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6 February 2003

The Southern African Food Crisis

Westminster Hall Debate

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): It is a pleasure to follow the Minister's opening remarks and two thoughtful and well-informed speeches. I will not spend too much time on the subject of AIDS or of genetically modified crops, as both have been covered in the debate.

I want to pick up something that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said: although the debate is about southern Africa, the food crisis is not limited to that area, but affects other parts of Africa. I agree wholeheartedly with what was said about groups and organisations having to tackle the reluctance to promote condoms, as they are a major factor in preventing the spread of AIDS.

As much of the world's attention is focused on the possible war in Iraq, it is important not to take our eye off the ball in the continuing food crisis in Africa. Reports from Ethiopia and Eritrea say that half the population have been affected by drought and it is estimated that approximately 500,000 tonnes of food aid will be required there this year. In Mauritania, 56 per cent. of children are suffering from malnutrition, and in Madagascar significant levels of malnutrition have been reported. There may be crises in other areas that have not yet hit the headlines.

Often, what keeps a news story on the boil is the presence of television cameras and journalists on the ground. The fact that we are debating the issue today will no doubt be overshadowed by the Defence Secretary's announcement that more aircraft are being sent to the Gulf ready for military action. Continuing the debate in Parliament is important, as it is our duty to keep the subject on the agenda when it is not a hot news story.

The current military build-up shows that where there is political determination resources can be found. Whenever possible, we must continue to highlight the importance of the issue which, sadly, will continue long after a war in Iraq is over. This country has a small but important role that is part of a much wider effort, as the Secretary of State for International Development said. Unlike the situation in Afghanistan, there is much talk of a commitment to keep the peace and to rebuild Iraq after military action. Development budgets are always stretched and there are many questions about where to draw the line between finding resources for military and for humanitarian expenditure, but they are closely linked.

The blurring of budgets was an issue when questions were asked about whether the money spent on humanitarian aid in Afghanistan should rather have been spent on reconstruction. The Secretary of State gave detailed answers on the issue at Select Committee sittings. The budget headings may be fine for accountants, but for the hungry they are of little importance as long as the problem is being tackled. Funding and education projects, for example, which then provide the money to allow someone to buy food to feed the family are one example of the blurring of budgets, and there are countless others.

Just to say that there is a food crisis in southern Africa is a problem in itself, because that might imply that if enough food was delivered the problem would be solved. Many other factors contribute to the current crisis. Problems of drought, erratic rainfall and changes in the global climate all add to the issue's complexity. The problems related to HIV/AIDS and other health issues make the crisis deeper and more difficult to cope with.

There are problems with governance, as has been said, although that is so in many countries worldwide. That would be a major problem in its own right, but it is magnified in developing countries. The availability of support systems is made much more difficult, especially in areas without a good infrastructure, and the magnitude of the problems takes on a different scale. In this country, we are able to cope better with an emergency because we have a good road network, a transport system, a regular power supply and a telecommunications system, as well as the democratic structures and financial might to cope. Sadly, the systems in many of the countries in southern Africa, and many of those most in need of support, have great difficulty in maximising the effect of outside aid. One example is the problem of transporting food aid to remote areas, which can be cut off during the rainy season. The need to repair bridges and roads may not look like a top priority during the dry season, but if food aid cannot be distributed on the ground because of a poor road system and lack of bridge repairs, the hungry will starve.

When the Select Committee visited Malawi last year, we were able to see what life is like in villages and what people are up against. We saw a compound of Red Cross trucks, ready to be used to distribute aid, but we were told that they were the heaviest and most expensive trucks to run. They were designed to be used in areas of conflict and could withstand heavy use, but locally available smaller vehicles were more suitable and cheaper to run.

We met NGOs and spoke to Department for International Development staff about what they were doing. We also met Government officials, MPs, the president and representatives from other countries-many people with a lot of local expertise. I must mention the high regard that we found for the Department's work, and I add my own appreciation for the work of the Secretary of State, whose staff had a level of expertise and commitment that could not be faulted. Naturally, we want more resources to be made available to improve the situation, but it would be hypocritical of me not to give credit where credit is due.

Often the situation was described as a crisis within a crisis, the other crisis being the effect of HIV/AIDS. The huge number of orphans and households with either a child or grandparent at the head was there for us all to see. We saw the inability to prepare the land, even if the seed and fertiliser were available, and the effect of AIDS on the health service, not only on demand, but on the doctors and nurses who suffered themselves, resulting in an already overstretched system losing key workers. The children's malnutrition ward that we visited looked busy enough, as most of the beds were full, but we were told that during the busy season there would be two or three children in each bed. We also saw the effects of tuberculosis at a TB clinic when we visited Lilongwe.

