Press briefing by Emergency Relief Coordinator on his mission to Zimbabwe

from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Published on 08 Dec 2005
(New York: 8 December 2005): Following is a near verbatim transcript of the press conference given by Jan Egeland, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, on his mission to Zimbabwe.
Deputy Spokesperson: Good afternoon again. We have here Jan Egeland, the UN's Emergency Relief Coordinator and the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. He is literally just back from Zimbabwe.

Jan Egeland: Thank you very much Marie. I ended my mission in Zimbabwe yesterday. I was there from the 3rd to the 7th December. It was a mission on behalf of the Secretary-General and it was agreed in a meeting between President Mugabe and Secretary-General Kofi Annan during the general debate here in New York in September. During my four days there I visited a number of UN and non-governmental assistance projects around Harare; in Harare, the capital; and in the south, in Bulawayo. I met with a range of Government officials and I had a two hour meeting with President Mugabe where we had the opportunity to raise all the issues that are of concern to the human community in Zimbabwe. I had half an hour also tête-à-tête with President Mugabe to follow up on our future work and presence in Zimbabwe.

The humanitarian situation in the country is extremely serious and it is worsening as we speak. It is heartbreaking to meet with AIDS orphans -- there are a million of those today in Zimbabwe. It is heartbreaking to meet with people who are fearing the future because of food insecurity, which is affecting the majority of the people. Prices are spiralling at the same time that food is becoming increasingly scarce. It is heartbreaking to meet victims of the eviction campaign last summer, who now are back in the same place only in much worse shelter than the house that was bulldozed.

The UN wants to do more to help the people of Zimbabwe. We just launched last week an appeal of $276 million dollars for food aid, for medical assistance, for water and sanitation, for general assistance for the people of Zimbabwe. We are at the moment feeding more than 2 million people in Zimbabwe in the country. We will, in January, feed more than 3 million and it could grow up to 4 million in the course of the spring period before the harvest in April. We hope also to give agriculture and livelihood assistance to 1.4 million, to immunize more than 5 million children, to give basic health care and drugs to more than 3.6 million people affected by disease, including the millions of AIDS sick. We want to give 600,000 mothers and children health care. We want to improve the water and sanitation conditions for 2.4 million people.

We made progress in my talks with the Government in some crucial areas. As my main message was 'help us help you to help your people', I am happy to report that we did agree to do more to cut the procedures -- the obstacles - by which we feel we're not able to work to our full in this crisis situation in Zimbabwe. We want now to try to have a one-stop-shop on the Government side, a one-stop-shop within OCHA on the humanitarian side for the non-governmental organizations and others who have had many obstacles in their work in the country. We have agreed to have a task force on food insecurity where our agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme and others can work with the Government to try to come out of this vicious circle of declining food production in a country that can feed itself. We also made good progress in having the World Food Programme signing an agreement on food distributions, which gives unlimited access to all those they want to feed in the rural areas. We also have an agreement on providing 2500 shelter units to victims of the eviction campaign.

In all, I hope that we in the UN can contribute to breaking this vicious circle that has the Zimbabwean people locked into declining standards of living. It is really a collapse when you see that there was more than 60 years life expectancy in the country some 16 years ago and today it is 32 or 33 years only. If we work together -- the Government, the humanitarian organizations and the development organizations, and the donors, who we now ask to give us more money for a more effective programme to work together -- we can break the vicious circle and I hope we are now turning a corner in this regard in Zimbabwe.

Questions and Answers:

Question: You've said that it's heartbreaking to see people back in the same place only in much worse shelter than they had bulldozed. I think there were 700,000 initially displaced by the bulldozing. So that amount of people are back in the same spots they were prior to the bulldozing, so the whole thing's been undone. Correct so far?

Jan Egeland: Not entirely, no.

Question: And what is the significance, the difference between their living conditions before and now in terms of the nature of their shelter or their services or lack thereof.

