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That this House deplores the totally inadequate response of Her Majesty's Government to the immediate threat of famine in Ethiopia. I am sorry that the Minister for Overseas Development is not present. I understand that she is ill. On behalf of Opposition Members I send her our good wishes for a speedy recovery. As I talk, people are dying in Ethiopia. Everyone now recognises that it is possible to save lives if emergency aid is given swiftly and generously. It is in that context that I open the debate. Britain spends far too little on overseas aid. The United Nations asks all developed countries, including Britain, to spend 0.7 per cent. of their gross national product on overseas aid each year. Some countries meet the target. In 1988 the Governments of Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and France all spent more than 0.7 per cent. of their GNP on aid. The previous Labour Government were moving steadily towards that target, despite the international economic circumstances of the late 1970s.
When my party left office, United Kingdom aid as a percentage of GNP was 0.52 per cent. Under this Government, the figure has fallen to a meagre 0.32 per cent., less than half the United Nations target and one of the lowest ever recorded for the United Kingdom. So-called Government wets such as the right hon. Members for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison), for Bath (Mr. Patten) and for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) have been happy to preside as Minister for Overseas Development as the Government have slashed the aid budget as a percentage of GNP year after year since Labour was in office in 1979.
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : Does the hon. Lady agree that Labour Governments invariably have a record of increasing GNP very little or not at all, whereas Conservative Governments increase GNP considerably? Is not that a statistical influence on the trend that she suggests? Should we not debate the absolute figures for aid and the direction in which they should go?
Mrs. Clwyd : The hon. Gentleman clearly does not understand the points that I make. If I read out the figures, he will find that they are deeply embarrassing for the Government. It would be useful to put them on record. In 1977, under the Labour Government, United Kingdom aid as a percentage of GNP was 0.444 per cent. In 1978, it was 0.46 per cent. In 1979, it was 0.52 per cent. In subsequent years under a Tory Government, it was 0.35 per cent., 0.43 per cent., 0.37 per cent., 0.33 per cent., 0.33 per cent., 0.31 per cent., 0.28 per cent. and 0.32 per cent. That is the position under the Tory Government compared to the position under a Labour Government.
Mr. Arnold rose --
As a result of the Government's cuts in aid, the Third world has lost at least £6.4 billion of aid. Yet the scale of the problems facing developing countries today is massive. Almost 1 billion people in Africa, Asia and South America--a quarter of the world's population--live in absolute
Column 1049poverty without hope of adequate food or shelter. Millions more face malnutrition, unemployment and disease, often without basic health or social services.
For the poor in the Third world, life is a constant struggle for survival. Third world Governments have had to run to keep up with the need for economic growth. The last few years have not been years of plenty for the Third world but years of suffering and austerity. In his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer told us that the United Kingdom net aid programme will increase by 6 per cent. in 1990-91, by 6 per cent. the following year and by 4 per cent. the year after that. In real terms that means that the aid programme is likely to decline even further over the next three years. It is unlikely to keep pace with inflation, unless one believes the Treasury's constant optimistic forecasts. Meanwhile Britain continues to pay lip service to the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of GNP. During the 1983 general election campaign, the Prime Minister pledged :
"When economic circumstances permit, we shall move towards the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of GNP."
Earlier this year, she told the House :
"we now have a higher standard of living than we have ever known. We have a great budget surplus."--[ Official Report ; 28 February 1989 ; Vol. 148, c. 154-55.]
It is so great that we have now fallen further and further behind the United Nations target and the levels of aid given by other major industrialised countries. In the league table of all 18 western aid givers, Britain, to its shame, dropped to 14th place last year. As a result, Britain was singled out for criticism by the other western donor countries when a committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development argued :
"the time has come to reverse the downward trend in the UK's Overseas Development Aid/GNP ratio and to make sustained progress towards the 0.7 per cent. of GNP, ODA target."
