HC Deb 21 March 1985 vol 75 cc1080-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

10 pm

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the question of international famine. I begin by reminding the House that 30 million people in Africa are facing immediate starvation. They are already desperately hungry. This famine is, without doubt, the worst crisis to reach the hearts and minds of the British people, and it has led to a flood of donations to the various aid agencies.

The Government say that they have spent £90 million so far this year on famine relief, but that is one tenth of 1 per cent. of their total budget. Far from increasing their overseas aid, the Government are cutting back. In 1979, we spent £939 million, but by this year that sum has fallen in real terms by 18 per cent. and it is due to fall by a further 2 per cent. next year.

This runs directly counter to public opinion. A recent survey commissioned by Oxfam showed that 76 per cent. of those interviewed thought that the Government should spend the same amount or more, while only 18 per cent. thought that they should spend less. A few days ago a petition containing more than 750,000 signatures was presented to 10 Downing street by seven aid agencies. It called, as I do tonight, for more emergency aid, the immediate release of EEC surpluses and more money for the type of long-term development work that can avert future famine.

At present, most Government aid is used for industrial development—for building dams and airports and other prestigious projects — whereas the crisis facing Africa demands a more urgent approach. Aid should be used to reafforest denuded land, find water in drought areas and improve subsistence agriculture, not to provide more power stations for capital cities.

Another challenge for the British Government is to speed up the present lumbering bureaucracy that makes EEC food aid so slow to reach famine victims. It was only after the public started screaming that Europe's bulging grain store split a little of its surplus in the direction of starving Africa. The public again showed imagination and compassion when they generously gave about £40 million to Ethiopia, compared with £26 million from the Government. If we are not careful, Ethiopia might be the beginning rather than the end, for it happened in spite of all the warnings that were given, not least in this House.

Great problems are building up elsewhere. The United Nations has strongly urged us to apply our thoughts to the Sudan. We are told that, unless food aid improves enormously, 4.5 million people will suffer from malnutrition by June of this year, and that country was once British. Indeed, India, with its own major problems, was at one stage committed to give more in aid than the whole of the EEC put together to that part of the world.

We have benefited greatly from the wealth of the British Empire and it is not unreasonable that we should give something in return for the fruits of past colonialism. The crises in Ethiopia and in the Sudan were predictable and were predicted. We knew of the drought; we knew that the rains had failed and we knew of several harvest failures as well. Yet, if we are being honest with ourselves, we should admit that our response was appalling.

The aid agencies told us of the problems in plenty of time, if we had wanted to deal with them. Are we to assume that our embassies and high commissions did not tell us? What would have happened if that television crew had not been in the right place at the right time? What would have happened if the public imagination had not been stirred by people like Michael Burke and Richard Kershaw? The crisis was not in Ethiopia alone but was widely spread throughout Africa and beyond, as it is today.

The quality of aid is important, especially viewed in the context of future development. The last available figures for 1983 suggest that United Kingdom aid to Africa amounted to £200 million, but of that only £27 million went to agriculture and natural resources. The rest went to industry, power stations and so on. Of course, much of that was important but much of it was simply prestigious. We could have done more with £74 million than simply build a power station in Khartoum.

We can see a global pattern emerging in the Government's contribution to the OECD. Of our aid programme, 13 per cent. goes to agriculture and related issues compared with 27 per cent. from the United States and 33 per cent. from Switzerland. Certainly there has been much talk and wagging of heads culminating in the recent pledging conference in Geneva. What was the outcome of that conference? I congratulate the Minister on giving more money, but let him not congratulate himself. If he had persuaded the Foreign Office and the Treasury to give even half the new amount five or six months earlier, considerable heartache would have been prevented. What is being given is too little and too late. It is pragmatism in place of a strategy. It is public relations instead of a planned approach. As a development policy for the future it is not good enough.

The British Government have provided development aid to Ethiopia via their contributions to multilateral agencies, notably the World Bank and the EC. It would be misleading to say that those contributions are sufficient. Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries on earth, receives lower per capita external investment than any country in the Third world. The chronic under-resourcing of that country does much to increase its vulnerability to drought.

The obvious weakness in coordinating international efforts adds to the difficulties. Indeed, the problem of refugees in the Sudan, with people coming from Ethiopia, Chad and other countries, makes it clear not only that we require much real coordination between developed countries but that we need an effective early warning system as well.

