DURING a recent visit to Zambia and Malawi, I saw first hand the food shortages facing Southern Africa.
Livelihoods have been steadily eroded over the past two decades by a number of ‘entangled' causes that include economic stagnation, a lack of jobs, adverse climatic factors, environmental degradation and, more recently, the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS.
Ten to 12 million people are affected across Southern Africa.
The UK response to the devastating food shortages facing Southern Africa has been to commit over £ 57 million, including support in Zambia to provide 10 per cent of the population with small monthly cash grants to buy food and stop people having to sell their belongings.
In Malawi, I visited one of the specialist Nutritional Rehabilitation Units where we are working with UNICEF.
These units are for people suffering as a result of severe hunger and most in need of help. We have contributed £ 15m in response to the latest food problems in Malawi, making the UK the largest donor to date.
As well as responding to the long-term causes of poverty, the Department for International Development tragically has to respond instantly to natural disasters throughout the world, and recently we have seen the devastating earthquake in South Asia.
Anyone who has seen the terrible pictures of the earthquake in Pakistan can not fail to have been moved by this tragedy. We are again working with Oxfam, and other NGOs such as Islamic Relief, UNICEF and Save the Children UK, in order to help those suffering following the earthquake.
An estimated 30,000 people have been killed and 42,000 people have been injured, primarily in Pakistan administered Kashmir, but also in India and Afghanistan. The number of those who have died will inevitably rise, as will the trauma of people in the UK as they realise friends and loved ones are lost.
The Department for International Development has responded to all requests for help from the Pakistani Government received so far at the time of going to press and has committed over £ 1m.
UK rescue teams were the first international rescue teams to arrive in Pakistan following the disaster, we have sent blankets, tents and medical equipment. We are working closely with the UN and other EU member states to organise the international response to this disaster.
Too often in the past, the international response to disasters has not been quick enough. Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, has been championing the idea of an International Emergency Fund to provide a rapid source of money when crises emerge.
The UN Summit recently endorsed the idea and six countries, including the UK, have pledged $150 million to the Emergency Fund, which will deliver aid faster and more fairly, when crises hit and so save more lives.
You can help by donating money via the Disaster Emergency Committee at www.dec.org.uk or by phoning 0870 60 60 900.
• Gareth Thomas is Labour/Co-op MP for Harrow West and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development.