In 1988 the Foreign Affairs Select Committee recommended that the aid budget should increase in line with the nation's increasing wealth and that the Government should set a timetable for achieving that target. However, in reply to my question of 7 December, the Secretary of State was extremely coy and referred me to an earlier reply from the Prime Minister dated 6 June. She was asked : "when Her Majesty's Government expect to achieve the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. gross national product for overseas aid." Her reply was :
"The Government accept this target in principle but like previous Administrations and many other donors are not able to set a date for achieving it. Progress towards it must depend upon developments in the economy and other claims on our resources."--[ Official Report, 6 June 1989 ; Vol. 154, c. 129. ]
I am pleased that aid to eastern Europe has been additional to the aid budget. I hope that the Minister can give us specific assurances tonight that all future aid to eastern Europe will be additional to aid levels currently planned.
The threat of widespread famine is sweeping northern Ethiopia again. It is the third famine in the past 10 years. The average yields from this month's grain harvest in Tigray and Eritrea are only 15 per cent. of the normal level. Grain prices have more than doubled and starvation has already claimed its first victims among small children and the old.
Column 1050The threat of famine is again the result of droughts in Eritrea, Tigray and Wollo, and the civil war which has been continuing for the past 25 years--exactly the same combination which led to the massive famine of 1984-85 and the near famine of 1987-88. Many people who gave so generously in response to the famine of 1984-85 through Band Aid, Live Aid and Sport Aid must have hoped that such a terrible situation would never happen again. Why is it happening again? The continuing war has devastated food production, dramatically limited long-term agricultural programmes and forced significant migrations of people even in times of good harvests. Failure of the rains in all but three of the past 10 years and a severe drought this year have meant that between 60 and 100 per cent. of crops have been lost in some areas.
The Foreign Affairs Select Committee in its excellent report on famine in the Horn of Africa predicted in 1988 that there was a serious danger of a major catastrophe in northern Ethiopia on a far greater scale than the famine of 1984-85. The report stated : "An impression may have been created in the donor countries that, since so many lessons have been learnt, the horrors of 1984-85 would not recur. This would be dangerously false optimism But droughts will occur again--the rains have failed or been inadequate in 3 of the last 4 years--and with a fast-growing population, poor farming techniques, widespread deforestation and land degradation, the consequent famines are likely to be increasingly severe And by each successive drought the resilence of the people and of the land is diminished. It is a spiral which, if unbroken, must result in tragedy."
There is still time to avert that tragedy and ensure that as few people die as possible of the 4 million whom the aid agencies say are now at risk.
Ethiopia needs more than 600,000 tonnes of emergency food over the coming months, on top of the 450,000 tonnes it needs every year to cover its chronic food deficit. The United Nations world food programme, which estimates overall needs, urgently contacted aid agencies on 9 December saying that world donors have pledged only 30 per cent. of the total food requested. In theory, Ethiopia and the international community are both physically better prepared to face the emergency than in 1984, but in practice the awful reality is that thousands could die as the innocent victims of war, famine and indifference.
Although the country's main ports of Assab and Massawa have steadily increased their capacity since 1984-85 and can handle as much as 800,000 tonnes of food a year, the problem is that food shipped to the ports for distribution through Government channels cannot, as things stand at present, reach more than a quarter of the people in need. Outside Government-held areas are 2.5 million people in Tigray which is entirely controlled by the Tigray People's Liberation Front. A further 1.5 million of those most seriously affected are in Eritrea, mainly in areas held by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. In both Tigray and Eritrea there are local aid organisations whose track record on distributing food and other aid is acknowledged by Western aid agencies. The two organisations are ERA and REST. This morning I received a telex from REST which states :
"The latest expatriate monitor to visit the affected areas has reported that some people are already foraging for food, digging up wild bulbs and roots. He has confirmed that individual food stocks are nearly exhausted in many areas and that funds are urgently needed now for internal purchase as the timing is all important. More food shipments are desperately needed as soon as possible."