As well as asking the Minister to clarify what took place at the Geneva conference, I should like to put some specific questions to him. I invite him again to respond to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Holland) on Monday about the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Will he accept that emergencies will continue to arise in Africa unless IFAD and other agencies doing similar work can get the funds that they need to support and promote small scale domestic food production? Directing British aid to famine relief without supporting IFAD is storing up trouble for the future.

What matters did the Minister raise this week with the Ethiopian Foreign Minister? Was the extra money offered at Geneva made possible by cuts in other aspects of the aid budget, or is it coming from the contingency fund? If so, how much is left in that fund?

Is the Minister satisfied with Britain's contribution to the 21 African countries most in need of food aid? How can he be satisfied, when the United Kingdom gave 35,000 tonnes of grain compared with 109,000 tonnes from Australia, 200,000 tonnes from Canada, 2.4 million tonnes from the United States, 133,000 tonnes from the Netherlands, 56,000 tonnes from Italy, 33,000 tonnes from Sweden and greater amounts from Germany and France? Is the hon. Gentleman pleased with our contribution of grain to the Royal Red Cross in Ethiopia, when compared with 40,000 tonnes from the United States, 17,000 tonnes from Bulgaria, 25,000 tonnes from Canada and 10,000 tonnes from Sweden, the United Kingdom gave a meagre 6,500 tonnes? How can the hon. Gentleman be satisfied with that?

It is not enough simply to relieve the symptoms of poverty after disaster has struck; there is a need for a long-term development programme. We must tackle the problems of agriculture, health and social development to deal effectively with the underlying causes of poverty. I accept that many intractable problems are rooted in the lack of political will on the part of some Third-world Governments who pay mere lip service to the basic needs of the great mass of their people. It is impossible to ignore the negative response — some might say, despite the whole Brandt exercise, the indifference — of most developed countries to the structural inequalities between North and South. The absence of political will to deal with the structural causes of poverty by Governments of the North and South is all too obvious in the growing food crisis. The number of hungry people has roughly doubled during the past decade, so that today more than 500 million people—one eighth of humanity—are suffering chronic malnutrition.

The debt crisis represents an intolerable burden on the poor. Mr. Clausen, the chairman of the World Bank, recently explained the problem. He said that developing countries took on high levels of borrowing in the 1970s when Western banks were keen to lend out the increased oil revenues on deposit. After 1980, as Mr. Clausen put it, the Third world was doubly hit—interest rates went up sharply and, at the same time, commodity prices fell dramatically, leaving them less to pay. All this had a devastating effect on the lives of the poor.

At the very least, I would urge that new solutions to the debt crisis should be explored to take the burden off the poor, to encourage long-term sustainable development and to give priority to local food self-sufficiency. We should be strongly urging the IMF to accept the need for changes in IMF conditionality to achieve these objectives and end enforced austerity measures that serve to aggravate hunger and poverty.

I ask the House to recognise, too, that, on top of all their other problems—world recession, interest rates, commodity prices, higher costs for manufactured goods —Third-world countries have seen their financial and development aid fall. In 1983, the share of British national income allocated to aid dropped to almost the lowest level for 20 years. Bilateral aid—despite a noticeable increase in public awareness—has fallen this year in real terms. As I have said earlier in relation to the Oxfam poll, this trend runs directly counter to public opinion.

Time after time, the Government have said that they subscribe to the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of GNP for overseas aid. So far, Britain is only haf way there and may be moving backwards. The Chancellor's Budget should have at least set a timetable for reaching that target, but he did not say a word on the subject. The greatest challenge is to use this aid to help effectively the wretched of this earth to become free from disease and starvation.

I have expressed concern about the emphasis on the growth of United Kingdom aid and trade provisions, which are a central feature of Government policy. In this, as in so many other matters, they are out of step with the thinking of the British public. The Oxfam opinion poll showed that only 14 per cent. of the respondents thought that the main purpose of British aid should be to help to obtain export orders for British goods from developing countries. British goods are important to those who produce trucks at Bathgate or agricultural equipment in the midlands, but local alternatives should be encouraged. People are concerned that the Government should ensure that bilateral and multilateral aid is allocated and development criteria are not under ideological considerations. If any priority is given, it should be to Governments who have demonstrated their commitment to social development and the needs of the poor. On that basis, the Government's record on aid to Nicaragua hardly stand up to examination. Britain gave far more bilateral aid a decade ago to the Samosa dictatorship, which left its people in abject poverty. That has shown in the Government's memoranda to the OECD. On page 4, it says: a greater focus of aid resources on those sectors where it is felt there was a need for assistance, where local policies seemed likely to be supported of aid efforts". Most people would describe that as a fair view, but it is not one that is being followed in that part of the world.

