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Lords Diary: Lord McConnell

Turkana, Kenya: children enjoying fresh water from a modern well | Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

Lord McConnell is surprised to find positive inspiration in the face of impossible conditions in Turkana County following a devastating three-year drought

It would have been a privilege to attend the House for the first King’s Speech in more than 70 years earlier this month, but instead I felt deeply honoured to be in the presence of health workers in Turkana County, northern Kenya.

As vice-president of Unicef UK – and ahead of the Global Food Security Summit, which takes place in London this week with a stated ambition to end hunger and malnutrition – I was keen to see the impact of the three-year drought in East Africa. And, while children and their mothers have suffered terribly, I was surprised to also find positive inspiration in the face of impossible conditions.

Devolution has changed Kenya. Regional governors now have powers to spend resources on local priorities, develop partnerships and deliver improvements. Working with Unicef and others, with the support of UKAID, there is real progress even in the most difficult places. Maternal mortality in the county is down from 1,594 per 100,000 live births in 2014 to 362 in 2022 – showing that spending on development can save lives.

In Nairobi, Insta Products CEO Nikita Chandaria showed us around the factory making the ready-to-use therapeutic food (or RUTF), peanut paste: a commercial business with tight margins, winning contracts with a top-quality product improved by research, innovation, high-quality equipment and skill. This is the way ahead – local enterprise serving the needs and ambitions of local people.

At the other end of this chain, my lasting memory in the inhospitable conditions of extreme heat and lack of water will be of little Marty, almost fully recovered after being treated for severe acute malnutrition, squeezing every last drop out of his packet of peanut paste, tearing it open and licking the inside to make sure he did not miss a drop. These life-saving provisions help build healthier lives and a feeling that life is not entirely hopeless after all.

My mobile had been connecting to a strange voice on voicemail and parliamentary security had been alerted

on 20 November, the United Kingdom government will publish a white paper on the sustainable development goals and the journey to 2030. I hope its plans reflect the importance of long-term investment in sustainable and integrated efforts to empower through clean water, community health services, quality education and stronger developing economies.

Early one morning, Gerri from Unicef thumped on my door and shouted my name. My mobile had been connecting to a strange voice on voicemail and parliamentary security had been alerted in London. They tracked me down to our remote location to check I was safe. Thankfully, I could reassure them all was well. It created a few laughs, but it was good to know the system works!

The then home secretary’s interventions seemed inappropriate in advance of our most solemn weekend of the year. Remembrance Sunday is always a special moment and, on the streets of London, I felt the presence of the veterans converging on Whitehall with so many stories of sacrifice and loss. A few days earlier at the County Referral hospital in Lodwar, we saw the first building on this site, built before 1945: a hospital ward for the Kenyans who fought for the Allies in the Second World War. A reminder that the sacrifice was across the Commonwealth and indeed worldwide.

After a quick turnaround in the UK, I travelled to Warsaw to moderate discussions between Ukrainian government ministers and the international businesses they need to invest in their recovery. I have been consistently impressed by the quality of future planning I have seen from the politicians and public officials in Kyiv, working in parallel to their colleagues who are fighting against Russia’s illegal invasion.

They set out their vision, their immediate priorities and the steps they are taking to create a transparent and accountable business environment. The warm response from the businesses present indicated that they are building trust and creating a situation where others can make a contribution to the long-term future of Ukraine. 

Lord McConnell is a Labour peer

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