Andrew Mitchell highlights the strategic importance of Ethiopia in the region and urges a cessation of fighting on all sides and better humanitarian access, which is grossly inadequate at the moment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your benign sway today, Mr Davies. I congratulate the Chairman of the International Development Committee on so ably leading this debate and on all the work that she and her Committee do. I join her in praising hugely the humanitarian actors who are in harm’s way in Tigray today.
I went with Bob Geldof, who probably knows more about the situation in this part of Africa than most people in Britain, to see the Foreign Secretary some months ago at the start of the crisis. I was extremely impressed that the Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary were absolutely on top of what was happening. With so much else going on, there is a danger that public attention on what is happening in Tigray, so eloquently described by the hon. Lady, is missing. There is not enough public attention. I urge the media to ensure that attention increases greatly. There is a lot else going on.
There is a massive deterioration in the position on the ground. At least 7 million people need urgent assistance. The position was set out yesterday on the BBC website, which reported that 150 people had starved to death. That really matters to us in Britain. In 2011, the development programme in Ethiopia was the biggest anywhere in the world. It is a big country and there have been huge development gains in health and education, particularly among girls, and in the rights of women. There has been enormous progress in that respect.
Britain has huge strategic, commercial and security interests there. Ethiopia, for example, is pulling troops out of Somalia at the moment, which creates space for al-Shabaab to do its evil work there. There are huge flows of desperate people across the border in Sudan, a fragile country where millions of people are displaced. The whole thing destabilises the region. Ethiopia is being pulled apart by the conflict. Liberation movements and alliances are growing in strength. At the best of times, Ethiopia is a very fragile democracy with 110 million people. A major collapse there will have far more impact than Syria, Libya or Yemen, and we need to bear that in mind.
So what should we seek? First, we need to seek a cessation of fighting on all sides. Secondly, we need humanitarian access, which is grossly inadequate at the moment. It needs to be led by the international community, drawing on British expertise, and by the United Nations and the World Food Programme, which is doing an enormous amount of good work there at the moment. However, its funding has been cut from £21 million last year to £9 million this year, and that needs to be put right. We need to recognise that people are starving to death in Tigray and that there is massive violence, as set out by the hon. Lady, so I will not repeat that. Britain has a big strategic interest. Whether we care about development or not, Britain has a huge strategic interest in this part of the world, especially in Ethiopia, where millions and millions of taxpayers’ money have been spent on the ground to massive and real effect. That is why this debate matters so much, and why the issues that we are discussing are so important.
The Minister is right about the massive British taxpayer investment and the huge results that have been achieved. Will he follow my earlier comments and give Members an undertaking that he will look personally at the funding for the World Food Programme, which is absolutely at the critical edge of the humanitarian crisis? Will he look at its funding this year to see what more can be done to meet the need?
James Duddridge (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs )
I will. I am already in communication with David Beasley and have discussed food provision in Ethiopia with him. He is an influential figure in the region. Today, my initial issue is getting access: it is not getting food. Until we sort that, no amount of money or WFP extra resource will do it, but there will be a point at which we need to do that and we need to be ready, so I pledge to have another discussion with David Beasley to take the issues forward.