HL Deb 28 November 1984 vol 457 cc976-98

8.18 p.m.

Lord Walston rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they were proposing to take to help to prevent a recurrence in any part of the world of the present Ethiopian famine.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are proposing to take to help to prevent a recurrence in any part of the world of the present Ethiopian famine. The response to the Ethiopian famine has been one of the most heartening things that has occurred for many months, if not years. As soon as it was brought to the attention of the great mass of people in this country there was no hesitation about what should be done, and while I might convict the Government of not giving a lead in this matter I give them full credit for following the lead of the people, following it wholeheartedly and with a great deal of efficiency.

I am not proposing to talk about the Ethopian famine. What I want to do is to draw your Lordships' attention to the dangers of such a famine occurring; the fact that it is already taking place in other parts of Africa and indeed in other continents also; and that without any doubt in the months and years ahead it will, alas, spread its tentacles very much wider than at present.

What can we do in order to minimise the effects of that impending disaster and to prevent it in the long term, in so far as it lies within our power, continuing as it has done for countless generations? It is nothing new. What is new is to a certain extent the scale of it but it is the fact that it is brought into our living rooms by the medium of television which really has made us aware of it. But do not let that awareness evaporate as soon as the immediate crisis appears to be over, as soon as people have sent their generous contributions and as soon as the television no longer shows us pictures of those dying babies and the other horrors that we have seen. We must not forget that when that stops the famine in many places is still going on.

The first thing that we must realise is that the famine is not confined to Ethiopia. It is taking place on a somewhat smaller scale, but still entailing an appalling amount of human suffering, in neighbouring Sudan, in Chad and even in relatively prosperous Kenya to the south. What is more, all the indications are, and all the experts are telling us—and there are many of them, and they are very wise people—that it will spread over the next 18 months to two years into many other parts of Africa. If I concentrate on Africa it is not because I forget the starvation, hunger and malnutrition which is an everyday event in such places as Bangladesh, in parts of Asia and in parts of Latin America also.

As I say, what can we do about this? What should we be doing? We the rich countries of the West, the model of how government should be organised and how economies should be organised, priding ourselves on our Christian tradition and on our charity and love for our neighbours, what should we be doing? I would divide the solutions into two parts—the medium-term solution and the long-term. The medium term I take as meaning from the next six months, perhaps over the next two. three, four or five years, when famine will still be rife.

There I suggest the following. We have in this country at the present time a surplus of grain of the order of 10 million tonnes. In the Community as a whole the surplus is infinitely larger. Until this famine took place, we concerned ourselves with the surplus purely because it was an embarrassment—purely because it was costing a lot of money to store and even more to dispose of. It is an obscenity to look on surplus food in that light when there are millions who are starving for lack of it.

I think that I can best illustrate that and perhaps bring it home to those who are not aware of it—and I do not include any of your Lordships in that category—by asking such people how they would feel if they themselves were living in a small community (possibly as a farmer who had had a good harvest) and they had a surplus of 10 tonnes in their barn that they did not want; and outside in the community there were 20 or 30 people who were dying in the village street because they did not have enough to eat. They would not for a moment hesitate. They would not lock their gates and bar them, and say, "We will keep this until we can sell it to some rich person". They would hand it out to those starving people.

We are in precisely that situation in this country today, when we have not 10 tonnes but 10 million tonnes; when the people are not 50 but 5 million or more; when they are not a few hundred yards away but a few thousand miles away. Therefore we must be prepared to make at least some of that surplus grain available.

My suggestion is that we should pledge for international famine relief at least 1 million tonnes of our surplus grain on a continuing basis over the years so that it is known that that is available for the relief of famine and that when it is gone it will be replenished from subsequent harvests. We should do all that we can—and I do not believe we would find it all that difficult—to persuade our partners in the Community to do exactly the same, either as individual countries or acting as a community.

But it is not enough, as we know full well from the experience of Ethiopia if we have not known it before, simply to make grain available. It must get to the place where it is needed. It is not enough simply to put it on board a ship and deliver it to Port Sudan or wherever it may be. There are not normally facilities for unloading these large quantities coming in suddenly. There are certainly not facilities, as we see so well in Ethiopia, for distributing it along the very poor tracks—hardly roads; many hundreds of miles of them—with very little in the way of vehicles to transport the grain.

At the same time as pledging our 1 million tonnes of grain we must also pledge from our military resources a very small amount of the equipment needed for unloading vessels, for handling the grain and for transporting it. It needs light trucks. The big heavy ones would get stuck on the roads. But if we make them available so that they are always there in case of need, we shall have taken the first steps towards dealing with this recurring famine.

But again that is not enough. We must not wait until the famine has gained a hold on these people—until we see the pictures of the hundreds dying every day. We must be prepared to listen to those who know—and in the past we have not done so sufficiently—and to take action ourselves so that we are informed in good time. Here I would suggest that we instruct our missions overseas in all the countries where malnutrition and famine are a potential danger, even if not an actual one, that they should have one of their officers—the agricultural attaché, if there is one; otherwise, one of the secretaries at the embassy—whose job, among other things, would be to keep himself informed of the state of affairs in that particular country in order to give prior warning, through his embassy, to Her Majesty's Government of the state of affairs as it is developing; and, of course, to keep in close touch with the voluntary organisations that do such magnificent work in all those countries. So that there will be a complete line of information, it being carried back to us here in this country so that action can be taken in good time to prevent in future the sort of thing that is happening at the present time. Once again here, if we can do this through the Community, through the officers of Brussels who are stationed in the Lomé countries, so much the better. But do not let us postpone action on the grounds that we cannot get agreement there. We can always act on our own and hope that they will come in after that.

But that is dealing only with what I call the medium term, though the medium term will go on for many years indeed. In the longer term the task must be to enable all these countries now under the threat of famine to increase their own agricultural production, to grow their own food, so that they can provide their own people with proper nourishment. That is far more important but far more difficult and a very slow operation indeed.

