Bishop of St Albans leads debate on famine in the Horn of Africa

The Bishop of St Albans tabled a question for short debate on famine in the Horn of Africa on 7th February 2023:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to alleviate the consequences of the famine in the Horn of Africa.

My Lords, it is perhaps fitting that this debate takes place on the day of the memorial service for the late Lord Chidgey, who was so passionate about all things to do with Africa and would have shared many of the concerns that I suspect are going to be talked about in our one hour together.

It is with sadness that I stand here today to address this problem, although I hope that our debate may in some small way raise awareness of what is an extraordinary tragedy unfolding before us. As many noble Lords know, this region is currently experiencing one of the longest and most severe droughts on record. This, coupled with conflict and displacement, has led to an unprecedented food and nutrition emergency affecting almost 40 million people. The UN has already said that

“Famine is at the door”

in some parts of Somalia.

We are already seeing the effects of this crisis. UNICEF estimates that up to 5.7 million children in the region require treatment for acute malnutrition, with 1.8 million already experiencing it. This famine, initially caused by climate change, has been compounded by a series of other factors, making it far worse than what we have seen before. An outbreak of locusts, described by the UN as the worst in 25 years, has ravished crops across the region. The ongoing civil wars in Ethiopia and Somalia have displaced millions and made provision of food aid even more difficult.

The reverberations of President Putin’s terrible war in Ukraine have added to the problem. We now face the worst global food crisis of the modern era, with the UN reporting that global food prices hit a record high in March 2022. This has hit those in the Horn of Africa hardest. Russia and Ukraine are both ranked among the top three global exporters of wheat, barley, maize and sunflower seeds. Prior to the conflict, Somalia imported 92% of its grain from Russia and Ukraine. However, the impact of the war on farming and export, alongside the blockade on Ukrainian seaports by the Russian navy, has almost completely halted their food supply to the Horn of Africa. Only a few months ago, a ship containing 40,000 tonnes of wheat heading for Ethiopia could not leave its port simply due to a blockade.

In these challenging times, it is important that the UK works with its international partners to mitigate the effects of the crisis in Ukraine and its food security impacts on global supply chains. It is very clear that, if the world does not act quickly and decisively, hundreds of thousands of people, especially children, will die. I again highlight my deep regret at His Majesty’s Government’s cuts to official development assistance spending. In a time of such global misery, when the entire world seems to be facing unprecedented turmoil, we need to ask ourselves whether this is the time to be stepping back or stepping up and taking a lead. We as a country have a proud history of supporting those less fortunate, particularly in the Horn of Africa, where we have a long and deep history of engagement and support.

Even in recent years, the UK has demonstrated swift and decisive leadership, such as in 2017 when the speedy provision of £861 million to east Africa helped avert a famine, saving lives. We stood at the forefront of international efforts to provide food, water and emergency services. It is to be regretted that the UK has been cutting its international aid to east Africa. For example, in 2017 we invested £282 million in Somalia; by 2021, this had dropped to £232 million, despite inflation.

It is therefore with great regret that we hear of the Government’s confirmation of an allocation of a very modest £157 million this year across east Africa—less than a fifth of what we provided in 2017. We have demonstrated how capable we are of providing help in the past, but now I fear we may be turning our backs. The food crisis faced by those in the Horn of Africa is severe. Where we have acted slowly or indecisively in the past, it has led to countless losses of human life. In 2011, the inadequate global response to the famine in Somalia led to 260,000 deaths, half of them children.

Having worked with many food banks and voluntary groups in this country, I recognise that we are facing a severe cost of living crisis. It is deeply worrying to hear of the difficulties that people are facing at home. I am aware of them in the communities in my diocese. I share the concern of His Majesty’s Government and a great many people that we spend our money frugally and carefully. However, I am constantly reminded that we are a generous people; the British public have already raised over £400 million in donations for Ukraine.