The inconsistencies in United Kingdom policies towards central America are evident in the fact that Costa Rica, with a GNP that is 1.5 times greater than that of Nicaragua, receives almost 40 times more United Kingdom aid per person than Nicaragua, whereas Nicaragua, with an acknowledged good record of spending development aid, according to Baroness Young, received bilateral aid from Britain of only £64,000 in 1983 and even less last year. Neighbouring Honduras received over 100 times more.

Similarly, the people of Kampuchea are being frozen out, despite the urgent need for humanitarian and development aid. Given the Government's rhetoric on East-West relations, they should worry that this could fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy of dependency on pro-Soviet countries. There are parallel dangers in aid to Namibia, and I invite the Minister to respond on that point.

It is one of the ironies of our time, in view of technological advances, that there should be such poverty amidst plenty in our universe. It is the will that matters. A country such as ours, which sent £1,800 million of arms equipment to the Third world countries last year, can produce a better aid policy in its own right and as an example to others. International famine and world poverty offer a greater threat to peace than any other factor; and time is not on our side.

10.18 pm
The Minister for Overseas Development (Mr. Timothy Raison)

The hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) chose the subject of international famine, which is one of the greatest concern. I shall concentrate on that rather than following him into the paths of Latin American aid and development. Whatever one thinks about the politics of Nicaragua, the level of income per capita is well above the low level of the countries to which we give grant-aid. On that score alone, it does not qualify strongly for assistance from the United Kingdom.

It is right that the hon. Gentleman should have brought the subject before us. It is a little time since we last debated it, and the terrible famine persists. As the House knows, there is a debate tomorrow that is likely to go over some of the ground that we have covered this evening. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the British public still clearly feel deeply involved with, and concerned about, events that are happening in Africa, above all.

I should like to give the House a brief summary of what the Government have been doing to meet the immediate food crisis in Africa, where the situation is so serious. Before doing so, I want to assess briefly the causes of the famine, and something of how the present crisis has arisen. Obviously, the immediate cause is the succession of droughts which have struck in some parts of eastern and western Africa. I emphasise the succession of droughts, because in most of these areas drought is the recognised occupational risk for farmers and herders, and they take steps to insure against it. They can usually get by if the rains fail once, twice or even three times in a row, but beyond that all their resources are used up and there is nothing for it but to seek relief. One main lesson for all of us is the need not only to improve the early warning system run by the FAO but to see it supplemented by more efficient field observations on the ground.

However, behind the weather lie other factors which have made the risks much worse. The first of these is the growth of population. Kenya, for instance, had 2 million people at the turn of the century and now has 20 million—and this figure might again double by the end of the century. Yet already people are moving into the drier lands where the rain fails more often than not. Bush and Tree are cleared for cultivation and firewood, and the fragile balance of nature is seriously unsettled.

Then there is the preoccupation of many African Governments with procuring cheap food for the towns. This has led to insufficient reward for the peasant farmers—often amounting to near-exploitation—and increasing calls for food aid.

In Ethiopia, for instance, farmers in surplus areas are not allowed to sell their grain freely in deficit areas like Tigre or Wollo. So the farmers produce less and the supply in the needy areas also shrinks. These things are within the capacity of each Government to tackle.

I should like to refer to the short-term factors, but before I do so I shall take up one or two points from the hon. Gentleman's speech. One is that he said that only £27 million of our aid to Africa went to agriculture last year. That is not true. That figure does not include either our programme aid, much of which is used on agriculture requirements, or our technical co-operation. Counting those in, the share of natural resources expenditure is broadly one third of our bilateral aid to Africa. It is important to remember that a road project, for instance, can be of real value in the development of agriculture in those countries.

With regard to IFAD, I told the House at Question time on Monday this week that I very much hoped that we would be able to achieve a replenishment, and I gave the figure of $600 million as the sort of figure at which we were aiming. Incidentally, in doing so I apparently completely satisfied the Opposition Front Bench spokesman on the subject.

I now refer to the short-term factors. When famine strikes, as it has done, only one human response is possible, and that has been given in generous measure by both the British people and the Government. It is perhaps worth reminding the House that in the two years up to last October, when the television films moved people so greatly, the Government had committed over £15 million, through all the available channels, specifically to relieve famine conditions in Ethiopia. So the idea that we had done nothing before October's television films is untrue. When the full scale of the tragedy became apparent we stepped up our aid, and we have since committed another £34 million for use in Ethiopia. In the Sudan we have committed over £14 million for use since last October, but that is not the whole story. As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, in the financial year that is about to end we have committed over £100 million to the relief of suffering and famine in the whole of Africa.