That great man, John Boyd-Orr, foresaw all this during the latter years of the war, or immediately after the war. As a result, the Food and Agriculture Organisation was set up. We must not minimise the work that they have done. They have done admirable work. They can be criticised. I do not want to criticise them unduly but they are very large, they are pretty top heavy and they have enormous costs of administration. I have studied these matters very closely and been concerned with them directly and indirectly for nearly 40 years. My own view is that the best result comes from relatively small organisations. When you have the huge international organisation it is very hard indeed to get the results.

Here, I commend to your Lordships two particular organisations. Before doing that, I do not want to give the impression that there is no need for large-scale works: of course there is. It is important to have certain irrigation schemes which can only be carried out on a pretty substantial scale. It is essential to have good communications, infrastructure, schools, roads, power supplies and so on. Of course, all those things are necessary, but they can be provided and maintained only by government or such organisations. They must continue as they have done at present, and I hope to an increasing effect. However, I believe that we should concentrate our views increasingly on the smaller organisations.

I shall only mention two of these organisations with which I am happy to say I have been associated for quite a long time, though with One of them I am no longer. Those are the Commonwealth Development Corporation and Voluntary Service Overseas. Voluntary Service Overseas, as I am sure your Lordships know, send young and sometimes not so young people (sometimes 60-year-olds), with skills, graduates in some form or another, from this country to live in the developing countries. They send them to live largely in the rural areas among the people themselves, to work with them and impart the knowledge which they themselves have been able to acquire, leaving the local population better fitted to make better use of whatever their natural environment enables them to. That is not only in agriculture, though that is very important, but in matters like health, education and so on.

VSO at the moment have something like 1,100 volunteers posted overseas and about 20 per cent. of these are in agriculture. They are supported to a modest extent by a voluntary contribution and to a large extent by the ODA. That is one of the best investments that the ODA make and they treat VSO generously. The actual cost per volunteer averaged out to the ODA is something of the order of £4,000 a year for each person. That is a very small sum indeed—is it not?—considering the value that the receiving country gets from the work these fine people put in.

There should be more of these people. It would be good if the scheme could be doubled. The people are there; the organisation is there; but the money is not there. I would urge the Government to think very seriously about consulting with the VSO about means for increasing the amount of money they have. It must be on a continuing basis—it cannot be a sudden increase for one year and then a dropping off, because new staff have been taken on and so on—so that they can over the years, as rapidly as possible, move up to doubling the number of volunteers they have. As I say, the people are here in this country, anxious to go, and the receiving countries are crying out for them. The gain in terms of cost benefit is enormous.

The CDC is a very different kettle of fish. It does not directly receive any grants from the Government. It receives its finance from the Government, largely soft loans but some at commercial rates. It pays its interest on all that it receives and it repays the capital sums on the due date without any fail. It has already invested £500 million, half a billion pounds, in the third world in various development projects. A good half of that money is invested in agriculture and in forestry. Last year there was fresh investment amounting to £100 million of which half was in agriculture.

It is worth mentioning that these are not only, or, indeed now, primarily, vast great plantation schemes but nearly half a million small farmers are included in the CDC schemes. The experience that has been gained over the years of how to deal with small cultivators in remote areas, how to deal with the local officials, how to deal with governments, is vast. Again, if more money were made available on loan—and, I repeat, not as grants but as loans to be repaid and carrying interest—the work of the CDC could be extended in a very significant manner with, over a 10-or 20-year period, very significant results so far as increasing food production in the third world is concerned. I believe that in this sort of manner we can get a far better return on our money—and the people in the third world will get far more benefit from such money as we are able to make available to them—than by going in for the grandiose schemes which in the past have attracted too large a proportion of our aid efforts.

There is another point here which I shall just touch on very briefly. That is development education—small but very important indeed. I am afraid that here the United Kingdom is lagging behind. In 1984–85 we provided for development education £106,000, compared with what we did in 1979–80, only five years ago, £560,000. We have reduced our amount there to one-fifth of what it was. Our £106,000 compares with France, which gives £425,000; Norway, £1½ million; and the Netherlands, nearly £5 million. That is not a record of which we should be proud. I think it is something which I would urge the Minister to look at and I hope we shall increase what we are doing there.

I have hitherto been very modest, not in the length of time I have taken—because this is a vast subject—but in my demands on the Government's purse. I intend to continue in that way because I realise the constraints. But, for all that, I do believe that our aid effort is one of which we must—can only—be ashamed. Our aid fell from 0.52 per cent. of GNP in 1979 to 0.35 per cent. in 1983, which is only half of the United Nations' target, to which we agreed, of 0.7 per cent. France, Germany and Japan give nearly twice what we give in total volume. Norway gives over 1 per cent. of GNP, Netherlands 0.91 per cent. and Sweden just under 0.9 per cent. That is not a record in which we can take any pride at all.

Ethiopia has shown that the people of Britain are caring and generous. Her Majesty's Government are prepared to spend money on certain things. They are prepared to spend billions to safeguard the way of life of 2,000 people on the Falkland Islands. We paid £4,500 per head in the Falkland Islands. In the Sudan we give £1.67 and Bangladesh £0.28. Is that the sort of proportion that we really think is right? I ask the noble Lord when he replies to tell me whether he supports that type of proportion; or does he think that it should be looked at again? Surely we cannot grudge, and I am certain that the people of this country would not grudge, that we should give a few more millions—I am not talking about billions—to save hundreds of thousands from death by starvation.

8.41 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Walston, has already concentrated on Africa. I intend to do the same as that is the part of the third world with which I am most familiar. The noble Lord has also referred to the response of the British public to the famine in Ethopia. It has been quite remarkable. By the end of last week the latest agency appeals for Ethiopia had raised in the region of £8.8 million. The British public itself has given £20 million since July. For the last five months it has been giving £4 million a month over and above normal aid donations for famine in Africa. There is a growing public response to the Famine in Africa petition launched by seven development agencies.

Your Lordships will rember that there was a public outcry over rumoured cuts in the overseas aid budget. Her Majesty's Government finally acknowledged that this budget should remain at its planned 1985–86 level which, although representing a 3 per cent. cash increase, after allowing for 5 per cent. inflation, represents a cut of 2 per cent. in real terms. Although it is the appalling plight of Ethiopia that has hit the headlines, there are in fact 24 African countries affected, and most of sub-Saharan Africa faces disaster.

