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Westminster Hall

Thursday 21 May 2009

[Robert Key in the Chair]

World Food Programme

[Relevant documents:Tenth Report from the InternationalDevelopment Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 493-I, TheWorld Food Programme and Global Food Security, and theGovernment's response, Eighth Special Report of Session2007-08, HC 1066.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Ian Lucas.)

2.30 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Although it is some time since the International Development Committee produced its report, this is a timely opportunity to bring some of the information up to date and for the Government to give an indication of how they are responding to a changing situation.

Perhaps it would be convenient for hon. Members to reflect on the circumstances in which the Committee began work on its report a year ago. It was fortuitous that the crisis developed after we had decided to write the report. Therefore, I am not claiming credit and saying that the Committee was ahead of the curve, but we were timely, as it turned out.

Indeed, on the day that Josette Sheeran, the head of the World Food Programme, gave evidence to the Committee, the Prime Minister took the opportunity to convene his food summit at No. 10 Downing street. I hope that I am not being ungallant if I say that that is possibly the primary explanation of why I was the only non-Cabinet Minister invited to attend the summit, which was an interesting and important event. It was seminal in our recognition that we have to rethink the role of food, food security and supply, and development.

People will remember that food prices rose shockingly and sharply last year. There were food riots in many countries and deep concern about the situation. People might be forgiven for thinking, because all that is no longer in the headlines and prices have eased back a bit, that the problem has been resolved. However, the reality is that prices are still at historical highs, relatively speaking, and some are at absolute highs. For example, the cost of Thai rice—the world’s benchmark—is $614 a tonne, more than double its 10-year average price of $290 a tonne. That is the current price, not the peak, which was $1,000 a tonne at the height of the crisis. The price of maize in Malawi has risen 100 per cent. in the past year, and wheat prices in Afghanistan are 67 per cent. higher than a year ago. Of course, the incidental benefit from that is that wheat is more attractive than poppy to some farmers in Afghanistan, but that is not central to this debate. My point is that food security and prices are still an issue, even if startling figures are not in the headlines.

The WFP requested $5 billion to meet last year’s food crisis. In spite of the fact that the sharp price peaks have disappeared, it is asking for $6 billion to deal with food shortages this year. To some people, that might seem counter-intuitive, but, because of various pressures, the
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reality is that the WFP has more people to feed this year. It will be instructive to deal first with the explanations for last year’s food prices, and then see what has changed to cause the situation this year.

There were several explanations of why prices peaked as they did last year. One was that general economic activity forced up oil prices, which increased the costs of fertiliser and harvesting. Another was that rising living standards encouraged more people to buy meat products, and the diversion of cereal crops to animal feed imposed stresses on supply. Another argument involved biofuels, although I think that that debate got a little out of hand. Nevertheless, certainly in the United States, biofuel production took maize away from food production without delivering a great benefit in terms of fuel. Of course, there were also climate change factors—water shortages, desert conditions and crop failures for climatic reasons—and population growth pressures that contributed to what happened last year.

This year, some of those factors still exist, but additional ones have crept in. For example, the effect of the downturn has meant that many of the poorest people in the poorest countries have suffered a massive downturn in income, particularly due to the loss of remittances. That means that many of those people are poorer than they were before. Even though prices have come down from the peak, they are still historically high at a time when incomes are historically low. To a substantial degree, that is why the WFP is saying that it needs more this year than last year to address the needs and pressures that it faces.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an update on the Government’s contribution, given that it is not always given in one go. I checked the WFP’s website before I came into the Chamber to find out the UK’s donations during the past three years and the current year: $100,371,690 in 2006; $66,850,922 in 2007; $168,960,902 in 2008, which was obviously a peak year; and $48,136,387 so far this year. Those are very precise figures—I suppose that exchange rates and other things are taken into account.

Perhaps the Minister will also give an indication, to the extent that he is able to do so, of the further contributions that we expect to make this year. I hope that I am right in assuming that the $48 million is current contributions, and that there will be more to come as the year progresses.

The UK is ranked about 8th or 9th among donors to the WFP. I would of course say, as would the WFP, that the UK is a significant donor. The Committee’s meeting with representatives of the WFP was constructive because there was recognition that the UK is an important player and contributor to the work of the programme. However, I would like to highlight where the Committee, to some extent—I was about to say “parts company with the Government”, but perhaps I will put it another way—thinks that the Government could re-evaluate its relationship with WFP.

As we understand it, the Government believe, perfectly correctly, that the WFP is the lead agency for dealing with famine and humanitarian crises involving food and relief, and that it does that extremely well and should be funded accordingly. The WFP, not unreasonably, says that although it is extremely good at such things and wants to continue to be the lead agency on them, it would like to have much more to do with preventing
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famine. It believes that it has many of the skills and qualities to enable it to do that, yet there seems to be a reluctance—not just by the UK Government but by the UK Government among others—to engage with that proposal.

