Lord Alton, who takes a keen interest in the issues facing the region – from Somalia to Sudan – spoke last night in the House of Lords. Here is his contribution in full.

Lord David Alton

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?

Notwithstanding a rapidly mounting death toll and what seems like acceleration towards a human catastrophe, the 2022-23 funding allocation for the Horn of Africa is lower than the 2021-22 allocation and less than a fifth of the £861 million provided by the UK Government during the last famine in 2017-18. That intervention, to the credit of this great country, saved millions of lives. With a desperate population again living on the brink, I hope the Minister can tell us whether we will re-examine the level of support and at the very minimum offer to match pound for pound an appeal to the generous people of this country via the Disasters Emergency Committee. Can he also clarify what proportion of the £372 million pledged for countries facing severe hunger crises will be disbursed to east Africa?

Let me ask specifically about Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea. This afternoon, our two excellent ambassadors in Sudan and South Sudan, Giles Lever and Jonny Baxter, briefed the APPG. Mr Lever told us that in Sudan “15.8 million people—one third of the population—will need humanitarian assistance”. He described insufficient supplies of bread and wheat and how what was available was priced out of the range of the majority of the population. He also said that increased displacements in Darfur—now at the rate of 200,000 people each year, in addition to all those already displaced—are adding to the challenges in a region which was subjected to a genocide in which 300,000 people died and more than 2 million were displaced.

In South Sudan, Mr Baxter spoke warmly of the ecumenical visit last week but sombrely spelt out the effects of violence and displacement on tens of thousands of people. While we all earnestly hope for peace, South Sudan has had four years of floods, not drought, and seen another 1 million people displaced. Mr Baxter told us that “9 million out of 12 million people are in need of help, 74% of the population are in need of humanitarian help and 63% are dependent on food aid”.

However, on a more hopeful note, the ambassador said that South Sudan could once again become a net exporter of food, and indeed meet all the food needs of the region, but that such development will require old warlords to become real leaders. It will require reconciliation rather than conflict, not least the appalling violence done in South Sudan to women. If the expectation is of help from outside, there must really be a commitment to self-help from within, and that means tackling the double curse of conflict and corruption. 

In the case of Eritrea, the country is endowed with 1,500 kilometres of Red Sea coast, with huge potential for a viable and highly productive fishing industry which could help to boost food security, yet that was arbitrarily closed by the Eritrean regime. Instead of feeding its people, the dictatorship is more intent on conscripting 50% of its working population into the military, running a police state, generating a mass exodus of refugees, pursuing military conquest and committing atrocities, undermining food security in the region. Internally it provides very weak social protection but no end of curfews, restrictions on movement, power outages in Asmara and limited running water. NGOs have been denied access to deliver help and support, while fleeing refugees report starving families and destitute women begging on the street. Remittances from the diaspora to help relatives are reported to often end up in the Government’s coffers. That must all change.

Across the region, we need to tackle root causes, whether it is tackling corruption and the diversion of much-needed resources into manmade conflict, or creating greater resilience and sustainability by harnessing renewable energy, for instance, to create desalination for better crop production. 

Famine will not wait on Budget decisions. Jeremy Hunt and Andrew Mitchell know Africa well, and they know the consequences of failing to urgently scale up the emergency response so that we can do the development things that are required. I know I join others in the House in thanking the right reverend Prelate for enabling us to debate this important subject today.