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21 May 2009 : Column 480WH—continued

In a world where there is enough food for everyone, it is tragic that 850 million people are hungry—that is what I put in my original speech, but since I wrote it, the figure has risen to 1 billion, which is even more tragic.
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The majority live in developing countries, but the reason for widespread hunger transcends national borders and even regional politics. Food insecurity is a problem of many global factors, and it requires an international approach. That is why the Select Committee’s report is so welcome, and why I welcome the opportunity today finally to debate the Government response.

Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, has said that halving hunger and malnutrition is the “forgotten” millennium development goal. Given the scale of world hunger, we cannot afford for that to be the case. Hunger is one of the most tangible forms of human suffering, and one that we can all relate to, if only at a very minor level. If I were to ask each right hon. and hon. Member here to recall the last time that they were really hungry, and then to think of the last time that they ate too much, I suspect that the former would take some thought while the latter would be much easier to answer. We are the lucky ones, and it is one of our responsibilities in the House to ensure that those who are not so lucky receive our support through the Government. For that to be most effective, the Select Committee’s work is vital. We can all make a strong case for increased development aid spending, but only if that money is wisely and efficiently spent.

I am sure that I am not the only Member who has been impressed by school and community groups in their constituencies who have sent generous food parcels to parts of the world that have been hit by famine or rocketing food prices. We rightly commend those acts of generosity, but when it comes to international policy for donors and global institutions, food aid is only ever a small part of the solution. The poorest people throughout the world spend up to 80 per cent. of their income on food, and there is acute vulnerability to fluctuations in food prices—my right hon. Friend has mentioned that the price of rice peaked at $1,000, and then settled back at $600 a tonne. In April 2008, there were protests in Egypt where the cost of food doubled in a year, riots in Haiti that left four people dead, violent protests in Ivory Coast, price riots in Cameroon in February that left 40 people dead, and demonstrations in Mauritania, Mozambique, and many other countries. Clearly, food security should be on all development and security agendas.

Food insecurity is widespread in many parts of Asia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, where, amid chronic food insecurity, food rations have reportedly been halved following reduced supplies. In east Africa, more than 17 million people face serious food insecurity because of poor harvests, conflict or a combination of those factors. In Somalia, an estimated 3.2 million people currently require food assistance. In Sudan, the continued conflict and the recent expulsion of some humanitarian agencies in Darfur have caused serious problems for millions of vulnerable people who already faced a dire situation.

During a Select Committee visit to Ethiopia, we were told that approximately 6 million people are on permanent food aid. Live Aid was 25 or more years ago, and because the WFP and other agencies in the field are more efficient and effective, fewer people may be dying, but the number who do not know where the next meal is coming from or who cannot provide their own next meal is increasing.

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In southern Africa, high domestic prices, the slow pace of imports, and high demand during peak hunger months are affecting the food security of around 8.7 million people, including 5 million in Zimbabwe, where the ongoing outbreak of cholera poses a serious threat to the health and nutrition of many vulnerable groups. The global economic recession is causing other problems, as my right hon. Friend has said. Remittances from family members working abroad that often sustain the food consumption of vulnerable households are drying up.

I have seen a wide range of food insecurity problems, many of which are referred to in the Select Committee report and the Government response in Darfur in Sudan, Malawi, Somalia, India, Ethiopia and so on. The report rightly identifies the new face of hunger in urban centres where the high price of food, not food scarcity, is the real cause of hunger. People are often surprised that where people are starving, there may be a market with the necessary produce not far away, but the problem is poverty.

Malcolm Bruce: My hon. Friend may be aware that the WFP recently instituted a voucher scheme in which, unlike previously, there is no requirement to get food to people. They are simply given the means to acquire food that is in the neighbourhood. WFP is piloting that innovative way of solving the problem.

John Barrett: When my right hon. Friend was making his opening speech, I was scoring out paragraphs in mine because he was pre-empting them, and he has just done that again, but I will read it anyway.

Many of the poorest people in the world are no longer reliant on good or bad crop yields, but they are now dependent on the market to access food. If someone in this country does not have access to food, we do not give them food aid, or seeds and tools to plant food. They receive money under the benefits system, so that they can go out and buy food. I am sure that there would be riots in the street if we were to suggest handing out food parcels rather than benefits. If that is not right here, surely there are plenty of other countries where we should consider alternatives. I shall return to the system of vouchers and cash.