Jan Egeland: Let me say that this is one of the areas that we disagree, on the nature of this campaign and the effects of it. The Government argues very strongly that this is an urban renewal campaign, this is a campaign against illegal housing, this is a campaign against illegal business and business practices, which is similar to that has taken place in many other countries in the world and which is similar to what happened in the northern countries some time back. We believe it was one of the worst things at the worst possible moment in Zimbabwe. Because the hundreds of thousands -- we say in the good report of Anna Tibaijuka by which we all stand in full that 700,000 people were directly affected. Either they got their primary livelihood destroyed or they were evicted from their houses. Those people are now either living with family or friends or extended family somewhere in the country -- they may be out in the open in places we do not know -- or they are back in the same place, like the old grandmother I met who showed me the bricks from which her house was made of earlier and she also showed the shack of plastic and branches in which she lived today. There are a few who are moving now into Government-built housing which are very good, but these are very few compared to the people who were evicted.

Question: On follow-up. How many would you estimate are back in the same locations in these shacks of plastic or branches compared to what percentage of 700,000 are with family or friends, and what is the number of those in government housing?

Jan Egeland: Those in Government housing would be single digit thousands - I would say a couple of thousand. More will move in to those houses that I saw that were not yet occupied. In total, the Government is planning to complete in the next few weeks 5500 housing units. Many of those who will be going into these are, as I understand it, police or Government people who actually also were affected directly by the eviction campaign. So it's a small proportion, those who have a house to move into. I think the majority are actually now living somewhere with other people they know of -- the majority -- and then overcrowding already bad housing. But thousands are in Hatcliffe and Hopley, which are two big camps outside of Harare, where I visited them, and some were living in very bad conditions like the one I said, which is, I mean, plastic and branches. And, of course, in this context, it is incomprehensible that they tore down tents that we put up in October. We hope now to be able to work more freely in lifting shelter standards as and when we can.

Question: Jan, I find this a little surreal that you're talking now about agreements with, conversations with, plans to go forward with the person and the Government that most of the world holds responsible for the very conditions that you're talking about. I've got a couple of questions out of that. When you spoke to Mr. Mugabe, did he take any responsibility for these actions? Secondly, did you say to him at any point, 'Mrs. Tibaijuka and the United Nations and many countries actually do hold you responsible'? And thirdly, how can you believe that any of these agreements to go forward with Government authorities will happen and do UN people in Zimbabwe have any way of monitoring whether it happens or not?

Jan Egeland: Well it's not surreal at all that we work in countries in adverse political situations and where there is a lot of Government and non-government action against those people we want to work with. In Sudan, we are at the moment sheltering millions who were displaced in an ethnic cleansing campaign basically, in which we believe there was heavy Government complicity in 2004. So I would actually argue that it's very important that the world, including donors, are not politicizing humanitarian assistance more in Zimbabwe than we were in the Balkans or we have been in Sudan or other places where we work to address needs that are caused by a variety of reasons including Government action.

The agreements we have made now on AIDS work are fully holding in all aspects of our work. Zimbabwe is one of three countries in Africa that has a documented decline in new HIV/AIDS cases -- from 24 per cent to 21 per cent. HIV prevalence is still astronomically high, but has gone down. Other neighbouring countries are still going up from the same levels, but they are going up.

We have made progress now in an agreement that makes it possible for us to distribute the food in the country through the World Food Programme as we believe is right, in terms of meeting needs where they are.

We are also hopefully getting agreements in the area that has been the worst, and where we have had confrontations, namely in shelter.

What was your last question?

Question: Can UN people within Zimbabwe monitor, keep track of whether the Government is doing what you want it to do?

Jan Egeland: Yes, we are as able to do it in Zimbabwe as any other place. But I must confess that it is one of the areas where we've had the most problems really to become effective. Many of our non-governmental colleagues feel that they're going from Ministry to Ministry, from Government to Government, from provincial authority to provincial authority, negotiating permits to do things, which should be obvious that we should be able to do to meet needs in the country.