The Committee recommended that the WFP should be recognised as the lead UN agency on hunger, not just food crises, which was in its original brief when it was set up. It should be given support not just to deal with famine and food crises but to help prevent them.

Since the Committee produced its report, the WFP has produced its strategic plan for 2008-11. Without wishing to delay our proceedings, it is probably worth putting the key points on record. The strategic plan lays out five objectives for the WFP in 2008-11. The first is to save lives and protect livelihoods in emergencies. Clearly, that is its brief, and the Government have no problem with that—that is what the Government fund it to do.

The next objectives are to prevent acute hunger and invest in disaster preparedness and mitigation measures; to restore and rebuild lives and livelihoods in post-conflict, post-disaster or transition situations; to reduce chronic hunger and under-nutrition—I shall come back to that point—and to strengthen the capacities of countries to reduce hunger, including through hand-over strategies and local purchase, which is another important point.

I am not suggesting that the Government do not agree with all those strategies. Indeed, in some cases, they do agree, and they work with the WFP on them. However, I believe that the view on other cases is that the WFP should not be involved, and therefore the UK Government do not provide funding. I would like to say unequivocally that the Committee would like the Government to think again—to revisit their position—because we think that that would be justified and could be beneficial.

We said in our report that we were shocked that the Government did not have a nutrition strategy. The Secretary of State acknowledged that he had not had a sharp focus on nutrition when he came into the role, but that he recognised that nutrition was an important part of the food security issue, and of the food issue more generally, and that that was important in achieving a number of the millennium development goals. He said that the Government would introduce a strategy on that. I do not complain that they have not yet done so, but it would be interesting to hear the Minister say what progress is being made.

It is fine to say, “People are really hungry; give them food”, but let us look at the reality. Millions of children are permanently malnourished—stunted—and, as a result, they are vulnerable to diarrhoea, disease, malaria and AIDS. Therefore, because of their inherent malnutrition, if they contract any of the illnesses with which they are threatened in many environments, the chances of their dying are much higher. This is not just about making them look fitter and better; it is about fundamentally giving them the capacity to survive. Too many children still die before the age of 5, partly because they are not getting enough to eat and are going to bed hungry.

Just to reinforce my point about this year, because of other factors—the recession and the drop in income—the number of people going to bed hungry every night,
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according to international calculations, has now exceeded 1 billion for the first time ever. They are not hungry as we mean it, but hungry because they have not had enough to eat. The WFP has a potentially bigger role to play in developing a response to this.

On the procurement and provision of food, which the WFP has been thinking about quite a bit, neither the Committee nor the Government are responsible for calling the United States to account. However, it is well known that the US chooses to give most of its food aid in kind. Some years ago—my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) was a member of our Committee at that time—we visited Washington and took the opportunity to discuss the issue with the deputy Commerce Secretary. She said that it was not farmers’ interests in the US that caused the problem—the food is bought from them at the going rate, so it makes no difference to them whether they sell it to the Government or somebody else—but that the real issue related back to the Monroe doctrine. The shippers that carry food from the US to Africa or Asia are, to put it frankly and bluntly, making money out of doing so. Therefore they lobby Congress to allow aid to be sent not in cash, but in kind—that explains the context. From the WFP’s point of view that process makes what it is trying to achieve a lot harder, because in respect of both efficiency and development assistance, it is much better for it to have the money to buy the grain from the nearest available place. That allows it to be transported quicker and at lower cost, and often provides income to farmers in neighbouring countries who have surpluses. That is often the case, because famine can be localised in one country, or even in one area of a country.

This is about getting the food from somewhere nearby to where it is most needed and, in the process, giving an income to small farmers. The WFP is now making that positive choice. It wishes to make small farmers part of the solution to the problem by making contracts with them to buy their food specifically for WFP purposes at guaranteed prices, which gives those farmers confidence that they can afford to plant and produce. Clearly, just in terms of general bilateral relationships, we would all like to persuade the US that, if it really wants to help the world’s poor, this is a moment for a rethink about whether the commercial interests of US shippers are more important than the 1 billion people who go to bed hungry, and about whether a better way can be found of solving that problem in the long term. It seems to me that the WFP would wish to do that.

