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Southern Africa

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): Assessments in Southern Africa have identified that over 10 million people are likely to face food shortages in the period up to April 2006 in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland. Both the UN Secretary General and the Executive Director of the World Food Programme have written to donor Governments about this.

The Scale of the Problem

Country assessments are carried out by national committees and are co-ordinated regionally by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). They consider whether households will be able to access their normal food requirements between harvests. Assessment reports can be found at the website of the Southern African Development Community: The figures include those with potential food shortages ranging from 1 per cent. to over 80 per cent. of their normal food requirements.

The breakdown by country is as follows:

Zimbabwe—The Zimbabwe Government have not yet published the national assessment but independent estimates range from 3 million to 5 million people facing food shortages over the coming months. This is as a result of erratic rains, HIV/AIDS and bad governance. The World Food Programme, with support from DFID, is presently providing food aid for 1 million vulnerable people, mainly children. Operations will grow as the numbers in need increase. In addition, the Government of Zimbabwe's forced clearance of unauthorised dwellings earlier this year, Operation Murambatsvina ("Clean Up"), displaced or destroyed the livelihoods of 700,000 people, making poverty and food shortages worse in both urban and rural areas. The Zimbabwe Government's own efforts to mitigate the suffering caused by their mass evictions have been very limited, and in some instances, the Government have obstructed the wider humanitarian effort, for example by refusing to accept the provision of tents and other temporary shelters for those without shelter. Despite these difficulties, a range of UN and non-governmental agencies are operating relief programmes reaching 40,000 affected households, including those affected by HIV and AIDS, with food, blankets, medical care and other essential items. It is a tragedy that humanitarian
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needs in Zimbabwe have been exacerbated by the disastrous policies of the Government, which have led to economic collapse and social and political crises.

Malawi—Up to 4.2 million people could face food shortages, though this number could rise to 4.6 million if price rise sharply. The Government and the World Food Programme have started a coordinated emergency programme targeting the 2.7 million most vulnerable people. A range of other safety nets are in place, such as food for work and cash for work programmes, and the Government have taken steps to increase the import of maize available for purchase through Government and commercial channels. A UN appeal for $88 million was launched in September covering food aid and distribution of seeds and fertiliser. $28 million has been contributed to the appeal, including $9 million (£5 million) from the UK Government.

Zambia—At least 1.2 million people in the Southern, Western and Eastern Provinces could face food shortages before the next harvest in February-March 2006. The Government are still considering whether an emergency appeal is needed. In the meantime, the World Food Programme and an NGO consortium are distributing food aid.

Mozambique—Up to 587,000 people could face food shortages, mostly in the south of the country. There is no emergency programme but the World Food Programme is distributing some food aid and the Government have established a range of safety nets, such as food for work programmes and free or subsidised seed distribution so that the poorest households have enough seeds to plant for next year.

Lesotho—About 440,000 people could face food shortages. These are virtually all in households that suffer from chronic food insecurity. The Government are trying to respond through safety nets, including through a recently introduced old age pension.

Swaziland—About 225,000 people could face food shortages in households that suffer from chronic food insecurity. As in Lesotho, other responses to chronic hunger, apart from food aid, are being encouraged, such as provision of seeds and fertiliser to poorer households.

What are the UK Government doing?

In response to this emerging crisis, the UK Government have already allocated this year over £57 million in humanitarian assistance for the region. Some of this has been channelled through UN agencies and some has gone through Governments or NGOs. The breakdown of our commitments so far this year is as follows:

Zimbabwe—£40 million covering relief programmes for up to 3 million people provided through non-government channels, including contributions to the World Food Programme, HIV/AIDS programmes and responses to those affected by Operation Murambatsvina.

Malawi—Over £15 million towards the Government's emergency food distribution, helping to purchase maize, options on additional maize, and seeds, support to the Government's logistics and early warning capacity and support to UNICEF's nutrition rehabilitation units. Government of Malawi planning for the emergency began in March with help from early pledges from the UK.
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Zambia—£430,000 to the World Food Programme for food aid distribution to 3,280 households with at least one person enrolled in a medical treatment programme across the affected provinces, and £1 million to Oxfam for cash transfers to 14,350 households in Western Province. Together these will reach over 100,000 people.

Mozambique—£355,000 for cash for work programmes and provision of seeds to poor households.

Lesotho—£350,000 for distribution of seeds and fertilisers and small-scale livestock interventions.

Swaziland—£300,000 for distribution of seeds and fertilisers and other necessary help for vulnerable households.

Information systems for assessing and monitoring needs are improving in Southern Africa with support from DFID. The capacity of national Governments to respond to humanitarian needs remains limited though and it is essential that the international community reacts quickly when the assessments indicate that action is needed. I have urged EU member states to respond speedily and will follow up with them when we meet later this month. I have also remained in contact with the UN on the international community's response. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Gareth Thomas) recently visited Malawi and Zambia to discuss the food shortages with the Governments and people on the ground in these countries, and I have had discussions with Mr James Morris, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme.

The Wider Challenge

While the position in each country is different, there are high levels of chronic hunger across the region which reflect not just the depth of poverty but also the shockingly high levels of HIV and AIDS across Southern Africa. We need to tackle emergency food needs effectively. But that in itself will not end chronic hunger. We are therefore also making greater efforts to work with Governments to develop and implement safety nets, such as regular grants of cash and/or food, that will protect the most vulnerable households that regularly need emergency help. These include the elderly, orphans and vulnerable children, the disabled and others that simply cannot find work.