Question: Speaking about politicizing the situation, there is an argument made that this in fact is a politicization of the situation, because in a country like China, in a country like India, and even in Pakistan, wherever there a illegal in China recently, when there was a development there, where they probably made like one million people move because of illegal encroachments. In India, 700,000 is nothing, and then they come back again. It's the same I know in Karachi where 100,000 are being moved and then they come back again. So why is that situation not being highlighted or being considered by the international community like Zimbabwe.

Jan Egeland: You're right. There are massive eviction campaigns elsewhere in the world, massive. I just saw reports of an eviction campaign in Angola the last few days and weeks. And, of course, in China, there have been a lot of people being moved because of dams and what not, it's well known. But the point is that Zimbabwe is in deep crisis. There are millions of AIDS sick; there are millions of people that are now with their backs against the wall, trying to feed themselves. And then to take away from 700,000 people the modest shelter and informal livelihood they had is the worst possible thing at the worst possible moment. It doesn't mean that it's unique, but it doesn't either make it better that it's happening in Zimbabwe that we also see it elsewhere.

Question: I don't think two wrongs make a right, I absolutely agree, but is it a case of political vendetta...?

Jan Egeland: I will give you this, that we see actually more questioning for basic humanitarian action than we see in many other places. We don't see that in North Korea, or in Sudan, or in the Balkans where people were ethnically cleansed in the hundreds of thousands.

Question: Mr. Egeland, what did Mr. Mugabe say when you asked him to explain why they took down the tents that you put up in October? And what are your concerns about whether the donors will continue to support this effort...?

Jan Egeland: I had a good meeting with the donors, a very frank meeting with the donors, where I basically said that our position is 'help us to help the people of Zimbabwe'. We're not helping any regime anywhere. We're helping people in the greatest need and it's no signal to Mugabe one way or the other if we do not get money to put grandmothers with AIDS orphans in good shelter.

Your first one was?...

Question: How did he explain...?

Jan Egeland: They believe that tents give an impression that there is a crisis in a country and they don't want tents for that reason. I tried to explain that we use tents in Europe, we use it in North America, we use it all over Asia. And it's the first stage in a three-stage shelter programme, which starts with emergency shelter which is tents, goes then into transitional shelters which are prefabricated shelter, and then finally puts people into permanent shelter. And the permanent shelter always takes too much time. I will report back to you later that we are struggling actually with permanent shelter now in the tsunami area where people are in tents longer than we had hoped. It's always takes time. And in Zimbabwe, at the speed they have now, it would take decades to put in good permanent housing all of these people.

Question: There's some commentary from the region saying that Zimbabwean officials were very angry that you said there was a crisis and that you raised this disclosure of a downward spiral and that they were apparently looking for you to be a counter to Tibaijuka's report. I wonder whether you could comment on that. And then on the issue of tents, you said that the UN was going help them with 2500 units. What are those going to be? And did the President's opposition to tents now remain basically adamant against them?

Jan Egeland: Yes, the President is very against tents and I did not convince him on that at all. Secondly, the 2500 units are the kind of prefabricated temporary shelter, which can be extended and become bigger and thereby permanent shelter. It is a one-room prefabricated house, which is similar to those we built in the tsunami areas. But 2500 units are for 12,000 people and it's a very modest beginning. What we are also doing, however, is to help people where they are with plastic sheeting so that it doesn't leak into the very modest shacks they are using. UNICEF is giving excellent water and other services and school and so on to those who are in these areas or camps. So we are very active. Zimbabwe still has 90 per cent of kids in school. It is one of the best in the world, and it is probably one of the reasons they're making some progress in avoiding further increase of HIV/AIDS.

