Baroness Hodgson is a former President of the Conservative Party’s National Convention.
While we are absorbed by the general election and Brexit, millions in some countries are starving to death. The situation in these places is so desperate that we cannot afford to wait: we must help right now.
Famine should have no place in the twenty-first century, and it is a sobering thought tha,t tonight, nearly 800 million people will go to bed hungry, and that 40 million are currently in urgent need of food assistance. Meanwhile, the developed world wastes a third of its food supply and struggles with obesity. This is life inequality on an obscene scale.
In the last 20 years there has been only one certified famine, but another four are looming imminently. The United Nations has declared that parts of South Sudan now face famine, and that people in Yemen, North-East Nigeria and Somalia are also facing starvation.
Stephen O’Brien, the British UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, has said that 20 million people across these four countries could die, and has warned that we may be facing the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.
I recently attended a discussion hosted by Concern Worldwide to alert us to the situation of acute food crises. It was widely agreed that urgent preventative action needs to be taken now, before it is too late.
Who can forget the images of the starving children in Ethiopia during the 1980s, and the heartrending story of nurse Claire Bertschinger who, with limited resources, had to choose who to feed? Such suffering could and likely will be repeated if nothing is done.
What causes these terrible famines? Too often, they are conflict-based, with drought and climate change also playing their part. As Feargal O’Connell from Concern told us: “the famine in South Sudan is a result of continued conflict and its social, economic and political effects. Massive levels of displacement have disrupted livelihood and agricultural patterns, creating a situation where 100,000 people are now facing starvation, and 4.9 million people are extremely food-insecure.”
The Department for International Development has recognised the need, and is doing its best to help. British funding is providing life-saving aid – food, water, medical supplies and emergency shelter – to millions of people across numerous countries, including Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia. We were also the first major donor to push support for the UN appeal in South Sudan. Many of our non-governmental organisations, such as Concern Worldwide, are also responding and mounting campaigns to try to help. But is this enough, and what else can be done?
At the end of May, leaders from the G7 group of countries will meet in Taormina, Italy for their annual summit. This year, the Italian G7 Presidency is prioritising food security and nutrition, amongst other things, in working towards the successful application of the UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.
The G7 should indeed be a primary vehicle for addressing and responding to these famines. Described in its own words as a “forum for dialogue at the highest level”, the G7 provides a unique opportunity for countries representing around 65 per cent of global net wealth, to ensure such power is leveraged where it is very literally needed the most.
We cannot wait: urgent action is needed now, both to help those who are victims of famine, and to prevent others being threatened in the future. Prevention will mean tackling the root causes, and taking action ‘upstream’ is important, both for humanitarian and economic reasons. Once famine has taken hold, it is often too late to save lives, since getting sufficient supplies of aid and assistance overseas takes time to organise and cannot happen overnight. DFID’s research in Ethiopia shows that for every £1 spent on building a community’s resilience against food crises, £8 is saved in future emergency response.
Investing in nutrition more widely also strengthens livelihoods, with the most dramatic improvements for babies and young children. Their longer-term prospects for survival, and their potential to play a productive role in their economies, will be significantly impacted by nutrition levels during infancy. We can help the next generation to lift their communities out of poverty by making these investments now.
The United Kingdom was the first of the G7 countries to meet the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income on overseas aid, and the only one to have enshrined it into law. We should be hugely proud of this, and commend the Prime Minister for promising to maintain this commitment. However, the UK cannot solve these crises alone and collective global efforts are needed. We must fulfil our moral obligation and encourage other countries to step up to help too.
As we campaign towards a historic Conservative victory in June, we must not forget those elsewhere in most desperate need and should support all efforts to help before it is too late.