The food and AIDS crises have become interlinked in many southern African countries. Nowhere is the link highlighted more than in discussions about the use and availability of anti-retroviral drugs. To be able to cope with the medication available, people need a good diet and to be relatively strong. For many who are too weak, the use of some medication is out of the question, even if it is available.

Questions about the governance of Malawi have already been asked, and they remain unanswered or only partially answered. I was never convinced that the answers that we received about the sale of the strategic grain reserve were truthful, and I am convinced that some individuals have done very well out of the suffering of others. People's bank accounts have swollen as the stomachs of others have. Whether they are business men, truckers or politicians, there is no excuse for using the food crisis as a method of getting rich.

The prize for the worst example of exploiting the food crisis must go to Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. What started as a doubtful election result has now grown into a full-scale humanitarian crisis, with half the population-an estimated 7 million people-suffering from food shortages. As we hear about deaths, adults collapsing and children fainting in schools, there are repeated reports of political bias in the distribution of food aid. In a country that has the capacity to produce food, the expertise to employ people on the land and the possibility of exporting food to neighbouring countries, what is happening in Zimbabwe is a crime against humanity. If ever there was a case for a United Nations resolution, this is it. Robert Mugabe is definitely a weapon of mass destruction.

There is no time today to explore the issue of GM crops, which has already been covered, and the issue of milled grain and the problems that Zambia faces were also mentioned by the hon. Member for Salisbury. The debate has not been helped by some people in the United Kingdom who are opposed to GM research under any circumstances. If drought-resistant crops can be developed and the process of speeding them up can be delivered by science, scientists should be able to do what they can to help with the problem.

We also have the problem of understanding the situation from the point of view of those suffering in Africa. It is impossible for many of us in this country to appreciate what it means not to have a regular supply of nutritious food instantly accessible and available every day of the week.

In an attempt to raise the profile of the food crisis in southern Africa, I agreed to live on a Red Cross food parcel for one week at the start of the year. I agree that that does not equate to living on food parcels alone in the long term, but I can report that it made me think about food all the time-what I was eating, what I could drink, and how to make bread. I never want to see another white bean in my life. Not drinking tea, coffee, fruit juice and alcohol and surviving on the two basics had another effect: it made me realise how significant the lack of nutritional food is. When we talk about keeping people alive by supplying maize or other basics, that is a long way short of a healthy diet, but it is often the basis for living a relatively normal life. Without a decent diet, infections can easily take over, and people are often too weak to do a day's physical work.

We often hear about how much difference a treadle pump can make, contributing to the production of an extra crop a year in some areas. In countries such as Malawi, the ability to run small irrigation schemes can make an impact. However, I have tried to work a treadle pump and found that to do so one has to be fairly fit to start with. For those who have not seen a treadle pump, it is similar to the type of treadle machine often seen at a gymnasium, which drains the life from one's legs and the stamina from one's lungs in minutes.

The difference between surviving and developing a sustainable existence in many southern African countries is the difference between continuing to supply them with food aid and helping in the reconstruction of individual countries, as happened in Europe after the second world war. It was recognised at that time that rebuilding Europe would provide a market for US goods, and that a successful European economy would also help the USA grow.

Africa has many of the problems associated with war-torn countries, and many regions of Africa have been ravaged by war for decades. If Africa is to grow out of its current crisis, it cannot do so on its own. The rest of the world must play its part. One way of starting that process is to examine the ways in which we trade with African countries, how that trade develops, what barriers we have put in place, and how we are reducing the opportunities for those countries.

We should examine how we in Europe and the USA support farmers, how we dispose of surpluses, the effects of dumping, and how surpluses and subsidies could be better used. Non-tariff barriers and technical standards may also place restrictions on developing countries. If market access was improved, that could be a major step forward.

Some of my hard-pressed constituents might ask why we should continue to help those abroad, when we have enough problems of our own on our doorstep. I argue that we have enough resources to do both, and that it is in all our interests to do so, and not only for humanitarian purposes, although that on its own should be enough-if someone is starving and we have enough food, we should share it.

Even in my constituency, one does not have to look far to see an abundance of wealth. Yesterday, an analysis was published of where millionaires live in the United Kingdom, and second on the list of their neighbourhoods was Blackhall in my constituency. Five minutes away from there are some of the most deprived areas of Edinburgh-Pilton and Muirhouse.

Inequality is worldwide, and it is sad to say that it is sometimes seen at its worst in Africa, with individuals amassing vast sums while others go hungry. We must keep the spotlight on southern Africa and hope that the determination shown to deal with problems in other regions does not, once again, leave Africa out in the cold.

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.