I don't know what they think of my statements. What I've told the press here and in Johannesburg is exactly what I've told to President Mugabe and the Ministers. It's always a principle that I have that I am always as open and frank with the government representatives as I am with the media, which is something that they also deserve -- to hear what we think is the truth. We stand by the Anna Tijaijuka report from A to Z. But it is important also to say that beyond the hundreds of thousands affected by the eviction campaign, there are many, many million whose lives depend on our food aid and our medical assistance because of the AIDS pandemic and food insecurity.

Question: Follow-up...Was there anything in your conversation with President Mugabe that he asks the United Nations to do?

Jan Egeland: Yes, in the sense that he asks us to portray what he believes is the true picture of the situation. And in some areas we agree on what is the true picture, and in others we do not. And yes, he asked for a visit by the Secretary-General, and has invited the Secretary-General and the Secretary-General has in principle accepted, as you know. And it would presumably be in the first half of next year, and my colleague, Ibrahim Gambari, on our side and the Foreign Minister on their side is preparing this. If there is going to be a visit, it needs to be an action-oriented, results-oriented, visit.

Question: Just a follow-up on what Edie asked you. So, basically, since tents symbolize that there is a crisis in the country, Mugabe denied that there was a crisis in the country -- categorically denied it in your meeting?

Jan Egeland: He denies that there is a shelter crisis because of Operation Murambatsvina, which I call the eviction campaign. He agrees fully that there is a tremendous HIV/AIDS crisis. He also agrees that there is a big food insecurity problem. Inflation is today 400 per cent and people are not even close to being able to have buying power to get food on the market commensurate to this explosion in prices. And also on that I think the President agrees.

Question: If he denies the shelter crisis, he did at least acknowledge the fact that the people who are actually moving into the completed shelters are people police and Government people, those are people who work for him, yet they were part of the eviction campaign?

Jan Egeland: Their view on the shelter issue is that those who were evicted from the cities all had a place to go back to in the countryside, and that they are by and large back in their original homes in the countryside. This is, in my view, not true at all. These are people who came a long time back. They have no place to go back to. If they have a place to go back to, it would be a distant aunt who already has a crowded place, maybe with HIV/AIDS affected people. Some of those people are sick, some are from outside of Zimbabwe, and they cannot go back to Mozambique where they might have come from 20 years ago.

Question: Mr. Egeland, welcome back. You put a special emphasis on the prevalence of AIDS among children and as you know several offices, several people are interested in the same issue. Do you see any need for coordinating your work with UNICEF and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on AIDS in Africa?

Jan Egeland: We're working very closely together. Those in the lead on the AIDS programme are precisely UNAIDS, WHO and UNICEF. I'm talking about the AIDS orphans, I mean, a million people. I went to a place where they had 800 of them. And they were the same age as my daughters. We met them and we talked about their tremendous problems really in coping. This is not unique to Zimbabwe, it's equally bad in the neighbouring States. In Swaziland, HIV prevalence rate is now 40 per cent. We're not even close here in the West to understanding how a whole generation is gone. This is an atomic bomb really that wipes out a whole generation. And the tragic thing is that it could be prevented on a much bigger scale if we had enough funds to do preventive work.

Question: On behalf of the United Nations Correspondents Association, I want to thank you so much for your continuous briefings. They're so important to us. My question is, however, is Mugabe willing to help more NGO help now, in comparison with the UN help?

Jan Egeland: I think he is. I met with all of the NGO team, which is now working much more closely in one team with our UN country team. My own office, OCHA, is building up its presence to make sure that the UN really facilitates the NGO work, defends the NGO work, and promotes the non-governmental organizations' work. With Mugabe, I agreed that the international NGOs are doing a splendid job and that their work should be facilitated. I think that we're turning a corner, really, and that we will have a climate of less obstacles in our work.

Those who have the bigger problems today are probably many of the local Zimbabwean organizations, including some very courageous human rights groups who I met. Some of them are, for example, trying to get court orders to stop evictions. And I heard that there were several cases of court orders to stop evictions that were ignored by the police. That just shows that the legal system does not work as it should.

Deputy Spokesperson: Any other questions? Thank you very much.

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