Famine is of two kinds, both of them avoidable. Where a country has a real food deficit only adequate emergency food aid in the short term and help to grow enough of its own food in the longer term can prevent famine. And several African countries are now in this position. But famines also occur sometimes when there is enough food in the country. It may be in the wrong places, and the landless, the jobless, the urban and rural poor are just too poor to buy it. Hunger is a problem of food access more than food production. And famine is more a product of poverty than of drought.

British foreign policy therefore needs to tackle with vigour not just aid, but also the wider issue of poverty in the third world. It needs to look at our share of responsibility for keeping the third world poor. It can help the poorest countries out of their economic crisis by easing their international debt burden and by pressing our European partners for greater concessions in the terms of our trade with the poorest countries. Above all, we must work to ensure that poorer countries can become self-reliant in their food supply.

A much greater proportion of our aid budget should go towards stimulating domestic agricultural production in developing countries, as the noble Lord, Lord Walston, has already said. A much greater proportion of our aid budget should go towards stimulating this area—and production not of more cash crops for export, but of subsistence crops for local food. The current overseas aid budget is over £1 billion. Of this, £236 million is given as bilateral aid to Africa, but of this figure, only £27 million is given as project aid to the agricultural sector.

Many of the schemes that could have a greater impact on domestic food production are the small, grassroots schemes designed to help peasant farmers. They often need only subsidised seeds, tools, livestock and fertilisers or help with irrigation and water supply. Small conservation and afforestation projects could also achieve much. We should give every encouragement to domestic economies to favour small rural producers, rather than the urban consumers and food importers. Better prices and marketing facilities would help them.

Too much British aid has been for large, high technology, capital intensive projects, often tied to the interests of British firms. Such projects do nothing to improve local food supply, but take large slices of the aid budget. The pressure to give priority to cash crops over subsistence crops is maintained not only by foreign economic interests but also by governments anxious to attract foreign exchange to compensate for unfavourable trade terms. Peasant farmers, as I say, need a simple supply of tools and oxen, rather than Western style technology. Too often, our help to them is not only too little and too late, but of the wrong kind. Non-governmental organisations can make a great contribution to the local agricultural projects that are needed. They are in the best position to organise peasant farmers and to promote community participation in decision making. They are also more sensitive to the experience which women, with their great understanding of domestic life, can bring to food projects.

More British aid should therefore be channelled to the multilateral agencies which do most to promote small agricultural projects. We should support with extra funds the World Bank's special programme of action on sub-Sahara Africa and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. When emergency food aid is needed, it is often not available. Only 10 per cent. of the European Community's food aid is normally reserved for emergencies. The rest is allocated as long-term, programmed food aid which rarely goes to help the starving. The European Community food aid should be reformed so that it concentrates on emergency needs and can be speedily and flexibly available in a crisis.

The whole international emergency aid system needs to be better co-ordinated. Warnings such as those from the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the World Food Programme need to be listened to in time. Warning was given of the famine in Ethiopia as long ago as 1982, when it was said that if the next harvest failed, there would be the disaster that at present that country is experiencing. There need to be accessible reserve food stocks already located in a region like Africa, so that transport difficulties can be minimised in a crisis. If we are to have grain mountains at all, would we not do better to station them within the food deficit countries?

The aid budget has been maintained at roughly its present level, and for that I give two cheers. But the aid budget covers a multitude of virtues, some more virtuous than others. There are ways in which we can use the aid budget to prevent future famines, above all by concentrating aid on small rural producers of food, as the noble Lord. Lord Walston. has said.

Do we channel our aid to the poorest countries, to the poorest people in the poorest countries to enable them to escape their poverty and dependency? The answer to that is: not yet. After safeguarding the quantity of our aid, we must now urgently look at the quality of our aid and make it first and foremost a support to food security.

8.50 p.m.

Lord Auckland

My Lords, the House, will be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Walston, for having initiated this very timely debate. The Motion is very relevant, and indeed, the most relevant words are, "any part of the world". I have never been to either Africa or India, which are undoubtedly the continents which suffer by far the most so far as these problems are concerned. But like all of your Lordships and most of the general public, I have seen the horrific and very distressing pictures on television from Ethiopia, Chad and other parts of Africa, India and Latin America where real starvation is taking place.

I noticed on the tape this evening that my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development has now returned from Ethiopia and made mention at a press conference at London Airport of the communication difficulties which exist in that country. One has only to see from the television pictures the geographical problems and the trucks which have to travel over narrow mountain roads which make any kind of communication extremely difficult. I read about the suggested provision of dumper trucks. That is vital. In my view, it is the provision of vehicles and agricultural equipment which is so vital to these countries, notwithstanding the communication problems.

There is one organisation which deserves special praise for what it has done, and that is the Save the Children Fund. It has done some marvellous work through its dedicated people. I would certainly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Walston, said about the Voluntary Service Organisation. I believe that it comprises very dedicated people of all ages who have the expertise to help in these areas.

There is one part of the world which has not been mentioned and that is the Caribbean. I visited Jamaica some seven years ago for the annual conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association of which I, like many of your Lordships, am a member. There are certain areas not far from Kingston where there is a real poverty problem: bad housing, bad drainage and a shortage of good agricultural facilities. Although at the moment there may be no real starvation problem on anything like the scale which Ethiopia and Chad are suffering, one must appreciate that if one looks to the future there is a real danger that such a situation could arise. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will take on board the problem, because Jamaica is a Commonwealth country, and their are also other countries which are independent members of the Commonwealth where this problem could arise. Indeed, I note in particular Dominica, which soon after independence suffered a most fearful hurricane which did enormous damage to roads and to the hospital at Roseau, the capital. Such a problem could lead to the type of situation which we are seeing in some of the African countries.

I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister the following question—and clearly he may not be able to answer it this evening because I have not given him notice of it. What is being done to provide assistance for agriculture, particularly in countries such as Jamaica and other independent Commonwealth countries where, if these problems are not investigated, they could result in years to come in a situation similar to that which we are seeing in Africa now?