Column 1051At present several western aid agencies are involved in channelling food through these local agencies from Port Sudan, because it is absolutely imperative that the people most in need must be reached now. Obviously, that can be done best through an open-roads policy, using the northern route of Massawa, which is Government held, in Eritrea to supply a route from Government-held Asmara down the main road to Mekele and Tigray and to Weldiya in Wollo and intermediate points. The Tigray People's Liberation Front is said to be only 90 miles from the capital, Addis. President Mengistu is thought likely to take the view, as he has in the past, that food aid would only strengthen his enemies. While the British Government and others must urgently renew their appeals for an opening up of the supply routes, it must be somewhat unrealistic to expect that to happen quickly. Reports from Kenya yesterday claim that Ethiopia has agreed to open up the corridors in the north of the country to allow food aid to reach the 4 million people threatened with starvation. But there is no confirmation yet that terms have been agreed. The fear is that hunger will continue to be used as a weapon of war. I should be grateful to the Minister if he could tell us whether he has any news about whether the Ethiopian Government and the rebels have agreed a policy on that. Several calls to the Ethiopian embassy and elsewhere today have failed to obtain official confirmation. According to all the aid agencies, in the event of the Ethiopian Government continuing to refuse access or of the rebel groups refusing to stop fighting, a cross-border operation from the Sudan will be essential.
Some food comes from eastern Sudan and some from abroad through Port Sudan and on to Eritrea and Tigray. As many hon. Members know, that means relying on truck convoys, late at night to escape Government aircraft bombing them, travelling more than 600 miles on rough roads. One accepts that it is politically difficult for donor Governments to bypass the Ethiopian Government in this way, but a cross-border operation from the Sudan must be used as fully as possible. I am glad that the British Government now accept that argument.
What, then, are the needs of the people inside Ethiopia? Everyone agrees that aid is needed now to avoid a repeat of the harrowing scenes of 1984, when hundreds of thousands starved to death and the nightly pictures on television of babies dying in the arms of their widowed mothers brought home the full horror of the tragedy. At least 600,000 tonnes of food and other essential supplies are needed as soon as possible, but already people have begun to emigrate from the areas where there is no food. One lesson that was learned the last time around was that it was uneconomical and socially destructive for people to leave their homes and their land. Thousands of people died on their way to feeding centres or through the spread of contagious diseases in refugee camps and feeding centres.
A doctor responsible for health care in Eritrea came to see me yesterday. He said :
"Anyone who can walk, walks away from death if they can." The truth is that many people would not have died last time if food had been brought to them in time. It is, therefore, vital to take food to the people as soon as possible.
The war is going badly for the Government. They have been involved in negotiations with the rebels. Jimmy Carter and Julius Nyerere have both become involved in negotiations with the EPLF and the Government. Talks
Column 1052have been held in Atlanta and Nairobi, but as yet have reached no conclusion. The Italian Government are mediating in talks between the TPLF and the Ethiopian Government and one round of talks has taken place in Rome. It is clearly in everyone's interest for a monitored ceasefire to be negotiated as soon as possible. The talks require all the backing that they can get.
What can and should the United Kingdom do now? It can call for a speeding up of peace discussions between the Ethiopian Government, the TPLF and the EPLF. It can press the Ethiopian Government and the rebels to accept an open-roads agreement. The United Nations must play a leading role in negotiating that. It can support the cross-border food and agriculture rehabilitation programme. It can make money available for internal purchase of food where that is possible. It should obtain maximum support from the EEC member states for those objectives.
As a direct result of the famine crisis, the United Kingdom has pledged a meagre £2 million, and that was only the day after the BBC reports on Ethiopia began to appear on television. I raised the matter on a point of order on 27 November and called for a statement from the Government. The fact that the Government have been indifferent and very slow off the mark is illustrated by a letter that the director general of the Save the Children Fund sent to The Independent on 29 November. He said :
"We welcome the publicity from Michael Buerk on BBC Television on the possibility of famine recurring in parts of northern Ethiopia. A number of voluntary agencies in Britain, including ourselves, have been warning of this problem for the past two months. It is sad, but perhaps not surprising, that it requires dramatic pictures on television to propel our own government into a response."
What does that £2 million actually mean? It would not be quite fair to say that the Government do not care tuppence for the starving--they actually care three and a half pence, the amount from each person in the United Kingdom that makes up that £2 million, which itself will buy only 1 per cent. of the emergency food aid so desperately needed. Yet at the same time, the Government quite easily found £40 million to spend on advertising water privatisation in pursuit of their own dogma.
Only last week War on Want applied for £300,000 to buy food inside Tigray. Its application was turned down by the Government because, they said, there was no money in the kitty. That may be true, but the Minister for Overseas Development and the Minister who is here to speak on her behalf tonight must know that if they had the political clout they could obtain the money from the Government's overall contingency fund, which exists for precisely this sort of emergency and which this year stands at more than £2 billion.
Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe) : One of the recommendations of the Select Committee has always been that when there is a disaster the Treasury's contingency fund should be used. Would it not be better if the hon. Lady was fair with her figures? The £2 million is an additional £2 million, and brings the total this year to £13 million, which is a rather more generous figure than that suggested by the hon. Lady.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. William Waldegrave) : I had intended to respond to this point in my speech. The hon. Lady is digging herself into a pit. The dates will easily show that what the hon. Lady said is not true. The £13 million is a response to the famine, and the Government responded long before she raised her point of order and long before this debate.
Mrs. Clwyd : I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will find it difficult to prove his point. A press release from the Overseas Development Administration, in response to the threat of famine in Ethiopia, makes it clear that the £2 million relief aid was a direct response to the worsening position in Ethiopia. The other money would have been given in any event, and was not provided in direct response to the famine crisis.
What sort of world do we live in that we, in the rich developed countries, can turn our faces away from the suffering of the Third world? We spend £500 million each year on special diets to lower our calorie consumption while the world's poorest 400 million people are so undernourished that they are likely to suffer stunted growth, mental retardation or death. As water from a single spring in England is shipped in bottles to the prosperous around the world, 1.9 billion people drink dirty and contaminated water. More than half of humanity lacks sanitary toilets.
Are we again to depend on the generosity of the British people to put their hands in their pockets once more for the starving of Ethiopia? They have already contributed £1 million in response to the television broadcast last week. Is it too much to expect the British Government to make the proper response to the 4 million people who are so desperately crying out for our help? Whatever the Government do or do not do, the next Labour Government will reverse the cuts made in aid spending since 1979. We shall aim to more than double the aid budget to reach the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of gross national product within five years, the lifetime of a single Parliament. We shall also review the procedures for emergency relief.
The disastrous famine that hit much of Africa in the early 1980s showed the need for much more effective emergency relief within our programme for aid and development. We shall discuss contingency plans and early warning systems with other donors and the Governments of countries vulnerable to famine and other disasters. Unlike the present Government, we shall also be prepared to use money from outside the aid budget--from the overall contingency reserve--to provide urgent emergency relief during a major crisis such as the Ethiopian famine. That is because we believe that sharing our wealth and feeding hungry people is part of our wider responsibility as citizens of the world. It is a view which we believe is shared by the majority of the British people.
welcomes the speed and effectiveness with which Her Majesty's Government has responded to the threat of famine in Northern Ethiopia through the provision of food and emergency aid ; and strongly endorses its diplomatic action
Column 1054aimed at persuading the parties to the civil wars in Ethiopia to seek a negotiated end to these conflicts and to facilitate the transport of food to those at risk of famine.'.
I had hoped that on this, of all subjects, we would not go straight into a political argy-bargy. Such points can be easily made. A Labour Government could easily have increased aid as a percentage of GNP simply by making the GNP smaller. However, it is easy to show that in absolute terms the Government have done extremely well. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) for her kind words about my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development and I shall pass those on to her. I found little to disagree with in the hon. Lady's political analysis, but one point on which I shall disagree relates to the local purchase of food in Tigray. However, I am afraid that she was either misled by those who have done her research for her--
We are deeply concerned, with the other donor countries, to prevent a repetition of the appalling suffering that we witnessed five years ago. I had hoped, although it may be impossible with the Leader of the Opposition on the Front Bench, that there would not be any party political point- scoring this evening. Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Cynon Valley, know a great deal about the subject and we had hoped to hear from them positive ideas and practical suggestions to which we could respond.
We welcome the debate for two reasons. First, it enables us to put right some of the misunderstandings in the speech made by the hon. Member for Cynon Valley. Secondly, as the hon. Lady said, the British people will no doubt again wish to respond generously, and this debate, along with the many other activities taking place around the country, will help to focus the nation's attention on the situation. There is nothing wrong with that. As the hon. Lady said, the first £1 million has already been raised. I see nothing to complain about in that. It is admirable.