I would be grateful to hear whether any consideration was given during the last round of the Doha talks to nutrition and the ability of countries to feed their citizens. Nutrition was mentioned in the opening speech today, and it is a key aspect of the issue. It is about not just the quantity of food available, but the quality. As we have heard, food insecurity is particularly hard to tackle in a complex, ongoing crisis and in the fragile transition to stability. During a crisis, fragile states may lack the capacity or institutional frameworks to implement long-term food insecurity solutions. That situation is made more serious by poor governance, conflicts, man-made disasters and HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

Against that backdrop, it is right that the focus is shifting towards cash, rather than the giving of in-kind food donations. I am pleased to see the increased emphasis given to social transfer schemes of cash or vouchers, which my right hon. Friend has mentioned, through the World Food Programme, and the Select Committee was right to highlight their importance. I strongly support the recommendation that the USA should immediately
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review its practice of giving the vast majority of its support in the form of in-kind donations of US surpluses, shipped by US companies. I remember many years ago visiting the United States Agency for International Development headquarters, where I saw a sign stating that more than 50 per cent. of aid given by USAID was spent on American companies. It boosted the American economy, rather than helping the individuals and countries that one would have thought it was going to.

I want to take a few minutes not only to consider what we can do to help to solve the problem, but to raise a few questions with the Minister about what we are doing to make it worse. Many developed countries naturally support their own farming industries and interests, but too often that is at the expense of others. Dumping surpluses or subsidising products can undermine local production in developing countries and their markets, and those markets will need to develop and thrive if developing countries are ever to inch away from their current level of food insecurity. What can the Minister say about the overdue reform of the common agricultural policy—I believe that that is central—and other negotiations that would allow a level playing field for more people and give them the ability to reap the reward of growing their own food, rather than receiving alternative cash products?

Aid should not be determined by any factors other than need and effectiveness. It is one of the best legacies of the current Government that the International Development Act 2002 explicitly states the principle that the giving of aid must be guided by humanitarian principles and not take into account the interests of the UK overseas. I am interested to hear whether the Minister has had any discussions with his counterpart in the new Obama Administration regarding any shift in US policy. I welcomed the recent commitment to a $60 million pilot project for the local purchase of food. It would be good to think that that is part of a genuine reappraisal of the approach.

As I have said, DFID has done much good work and is respected in many parts of the world. I am happy to place my views in that regard on the record. I welcome the £400 million support package for agricultural research, and I am interested in any progress report that the Minister can give on where that money is being spent and the impact that it is having. However, food security is clearly about more than supporting agriculture and matching supply with demand. It must be about building countries’ and communities’ resilience to the shocks that are increasingly restricting access to food for millions of people.

Growing water scarcity, triggered partly by climate change, is also severely affecting countries’ ability to irrigate crops. Global demand for water has tripled in the past 50 years. We cannot consider food supply and security in any region without examining the broader effects of global warming. I would be interested to hear what DFID is doing to ensure that there is joined-up thinking between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and DFID to ensure that food security is not just considered as a development issue.

Save the Children, in its evidence for the original report, rightly cited

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I share those concerns, particularly given that there still appears to be a lack of a specific nutrition policy or genuine measurable targets for assessing progress in reducing malnutrition. I understand that there is now a nutrition policy team in DFID, and I would appreciate any update from the Minister on the work that it is undertaking.

A few years ago, I survived for a week on a Red Cross food parcel; it was just after Christmas and into the new year period. The food kept body and soul together, but there was no nutrition there, and that was for only a week. I would not wish the experience of trying to survive on it for more than a week on anyone else. Unfortunately, however, as we have heard, 1 billion people in the world have to survive on similar rations or less. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, because the current Government have done and are doing good work, but we can always press for more.

3.5 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), not only on his speech and assessment of the current situation, but on this very comprehensive report. His Committee was very prescient in taking up the issue before the crisis erupted last year.

Perhaps the best way of opening my speech is to read out in full paragraph 7 of the report, which summarises what was happening in the world last year:

the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation—

Sadly, that was the context that followed the Select Committee’s initial inquiry into this matter, but it is not an entirely new problem. I had a leading Indian human rights lawyer in my office this week, who gave me the shocking statistic that 300 million people in India eat 100 kg less a year now than they did at the time of independence in 1947. The problem has been becoming steadily worse, and DFID needs to be addressing it.

A fortnight ago, we were debating millennium development goal 6, relating to HIV/AIDS, and today we are debating MDG 1, which is probably the most important of all the MDGs, because if people do not have adequate food and water, they become, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) has made clear, vulnerable to every other disease and pressure on their lives. I need hardly remind hon. Members participating in the debate about MDG 1, but to put my speech in context, I shall put the details of it on the record. The goal is to halve between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day; to achieve
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full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people; and to halve between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.