There is also the problem of airport facilities. One noticed from the television pictures of Ethiopia, for example, a shortage of airport space. Have we the resources or the troops to send to some of these countries to build airstrips or to enlarge existing airstrips? In fact, I do not necessarily mean troops; I am thinking of our own firms which could usefully do this work. Obviously, the more airstrips there are, the more chance there is of getting the grain and other foodstuffs quickly to the areas where they are most needed.

As regards the amount we spend on aid to these countries and what we have spent on aid to Ethiopia and elsewhere, I cannot help feeling that the figures quoted do not always tell the full story. As a nation, we have a great many home problems to support. We have housing problems. There are people of many nationalities living in this country, including some from countries where there is real poverty among children. I am not for one moment suggesting that we should cut aid or that we should not increase aid wherever possible. But I believe that aid in the form of equipment, in the provision of trucks and expertise, is sometimes more relevant and helpful than money. However, a real service has been done by the noble Lord, Lord Walston, in raising this problem this evening, and as my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development has been on the spot in Ethiopia one now hopes that real action will take place.

9 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I too should like to say that we are grateful for this opportunity, coming at such an opportune moment, to debate this particular subject. I do not want to speak at very great length as it is rather late, but I should like to speak on two different areas. First, I should like to make a few general points about the vital need for long-term development projects in third world countries, and I should like to make these comments from the new vantage point that I acquired a few weeks ago as president of the United Kingdom committee of UNICEF. Then I should like to give one example of a particularly valuable afforestation project for which I and a small group of associates have been trying to raise funds and support in order to put it into effect in the Sudan.

Therefore, first, there can be little doubt that the voice of UNICEF was one of the most insistent among those issuing the warnings of a deteriorating situation not only in Ethiopia but also in other African countries. Following these warnings, UNICEF's executive director appealed to his board for no less than £50 million for special programmes for mothers and children in 13 African countries, and the estimate for the current programme of emergency activities by the United Nations children's fund between now and the end of 1985 in Africa alone comes to a total of £65 million.

Her Majesty's Government have so far contributed £1 million towards its total; but unfortunately in all up till now less than one quarter of that £65 million has been either pledged or given from member countries. So there seems a terrible irony that in the first place UNICEF warned the world what would happen in Ethiopia and was not heeded and now, through setting up an emergency programme, it is trying to prevent the same thing happening in other African counties and there has been only a minimal response to its appeal for funds.

So one can but conclude that overseas aid is not only too little but often it comes too late. It is true, as the noble Lord, Lord Walston, said, that the general public's response to the Ethiopian tragedy proves that people will respond generously when disasters occur, but the effect of those disasters and the levels of emergency relief needed for them would be very much reduced if both more attention and the wherewithal were given by governments everywhere to long-term development plans, and in particular to community and social development needs.

Here I am convinced that the press and media have an importat role to play. Quite rightly, they alerted us to the plight of the Ethiopians, but at the same time they could perhaps do more to focus attention on work going on in the development field and educate the public as to the long-term advantage of that less emotive but crucially important kind of assistance. This is where most of UNICEF's work lies—in water projects, health, agricultural and reforestation projects of every kind. But like other organisations, such as Save the Children, Oxfam and many others, it is entirely dependent on voluntary contributions from governments and people. It possesses the ideas and expertise to teach the people of the developing world to help themselves and in this way to try to rule out and reduce the effects of future disasters. But in spite of this we are all aware that, as again the noble Lord, Lord Walston, said, the Sudan, Chad, Mali, Mauretania, Angola and Mozambique are, as every day passes, nearing a similar crisis. Surely it is impossible to envisage that this further catastrophe be permitted to happen after the example of the Ethiopian tragedy. If famine does strike those countries too, it will be only through the lack of will and political commitment by governments of both developing and industrial countries to devote more resources to long-term objectives. At this point I was going to quote the figures of Britain's record in her aid. My figures were exactly the same as those of the noble Lord, Lord Walston, and I fear that they did not look quite good enough beside the examples of other countries.

Secondly and lastly, I should like to give one example of a development project which will give the deserved long-term effect which food aid and emergency aid does not. This is a project rather on the lines mentioned by the right reverend Prelate. It has been set up by a small non-governmental organisation called SOS Sahel, which has its headquarters in Dakar which was set up for the great drought in Sahel countries in the early 1970s. This particular project, which has been funded by the British committee, is an afforestation project in the Nile province of the Sudan where the plight of the farmers is getting even more desperate, coming as a result of the Nile no longer overflowing its banks, and diesel pumps for irrigation being needed together with the steady advance of the Sahara covering vast areas of what was once the most productive soil in the world.

The aim of our scheme is very simple. It is to plant fast-growing seedlings to provide wind breaks and reduce the sand drift round the farmers' fields. The project would be carried out over four years covering 48 local villages with a total population of 200,000 people. It would then be hoped that at the end the local farmers, having profited from these nurseries, and having recognised the benefits of the shade, the fuel, the fodder, the fruit and of the building materials of these nurseries, would then continue the work themselves.

For those of your Lordships who are interested in trees, may I explain that nine different species of trees will be planted. They will mainly be eucalyptus and acacia but the species most appropriate for the purpose is a very fast growing tree called the ipil ipil, which can reach 18 ft. after one year, which seems a remarkable rate of growth, and which has a property of fixing nitrogen in the soil which improves its fertility. I am told on good authority that 18 ft. is the truth.

One of the great virtues of this project is that of simplicity. There is no machinery for the Sudanese to maintain; no on-going expenditure for them to support; the women will be included in the project; and the project will include the hand-out of seeds as they go around the villages. In conjunction with the tree-planting scheme the project will use an educational puppet show using characters drawn from local folklore archetypes to try to demonstrate to the villagers the importance of trees and the different ways of safeguarding and respecting their environment. This particular method has been used with great success in various developing countries where the message of looking after your environment is put in a way which they best understand, which is not on a cinema screen but done through puppet shows.

