Zimbabwe: Press briefing by Jan Egeland, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator

from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Published on 06 Dec 2005
Harare, Zimbabwe, 6 December 2005

Following is a near-verbatim transcript of the press conference given by Jan Egeland, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Hiro Ueki: Welcome to the Press Briefing by Mr. Jan Egeland, the Under-Secretary- General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator of the UN. Seated to his right is Dr. Agostinho Zacarias, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Zimbabwe.

Before beginning the press conference, I have a couple of requests. One request is that if you have a cell phone, please turn your cell phone off. Also this is a press briefing. Only the press can ask questions. There are some guests not from the press, but you are welcome to stay. Before you ask questions, please state your name and affiliation. Thank you. Now, to Mr. Egeland.

Jan Egeland: Thank you very much. Thank you all for coming to this press briefing. I complete my mission tomorrow morning by going to Johannesburg and Pretoria to have meetings also with the South African government. It was a very effective mission here on behalf of Secretary-General Kofi Annan who agreed on this humanitarian mission of mine in his meeting with President Mugabe during the general debate in New York in September. I have had the opportunity, together with my colleagues in the UN team on the ground, to meet with the government on the highest level. I had a two-hour meeting today of frank and productive exchanges with President Mugabe, including half an hour of tête-à-tête, private meeting with him. I have had good meetings with a number of government ministers. And in these meetings, all of the issues that we are concerned with from the United Nations side and from the humanitarian community were raised, were dealt with, and were discussed in detail with our counterparts in the government.

I have also had an opportunity to meet with my colleagues in the UN here, with the non-governmental organizations, both the international and the national Zimbabwean organizations. I have been able to see places around Harare. I have seen Hopley and Hatcliffe. I have seen a housing project in Whitecliff. I have seen a project for AIDS orphans in eastern Harare. I have also been able to meet with church leaders both in Harare and today in Bulawayo where I also met the Governor of Northern Matabeleland. I have seen UN projects around Harare and around Bulawayo.

The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe is very serious. The prospects are also very worrying. The need for international assistance is big and growing. The people of Zimbabwe are suffering from several big problems. The AIDS pandemic is taking 3,000 lives every week. There are a million AIDS orphans. There is now chronic food insecurity with a lack of social services, including lack of health services, that is very, very worrying. There is a lack of shelter and this lack of shelter has been exacerbated after the eviction campaign earlier this year.

The United Nations is, with this launching of an ambitious programme here in Zimbabwe, appealing to the international community for 276 million US dollars. The bigger portion of it is for food aid, which has been generously resourced by donors so far. We are also asking for important amounts of money for agricultural work and improvements, for health work, for water and sanitation efforts and for shelter. These latter programmes are not so well resourced, and I have been appealing in my good meetings with the donor community last night for funding -- generous funding for these non-food items as well as for the two programmes.

I think we are doing well in some of the aspects of our programmes. The food distribution programme is now running well. The World Food Programme had entered into an agreement with the government, which enables smooth and effective food distribution. This week our colleagues in the World Food Programme are able to feed about 2 million people, minimum. In the next month, it will be two and a half million. In January it will be more than three million. We also have success in working well with the Government and working well with the partners here and with our AIDS-related programmes. I congratulate Zimbabwe for having been able not only to level off the exponential growth in HIV infection, but actually to go down a little bit. Still, it is such a terrible pandemic that is wiping out entire generations, with great ramifications for productive life and social services elsewhere.

I think all non-governmental organizations, which are partners, are doing very effective work as well. We could not have done what we do without our partners in the non-governmental community. I would like to congratulate them for their good work, both international colleagues and their national Zimbabwean non-governmental organizations.

In my meetings with the President and government officials, I expressed clearly that we are proud of the achievements that we have been able to make but was also very honest by saying we could be doing more, could have been doing more. We could have been more effective if we had had a better working environment in several sectors. This includes the shelter area, for example, where we spent too much time in meetings and too little time in providing shelter after hundreds of thousands of people had become shelter-less or housing-less in part because of the eviction campaign. I am glad that we have now reached an initial agreement on how to provide some temporary shelter. Today I think also we made progress with the government in seeking easier procedures for us to provide shelter material overall. We should, as impartial, neutral, apolitical humanitarians, be able to provide humanitarian assistance, including shelter assistance, where it is need, and when it is needed. At the same time we have been appealing and I am again appealing for the eviction campaign to stop. There is not enough shelter ready to house those who have been evicted. We also hope to see an opportunity to work to halt the underlying problem of several humanitarian concerns and crisis that we are seeing.

I offered today that the UN could be working with the government on assisting methods, procedures and schemes that could increase the agricultural output and the agricultural production.

We are now locked in a vicious circle of food insecurity, with large feeding programmes in a country that can feed itself. We are, as an international community, willing and eager to help Zimbabwe to regain food security and I hope that we can have some kind of a task force that can focus specifically on that.

We will also certainly exchange fully all the information we have about how to reach food security as we are exchanging all the information we have on the food that we are bringing into the country and how we see food insecurity and how to get out of the vicious circle. The vicious circle that has led to this dramatic decline overall in life expectancy in Zimbabwe must and can be broken. It can be broken when we as governments, as international agencies, as non-government al organizations and as donors work together, work together to break the vicious circle that can be broken and we can come into a virtuous circle where the country feeds itself, where we really fight AIDS and eliminate it in the longer-term, and we also regain strength in the social services and in the health services of the country. I am optimistic after having had good meetings and frank discussions with government and with humanitarian partners here, and with donors and with all those that are here to make a change. And I am confident that this great land, this beautiful country with all its talents, having one of the highest levels still of literacy in the Third World can regain its strength and we can come out of the humanitarian problems that we are seeing. We are willing and able to work harder and more effectively with the government. And our appeal is help us, help you, help your people.

