JOHANNESBURG, 20 June (IRIN) - A furore has erupted over a UN committee's recommendation to rank Zimbabwe as a least-developed country (LDC).
Zimbabwean officials were furious at the UN Committee for Development Policy's findings that Zimbabwe, along with Papua New Guinea, was eligible for inclusion in the list of 50 LDCs. The committee said Zimbabwe had not only remained a low-income country for a protracted period, but had also become more economically vulnerable.
In assessing a country's economic vulnerability, the committee among other factors considers food security, instability of exports of good and services and share of agriculture in the country's income.
Government spokesman George Charamba was quoted in the Sunday edition of the Daily Chronicle as dismissing the committee's findings. "They want to create [an impression] that the country has failed. Our position remains the same that we are not beggars. We are not a poor country and we want to be rated accordingly. We need the correct position that we deserve".
He maintained the country's problems were a result of "illegal sanctions" imposed by western nations. The government's rejection of the findings means the country cannot be included in the official table of LDCs.
According to some UN officials, the issue of Zimbabwe's classification has become "highly politicised", with the government on the one hand alleging a plot to denigrate the country, and humanitarian workers arguing the authorities should face the reality of the unfolding crisis.
Zimbabwean economist Professor Tony Hawkins said the UN committee had taken "objective criteria" into consideration. He pointed out that over the past two decades, Zimbabwe had slipped from a middle-income country to a low-income one as a result of government policies. "And now to be put in the LDC category is embarrassing for the government".
According to Diana Games, a researcher with the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA), Zimbabwe has experienced a more than 30 percent drop in its Gross Domestic Product in the past four years.
"It has gone from being one of the most successful economies on the continent to a country plagued by food shortages, reduced industrial capacity, declining exports and massive unemployment ... Factory output has fallen [by] 45.6 percent since 1998, and manufacturing levels are at their lowest since 1971".
Besides economic vulnerability, the UN committee also assesses health, nutrition, poverty levels and education, while drawing up its list of LDCs.
"Zimbabwe's inflation is at 1,200 percent - the highest for any country not at war - this in itself speaks volumes of the state of the country," said Tafadzwa Mugabe, a spokesman for the NGO, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. "Rather than remain in a state of denial", he noted the government could benefit from reclassification, "however unpleasant" that prospect would be for the authorities.
Hawkins explained that as LDC, Zimbabwe would qualify for debt-relief and other multilateral assistance.
Many analysts trace the beginning of Zimbabwe's economic crisis to a commitment of one-third of its troops to the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 1990s, and an unbudgeted payout to veterans of its independence struggle, which led to the suspension of aid by the International Monetary Fund. A chaotic land redistribution programme begun in 2000, and several seasons of bad rains, further hurt the agro-based economy.
Games said in a recent SAIIA report that even the most optimistic growth projections "suggest that it will take 15-20 years [for Zimbabwe] to regain the living standards of the mid-1990s".