May I end by saying that surely one way the Government can help to prevent further tragedy such as the one which occurred in Ethiopia, (referred to in the words of the noble Lord's Motion) is by channelling more aid through, for one, UNICEF, whose whole focus is on long-term development projects rather than immediate emergency aid. They have proved their complete commitment and ability to carry out themselves these long-term projects. It can also be done through small, non-governmental organisations, such as the one I have described, SOS Sahel.

I have gone around myself, cap in hand, for about two years to try to raise funds for this long-term development project. It is an irony that the money quite rightly comes in for an emergency and a disaster so heartrending as that in Ethiopia but it is difficult to raise money for a long-term project because there is much less that is sensational about it.

I would suggest—it has been tried before—that the Government should try the matching pound-for-pound system with some of these small NGOs which really do not have the time to go on and on trying to raise the money, but are able to carry out these innovative plans which go to the heart of the problems in these communities. It would also prove that the Government really have a concern for the future wellbeing of the poorer people of this world and do not believe in dealing with the problem only by providing emergency aid, primarily in the form of surplus grain, which in so many cases arrives too late.

9.11 p.m.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, I cannot help feeling some measure of sympathy for the Government. I had not planned to express sympathy for the Government, but they have been under a considerable barrage of attack in the press, the rest of the media and elsewhere, and even in your Lordships' House, for the seemingly tight-fisted and parsimonious approach to their future aid contributions. But of course a number of your Lordships have used the phrase, "long-term", and our Government, as are other Governments, are locked into conventional wisdom which is based on short- or medium-term thinking in this regard. So long as this continues—and I shall go into it in more detail in a moment—we shall not be able to plan to counteract future disasters which will inevitably arise.

The Ethiopian disaster was forecast many years ago, but no measures were taken to prepare for it. I am pessimistic enough at the moment to feel that unless there is a radical rethinking by donor countries, there will not be any measurable improvement in these preparations. We are in a slightly better position than some of the other European countries because we have been guilty of short-term thinking not only in terms of our foreign aid and the philosophy behind foreign aid, but also in terms of our own development.

It would be unfair to criticise the Government for having a meaner-minded approach than some of our European neighbours, because the motivation of some of our European neighbours in terms of overseas aid is much stronger. For example, perhaps many of your Lordships travelled in France 15 years ago and can recall the difficulty in making a telephone call. In that country today there is a modern and efficient telephone service, not only in the private home but in the street, too. It compares with the best in the world, and I am afraid that ours compares badly with it. This development required a huge expense on research and development over a number of years. The domestic market having been satisfied, France, being a modern country in terms of telephone communications, now has no option but to seek outside markets. The third world is an excellent market even if France has had to go to the extent of helping the customer to buy the equipment.

This pattern one sees in other European countries where there has been similar development of sophisticated industrial equipment. I can think of railways and road transport equipment and types of more sophisticated radar and so on. We have lost out in this particular field, so the general feeling among the public is that we are more tightfisted than our neighbours. But in fact we just do not have the impulse to go out because we do not have to. The French and the Germans have to be a lot more helpful to countries who buy their equipment because, unless they do so, their research and development will have gone for nothing and they will have to put numbers of highly skilled people out of work. The cost of that is too horrible to contemplate.

The current thinking in terms of aid—and we are not alone in this—is devoted to developing and marketing goods which we can pass on to third world countries. As a result of this we sometimes lag behind in our energies in developing the basic infrastructure in those countries.

To illustrate my point, it may be interesting to your Lordships to learn that I have some experience of this in African countries and know exactly how aid is administered. The average African country which has, as it were, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, in that it is the good books of the IMF and the World Bank, produces development plans. The plans may be for three, five or seven years. They are generally short or medium term. These plans are based on improving the infrastructure, improving roads, harbours and anything which will facilitate the country's endeavour to earn more foreign exchange. The foreign exchange which they earn in such countries, which are agricultural economies, comes from cash crops. We have heard other noble Lords speaking of that. The whole system in developing Africa is geared towards the earnings of foreign exchange from cash crops with which to purchase further goods and so on. I have seen the development plans of two countries in recent months and in neither of those plans have I seen any mention of any action to be taken which would effectively counteract the kind of disaster which we have seen in Ethiopia. As many noble Lords have said—and I have mentioned before in your Lordships' House—the possibility of famine and future misery stretches right down the eastern central side of Africa. It is not just a passing disaster which will be solved by the generous efforts which are continuing to feed the starving millions—efforts which people can now see are really sadly and hopelessly inadequate.

The possibility of future disaster is very real indeed, particularly because it seems unlikely that within the present thinking in the West there will be any breaking of this terrible deadlock. I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Walston in all the measures that he puts forward, and indeed those which other noble Lords have mentioned: in an ideal world that would be possible. Indeed, in an ideal world I should not disagree with the thinking behind the Government's rather glib phrase which has been bandied about, "aid with trade". It is totally inappropriate and totally unrealistic today to talk about aid with trade; because most of the countries which require aid do not have the ability to trade. They will only have the ability to trade in the way suggested in that particular slogan if we develop the long-term thinking and the long-term strategy which will enable them to build up their infrastructures, to improve the lot of ordinary people —and this requires a basic and very patient and concerted effort on behalf of the whole of the Western world.

I do not think that we can do it and I do not think that we in Europe can solve the problem of developing Africa, which is quite enormous. At the moment, the short-term and medium-term thinking is much more concerned with balances of power, with any deterrent that one can produce against infiltration of Russian interests into central Africa and so on. Not until we can all get together and see that this problem is one which cannot be dealt with by short-term and medium-term financial and economic solutions will there be any real inroad into the really terrible prospects which face Southern Africa.

9.22 p.m.

Viscount Hood

My Lords, I add my thanks to those of other noble Lords to the noble Lord, Lord Walston, for initiating this debate, which seems to me to be both timely and of real importance. The public support for Ethiopia is amazing. Indeed, it is so amazing that some of the recipients are concerned that there may be so much tied aid to Ethiopia that the other countries which are emerging on the horizon in equal trouble will find difficulty in obtaining the support needed. I do not share that view. I think it will be there. But I should like to address my few remarks to the longer-term problem. The need is surely to overcome the cause of the famines, and to do that, to increase the food production of the countries where these dangers arise.

