Bishop of St Albans speaks in a debate on the blockade of Ukrainian ports

On 21st July 2022 the House of Lords debated the impact of the blockade of Ukrainian ports on food insecurity in developing countries. The Bishop of St Albans spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his brilliant introduction to this debate. I also welcome my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, and congratulate him on his maiden speech. I know he has huge experience to offer to this House and will be drawing not least on the huge successes and, indeed, some of the challenges of the east Midlands, where he is based. We look forward to hearing much more from him.

Next Tuesday we will start the next Lambeth Conference. Hundreds of bishops are gathering from all round the world. They are flying into this country as we speak, including many bishops from the whole of Africa and parts of Asia, and we are going to be meeting many of these people who, in their dioceses, are facing the famine that is now ahead of us. We hope that will be an opportunity to get first-hand reports of what the challenges are and how we might be able to try to respond, to alleviate some of the terrible suffering facing our world and particularly the Horn of Africa.

Today’s debate is happening against the backdrop of the negotiations to unblock grain supplies, which we can only hope will be successful. The war in Ukraine is a powerful reminder of the interconnectedness of global supply chains, their propensity to collapse during times of conflict and the devastating far-flung consequences this can have. Relieving that blockade and the logistical backlog is to some extent a matter of life and death for many people in east Africa and one that demands an immediate breakthrough in the infrastructural solution for Ukrainian exports. The EU is working with us and others to establish solidarity lanes, which will provide additional transport stock, prioritise exports and create flexibility with respect to customs, alongside a much longer-term approach to increase Ukraine’s land-based infrastructure. It is going to require funding, not least from the USA and probably from us, if collectively we are going to maximise the amount of grain we can get out of Ukraine.

However, that is only half the story, the other half being the consequence this is having across the developing world, especially east Africa. While the situation in Ukraine has contributed to the appalling conflict and famine in east Africa, this is also the product of climate change, a severe drought and, of course, in some parts of Africa, the devastating effect of huge swarms of locusts, which have had a terrible impact.

The weather we have been experiencing this past week should be a stark reminder of how real climate change is and, while we may have experienced discomfort, rising global temperatures have much more serious consequences for most people. The confluence of all these factors, all of them human in origin, lie at the heart of the crisis in east Africa—a region with a history of famine—which makes our decision to cut some of our aid budget to those affected nations woefully misconceived.

Between 2019 and 2022, British humanitarian aid to Kenya fell by £21 million, to Sudan by £32 million and to Somalia by £18 million. Of course, aid is not the only answer. We need to try to develop trade and enable these countries’ economies to develop but we can and must respond to the immediate famine. If we are not persuaded of the moral case, it is in our own long-term interest because we are going to see huge displaced populations making their way to western Europe. It is in our interest to help them retain what they are doing and keep going.

This is a crisis that requires global intervention and support to prevent. One thing that is clear is that the crisis that is unfolding is not very well publicised. Christian Aid found that while 90% of people in the UK were aware of the war in Ukraine, only 23% were aware of the food crisis in Africa. I mention this because we have seen the most extraordinary outpouring of generous response to the Ukrainian people. In my diocese we have a whole system of welcoming and integrating families into homes and building up support groups in our parishes. Very many of those who come are traumatised; they need much more than just shelter and food. They need support, counselling and help. It has been a very traumatic time for them. We have seen the most incredible outpouring.

For this reason, we need to try to raise awareness of the potential famine in east Africa as public donations and acts of generosity may be a small additional way of responding to the immediate crisis. This is vital for us. The situation in Ukraine and in east Africa are key elements of self-reflection as we battle with our own cost of living crisis. Yes, many people in our own country are struggling but, despite this, the generosity of the British people remains extraordinarily buoyant and strong when we recognise how fortunate we are in real terms compared with most other parts of the world. We as a country have a duty to assist here—in Ukraine’s war effort, in helping end Russia’s blockade and in materially aiding east Africa during these challenging times.

I hope the Government can provide assurance that they will do everything in their power to contribute to the international effort in support of these aims.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Bennet (GP): …The idea seems to be that we will just ship this food round and round the world. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans made a really important point about the sheer fragility of relying on global supply chains, which of course the situation in Ukraine only helps to highlight.

The Earl of Sandwich (CB): …As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, the deeper problem is that humanitarian funding is drying up. This was also emphasised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. Churches and faith-based organisations have been active not only on the humanitarian side but with conflict prevention.

Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD): …Let us look at one individual country that has been raised frequently in this debate. Here I welcome the right reverend Prelate to the House and the speech he gave. He and his right reverend friend the Bishop of St Albans, who has worked with dedication on these areas, mentioned the Horn of Africa and Somalia. Support for children in Somalia is critical.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con): …We move forward to face up to the crisis of food and the impact of the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports mentioned by many noble Lords. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, it is weaponising food and is impacting global security. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans also talked rightly about raising awareness. 

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans is right to remind us that this is not just about generosity and altruism; it is also in our self-interest to ensure that we retain those target figures and do what we can to alleviate the suffering of the poorest in our world today.

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