Early warning has helped to ensure that governments and the international community work together to meet humanitarian needs in Southern Africa, but we will continue to monitor the position closely and be ready to take further action if necessary. In Zimbabwe, we will work closely with the UN and other donors to do all we can to address the increasing suffering of poor people there.

At the end of last year, I also called upon the international community to support the establishment in the UN of a large, central fund to speed up the response to humanitarian emergencies and to support wider reforms of the international system to improve its efficiency and effectiveness. Progress is being made, with widespread endorsement of our reform proposals being achieved at the UN Millennium Review Summit in September and detailed follow up work now underway. So far 6 countries have agreed to commit $150 million to this fund next year; the UK's contribution will be $70
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million (£40 million). We are pressing hard to ensure further countries contribute in time to get the fund working in the New Year.

Food Crisis (Niger)

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Hilary Benn): Over the past three months a major humanitarian relief operation has been underway in Niger in response to a food crisis affecting an estimated 3 million people, with the lives of up to 150,000 children at risk. The humanitarian operation is now working at full capacity and has helped to avert a major catastrophe. The UK has played an important part, being one of the first donors to respond when the United Nations and NGO relief agencies alerted the world to the severity of the crisis. Intense media interest in the events in Niger subsequently encouraged other donors to join the effort, and an appeal by the Disasters and Emergency Committee, representing British relief and development NGOs, prompted a magnificent response from the British public.

Throughout this crisis, the UK Government have been one of the three largest donors, with a total contribution of £3.9 million (including modest support to targeted humanitarian aid in the neighbouring states of Mali and Burkina Faso). Combined with the donations made by the public, Britain has made the biggest total contribution to the Niger relief effort.

Although the immediate causes of Niger's problems were a poor harvest at the end of last year's growing season, and the additional stresses caused by a locust invasion in the Sahel which did significant damage to grazing lands, the crisis itself had much more complex roots and deeper causes. Niger lies at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index as the world's poorest country. A large proportion of the population is chronically poor and therefore highly vulnerable to even quite modest shortfalls of food and other necessities. Last year's harvest was in fact only 7 per cent. below the average of recent years and a year ago there were good reasons to believe that a crisis could be avoided altogether. A combination of factors—including garbled information from early warning systems, inappropriate plans for dealing with the problem, unusually high food prices, and a failure of contingency planning and disaster preparedness—tipped the balance and plunged Niger into crisis.

The seriousness of this became evident as the results of NGO nutritional surveys became available in April and May. This was followed by an emergency appeal by the UN in mid May. DFID had been following events in the Sahel region as a whole for many months. In August last year we gave £1.5 million to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation to help tackle the locust invasion. Our humanitarian advisers immediately contacted the UN when it launched its emergency appeal in May, and in June we sent an expert to Niger to assess the situation on the ground. This was followed by an immediate contribution of £0.5 million to support the relief efforts of the World Food Programme (WFP), followed by a further £2.7 million to the UN and to NGO partners soon afterwards. The bulk of our support was provided ahead of the coverage that drew world attention to the crisis and prompted further donations from both Governments and the public.
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In the early stages of the crisis we funded two emergency airlifts, by Save the Children and UNICEF, to speed up the delivery of life-saving supplies for child nutritional therapy. Since then, as a result of our funding, the WFP has been able to deliver general food rations to 1.6 million people. OXFAM has provided much needed cash vouchers to 131,000 people. The Save the Children Fund has treated 13,000 malnourished children and delivered medicines and supplies to 12 health centres. Islamic Relief has delivered medicines and supplies to 30 health centres. Concern has treated 6,000 malnourished children, and the World Health Organisation has helped contain a cholera outbreak that threatened to make the crisis even worse.

To date around 2.8 million people have received food aid and more than 90,000 children have received life-saving nutritional therapy. Thanks to good rains this year, food is now being harvested and a bumper crop is expected. Nonetheless, the relief effort will continue in the months ahead, with priority being given to the needs of malnourished children and to those who will not benefit fully or adequately from the new harvest. Much work also remains to be done to help those who have suffered during the crisis to recover, and in the longer term to put in place welfare safety nets and other measures to help the most impoverished people of Niger avoid further crises of this kind.

Although the international relief effort has succeeded in heading off a major disaster, it was too slow in getting underway. An earlier, better-planned response may well have avoided a major crisis. What has happened in Niger is symptomatic of fundamental weaknesses in the international system for humanitarian response for which urgent remedies are required.

At the end of last year I called upon the international community to support the establishment in the UN of a large, central fund to speed up the response to humanitarian emergencies and to support wider reforms of the international system to improve its efficiency and effectiveness. If this package of reforms had been in place sooner, the crisis in Niger may have been averted. Progress is now being made in changing the system, with widespread endorsement of our reform proposals being achieved at the recent UN Millennium Review Summit and detailed follow up work now under way. So far six countries have agreed to commit $150 million to this fund next year; the UK's contribution will be $70 million (£40 million). We are pressing hard to ensure that further countries contribute in time to get the fund working in the New Year.

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