This is very much easier said than done. There are the natural causes—the problem of water, of which one is so well aware—and also the administrative problems. I should like to illustrate the administrative problems from Angola, of which I have some knowledge. I should perhaps declare an interest in that I am a director of the Benguela Railway, which is the main thoroughfare and line of communication through the country going from the coast, 1,300 kilometres right through the country, to the Zaire border.

In the days before independence and the civil war which followed so closely upon it, the custom was for a Portuguese, commercial organisation, to go up the line village by village every year. Basically, they asked two questions: "How much food can you grow?" and, secondly, "How much food do you need for your own consumption?" This worked well because the company would then contract for the surplus, carry it and market it.

With the troubles which have come to that country, the railway is now disrupted and the organisation which in effect supported the agriculture has vanished. They need to be replaced. These requirements lead to two fundamentals. One is peace and the other is an incentive to produce food. These have got to be reproduced. It is impossible, obviously, to revert to the form of government which existed before. It is necessary to find a way of achieving the same requirements in another way, because what I see in Angola is all too evident in other parts of Africa. Funds, assistance, money is one thing, but it also requires aid in other forms—advice, persuasion, and maybe also conditions, without which perhaps the essential results will not be achieved.

Those in turn are going to be achieved only if there is proper co-ordination—and I follow what the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, has just said—of this tremendous effort which exists. We see it in Ethiopia. The Government are helping; other governments are helping. The European Commission is in the act, together with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, in their various ways. But the coordination to make it one effective effort does not seem to be there and, while entirely supporting the view that there should be more aid, I should like to put the plea to Her Majesty's Government that they take a part—a lead perhaps—in achieving such co-ordination. It has been done before. The memory of the Marshall Plan is not entirely irrelevant. There it came from one source, but it was distributed, and effectively distributed, over a very wide area. So aid is needed, but co-ordination is needed, too.

9.26 p.m.

Lord Oram

My Lords, my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Walston, go well beyond the usual courtesies on these occasions, because I admire very much the drafting of his Unstarred Question. It is rare, in my experience, to have a Question such as this, which in the compass of two lines of print gets right to the heart of a very complicated problem. I would invite your Lordships just briefly to look in turn at the main elements of the noble Lord's Question.

In the first place, he puts the responsibility for action to help prevent famine where it undoubtedly and overwhelmingly belongs: on the Government and on their partner governments in the Community. Of course there are many other agencies involved, which have been referred to during the course of the debate—some voluntary agencies and some official, multilateral organisations—but what we are primarily concerned with this evening is what our own Government are doing and propose to do about the drought and famine situation.

Of course, the noble Lord draws attention to the famine in Ethiopia, as almost every other speaker in the debate has done. Indeed, I suggest that no debate ' today about famine in the world could fail to take the Ethiopian situation as the starting point. But the noble Lord's Question does not make the mistake, as many commentators do, of focusing almost exclusively on Ethiopia. As the noble Lord, Lord Walston, has explained—and others have also made this point—there are many other countries, particularly in the continent of Africa, where widespread destitution and death on a massive scale are threatening to reach proportions just as critical as those which we have witnessed in Ethiopia.

Then the noble Lord's Question refers to the need to prevent the recurrence of famine conditions; and that I believe to be the most important aspect of the problem we are examining this evening. Nothing I should say or that anyone else should say in these discussions ought in any way to detract from the immediacy of the present crisis and the need to mobilise all possible resources to rescue those who are dying. That of course must engage our immediate attention.

But also we cannot avoid the long-term aspects of the problem, and the Question that we are considering does not avoid those long-term aspects. We should not fail to ask—and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Walston. in his Question does ask—how can we stop this tragedy from happening again? I suggest that we should not avoid looking back and asking ourselves: what has gone wrong? As one speaker in the debate said, there have been warnings for years and we should ask what warnings went unheeded. There were many such.

But in the case of Ethiopia perhaps the most tragic failure, to my mind, was the failure by the Ethiopian government themselves to implement, even to publish, the notable United Nations report by a team headed by Dr. Keith Griffin, the president of Magdalen College, Oxford, and I invite your Lordships to read the extract from that report which appeared in the Guardian on 9th November. If you read that extract, you will find there spelled out a strategy for rural development in Ethiopia, based on mobilising the seasonally surplus labour which is Ethiopia's main resource.

The report advocates the widespread use of voluntary co-operatives as the means of accumulating savings for capital investment in the rural community. That is the method, as I have seen on two recent occasions, that is currently being used with notable success in the vast country of China. I am convinced that before long the world will wake up to the fact that very important development changes are taking place in China, and that many third world countries will need soon to learn from that country the way in which they can regenerate their countryside and avoid the threat of widespread famine, as, in fact, the most populous country in the world is succeeding in doing at the present time.

But these other third world countries will not be able to mobilise their rural resources without massive support from outside. President Nyerere of Tanzania, when he attended the recent meeting of the OAU conference, said that his country could produce much more food than it is producing, but to get the process started his country needs resources from outside.

That brings me back to the first element of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Walston: what do the Government propose to do? What, I wonder, will be the Minister's answer to that question this evening? I have no doubt—and this we will welcome—that he will bring us up to date about the emergency aid for Ethiopia; and we can all commend what the Government have done, even though we might wish it were more. But what about long-term policy?—a question which a number of noble Lords have asked. Here, again, I think I can forecast something that the Minister will say, because I believe that the essence of his speech is contained in this document—the annual report of the Overseas Development Administration.

Lord Trefgarne

Not at all!

Lord Oram

That will be unusual! I do not doubt that on previous occasions the noble Lord has called our attention, and that on future occasions he will call our attention, to what the Overseas Development Administration is doing in the poorest countries—in particular, what the ODA is doing for the agricultural sector of developing countries and what it is doing to develop various natural resources. If one reads the report one cannot but welcome the splendid work which is being carried on by the ODA.

