Calls for Urgent Action on Food Shortages

Rights groups say country’s new administration doing little to address widespread hunger.

Calls for Urgent Action on Food Shortages

Rights groups say country’s new administration doing little to address widespread hunger.

Wednesday, 4 March, 2009
As growing numbers of Zimbabweans queue up for food aid, humanitarian workers have called on the country’s new authorities to help the increasingly hungry population.

”We believe the new government should prioritise [dealing with food shortages] as more and more people are going hungry and coming to our churches seeking food handouts,” said Useni Sibanda, coordinator of faith-based organisation the Christian Alliance of Zimbabwe.

Sibanda told IWPR that the new inclusive government had made little difference to people’s welfare.

“We can only do so much, as we also have members [of our organisation] who need our assistance. The new government must find the resources,” he said.

Observers say the food shortages result from a combination of a poor harvest and President Robert Mugabe’s political and economic policies.

This year's grain yield was about 500,000 tonnes, leaving the country – once the breadbasket of Africa – with a deficit of about 1.3 million tonnes.

An estimated 60 per cent of the 12 million population is now relying on international donors such as the World Food Programme, WFP, for sustenance.

The situation is particularly grave in remote areas of the country, where villagers are reportedly scavenging for wild fruits, berries, and other edible roots to survive.

“The… [number of people requiring food aid] is now up to 7.5 million and some of them… are those who previously would otherwise be able to meet their food needs,” said Fambai Ngirandi, spokesman for National Association of Non-Government Organisations, NANGO.

The economic crisis facing Zimbabwe has led to the dollarisation of the economy, under which local currency is no longer accepted. Basic commodities, which are now only available on the black market, are too expensive for most.

Meanwhile, humanitarian agencies are scaling down their operations as a result of donor fatigue and uncertainty about the new government, which was inaugurated in February 2009.

The new inclusive administration was formed following the signing of a power-sharing deal between President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, in September 2008.

Analysts attribute worsening food shortages to the fact that throughout their negotiations, Mugabe and Tsvangirai appear to have ignored the plight of the people they lead.

They note that as the rivals continue to wrangle over who will assume which roles in the new government, little attention is being paid to securing food, especially maize – the staple of the Zimbabwean diet.

Ngirandi said there had been a general decline in humanitarian conditions since the signing of the power-sharing accord.

“No-one [in the government] has been paying attention to social service delivery, but the bigger issue now is that food [supplies] have dried up and a commitment to [providing] new food aid has not been forthcoming from traditional donors,” he said.

Western donors and foreign investors are said to be cautious about putting money into Zimbabwe, while Harare-based diplomats say they want to see concrete signs that a democratic government has been created and economic reforms implemented before any further funds are released.

“The donor community has adopted a wait-and-see attitude towards Zimbabwe, and this has reduced the NGO sector's capacity to deal with the crisis,” said Ngirandi.

Although Tsvangirai has said his priorities include addressing the humanitarian crisis gripping the country, analysts say that efforts to tackle food shortages are hampered by the fact that the prime minister has inherited a bankrupt administration.

In an address to his party faithful last week, the new prime minister admitted that the government is “broke”.

According to reports, Tsvangirai has turned to South Africa for economic support, saying the stricken country may need up to 5 billion US dollars in aid.

The new government has also reportedly sought some 20 billion South African rand from Southern African Development Community, SADC, countries. The request was said to have been made last week during a meeting between a Zimbabwean delegation led by Finance Minister Tendai Biti, Foreign Affairs Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi and regional finance ministers.

SADC members have called a summit of the group's 15 heads of state to discuss the possibility of aid to Zimbabwe. This is set to precede the G20 meeting – of a group of finance ministers and central bank governors from 20 economies – scheduled to be held in London on April 2.

Catherine Bragg, United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, who led a delegation in Zimbabwe at the end of February, said the UN required a total of 500 million dollars to assist the country.

Bragg told journalists in Harare on February 25 that the UN had raised some 85 million dollars so far, and would continue to appeal for more funding from the international community in order to provide help to farmers in time for the next planting season, which begins in September.

The UN acknowledged that there were at least 7.1 million people on the list of food aid recipients.

It also said that assistance was needed to treat the cholera outbreak, which broke out last summer.

Neighbouring countries, such as Botswana, South Africa and Namibia – nations which are also affected by the epidemic – have recently chipped in with essential drugs to combat its spread.

Despite their efforts, statistics released by the World Health Organisation, WHO, on February 25 revealed that there have been 84,027 reported cases of the illness in Zimbabwe, and 3,894 deaths.

WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told reporters in Geneva that an inter-agency UN team which carried out an evaluation in the country had described the humanitarian crisis as “grave”. She noted an absence of clean water, blocked sewerage systems and uncollected refuse throughout the country.

To add to the country's woes, fresh farm invasions are also reportedly thwarting the new government's efforts to restore the beleaguered agricultural sector.

On February 25, Tsvangirai stated publicly that the recent illegal land grabs were undermining Zimbabwe's ability to revive farming and to restore confidence in the country.

Jabu Shoko is the pseudonym of an IWPR-trained journalist in Zimbabwe.
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