Almost half of all that is going through our membership of the European Community, which, as hon. Members will know, has launched a very large emergency programme. This programme gives effect to the commitment made at Dublin in early December that the Community and member states would provide 1.2 million tonnes of grain to famine-affected countries in Africa this year. A good deal of work has been done by the Commission in mobilising the first part of this programme — around £50 million is now in the hands of local Commission delegations and international and voluntary agencies, a further £50 million is shortly to be distributed, and the first 175,000 tonnes of cereals from the Community's 1985 programme have been committed. Commitments for 1985 by the Community and member states have reached the target set at Dublin for the worst affected countries, and stand at 1.5 million tonnes for all drought-affected African countries. But I entirely accept that the need now—as I told the vice-chairman of the Commission, Senor Natali, a few days ago—is to press on with delivery.

As for our intentions, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, I told the United Nations conference in Geneva that for the 12 months beginning in April the Government propose to provide a minimum of £30 million as a bilateral allocation for the victims of catastrophe in Africa, whether they be drought victims, refugees or others suffering from disaster. This will come from our aid budget for next year. Part of it will be drawn from the Contingency Reserve—there is no doubt that we shall have to use that reserve—and part will come from our food aid allocation. We expect to spend at least another £30 million as our share of Community action, which altogether will mean a minimum of £60 million. As I said in Geneva, if more is necessary we shall do all that we can to find it.

In the meantime, millions of men, women and children remain at risk in Ethiopia, the Sudan and elsewhere. I share fully the concern that has been expressed about the problems of supply and logistics that have left such large numbers at risk. Others may be getting enough food, but remain without proper shelter. I have seen these things on the ground.

I should like to pay tribute to the dedication of relief workers of many different nationalities, including the countries concerned. They are working as hard as those who have come from overseas. I am sure that the House would wish me to pay a special tribute to the work of the Royal Air Force in delivering supplies to remote corners of Ethiopia by means of its Hercules aircraft. We are considering how long the team should remain there. Whatever happens, we will not withdraw it without giving at least a month's notice. The RAF has set a real example in efficiency and also in the spirit in which it has appproached the operation, which has been quite outstanding.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the conference that I attended in Geneva last week. It was designed to draw attention to the needs of the affected African countries. There is no doubt that it succeeded in that purpose. One hundred countries sent delegations, including a large number of Ministers. President Nyerere, speaking for the Organisation of African Unity, set the tone early when he spoke with great realism of African Administrations' shortcomings in forecasting and dealing with the emergencies on the scale now before us. He recognised that African agricultural production is not meeting the need.

During the conference all donor countries made statements about the aid which they expect to make available to Africa in 1985. It will be difficult and will take some time to sort out all the details, but we have a provisional idea of the picture of cereals food aid, which is the essence of the matter, of which 6.9 million tonnes have been requested by the African Governments. Much of that is for balance of payments aid rather than direct relief aid. Those needs and harvest prospects require close scrutiny. Against that, 5.5 million tonnes have been firmly pledged by donors. Another 945,000 tonnes have been provisionally pledged, making a total of 6.445 million tonnes, leaving an apparent gap of about 450,000 tonnes.

Particularly important are the needs of the worst affected countries. A provisional analysis shows that well over 1 million tonnes of food aid is already in sight for both Ethiopia and the Sudan. About 300,000 tonnes must still be found for each of them and for the five most affected countries of the Western Sahel. Taken together, that is a gap of just under 900,000 tonnes. However, we expect further allocations to be translated from pledges into commitments.

That picture is not without certain encouragement. The quantities of food aid pledged are truly massive. However, we cannot be complacent—and in particular we cannot be complacent about the great problem of ensuring that the food is delivered on time. When I was in the Sudan I was struck by that more than by anything else. The food need there is all too evident, but it is crucial to get as much as we can to the Sudan before the rains come, we hope, in June. When I returned from the Sudan I pledged another 30,000 tonnes of food aid from the United Kingdom. I made it clear that I attached great priority to getting it there as quickly as possible.

In June, we shall know whether the rains will fall and what the prospects are for the next harvest. That will be a crucial moment. In the meantime, as I told Commissioner Natali, it is crucial that all countries in the European Community translate the substantial pledges into actual food on the ground. Until it is actually reaching the sad people who occupy these countries, I do not think that any of us should sit back and rest.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.