Zimbabwe: Insight into the humanitarian crisis and food politics


Executive Summary and Recommendations
In 2002-03, Zimbabwe was the epicentre of the so-called Southern Africa 'food crisis' with over six million people declared in need of emergency food aid. The crisis was triggered by a drought and compounded by the consequences of the economic decline, notably the poor availability and high prices of agricultural inputs. The Fast Track land reform programme started in 2000 also greatly contributed to the crisis, by reducing food production and compounding economical difficulties.

Despite some improvements in 2004, economical difficulties, including low food production, hyperinflation, shortage of basic commodities and rising unemployment, have continued since 2002, threatening livelihoods of millions. Fortunately, international assistance, including a massive food relief intervention, along with the subsidised sales implemented by the Government, have played a great role in preventing hunger over these past few years: malnutrition level in Zimbabwe has remained one of the lowest in Africa, and reported cases are actually mainly due to diseases and primarily HIV/AIDS.

Indeed, the words famine and starvation have been often misused to describe the situation of the country, as emergency responses by the Government and relief agencies have prevented such a disaster to happen. As a matter of fact, the decline of social and health services combined with the HIV/AIDS pandemic constitute far more immediate threats to lives and livelihoods: the life expectancy of Zimbabweans has dropped from 61 to 34 years over the past 15 years. This dramatic 27 years drop confirms that, so far, treatment has not been accessible for most of the affected people: out of 295,000 people in need of antiretroviral treatment, only about 9,000 receive it today. As a result, in this country of 12 million people, 170,000 die every year of the disease 1.

Epicentre of the Southern Africa food crisis, Zimbabwe is often looked at throughout a regional lens, and it is true that one can find a lot in common with other countries in the region, including similar agricultural patterns and agro-ecological conditionsand a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Yet, Zimbabwe has faced a very unique situation over the past few years: the land reform and the resulting tense relations with some western countries have not only influenced the causes of the crisis but also shaped the way responses have been provided. The human rights violations and political tensions around the land reform have often obliterated the fact that a meaningful land redistribution, accompanied with relevant financial and technical support to resettled farmers, was essential to eliminate poverty and food insecurity in a country suffering from a highly skewed land repartition. Such support, necessary to the adaptation of large scale commercial farms into smaller units requires significant levels of investment and management, which have been lacking so far.

Consequently, the land reform has resulted in a dramatic drop in food production and export earnings, which have induced food shortages and reduced Government's financial capacity to address them through commercial imports. 40% of the cereals were produced by the large scale commercial farms and the newly resettled farmers haven't been able to restore significantly former production levels. Reduced exports earnings may have limited the ability of the Government to import food, though the Grain Marketing Board 2 was still able to import more than 1 million tons of cereals over the past few years, i.e. between 50 and 75% of the total food requirement, the remaining being imported by relief agencies. Another critical effect of the land reform is the serious deterioration of the Government's relationship with some western countries and consecutive restrictions to foreign aid. Indeed, whereas targeted sanctions were taken against Zimbabwe and direct support provided to some opposition movements, some major donors and financial institutions have restricted their assistance in different ways after 2000:

- most of their cooperation and development funding to the country has been curtailed and the assistance been concentrated on emergency relief,mostly HIV/AIDS, food aid, water & sanitation and only later on agriculture.

- the resettlement areas are excluded from the main aid packages whereas they have a greater agricultural potential due to more favourable agroecological conditions and the larger size of the land holdings.

- all assistance is channelled through international organisations, which prevents any institutional support to Government services.

- in spite of one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence and death toll in the world, the health sector, and primarily HIV/AIDS, remains largely under funded compared to other countries in the region.

In a context of high political tensions and strong criticism over the way the land reform has been conducted, food and agriculture have been politically charged in Zimbabwe: the Government is on the one hand held responsible for the food shortages and on the other hand accused of not addressing them properly because of inefficiency, politicisation and discrimination of the public food distribution system and Government's obstructions to foreign aid. This criticism was strongly voiced by an increasing part of the international community and the opposition movements during the past electoral year.

Today, relief agencies find themselves trapped in this political arena:

- the overstated famine situation described by some of them has been extensively used to criticise Government's policy and interventions.

- similarly, the high estimates of food aid needs determined by relief agencies have generally overlooked the fact that the extent of these needs actually depended on Government's financial resources to import food and to proceed to subsidised sales.

The vulnerable people of Zimbabwe are the direct victims of these tensions: the debates around the humanitarian situation are so politically charged that it has become increasingly difficult to assess objectively people's needs and to design appropriate interventions. The mutual mistrust between the Government and the international community limits funding by donors, but also results in increased bureaucratic and practical restrictions by the government to the work of humanitarian organisations and in a reduced collaboration between them and Government services.

In May 2002, the British Foreign Minister, Clare Short stated that "People must not be punished because their government is corrupt". Yet the Director of UNICEF noted in March 2005 that "despite the world's fourth highest rate of HIV infection and the greatest rise in child mortality in any nation, Zimbabweans receive just a fraction of donor funding compared to other countries in the region" and appealed to donors "to look beyond politics and to differentiate between the politics and the people of Zimbabwe". Indeed, HIV/AIDS and other diseases kill today far more than malnutrition which has remained in Zimbabwe at one of the lowest levels in Africa. Yet, most media and NGOs keep focusing on food issues, the bulk of the assistance remains food aid, and a silent embargo is maintained on HIV/AIDS and institutional support funding for health services. It seems essential today for NGOs to depoliticize humanitarian issues in Zimbabwe. NGOs interventions may aim not only at bringing assistance to the people but also at improving the working environment in the country; this should include the promotion of a shared understanding of the challenges faced by the communities and of the priorities of the assistance.

In order to do so, it is paramount to reject and to fight any form of discrimination in the assistance, whether it comes from the Government or from donors. It is also essential to produce and disseminate objective information and analysis on livelihood situations in order to generate adequate funding and to promote appropriate relief and recovery interventions that will benefit to the vulnerable people of Zimbabwe.


- to the international community:

Western governments shall not impose sanctions to the government that adversely affect the vulnerable people of the country, already strongly impacted by the economic crisis and the climate constraints. They shall rather promote a non-discriminatory approach of the assistance programmes.

- to the donors:

Rather than focusing on a political approach of the issues faced by the people's of Zimbabwe, the donors' strategies shall integrate a socio-economical analysis and avoid any form of discrimination in the assistance.

The community of donors shall promote humanitarian programmes and recovery activities aiming at improving living conditions, so as to find sustainable solutions for the vulnerable people of Zimbabwe.

- to the NGOs:

Relief agencies shall strive to get out of the political arena and give priority to relief, assistance and recovery activities. This can be achieved through the compliance with the humanitarian principles such as non-discrimination and impartiality, and through sharing information and analysis related to livelihoods situations.

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