Zimbabwe: Harare to consider food appeal after UN assessment

By Hendricks Chizhanje

HARARE - Zimbabwe would consider making a formal appeal for food aid only after the completion of an exercise to assess food availability the government is jointly conducting with United Nations relief organs, Agriculture Minister Rugare Gumbo said.

International relief agencies including the UN's the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have already written off Zimbabwe's cereals harvest for 2007 because of erratic rains and a severe economic crisis, with farming inputs and crop seeds either in short supply or priced beyond the reach of farmers.

The United States Department of Agriculture has said Zimbabwe will only harvest 850 000 tonnes of maize leaving the hard cash-strapped country with a deficit of 1.2 million tonnes of its main staple food.

Gumbo, who last month declared 2007 a drought year and admitted harvests were far inadequate to meet national requirements, said Harare would only contemplate making a formal appeal to the international community for help after the assessment exercise.

"We have the WFP (World Food Programme) and FAO assessing the crop situation. So we will cross the bridge when we reach there,"said Gumbo in response to an inquiry by ZimOnline when the government would ask UN agencies to mobilise food aid from international donors on behalf of Zimbabwe.

Without a formal appeal for help, UN agencies are handicapped in their efforts to seek help for starving Zimbabweans while a late appeal would also delay aid reaching the hungry on time.

A joint FAO/WFP delegation led by Kissan Gunjal last month began assessing the country's food needs at the invitation of Harare. The assessment exercise should be completed by May 18.

The decision to invite the two organisations was a major climb down by President Robert Mugabe's government which last year blocked the two institutions from scrutinising the country's crop harvest.

The government in 2004 also rejected food aid from the international agencies boasting that the country had harvested enough to feed itself, which turned out to be false.

Zimbabwe, which had one of the most vibrant economies in Africa, was a regional breadbasket but has had to survive largely on handouts from international food agencies since Mugabe began seizing commercial farms from whites for redistribution to landless blacks.

Failure by the government to provide resources and skills training for black villagers resettled on white farms saw agricultural production plummeting by about 30 percent, causing food shortages and also crippling Zimbabwe's manufacturing sector that largely depended on the farming sector for inputs.

Apart from food shortages, Zimbabweans also have to contend with inflation of 2 200 percent and the highest in the world, unemployment above 80 percent and shortages of essential medicines, electricity, fuel and hard cash as the country battles an economic meltdown critics blame on mismanagement by Mugabe.

Mugabe, in power since Zimbabwe's 1980 independence from Britain, however denies mismanaging the economy and blames Western sanctions.