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Southern Africa

3. Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on the food situation in southern Africa. [16764]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): Over 10 million people could face food shortages in the next six months in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland. The most serious problems are in Zimbabwe and Malawi. In Zimbabwe, between 3 million and 5 million people are affected by the food crisis as well as the forced clearance of homes by the Government. In Malawi, more than 4 million people face food shortages as a result of a drought and poor harvest. The UK has responded quickly and already provided £57 million pounds through the UN, other agencies and some of the Governments in the region.

Mr. Crabb : I thank the Secretary of State for that reply and am reassured by it. As he said, the food situation in southern Africa is critical this year with the failure of the harvest. Despite everything else that has been filling his in-tray recently, will he please do everything in his power to keep the problems of southern Africa in the world's view over the coming weeks and months? It is vital that real action be taken to address the consequences of the failure of the harvest in the region this year.

Hilary Benn: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's words and I can assure him that we will do so. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has just returned from a visit to Malawi and Zambia to see for himself the work that we are doing. In Malawi, there has been a lot of recent attention on the emergence of the food crisis. We have been working since earlier this year and because of the strong relationship between Britain, as the leading donor in the country, and the Government of Malawi, arrangements are reasonably in hand to ensure that people do not starve. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will do more as required to save people's lives.
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Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the food crisis in southern Africa is made worse by the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS? What is the Department doing to help meet those particular needs, especially the needs of HIV/AIDS orphans? How are we making sure that money provided to that group reaches community-based groups that provide feeding schemes for those vulnerable children?

Hilary Benn: We are currently working up a programme with UNICEF to provide support in the fight against HIV/AIDS across the region. The crisis is the consequence of climatic change—we now seem to have one severe drought every 10 years—AIDS, which means that people are less able to cope, rising unemployment and population growth. My hon. Friend will be aware that we have recently doubled our contribution to the global fund and we have done a great deal of work this year to make sure that, having put the money in to fight AIDS, it actually works effectively on the ground to bring help, including treatment to those who need it. There are now a number of people in Malawi, for example, who are getting antiretrovirals, which was not the case when I last visited there four years ago.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Much good work continues to be done by relief agencies in Africa, but what are the Government doing to establish further action against those who are engaged in fraud and corruption, particularly the actions of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe?

Hilary Benn: The governance of Robert Mugabe over the last 25 years has turned Zimbabwe from the food basket of Africa into a country that is no longer able to feed its own population. We are providing support through the world food programme and we are running an HIV/AIDS programme in Zimbabwe to help those who are affected. That is not helped when countries send in tents to house the people who have had their homes demolished and the Government of Zimbabwe then rip down those tents and say that they will not accept any more tents for people who have nowhere to live.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): At the forthcoming trade talks in Hong Kong, will my right hon. Friend seek to influence discussion on transparency about the common agricultural policy and other trading organisations so that some of Africa's poorest farmers do not have to face some of the most awkward and unacceptable trade barriers?

Hilary Benn: I can assure my right hon. Friend that that is what we will do. In the long term, fairer trade and opening up our markets to give African farmers the chance to earn and trade their way out of poverty is the key to their having a better life. The current world trade rules make it difficult for them to do that, but there are also other issues such as infrastructure. A number of the countries concerned are landlocked, and improving the infrastructure would bring down the costs of transport and of fertiliser for poor farmers and would help people earn a better living.
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Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Clearly, the Secretary of State deserves considerable credit for the initiatives that he has taken on the southern African food crisis. But does he feel that he is getting inadequate support from other European countries and other members of the G8? Does he accept that following the food crisis throughout Africa, including in Niger and Darfur—the UN recently reported that up to 4 million people are in danger of starvation there—an effective early warning system, co-ordinated international responses and prevention, rather than last-minute desperate reactions prompted by TV footage, are what is needed?

Hilary Benn: I do indeed agree. We need a UN system that has the capacity to respond straight away, which is why I have been a strong advocate of a humanitarian fund. We now have six countries prepared to contribute $150 million next year to give the UN that capacity. In relation to the food crisis in southern Africa, early warning has helped us to prepare, but the other issue that we must address is dealing with the problem in the long term. Repeated food aid does not break the cycle of destitution, so we are also exploring safety net schemes. We will give people a bit of money, most of which they will spend on food, but if they can save a bit to buy assets—such as the plough that they had to sell because they were so poor—we may be able to help people out of the pit in which they find themselves.


4. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): If he will make a statement on support from his Department for projects in Swaziland. [16765]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): We are supporting one project in Swaziland that assists with improving water and sanitation services to poor rural communities. In addition, we support two HIV/AIDS regional initiatives that operate in Swaziland. The first is with the Southern African Development Community and the second with Action Aid. Their work focuses on sexually transmitted disease treatment, condom promotion and behaviour change, and includes strengthening the capacity of the Ministry of Health in Swaziland.

Mike Gapes: The situation in Swaziland is desperate. There is a massive drought, the average life expectancy for men is 32, and 43 per cent. of women attending maternity clinics are HIV positive. Three weeks ago, a delegation of Members of Parliament saw the present problems, but the changes to the EU sugar regime could make the problem even worse, because Swaziland is not defined as a less-developed country, so does not get automatic access to EU markets. What will the Government do to mitigate those problems?

Mr. Thomas: It is precisely because of the problems that my hon. Friend rightly identifies that we continue to provide support across, especially for HIV/AIDS, and from which Swaziland benefits. On the specific issue of sugar, the research that we have undertaken in our Department suggests that the Swaziland sugar industry,
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unlike some in other African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, has a strong future. As part of discussions on economic partnership agreements, we have called for unlimited access to EU markets for all products including sugar. Such a move will help Swaziland.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): The Minister will be aware that Swaziland has the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate of anywhere in the world, at 36 per cent. Does he agree that it is abhorrent and deeply offensive that British aid funds are effectively being spent on building new palaces and buying exotic cars for the King of Swaziland's ever-increasing number of wives?

Mr. Thomas: Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House that our aid to Swaziland is not disbursed by the Government. The only direct support that we provide is in an attempt to improve the effectiveness of the Ministry of Health. Our aid is distributed through the Southern African Development Community, UN organisations and the European Union.

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