While welcoming that work, we can welcome it only up to the point at which one begins to make comparisons and ask some of the questions which have been asked in our debate. When, for example, we compare the size of our aid programme with what it was when this Government took office, or compare expenditure on aid with other public expenditure and take note of the fact that it is less than one penny of every £1 spent by the Government, when we take note of the fact that it is misleading—as the Foreign Secretary has misled the country—to claim that the aid budget is being maintained, and when we know, as the right reverend Prelate pointed out in his speech, that inflation, both at home and even more overseas, is diminishing our aid in real terms, just as it has been diminished year after year since 1979, we realise that the Government's record, admirable though it is in detail, is open to serious question and is found to be seriously at fault.

I began by commending the noble Lord, Lord Walston, for asking a succinct, relevant and meaningful Question in a very few words. I would suggest to the noble Lord who is to reply for the Government that he could make an even more succinct reply to that Question. He could make the shortest and best speech of his career. The true answer to the question which the noble Lord, Lord Walston, has asked: "What are the Government doing?" is, "My Lords, we are not doing enough; we could afford to do much more and we ought to do much more".

9.38 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I shall not immediately rise to the bait offered by the noble Lord, Lord Oram, but will begin by saying how grateful I am to the noble Lord, Lord Walston, for giving us the opportunity to debate this important matter and, hence, an opportunity for me to give a response to it.

The scourge of famine has been with man for centuries. Very real and sincere efforts have been made by the international community to stamp out this scourge, particularly following the World Food Conference in 1974. It is a cruel irony that that conference was called largely as a result of a dreadful famine in Ethiopia, which now, 10 years on, has returned. There are lessons we can all learn from the Ethiopian experience. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in another place last week, since 1982 we have given more emergency relief aid to Ethiopia than to any other country. This amounted to about £ 15 million, even before the further measures which I recounted to your Lordships on 30th October.

To ensure that everything possible is being done, my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development has just made a visit to Ethiopia to see Britain's famine relief effort in operation. In a Written Answer this afternoon in another place, my right honourable friend reported that he had met representatives of the Ethiopian Government, voluntan' agencies and international organisations and had had a long talk with Chairman Mengistu. He also met members of the Royal Air Force detachment engaged in ferrying food and supplies within Ethiopia to famine areas, and he went by RAF Hercules to relief camps at Korem and Mekele and to the Port of Assab. He was impressed by the splendid work of the voluntary agencies and the superb operation of the Royal Air Force, which has won it an enviable reputation in Ethiopia. He has decided to send a substantial quantity of further supplies and is now considering what additional steps to take.

I believe your Lordships will agree that the British Government have responded to the urgent need to help the victims of famine in Ethiopia, but a much more important question is how to prevent famine from occurring in the first place. That is the question we are considering this evening. The major need is for the governments of the affected countries to pursue appropriate policies and programmes—but there is also a role for aid to play. Some years ago, we were actively involved in the type of long-term development projects in Ethiopia that would have helped to avert the present tragedy.

In the early 1970's, when my noble friend Lord Home of the Hirsel was Foreign Secretary, we were developing in the very heart of the present famine area a long-term agricultural strategy for Tigre Province. Its major components were soil and water conservation, small-scale irrigation development and crop and livestock improvements. But the programme had to be abandoned in 1976 because of a serious breakdown of law. In fact, one of our people was shot and 14 were temporarily kidnapped. This demonstrates very clearly that, with the best will in the world, there is little that external agencies can do to help prevent famine if the basic conditions within the country are hostile to such assistance.

As the noble Lord, Lord Walston, said in his opening remarks—and other noble Lords referred to this point as well—famine is occurring in countries other than Ethiopia. Although there is a need for constant vigilance throughout the world, it is clear that the most pressing need is in Africa. To get to the roots of the problem, one needs to understand the clear distinction between drought and famine. Drought is endemic in semi-arid areas but local people can farm and store food in ways which provide a good measure of insurance. Famine arises when the shocks of occasional droughts are compounded by other factors.

There can be successive seasons of low rainfall, civil war, population pressures, and poor governmental food and agricultural policies. In many countries, the rate of growth of food is not keeping pace with the growth in levels of population, and desperate attempts to try to wring more production out of marginal land degrade and erode the soil. It is estimated that each year millions of hectares are irretrievably lost to deserts or are temporarily taken out of useful production.

Increased food production is vital but it is not the only answer. Famine can exist in the midst of plenty. Systems are needed to get the food where it is needed. That means proper national and local food distribution arrangements. Action to tackle famine must therefore mean both increased food production and improved access to food. In many countries—notably in Africa—there has been a widening gap between food production and population. During the 1970s, the population in Africa increased at a rate of 3 per cent. per annum, and is still accelerating, while food production grew at less than 2 per cent. Until this fatal arithmetic can be corrected, famine will be a persistent threat.

But the outlook is not all bleak. Other countries—mainly in Asia—have been highly successful in increasing food production, and the so-called green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s has removed the spectre of widespread famine from most of Asia—at least for the present.

Turning first to production, many countries have areas of good quality land. But in the last 15 to 20 years the potential of these areas has not been fully realised. First, governments often spread their budgets widely over their countries for understandable political reasons. Secondly, populations have grown and have increased pressure on arable land generally. Thirdly, governments have pursued policies, for instance on over-valued exchange rates and low agricultural prices, which many of them are now beginning to see as misguided. Added to this has been the decline and virtual collapse of many national agricultural research organisations.

But the solution is easier to set out than to secure. Good quality land could yield more if these policies were changed and if proper attention was paid to adaptive research. Some success has already been achieved. In many African countries, incentives to farmers have been improved, exchange rates have been altered, and the emphasis has been shifted from state to small farms.

It is also important that the marginal areas should be developed in a sensible way. Irrigation is not likely to be a major solution, but wherever practicable it should be developed. These marginal areas vary widely. In some, good yields might be expected in the fairly near future. In others which are virtual deserts, there can be no agricultural answer.

As well as increased production, access to food through national and local food strategies is very important. This needs properly managed systems of food storage and distribution. Developing countries need seasonal storage for their domestic surpluses and need especially the improvement of local, communal or village stores. More effort must also be put into reducing storage losses from pests or disease. Strategic reserves of imported food, on the other hand, have been abandoned in many countries on grounds of cost and wastage.

