HC Deb 07 November 1973 vol 863 cc987-90
37. Mr. William Price

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what aid the British Government propose to give to Ethiopia.

40. Mr. Ashley

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he has any plans to give immediate aid to Ethiopia.

41. Mr. Luce

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what aid is being provided by Her Majesty's Government to the Ethiopian Government to assist in alleviating the effects of the drought in Ethiopia.

The Minister for Overseas Development (Mr. Richard Wood)

I refer the hon. Gentlemen to the reply which I gave on 2nd November to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd).—[Vol. 863, c. 17–18.]

Mr. Price

Has the Minister any reliable information about the extent of this tragedy? Can he say whether the reports of up to 100,000 people being already dead are accurate? If that is so, would not it rank as one of the greatest human disasters of all time? Is it not apparent that aid from outside is totally inadequate? Will the right hon. Gentleman say just how much the Government can do in the next week or two?

Mr. Wood

I do not think that it is possible to quantify usefully the numbers of people who have died or who are suffering. It is very evident that the situation is grave. That is why the Government have so far decided to give the help that they have. As I made clear to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd), we are concentrating with the Ethiopian Government on long-term measures, which I hope will avoid a recurrence of this kind of disaster.

Mr. Luce

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to aid Ethiopia, but does not he agree, first, that it would be helpful if Royal Air Force aircraft were used to despatch supplies to Ethiopia? Secondly, does not he consider it appalling that we are able to respond to this famine only six months after it started? Will he not take a lead with other nations in trying to devise a more effective early warning system of impending famine?

Mr. Wood

On the second part of the question, the next Question on the Order Paper specifically relates to the time that we received information and the time that we acted upon it. Regarding transport, I made clear to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West that we are prepared, as far as we can, to help with transport to enable the charitable organisations to move supplies there as quickly as possible.

Mrs. Hart

I welcome very much what the Government have already done in this situation. The right hon. Gentleman will have noted the all-party motion on the Order Paper, to which more than 82 signatures are now appended. Will the right hon. Gentleman say a little more about what many of us are concerned about, namely, the problem that often arises in these urgent human situations, when voluntary organisations seem to have a way of getting through to the real needs of the people? Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether, in this situation, he can give almost unlimited help? I do not mean unlimited in a financial sense, because voluntary aid organisations are not able to spend a tremendous amount. I mean unlimited in terms of their capacity to help, which often can give more relief to more people than inter-governmental help.

Mr. Wood

Most of the relief contribution that we have announced is going towards relief efforts being co-ordinated by Oxfam. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and Shoreham (Mr. Luce) just now, I said that we are also prepared to help as far as we can with transport, which is very important.

38. Mr. Terry Davis

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Common-wealth Affairs when the famine in Ethiopia was first brought to his attention by Her Majesty's Ambassador in Ethiopia; and what action has been taken to assist the Government of Ethiopia and voluntary agencies to alleviate the situation.

Mr. Wood

The ambassador said in March that there were signs of food shortages. He reported serious drought conditions in July among the nomads of the Awash Valley and asked for funds to support a local food-for-work programme. I offered £25,000 in August and, later, another £75,000 for relief operations like the transport of medical supplies, food and blankets; and possibly the replacement of work animals and the provision of seed for next year's sowing.

Mr. Davis

Is not the Minister aware that one of the most shocking aspects of this tragedy is that it should seem to have existed for so long without the rest of the world knowing about it? After the ambassador's message of March, what action did the Government take to initiate inquiries to discover whether there was anything that the British Government could do to help?

Mr. Wood

I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that on this side of Africa, as in the West African drought-stricken countries, there was a great deal of confusion and it was very difficult for anyone, either our representatives on the spot or the Ethiopean Government, to be entirely clear about the situation. That is why our ambassador was not fully seized of the gravity of the matter until the sum- mer was fairly far advanced. This is likely to be true in confused situations of this kind.

Sir Bernard Braine

Does not my right hon. Friend recollect that the Select Committee on Overseas Development expressed concern about food shortages in many parts of the world over two months ago and recommended that Her Majesty's Government, in conjunction with our partners in the EEC, should examine the possibility of setting up international food reserves in order to meet situations of this kind more quickly? Are the Government taking any initiatives in this respect?

Mr. Wood

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. I think that he will agree that the main needs in these situations are not only food but a very much wider range of needs such as medical supplies and blankets. Therefore, while I note my hon. Friend's point, the needs go very much wider, and we are doing our best to try to meet them.

Mr. Barnes

Is not the case of Ethiopia yet another piece of evidence of the ineffectiveness of such international machinery as exists for identifying need and bringing relief? Will not the Minister study very seriously the suggestions that have now been made in a number of quarters that the EEC should take the initiative in setting up an international disaster relief organisation of its own and keeping it on permanent standby to offer its services in this kind of crisis?

Mr. Wood

The hon. Gentleman will know of the strenuous efforts which the EEC made on the other side of Africa and the relative success that it has had in relieving the situation there. There are a number of grave situations in the world. We should try to improve our machinery to meet them all.

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