

The noble Viscount is absolutely right. There is no way these problems can be solved through ODA or other aid alone; it is just not possible. That is why the UK has taken an innovative approach to trade, for example. I believe that 65 poorer countries now enjoy simpler, cleaner trade access to the UK than they had before. In many respects, in many of those countries, that is worth more than they could ever expect to receive in aid. That is just one example of what the UK is trying to do to leverage our position to deliver more than just 0.5% or, I hope soon, 0.7%.