Horn of Africa debate: food security and famine prevention

Speech by Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell

I want to start by acknowledging the generosity of the British public through the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.

Throughout the country, people have supported that, and nearly £60 million has been raised. That, together with the efforts of the British Government and other governments around the world, seeks to address the crisis in the Horn of Africa and to stop a disaster becoming a catastrophe.

The House will be aware of what is happening in the Horn of Africa. The rains have failed. Enormous numbers of people are moving first from the centre of Somalia down to Mogadishu and then from Somalia out across the borders into Kenya and Ethiopia. The Dolo Ado camps in Ethiopia now contain 120,000 Somalis, 80,000 of whom have arrived there in the last few weeks.

In Mogadishu, which I visited just three weeks ago, camps have sprung up all over that city. The World Food Programme is today feeding some 327,000 refugees there, in particular in therapeutic feeding.

In Dadaab, which I visited earlier in the summer, huge numbers of people have come across the border into Kenya. I saw a sight that one rarely sees in Africa - large numbers of mothers and their children waiting in the early morning in complete silence.

I was able to talk to some of them; they told awful stories about being attacked and beaten as they came with their children out of Somalia. Many had lost children on that march, and their feet were cut to pieces by that long march. I pay tribute to the Kenyan Government who are housing 430,000 people in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, which was built originally for 90,000.

I also visited Wajir, where I was able to see the brilliant work that has been done by British non-governmental organisations - in particular Save the Children, but many others - in trying to cope with the crisis.

The people in those camps are in many ways the lucky ones. Inside Somalia we are probably reaching about 1.2 million of the 3 million people who are in serious jeopardy at this time. Those who have followed these things will have seen that the global acute malnutrition and the serious acute malnutrition rates in Somalia are horrific. We have not seen such rates since the 1992 famine.

It is not often starvation that kills people who are caught up in famines; it is disease. When the rains come, the immune systems of large numbers of people, already shredded by hunger, will not be able to withstand the waterborne diseases that will cut like a knife through that very vulnerable population. Cholera is already endemic in Somalia and Mogadishu, and measles and malaria will also affect huge numbers of very vulnerable people when the rains come.

Britain’s reponse to the food crisis

Let me set out what we in Britain are doing to help:

First, in Somalia, Britain will be vaccinating more than 1.3 million children against measles and 670,000 children against polio, and providing mosquito nets for 160,000 families. During the last week, we think that we have managed to reach an additional 40,000 families inside Somalia, and 10,000 tonnes of food to treat and prevent moderate malnutrition have now arrived in the country.

In Kenya, we are providing clean water for more than 300,000 people in Dadaab, and in northern Kenya more generally, we are helping 100,000 who have received 600 tonnes of UK-funded food aid during the last month.

We have been working in Ethiopia for many years and it is for that reason that since 1992 the prevalence of malnutrition has fallen by about 50%.

That shows the difference between working in a country where development can take place and Somalia, where it is very difficult. In Ethiopia we are feeding more than 2.4 million people. We recently provided 50 tonnes of seeds and 60 tonnes of fertilizer, and we are helping to vaccinate 300,000 livestock, which is important in enabling people to continue with their livelihoods when the famine is over.

We are working extremely hard to persuade others to support that effort, with some success. Around £400 million has been pledged for Somalia since 1 July, and I will be working on that, along with other Ministers, at next week’s meetings of the United Nations and the World Bank. Progress is being made, but insufficient progress.

Building up resilience and improving food security

I come now to the central importance of trying to ensure that these crises are addressed upstream and that food insecurity is replaced by food security.

At the end of last week, I visited an extremely important project, run by Britain and the World Food Programme, that seeks to build food security in Karamoja in northern Uganda. It encapsulates the old proverb, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach him to fish and he will be able to feed himself.” We are engaged in a project that hitherto has spent £28 per person on securing food aid. Over the next three years we will spend £33 per person.

As I saw for myself, that food security is developing well. In 2009 more than 1 million people in Karamoja were receiving food aid and the region was suffering from deep food insecurity, but by the end of this year we believe the figure will be below 140,000.

In looking at that programme we saw all the things that need to happen. We saw effective irrigation, the harvesting of water through reservoirs, families growing food for themselves and market traders turning up on the sites where that food is being grown and buying the surplus. We saw feeder roads developing and warehouses springing up, which is very important. That is the way ahead to ensure that deep food insecurity is tackled. That is what we have been doing in Ethiopia, and the approach has helped to ensure that Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda are not now experiencing famine.

Somalia is a different matter, where there is deep insecurity and ungoverned space. I underline our strong admiration and support for the brave people who go in to try to deliver life-saving aid and support there. An announcement was made last week by the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia on political developments and their intention to hold elections of some sort in a year’s time. I do not hide from the fact that there are very great difficulties in achieving what needs to be achieved. All this emphasises the importance of the work on resilience.

I wish to end by making four points:

  • There are 400,000 people, mainly children, in danger of dying as a result of the famine in Somalia
  • Britain has set out clearly what needs to be done
  • People across all parts of our country, as well as the Government, have given their money and support
  • We cannot put a price on a life, but we can put a price on saving one. It is time for other countries to recognise that fact and reach deeper into their pockets.

Read the full transcript of the debate on Hansard

Updates to this page

Published 16 September 2011