No confrontation as UK MPs debate food security and famine in the Horn of Africa

Praise for the generosity of the British public, the need to continue supporting small-scale farmers, and the importance of science: these issues were all raised in a debate on food security and famine in the Horn of Africa in the UK’s House of Commons on Thursday 15 September.

Usually the only footage I see from the House of Commons comes from the famously confrontational Prime Minister’s Questions, so it was a surprise (and a relief) to watch such a civilized and respectful debate. All MPs who spoke, regardless of their party allegiances, were united in their support of the Government’s commitment to increasing spending on overseas aid, and clearly cared deeply about the people of Africa, and particularly those whose lives have been blighted and endangered by the drought and resulting famine.

All speakers acknowledged that famine is a complex problem, and that issues such as conflict, inequality, and food speculation have a part to play. But the most important message to emerge was the urgency of improving agricultural resilience in developing countries. “If we can help people to grow their own food and feed themselves, we will help them to mitigate the difficulties that cause the famine we are now witnessing,” said Amber Rudd, MP for Hastings and Rye and one of the proposers of the motion.

Heidi Alexander, MP for Lewisham East and the other proposer of the motion, called upon the Department for International Development (DFID) to increase its investment in agriculture: “If we are serious about addressing these problems, the UK needs to look at how we prioritize our overseas aid expenditure, setting a standard for other donors in respect of investment in agriculture. Between 2007 and 2009, DFID gave on average $32 million per year to agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa—1.8% of our total bilateral aid in the region. When we increase our aid budget in 2013, what will we spend the additional money on? How much will go into supporting smallholder farmers and pastoralist communities?”

Andrew Smith, MP for Oxford East, had praise for Plantwise. “Currently, farmers lose an average of 40% of their crops to pests and diseases, and most of that is unnecessary. Using existing knowledge and providing timely, practical and specific advice through local clinics to farmers on the management of plant pests and diseases can have a significant impact on food security right now, with no need for additional water, land or other resources. Obviously, people need extra water in places where there is not any, but the point is well made. To this end, I commend the Plantwise initiative, which is supported by DFID and by the Swiss aid agencies.”

A range of other organizations, including charities and NGOs, were name-checked too, showing how much dedicated and effective work is going on in developing countries throughout the world. Yet still people suffer, many of them from catastrophes that could be predicted, if not prevented.

We can only hope that the passionate words spoken in this debate can be converted quickly into more effective action, and that the UK’s G20 partners follow its lead in responding to the famine in the Horn of Africa with an increased commitment to investment in agriculture and food security.

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