HL Deb 11 May 1992 vol 537 cc137-9

Lord Hatch of Lusby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to meet the needs of people suffering from the drought in Southern-Central Africa.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister for Overseas Development has already announced two new packages of aid for the region totalling £30 million, including food aid, balance of payments support and technical assistance. The Government are in close touch with their European Community partners and other donors to urge a similarly prompt and generous response.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness to her new post. I assure her that I at least will give her every support in squeezing the pips of the Treasury to find the money to serve the purposes of the department concerned with overseas development.

I have a few supplementary questions. First, is it the case that the European Commission has promised 680 million tonnes of cereals to Africa as a whole and not solely to Southern-Central Africa? Is it also the case that the estimate of need for Southern-Central Africa is 5.5 million tonnes? Has the noble Baroness any suggestions on how the Government will assist in bridging that gap? Further, can the noble Baroness tell the House anything about the difficulties of distribution and transport for the food aid that is being sent and whether the British Government, in conjunction with our European partners, can do anything to lessen the transport delays?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. Your Lordships may well be reflecting on the words, What, still around at 92, a fine upstanding girl like you". However, I wish noble Lords to note that I am happy to be here.

As regards the first part of the noble Lord's question, in addition to its regular food aid programme the EC will provide an additional 800,000 tonnes of food aid valued at £154 million. The UK share of that is about £27.5 million. Most of the food aid is destined for Africa. As great a quantity as 11.5 million tonnes of food aid, including 5.5 million tonnes for South Africa, is needed. The region is usually more or less self-sufficient in cereals with deficits made up by exports from South Africa, Zimbabwe and, to a lesser extent, Malawi. This year all those countries are badly affected. The infrastructure and logistics are indeed a formidable problem. We are doing what we can to help through voluntary agencies. The countries involved must take a certain responsibility for getting the food in.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, is it not a fact that it is not always possible for Britain to provide a bottomless pit of aid, much as I would like us to do so in the present circumstances? We must take a constructive view. Has my noble friend any information about the position in Zimbabwe? I understand that some kind of suggestion was made earlier as regards alleviating this drought but that the Government turned it down. The Government have received a certain amount of criticism in Zimbabwe for not taking action early enough.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, as I have said, the UK has responded generously and promptly. The money comes from the funds allocated for emergencies and from the Overseas Development Administration's contingency reserves. We have not gone back to the Treasury because we have been able to use the funds I have mentioned. However, my noble friend would not hesitate to restate her case to the Treasury if she felt the need to do so.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I am sure the House will welcome the initial action that has been taken. However, does the noble Baroness agree that the matters of targeting and logistics are as important as the food itself? Can the noble Baroness reassure the House as regards how soon the food will begin to arrive and whether the arrangements realistically take into account in a co-ordinated way the port capacity and specific location of the communities most at risk?

Can the noble Baroness also reassure the House on whether adequate help will be provided for port rehabilitation in Beira, Dar es Salaam, Maputo and Lobito? Will she also inform the House what action has been taken to ensure access to those desperately in need in Mogadishu and in and around Khartoum? Will the noble Baroness also inform us whether the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank will modify their structural adjustment policies to ensure the poor can buy the food that is available and that those bodies will provide subsidies for vital agricultural inputs to help stimulate food production for next year?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, we have always said that fishing rods are as important as, if not more important than, the food itself. However, in a situation which is much worse than anything which has been known before in our lifetime we are acting as promptly as possible. I have already mentioned that the import of food on the scale envisaged poses enormous logistical problems, and regional ports and road and rail systems will be under enormous pressure, as will internal distribution arrangements. I understand that my noble friend will be meeting voluntary organisations. Equally, she is meeting our EC partners. No doubt those subjects will be thoroughly pursued at the various meetings.

I believe that the noble Lord mentioned the target. We accept the target in principle but we cannot agree to a specific timetable. Our aid is planned to grow by about 3 per cent. in real terms over the next three years but the level of aid depends on many factors, including our economic circumstances and public expenditure policies. I should add that our aid is effective and growing.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the fact that she obviously acknowledges a sense of crisis, and rightly so with 40 million people in Southern-Central Africa at risk of famine. Will she pass on to her noble friend the fact that in the present crisis in Zimbabwe in particular (which is especially tragic in the view of the success of Zimbabwe agriculture and its exports in previous years) not only have crops failed but cattle are either dying or being eaten to fill the food gap? Will the Government recognise that it is now necessary not only to meet the immediate crisis but to prepare the way for the next harvest and the restocking of the cattle population so that there is some hope that if the drought does not recur next year recovery can begin?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I had the pleasure of greeting President Mugabe this morning on behalf of Her Majesty and I spoke to him about the situation. No doubt he will be having talks on the problem. A unit has been set up in Harare under the auspices of the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference to co-ordinate logistical arrangements. Contacts have also been established with the South African transport authorities. That is an encouraging example of co-operation on a regional scale. The figures which I have relating to Zimbabwe show that the harvest is 26 per cent. of the average, leading to a food import requirement of 1,410,000 tonnes through South Africa and Mozambique.

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