Admittedly, it makes more sense for food surpluses to be stored in their countries of origin, where modern technology and a temperate climate cut down losses. This is not to say that having surpluses in the European Community means that we should give vastly increased quantities of food in the form of aid. Quite apart from the fact that the very large sums involved in buying and transporting food can often be put to better use, long-term food aid can sometimes do more harm than good. Its real value is in emergencies, and we are urging the European Community to make more of its food aid available to meet urgent needs.

As my noble friend Lord Hood made clear, the marketing and distribution of food within countries is also important. Improvements are needed both in the performance of the organisations involved and in the physical infrastructure. Better cargo handling at ports, programmes to construct rural access roads, rehabilitation of railway networks; all have their part to play in enabling available food to get where it is most needed.

One further element in the search to avoid or mitigate the worst effects of famine would be to improve the forecasting of food import needs. But these needs are not necessarily a reliable measure of human distress. First, food plenty can exist with famine if people in the countryside are too far away and too poor to be able to buy what is available. Second, import needs can be grossly exaggerated by wrong policies, overvalued currencies, subsidies to urban consumers, or poor official marketing which leads to unofficial parallel markets springing up. And third, even where food has to be imported it may not be right to provide it as aid, especially if the country concerned is thereby encouraged to spend its own foreign exchange on items or projects of a less essential nature.

In drought-prone areas most people depend heavily on their live-stock. At one extreme they can be an asset; a source of revenue in the good years and an insurance against famine in the bad. At the other extreme they can be a burden, particularly if their numbers rise to the point where they destroy the vegetation. The surplus stock from these pastoral areas could be moved for fattening in the agricultural areas; this was a common practice in our own country in the past.

Finally, in this survey I must underline the importance of conservation and especially the need for improved forestry, which was much in the mind of the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs. We really need an imaginative approach to forestry—and we shall need one if we are going to countenance those 18 ft trees that the noble Baroness was talking about—in all its guises, from firewood to timber. It is certainly not difficult to establish its importance: deforestation in Africa is taking place at 10 times the rate of new plantings.

May I turn now to some of the other points that have been raised during the course of our debate this evening? The noble Lord, Lord Walston, for example, in his opening remarks asked me about the possibility of more involvement of the Government in Voluntary Service Overseas. ODA's financial support for VSO and other British volunteer programme agencies is helping them to make that contribution. ODA grant support for VSO has increased from £1.65 million in 1979–80 to £4.8 million this year. A special supplement to the VSO grant this year has been agreed to enable it to commence a new programme in Ethiopia. A VSO representative is in Ethiopia this week discussing possible volunteer placements and the establishment of a permanent VSO field office in that country. Indeed, in 1984–85 we are granting nearly £6 million for volunteer programmes generally—17 per cent. more than the year before.

The noble Lord also referred to the CDC and his own distinguished role in that corporation. I recall that my own family has a connection with that enterprise, too. I agreed with almost everything that he said about the splendid work that it is doing and continuing to do.

The noble Lord also referred to food surpluses, particularly referring of course to the European Community. The Community and its member states have a combined food aid programme of around 2 million tonnes of cereals, as well as other products, annually. That is enough to make a substantial impact on urgent needs if sufficient priority is given to them. The noble Lord was right I think to refer to distribution. In fact we estimate that it costs about £250 per tonne to get grain to the needy in Ethiopia. I note his suggestion about military aid for those purposes, but I wonder how acceptable that would be at least to some governments. Surely the main aim must be to build up their own capacity to distribute these products.

I shall not be drawn down the avenue of our aid budget generally. I have a good many notes in front of me that I could draw on for that purpose if I felt so inclined, but your Lordships may think that at this time of night that is best left for another occasion.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford referred to the project aid to agriculture in Africa. I think that he felt that the sum was insufficient. I believe that he understates what we are doing. Increasingly our financial aid is for spares, fertilisers and small machinery to keep things going. Taking that into account, and our manpower aid, our aid to agriculture and similar sectors is nearly one-third of our total aid to Africa.

The right reverend Prelate also referred to the possibility of prepositioning of emergency stocks, but I have to tell him that that is a very expensive way of getting grain to famine affected areas quickly, for we in Britain can deliver grain by ship within about eight weeks of deciding to do so. It is quite likely to take that long to get the same quantities by road and rail from one country in Africa to another. In addition, such stocks can quickly deteriorate in hot and humid climates, and they need good management, which is sometimes in shorter supply overseas than it is here.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, in addition to her trees, asked me about UNICEF. I should like to congratulate her, if I may, on her new role on the United Kingdom Committee for UNICEF. We contributed over £6 million to UNICEF last year and are fairly high on the list of debtors—of donors, rather, though we are probably a debtor, too, I have no doubt. We are expecting now a further special appeal from UNICEF for Ethiopia and undertake to consider urgently what we can do.

The noble Baroness also emphasised the role of the voluntary agencies. I referred just now, in replying to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Walston, to what we are doing in that direction. If the risk of further famine is to be lessened, it needs a joint approach by all donors with the countries concerned.

Britain can play its part on the following lines. First, our aid to agriculture and other natural resources can be used to encourage the sorts of policies, backed up by all donors, which will raise production in the good quality areas.

Secondly, we can promote the fundamental research effort required before marginal land can be exploited in a way that is environmentally sound. That will take a long time. There is something of a precedent in the co-operative effort organised by the World Bank in relation to the control of river blindness in West Africa. Over 10 or more years this has achieved much success. A most important element would be the work of the institutions of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. We should encourage them to take a much more active role in nurturing national research organisations, primarily in Africa.

The third main element in our strategy must be aid provided through the European Community. We shall urge the Community to play a full part in the international operation, combining both long-term development projects, including forestry, with the short-term needs for emergency and food aid. In this case we shall seek to associate British manpower with the international efforts.

My Lords, these measures are aimed directly at preventing famine by increasing the availability of food. But the other side of the equation—the number of mouths to feed—is also an important factor. The contribution that our aid programme makes to family planning activities, particularly through international organisations, will rise considerably over the next few years. We hope that this, too, will have an impact.

House adjourned at three minutes before ten o'clock.