JOHANNESBURG, 8 July (IRIN) - Despite an estimated 4.5 million Zimbabweans needing food aid this year, the government insists there is no need to launch an official appeal for international assistance.
"No state of disaster will be declared, and there are no plans to appeal for food aid," Leonard Turugari of the ministry of public service, labour and social welfare, told delegates at a regional food security meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Friday.
The two-day gathering of government representatives, UN agencies and NGOs from the region aimed to tackle specific challenges arising from a decline in agricultural production in recent years.
Several southern African countries are entering a fourth year of food shortages and the UN World Food Programme says it needs US $266 million to assist more than 10 million vulnerable people across the region.
Turugari said his government had the capacity to import 1.2 million mt of maize, the staple grain, in the coming months, to make up for a shortfall in national output. He attributed the downturn in production to lingering drought conditions and economic difficulties.
Although there were no plans on the table to ask the international community to step in and kick-start a general food distribution programme, Turugari said the "door was not closed to donors". NGOs could continue giving assistance to the vulnerable, provided they worked "within their mandates".
International NGOs operating in Zimbabwe have come under fire from the government for allegedly using food aid to campaign for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC); on the other hand, the MDC has claimed that the government used food as a political weapon by withholding it from perceived opponents.
When asked if there was a guarantee that the 1.2 million mt of imported maize, which is to be distributed by the state-controlled Grain Marketing Board, would be channelled to the most vulnerable, Turugari said there was "no evidence to the contrary".
He also commented that, contrary to reports, the scarcity of basic commodities was due to producers hoarding essential items.
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