We are witnessing one of the worst famines that our world has faced for 40 years, with a potential for unimaginable loss of human life. In the short term, our first step needs to be drastically scaling up our emergency response. An imminent, looming famine is projected to be at the door. The UK must demonstrate global leadership and spearhead further aid spending. I would be very interested if the Minister could tell us what representations we have made to our partners in Europe and other parts of the world, as I know that the World Bank is getting involved. We all have to work together; we must not presume that we have to do it all, but this is a time that calls for leadership. We are uniquely positioned to encourage African Union member states, global financial institutions and the private sector to provide funding and support for the Horn of Africa.

Learning from the lessons of prior famines, we need to take an approach of supporting and empowering local actors. These are often the first, most efficient and most effective responders to crises. In many cases, it is local church leaders who have the confidence of their communities and are best placed to give a lead. We have seen this, for example, in the educational programmes being rolled out for Ebola in other parts of Africa; a UN team in white hazmat suits simply scares people, but local leaders whom people know are best placed to help teach them the best ways—in that case around health prevention and here around growing crops and organising themselves. We are standing by to help with our own links in Africa through our dioceses and are in touch with many of the leaders there.

In the long term, our focus needs to be on addressing the impacts of climate change and demonstrating the global leadership that we are already giving. At COP 26, a great deal of importance was placed on loss and damage compensation for the global South—regions such as the Horn of Africa, where our climate impact is causing serious harm. We need to support the Glasgow climate pact, which calls for a commitment to climate finance for developing countries to help them better develop infrastructure that is more resilient to these climate shocks, such as famines.

As a nation, we have stood out as global leaders in the past. It is important that this Government continue this great tradition. We have been fundamental in saving millions of lives. I urge the Government to do the same again in this crisis.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for the way in which he has opened this short debate. I also echo his remarks about the late Lord Chidgey. I think all of us who knew David Chidgey well and were able to attend the wonderful celebration of his life today in St Margaret’s know how sorely his voice is missed. Earlier today, there was a meeting of the All-Party Group on Sudan and South Sudan; he and I were fellow officers of that group, and his absence was keenly felt.

I currently chair the APPG’s inquiry into Darfur. I also took part in the International Relations and Defence Committee’s inquiry into sub-Saharan Africa and initiated debates in this House on the effects of Putin’s Ukrainian grain blockade and the war in Tigray, where between 600,000 and 800,000 lives have been lost. The UK Government have said that the use of food as a weapon of war in Tigray could constitute a war crime. Can the Minister tell us what has been done to establish the case against those responsible and bring them to justice? How have we taken forward UN Security Council Resolution 2417 on the starvation of civilians and unlawful denial of humanitarian access as tactics in warfare?

Two weeks ago, I chaired a meeting of the APPG for Africa in collaboration with the Royal African Society, where we heard disturbing first-hand accounts from Tigray. I will be particularly keen to hear the Minister’s assessment of what humanitarian aid is reaching Tigray, and indeed the bordering regions of Afar and Amhara.

Time is short this evening and it is impossible in a few minutes to do justice to all the excellent briefing material about the situation across the Horn of Africa which has been sent to us ahead of the debate. In case the Minister had not seen all the briefings, I took the liberty of giving him hard copies just before the debate began. He will see there some consistent messages—indeed, messages that are also in the excellent House of Lords Library Note we have received. It describes how the Horn of Africa is experiencing, as the right reverend Prelate rightly told us, the longest drought in four decades, with no end in sight.

Recovery from a drought of this magnitude will presumably take years. Exacerbated by soaring food prices, political instability, conflict, locusts—as we have heard—Covid-19 and the effects of climate-induced drought, or floods in the case of South Sudan, which I will mention, it is causing people’s lives across the region to be devastated. It has led to 36.4 million people suffering from hunger across the region and 21.7 million requiring food assistance. A famine has de jure yet to be declared, but de facto one has already come into existence. Famine is knocking at the front door.