Let us consider what the Government have been doing. Rather before the hon. Lady took up the subject, we were sending aid, and that is important. About 3 million people in Eritrea and Tigray face the threat of famine over the coming months. The organisations concerned estimate that about 600,000 tonnes of food aid will be needed between now and next October--that is also important--to rescue those people. The hon. Lady is incorrect to say that about 30 per cent. of that has been pledged. She may not have noticed that the Americans have added a further 100,000 tonnes, which means that more than 50 per cent. has been pledged. In the immediate situation, that is probably enough because, as I think the hon. Lady will agree, the 600,000 tonnes will be needed between now and next October.
The hon. Lady's analysis rightly focused on the real problem of getting the food to the people who need it against a background of civil war. As she rightly said, at least half the people at risk are in rebel-held areas.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the first calculations of how much aid would be needed during the previous famine were under-estimates and that as the famine developed it became clear that rather more would be needed? Is the
Column 1055Minister satisfied that the estimate that he has given is correct and that the 50 per cent. that he claims has been pledged is 50 per cent. of the amount that is really needed rather than of an initial estimate?
Mr. Waldegrave : The hon. Gentleman is right. The estimates will be revised if the situation worsens. I think that he will agree, however, that the last famine was the one that did not happen. As the hon. Member for Cynon Valley rightly said, the international effort three years ago averted a famine. It is worth paying tribute to the aid organisations and to the Governments involved. Since then, the civil war has worsened and created further problems, which we are now trying to address. The rebels--the EPLF and the TPLF--hold a much greater area of country, particularly the TPLF which has much greater control over the roads and, as the hon. Lady said, is 80 or 90 miles from Addis Ababa.
Channels exist for the transport of food into the rebel-held areas of Eritrea and Tigray from Sudan, but, as the hon. Lady recognised, there are formidable logistical problems in view of tonnages and distances involved, the shortage of transport and the bombings. However optimistic one is about the 1,000-mile round trip, it will not be possible to meet all Tigray's needs in that way. We shall have to see what can be done using that route. The hon. Lady will understand if, for obvious reasons, some of the methods and routes used by the international organisations with British Government support are not described in too much detail.
The Government's objective is simple, now as in the last famine--the famine that never was. The objective is to avert the famine. We are taking action on two fronts. We are providing food and relief assistance for the aid programme and we are acting through diplomatic channels in concert with European partners and others to try to ensure that the flow of supplies to those at risk of starvation is not hindered by the continuing war. That is the crucial aspect, as the hon. Lady recognised.
The hon. Lady was unfair, however, when she said that our response was belated or that it came only after television coverage or her points of order on 27 November. If the hon. Lady had listened to the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development on 4 December, at column 19 of Hansard, she would know that the £2 million of emergency aid announced at the end of October was by no means our first response to the famine. For example, the allocation of nearly 7,000 tonnes of cereal, which my right hon. Friend approved for Eritrea as early as August when the first signs of impending famine became apparent, was one of the first to arrive in the country--almost the first part of the international response. Since then, we have provided further food aid, bringing our total to more than 27,000 tonnes. Nor is the latest contribution of £2 million likely to be our last. We shall continue to play our part. As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) rightly said, as the dimensions of the famine and the possibilities of getting food to the people are further assessed, the British Government, along with other Governments, will respond.
Mr. Michael Welsh (Doncaster, North) : Getting from A to B in Tigray is difficult. Even money may not achieve that and people may die if something is not done. It may be difficult to get from Sudan. It may take many lorries,
Column 1056but are the lorries there? However much money there is, without lorries the food cannot be taken to those unfortunate people. Are arrangements being made to ensure that lorries will be there to transport food to the people within weeks rather than months?
Mr. Waldegrave : The hon. Gentleman is right. Part of the recent extra money went specifically towards trucks and lorries for the cross- border routes, about which we do not want to go into too much detail, and inside the country. That has been a particular part of the British effort.
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn) : The Minister has said that it is unlikely that the last money has been allocated and I, like everybody else, am encouraged by that. In any future expenditure, will money be provided directly to the Relief Society of Tigray and to the Eritrean Relief Association? That may be an unusual action for a Government, but those bodies are best placed to purchase such food surpluses as exist within Eritrea and Tigray and to ensure that the food available in those provinces is allocated in the shortest possible time. Otherwise, people will starve. Will the Minister give an assurance that that difficult but necessary initiative will be taken?
