Zimbabwe: Food aid welcome, if crisis blamed on drought

BULAWAYO, 31 May 2007 (IRIN) - The Zimbabwean government has acknowledged that it is facing a severe food crisis and would welcome food aid so long as no "strings" are attached.

A joint Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) team was invited to assess the food security situation in Zimbabwe late last month after President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government declared 2007 a drought year in March. Initial findings indicate Zimbabwe is in dire need of food aid.

"I have received a preliminary report from [WFP-FAO] which confirms our earlier fears of food shortages. In their report they are saying the country will this year harvest between 600,000 and 800,000 metric tonnes of grain, which falls far short of the national requirement of about 2 million metric tonnes. In my view, I think this is a fair assessment." Agricultural minister, Rugare Gumbo told IRIN.

According to a humanitarian source close to the delegation: "The team is almost through with its assessment and evidence on the ground is that the country needs food aid. Many people are in need, especially in provinces like Masvingo, Midlands, Manicaland, Matabeleland North and Matabeleland South".

With the government's own food security assessment suggesting that 563,000 metric tonnes of maize would be harvested this year, Gumbo added that the country would definitely need food assistance.

But, he reiterated the government position that Zimbabwe would not accept "aid with political strings attached." He said that issues like what type of aid the country needed would be discussed soon after the assessment team submitted its final report, which is expected by early June.

According to Cees Wittebrood, head of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) for Africa, Caribbean and Pacific, who visited officials in Zimbabwe to discuss humanitarian aid last week, the need for assistance in the country stemmed from "manmade" causes. "Zimbabwe is facing a situation where the agricultural policy is failing [and] overall governance is not effective," he added

Zimbabwe has experienced severe food shortages over the past seven years due partly to recurrent droughts, but mainly because of government's land reforms that slashed foreign earnings.

"Zimbabwe has faced droughts before but was very much capable of dealing with a drought thanks to effective governance. They had the systems, water reservoirs, irrigation, inputs, knowledge and technology to survive a period without rain. But they don't have that any longer - because the agricultural policy and their policy in general is failing - the drought can give them [farmers] that last push over the edge," Wittebrood commented.

Addressing the aid issue with the government was extremely sensitive: "The government and the authorities do not like to discuss humanitarian assistance because they recognise it could be a testimony of a failing policy - sometimes there is a tendency from the government to complicate matters," he said.

According to Wittebrood, Humanitarian actors in Zimbabwe faced many challenges such as inflation - the worlds highest now topping 3,700 percent - and government plans for tougher registration rules for NGOs, a move which critics believe to be widely intended to dissuade them from meddling in politics.

Despite the possibility of expulsion, humanitarian actors needed to remain critical and an adequate response needed to "stress the point that a large part of the problems are caused by failing government policies - If we do not we are only addressing symptoms and not the root causes," he added.

Meanwhile, the ongoing economic decline has exacerbated the food situation leaving hundreds of thousands of rural households struggling to raise money to buy scarce but expensive maize meal, Zimbabwe's staple diet.