The United Nations says that 36.4 million people, including 19.9 million children, have been affected by the drought, and that 21.7 million people, including 10.8 million children, need food assistance. UNICEF says that 5.7 million children require treatment for acute malnutrition, with 1.8 million subject to life-threatening malnutrition. In Somalia, the situation remains particularly critical, with 5.6 million people currently acutely food insecure; that figure is expected to rise to 6.4 million by March. Some 1.8 million children under the age of five are expected to face acute malnutrition by July 2023.

Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether the Government accept these figures and what numbers he has for current levels of death from hunger and malnutrition. Specifically, when does the Minister’s department predict that the 20% threshold used to formally declare a famine—when at least 20% of the population face extreme food shortages, acute malnutrition rates exceed 30%, and at least two in every 10,000 people die every day from hunger—will technically be reached? The World Food Programme says that it urgently needs $689 million until May 2023

“to prevent widespread loss of lives”,

and that as it tries to respond to 8.8 million people, funding shortfalls have already forced the WFP to prioritise who receives assistance and who goes hungry. Does the Minister accept the World Food Programme’s estimate?

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con, Foreign Office): My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for tabling this hugely important and timely debate. I am also grateful for the insightful contributions of other noble Lords who have spoken. I echo the tributes that previous speakers have paid to the late Lord Chidgey, with whom I had a number of exchanges; he was always polite, positive and constructive, usually on issues relating to the environment, which was a passion for him. Although I have not been here as long as other noble Lords in the Chamber today, I know that he will be missed.

The humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa has pushed tens of millions of people to a cliff edge, driven by a combination of conflict, the worst drought in 40 years and the rocketing prices that have resulted from Russia’s illegal war—a point made by the right reverend Prelate.

Before I continue, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for the regular information he provides via email and the bundle of reading material that I will take away after this debate. Having looked at it, some of which I had seen before, it makes for grim reading but is enormously important. In answering his question specifically, I say that we agree with the World Food Programme’s assessment of needs across the region. Unfortunately, we think that these figures are correct, but we wish that they were not.

Across east Africa, more than 71 million people are in need of aid. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others said, rates of food insecurity and malnutrition are, sadly, soaring. In drought-affected areas across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, almost 24 million people cannot access enough drinking water and over 9 million livestock have died. In the Horn of Africa, more than three-quarters of a million people are predicted to fall into famine-like conditions by March, with millions more teetering on the edge. The situation is grave and at risk of deteriorating much further.


In response to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, we are working in tandem with our international partners to address the risk of famine and help the region build resilience. For example, our humanitarian aid partnership with Saudi Arabia has led their humanitarian agency to provide match funding of £1.7 million in Somalia. We are also expanding our work with Germany and the World Bank to strengthen agriculture and the response to droughts.

I fully acknowledge the impact of the ODA cuts, as I have done many times in this House. The point was initially raised by the right reverend Prelate, then by other speakers. I will make just two points. Despite that reduction, the UK is the third-highest spender of ODA in the G7 as a percentage of GNI, spending more than £11 billion on aid in 2021. In recognition of the unanticipated and significant costs incurred supporting people from Ukraine and Afghanistan, the Government are also spending an additional £1 billion in 2022-23 and £1.5 billion in 2023-24 to try to accommodate those costs. I agree with the speakers today that we absolutely must return to 0.7% as soon as we possibly can. There really should be no delay.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, made a point about the quality of investment, not just the quantum. He is right there as well. We need the quantum, but we also need transparency and monitoring. That applies very much to the Tokyo commitments. So that point is very much noted, and he is right to have made it.

The severity of the drought and food insecurity facing the Horn of Africa is crystal clear. The situation is at risk of getting, and is likely to get, worse. Our humanitarian support to East Africa is providing millions of people with essential services, and we will continue to work with partners to save lives and build resilience. Once again, I thank noble Lords for their insightful contributions and the right reverend Prelate for initiating the debate.

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