I had the pleasure of taking evidence from Josette Sheeran when she attended the Committee, and I have also visited the WFP offices in Rome and talked to a range of its officials. A few months afterwards, in July, I attended the Committee of the Foreign Affairs and Development Committee Chairs in Paris—it sits under every rotating presidency of the European Union—to which Josette Sheeran was giving evidence. I was somewhat surprised and disappointed, when she read a list of EU countries—not a short one—that had been of specific help and support to the WFP during that period of crisis, to find that it did not include the United Kingdom. I specifically asked her whether that was an oversight or a deliberate exclusion, and she made it clear that it was not an oversight and that although she was not ungrateful for, or unappreciative of, the significant contribution made by the UK, she did not appreciate the restrictions
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on funding that came from the UK Government, compared with other Governments, regarding the day-to-day activities of the WFP.

When I wrote to the Secretary of State about that, he robustly defended his position. However, he did not persuade me that the argument was entirely on his side. If the Minister feels able to elaborate on and explain that situation, I would be interested to hear about it. Although I am not implying that there is anything other than an honest difference of view, that difference is worth exploring, because it is clear that an organisation delivering impressive results takes the view that the UK’s relationship with it is not as helpful as that of other countries. It is not the amount of money, but the way it is applied. It would be useful if that area were explored, to mutual benefit. I am not suggesting that there is any negativity—the WFP is positive about the UK—but it feels somewhat constricted.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): It is surely right—I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees—that if the Department for International Development is giving substantial aid to a United Nations body, it should be critically helpful about that body’s policy and, if necessary, about how it spends its money. Will the Committee Chairman tell us whether, in this instance, he thinks that there may have been a little bit of spite involved in those remarks, in that DFID was trying sensibly to suggest how WFP policy should be rolled forward?

Malcolm Bruce: I can honestly say that there was no spite, because I had a private conversation with Josette Sheeran afterwards. She would want me to make it clear that she had a good personal relationship with the Secretary of State and that there was no quarrel. The money that she was getting was fine and delivered its intended purposes. There was no complaint about the relationship, but she felt that our Government was resisting its development. She would like to tease out the Secretary of State’s position, and I am sympathetic to that.

Rather than being in any way challenging and critical—I do not want to be—I am saying that I completely understand the Government’s position and why they are taking it. Perhaps until last year I would have said, “That’s it. The Government simply say, ‘We view the WFP as the lead humanitarian food relief agency. It is excellent. Whenever that is needed we will fund it generously.’” Neither I nor the WFP quarrel with that. However, if we are looking at whether we want to prevent famine—and we do— the Committee is suggesting that the WFP should have the capacity to make a contribution to that. We should at least reassess whether that would be a legitimate vehicle for British funding—that is all I am asking the Government to reconsider.

I do not want there to be any suggestion of spite, conflict or difference of opinion. My impression is that there is high regard for the British Government in the WFP, and vice versa. In respect of the development of the relationship, there is not tension but simply difference. Other countries are responding in ways that the WFP finds helpful. Personally, and from the Committee’s point of view, it would be good if the British Government considered that view.

I do not want to detain hon. Members unduly. I hope that I have given some of the flavour of the report, the context in which we produced it and the changing circumstances over the last 12 months. We must not
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allow food security to lose its high priority on the agenda, and I shall refer to some points that have been made recently.

An article in the Financial Times on 7 April 2009 reported that 1 billion people were chronically hungry and referred to the increased requirement of $6 billion instead of $5 billion. Peter Brabeck, chairman of Nestlé, said:

Josette Sheeran has said that the food crisis is not over. The WFP worries that because we do not have food riots and there is no focus on high spikes, attention may be moving away.

I commend the Department for International Development for not chasing headlines or fashion. It tries genuinely to provide one of the most important and sustained mechanisms for delivering poverty reduction. I respect the ministerial response that the Government were not ready to change policy because they believed that they had got it right. I am asking them only to think about this, which is reasonable.

The Committee takes the view that the WFP is one of the best UN organisations. It operates in extraordinarily difficult conditions and does a fantastic job, bearing in mind that delivering food is not just about getting it there. The WFP must often build roads and secure access in dangerous places, and must do so often under fire with resulting casualties. That has positive consequences. Roads were opened up in southern Sudan for the delivery of food, and they became trading links and networks for economic development that was unrelated to the WFP, but facilitated only because the WFP built the road.

The WFP is one of the best organisations, but our conclusion is that it has the capacity to do a lot more to prevent famine. National and international communities must give serious thought not just to how we respond to emergencies—the Government do so admirably—but to how we can prevent those emergencies, and the role that the WFP could take in that. That is the key issue on which the Committee would like the Government to focus.

2.52 pm

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): It is a great pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), Chairman of the Select Committee, in debating the Government’s response to its report. I have been a member of the Committee for five or six years, and I am aware of its good work and that of the Department for International Development. In addition to thanking the Chairman and members of the Committee, I thank its support staff, who do great work and produce the detailed questions that must be asked when evidence is taken from the WFP and other experts. The Committee is one of the best Select Committees in the House, and I hope that the team effort delivers what is necessary.

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