Mr. Waldegrave : We certainly do not rule out anything but the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that there are real difficulties. If one provides money for local purchase, particularly in the Tigrayan area, there is the danger that the TPLF, which controls the area, will use it to buy arms. Worse than that, we may create an incentive for the TPLF to obtain local food supplies and then sell them. However, if we can be assured that we are doing good, we do not rule out any mechanism.
Mr. Jim Lester : We have looked at the problem several times in the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. The real difficulty is not just providing the money, but monitoring whether the money provided is used for food and whether that food is then distributed.
Mr. Waldegrave : My hon. Friend confirms my point on the basis of his considerable experience. It would be dreadful if we were inadvertently allowing money to go directly or indirectly into the coffers of those whose civil wars are creating a large part of the disaster.
The £13.5 million committed so far this year in Ethiopia includes assistance for refugees and our share of the cost of relief aid provided by the European Community. That shows the other side of the case put by the hon. Member for Cynon Valley. Britain has provided nearly £150 million in aid since the onset of the last major famine in 1984. That includes more than 200,000 tonnes of food aid. The programme is not niggardly.
A senior Overseas Development Administration official visited Ethiopia in October to assess the situation at first hand. In the light of the information that he brought back, we took immediate action to alert our European Community partners and others--including the United States and the Soviet Union, which is an important player having at one time or another supported all three of the organisations involved and which still has a close
Column 1057relationship with the Ethiopian Government- -to the likely extent of the problem. We urged them to use all possible influence with all the parties in the civil conflict to allow relief supplies across the lines without hindrance.
I was in Addis Ababa on 8 November for a briefing from our excellent ambassador, Mr. Walker. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development gave a detailed account to the House on 4 December of the subsequent steps which she took in Rome, Brussels, Washington and Paris to reinforce the earlier message through the diplomatic channels. Last weekend, at the European Council in Strasbourg, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister joined the other Community Heads of Government in the Community in issuing a clear statement of the Community's deep concern. I am glad to say that that was largely a British initiative.
The Soviet Government were approached in London and Moscow and have also directed the attention of the Ethiopian authorities to the seriousness of the problem. Probably no other Government carry so much weight with the Ethiopians.
I have stressed the importance--as did the hon. Member for Cynon Valley--of access across the lines for relief supplies if food in the amounts required is to reach those who need it in the rebel-held areas. Hon. Members will have seen reports, to which the hon. Member for Cynon Valley referred, that President Moi of Kenya told an independence rally in Nairobi yesterday that President Mengistu had agreed to open the roads. We have been in close touch with Nairobi and Addis Ababa to see whether that is so. However, like the hon. Lady, we have not secured clear confirmation of it yet, although we have indications that it is under serious and genuine consideration in Addis Ababa. If it is, let us take this opportunity for the House to add to the international pressure and say to the Ethiopians that it is essential that they should open the roads. I am sure that hon. Members from both sides of the House will say that with all the passion at our disposal. In the pressing time scale and because of the logistical difficulties of the cross-border routes, that is the only way to bring real hope to the large numbers of people involved.
Mr. Raison : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Surely it would be much easier to give a strong message to the Ethiopians and others concerned if the House did not have to have a Division on a foolish motion. Will my hon. Friend tell the House what the European Community is doing in terms of food provisions as it has enormous stocks and its role is essential?
Mr. Waldegrave : I hinted that I agreed with my right hon. Friend in what I said earlier. If the non-governmental organisations had a genuine case showing that the Government were failing disastrously, it would be legitimate for the Opposition to press us, but that is not the case. We have had meetings today--which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development would have chaired if she had been well but which were chaired by an official--with all the principal NGOs, and they are not
Column 1058saying that there is something dramatically wrong with the Government's programme. They welcome the steps that we have taken and we are working closely with them.
Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West) : Does the Minister not think it unusual for the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) to complain about the Opposition's view on this when in his open letter to his successor--now the Secretary of State for the Environment--he said that the only discussion that he had with the Prime Minister on these issues was on the day she sacked him? Surely it is appropriate that when there are clear divisions in the House they should be expressed.