As both previous speakers have said, it was commonly assumed that 850 million people were living in hunger; it is now assumed that the figure is more than 1 billion—one sixth of the world’s population. That is a very serious statistic. A child dies from malnutrition every five seconds, and 30 per cent. of all children who die, die from malnutrition-related problems. Those are shocking statistics. We all have tremendous sympathy for people in these situations and want to see what we can do about it.

Much has been said about the WFP today. I did not wish, in my intervention on the Chairman of the Select Committee, to cast any aspersions on the WFP. I just want to understand why the director of the WFP did not praise Britain in relation to contributions to the WFP, because it seems to me from everything that I have read that we generously support the WFP. Indeed, the agency is held in the highest regard worldwide and its staff deserve due credit for the vital work that they perform. The fact that eradicating hunger features as the first MDG should focus everyone’s mind on how serious the matter is.

As I have stated, we discussed HIV/AIDS in this Chamber two weeks ago. Although it is right that that and the issue before us are debated separately, we must remember that the challenges that we face are not distinct, but interlinked and part of the web of poverty.

The Committee’s report noted that 850 million people regularly do not eat enough food—a point graphically made by the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West. The hon. Gentleman quoted Robert Zoellick, who said that MDG 1 is the forgotten MDG. As the Committee reported, Robert Zoellick went on to say that the world food crisis—this is perhaps the most shocking thing in the entire report—

In other words, a lot of what the international community has achieved will be reversed. That is why we need the Minister to address the problem seriously.

If current trends continue, we will miss the target of halving the proportion of underweight children by 30 million children, and that will be largely because of the slow progress in southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. As I have said, a child dies from hunger-related causes every five seconds. When the Minister sums up, I hope that he will tell us how the work of the WFP and DFID in tackling hunger and malnutrition ties into the picture of underdevelopment as a whole.

As the Chairman has said, unpredictable and volatile world food prices were exacerbated by fluctuations in the oil markets, by increased weather hazards and by an overall growth in demand. Backed by the global recession, that created a perfect storm, as the Committee has said, and incomes fell. All those factors came together to make the situation worse. As I said in the debate on HIV/AIDS, the adverse exchange rate also reduced British aid. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West quoted the chairman of Nestlé, who said that food prices rose by 60 per cent. last year. Again, that exacerbated the problem. Prices might have dropped back a bit this year, but they are still above trend.

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The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, no less, highlighted the simple consequences of such events to the Committee:

In response to such concerns, the Committee recommend that:

When the Minister sums up, I would be interested to hear the Department’s view of what the trends in food prices and availability are likely to be over the next few years and what plans it has to adjust budgets, if it feels that we are likely to remain above trend.

The WFP has responded to the increased challenges of global hunger by broadening its activities, moving away from simply providing food aid, which Save the Children has described as a blunt instrument, towards providing food assistance through cash and food transfer systems. As a farmer—I have declared that in the Register of Members’ Interests—I think that the best long-term solution is to provide development assistance to encourage more farmers in individual countries to grow more of their own food, and DFID needs to pay close attention to that.

As has been said, we must recognise the USA as an important partner in tackling these problems. As the Chairman has said, however, the fact that the USA, which is the largest donor to the WFP, gives nearly all its donations in kind—as food—is of concern. It is far better from every point of view—whether we want to increase local capacity, get farmers to produce food themselves or deal with the environmental effects of CO2 emissions—that we do not transport vast quantities of food around the world any more than necessary.

At just the time when assistance is needed most, it is of great concern that the USA, as one of the key global players, has adopted such a policy. The Minister will no doubt recognise the concerns that that has raised, and I hope that he will enlighten us as to the dialogue that he has had with his counterparts in the USA about whether assistance should be provided in cash or in kind. I hope that he will tell us what more can be done through the WFP and direct donations by USAID and DFID to shift the emphasis on this issue.

I turn now to the work of the WFP. I share the Committee’s surprise that

Those comments go in a similar direction to those made by the WFP’s chairman, when she explained why she had not praised Britain more. There is something of an underlying agenda here, and it would be helpful if the Minister were to give us a clue as to what this is all about.

Clearly, the decisions taken by DFID have not been arbitrary, because the Department has stated that it has concerns over the appropriateness and effectiveness of WFP interventions. I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten us. I will not criticise the Department’s decisions in that respect, because I want the Minister to explain in more detail exactly what DFID’s concerns are and what comparative advantage DFID has over the WFP in delivering health and education packages.

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