Mr. Waldegrave : There are bound to be arguments about the total level of the aid programme. On this programme, as on every other, the Opposition will say that they would spend more. Over the past few years, however, there has been no serious criticism from the experts about the organisation of emergency relief. My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for the Environment and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development have so improved the arrangements for emergency relief that that area of criticism is not the right one on which to launch a division in the House. However, I would not say that there are not areas in which any Government could do better.
The ODA is in regular daily contact with the main British voluntary agencies working in Ethiopia. I have reported on the meeting that took place today. The NGOs were appreciative of the Government's efforts so far. The voluntary agencies have a vital role to play in channeling emergency aid--that which we provide and the funds that they raise--to the hungry. Their expertise and experience are vital. They are an asset to which hon. Members on both sides of the House will join me in paying tribute.
I have spoken of what the Government have done and are doing. I offer no apologies for our record of response to the intense danger of famine which we hope can still be averted. We have done what I am sure the hon. Member for Cynon Valley would have done if she stood in the place of my right hon. Friend the Minister. We have acted promptly and effectively in response to the signals of approaching famine and it did not require television pictures or public pressure to stir us into action.
Mrs. Clwyd : I read the letter from the director general of the Save the Children Fund in which he specifically argued that the Government's response had not been prompt and that they had responded only after the BBC films by Michael Buerk. Does the Minister have an answer to that? Surely it is not correct to say that the aid agencies are happy with the speed and quantity of the Government's response.
Mr. Waldegrave : The hon. Lady has perhaps not read the response given by my right hon. Friend the Minister on 4 December. She was prevented from being at the meeting today and although I was not there I have had reports from the officials who were. The attempts to allege that there is a campaign by the NGOs against the Government will not run. It is not commensurate with the scale of events to try to make them run.
The hon. Lady's main point, although she spoiled it a little by her factionalism, was that we in this House passionately wish to do all that we can to avoid the threat
Column 1059of widespread famine and starvation in Ethopia. She made a good point--that it is essential to try to prevent people from moving. There is an additional reason for that, which the hon. Lady did not mention--that if people move they do not sow crops for next year in places where they may grow, thus possibly creating a further cycle of crop failure.
The immense generosity of people in the West, the British people among them and the formidable response of Western Governments, who succeeded in averting the last threatened famine and, pray God, will do so this time as well, must not disguise the fact that the key to the problem lies in the hands of the Ethopians, on both the Government and the rebel side. Civil war does not cause drought and crop failure, but it is a serious and unnecessary obstacle to efforts to alleviate the effects of natural disasters.
Bob Geldof was right when he said that if there is a famine this year, it will be man made. In the long term, the civil war is a drain on the country's meagre resources of money, energy and talent which would be far better devoted to the task of working to provide the infrastructure and conditions necessary to break the cycle of famine.
We therefore welcome the opening of talks between the Government and the two main rebel groups. Peace is still beyond the horizon and the process is a fragile one. We, on both sides of the House, can but urge the parties to the talks to persevere, to be flexible and, above all, to keep talking in a way which leads to action. Lives--millions of them--ultimately depend on that.
Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West) : It is difficult to believe that it is five years since famine in Ethiopia first hit world headlines. At that time I went to Sudan and Ethiopia with the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. Despite the fact that the Committee had, and still has, a Conservative majority, our report was very critical of the Government's inadequate response to the famine in Ethiopia. We referred to the generous response of the British people, which was due to people such as Bob Geldof and the public appeals that were made by non-governmental organisations and other voluntary organisations. However, our report stated clearly that, sad to say, the generosity of the British people had not been matched by the British Government.
The Committee went to Ethiopia again last year. In our updated report on famine in the Horn of Africa, we said that there was serious danger of a major catastrophe in northern Ethiopia and that it would be on a far greater scale than that in 1984-85. The Government and the House cannot, therefore, claim that they were not warned, yet in Tigray alone approximately 2.5 million people are threatened with famine.
Many people who put their hands into their pockets five years ago and gave generously deserve an answer to the question, why are people still starving? Some people have attempted to blame it on the weather. There are many climatic problems in that part of the world, but we cannot hold up our hands in horror and blame it all on the weather, as though famine were an act of God. It is not. It is a consequence of man's inhumanity to man. It is up to us to find a solution. The developed countries have a particular responsibility to find a solution. The many climatic difficulties in that part of the world could and