Ueki: The floor is open now to your questions.

Financial Gazette: Have you met with anyone from the opposition MDC party?

Egeland: I am a humanitarian worker. I am an impartial and neutral aid worker. I do not meet political opposition anywhere, but I make very wide representation of civil society organisations including humanitarian, human rights and church leaders, etc. I think I explained and I think we made progress here in trying to get a system, whereby we can work at a maximum effectiveness and efficiency. For example, I proposed today, and my understanding is that it was accepted, that we try and establish a one-stop-shop on the U|N side for humanitarian concerns, problems, etc., and the same on the government side so that we avoid that humanitarian partners, whether they be non-governmental or the UN, having to go from minister to minister, from governor to governor, provincial authority to provincial authority in search of permits when we are in deep humanitarian crisis. And my strong sense now is that the Government is very interested in working with us to facilitate our work and to facilitate this ambitious programme we have laid out and where we have actually tried to bring in international assistance for more than 260 million US dollars.

Zimbabwe Independent: From what you have been saying, it looks like the UN is very much willing to help Zimbabwe. But why is the UN not addressing the causes of this problem?

Egeland: Which causes?

ZI: Like what brought us into having people without shelter.

Egeland: We have to address the problem. You are so right. But our position is very clear on the shelter issue. The shelter campaign was the worst possible thing at the worst possible moment really. It created more homeless when there were enough homeless. It created more problems in many of the humanitarian sectors. And now we take heart that by and large it is not happening anymore. I am also telling you that we would want to work now for food security. We don't want to come here every year for a large feeding programme. We want to come here and help the agricultural sector.

So, we want to address the underling causes for all this, but we cannot make it rain every year at the right time, though I did my best when I went to Bulawayo. It was raining so much that I could not even visit the field. But we can work hard to make the best possible agriculture here even in a situation of uncertain rain.

Times of London: You mentioned that you had appealed for the evictions to stop. There have been evictions within the last five weeks. What kind of response did you get from the government? Did you get an undertaking that they would stop?

Egeland: My strong sense is that they are stopping, and my strong sense is that there is also an understanding that mistakes were made in the course of the evictions. But it is very clear that we disagree on the merits of this exercise. In general all over the world we have urban renewal; we have urban regulations; and we have shelter/housing upgrades. The way to do it is when you have better housing available to encourage those who don't have unsanitary or even unregulated housing, then move from those to the new ones. I saw some very good houses built by the government, and I would like to pay tribute to those new houses built by the government, although they are much fewer than the number of those who were evicted. And it would have been good if they had been ready before people were evicted. Then people would rather be invited into new houses and have the old ones bulldozed.

Reuters: Could you just provide us again the number of people you feed and the amounts being requested for assistance? Did you mention that $7 million dollars is required this morning?

Egeland: I said several million is required. There is no "r" in seven. That was a misunderstanding. What I have learnt from our able colleagues from WFP is that this month, the two distribution programmes are reaching around two million people and I stand to be corrected by our WFP colleagues if I am saying something wrong. In the next month it will reach around two and a half million and next month it will be in excess of three million. There will be general distributions with the good help of our implementing partners and non-governmental organizations. It will be very important -- school feeding programmes, feeding programmes for social institutions, health institutions and so on. It's a very big and well-organized programme and it is going in general well and we have good cooperation with local authorities, by and large.

Associated Press: How many houses have substandard structures?

Egeland: We would have liked to work with the Government in really surveying this and addressing this together. Now we seem to disagree on the figures, also how many shelters were demolished. And we also disagree on the number of people that were affected. The Secretary-General and I stand by the report of our colleague Anna Tibaijuka. But the important thing now is that we look to the future. We look to the future and say let us help those who are now without shelter in the rainy season. It is really raining very heavily like it is doing at its peak in my native Norway down there in Bulawayo, and I was told by church leaders that there are people without shelter, saying help, help. Many people are living with the extended family or with friends and so on, and they are crowding others' houses. No, it is not a special thing for Zimbabwe that there is a shelter crisis. I have seen equally bad or worse shelter than I saw in Hopley and Hatcliffe. Quite clearly, that could have been avoided. It did not have to reach this proportion.

Daily Telegraph: Have you had support from the donors for shelter? How are you going succeed in agriculture when most of the productive farmers in the country have left?

Egeland: On shelter I had good dialogue with donors. What was regrettable was that it took us 7 to 8 months to reach agreement on the exact shape and form of the kind of shelter that we now plan to give to people. And we have an initial agreement on 2500 units. The point I made today in the meeting is that we are the shelter experts of the world in this kind of situation and should have been able really to move in with emergency shelter and helpful shelter as and when appropriate as the problem arose. And I hope that we can reach that kind of a working operation-modus operandi with the government in the future.

I cannot comment really on the aspect of land reform because I am not an expert in that area. But if you spoke of how to retain expertise, how to make sure that those who are the best farmers are put in farming and those who are not good farmers should not go into farming, should not go directly into farming -- yes, those are the issues that we should be directly addressing in such a task force. I think it's a universal agreement that there was a great need for agricultural reform in this country and I think there is also a universal agreement on deep food security crisis. But I don't think we can sustain an operation of many millions of mouths to feed for many years into the future. We can and we must and we should break it.

Financial Gazette: You said mistakes were made during the campaign...(inaudible) On food...(inaudible) Why do you go to South Africa? When is Kofi Annan coming?

Egeland: It was generally agreed that people who had stands were also affected. I have also heard the government position that people are back in the same stand with help from NGOs for a temporary shack where they had a better house earlier on their own stands. On food, the government is very welcoming and appreciative of the food assistance that is being given and they are facilitating our food distributions.

In South Africa, I will be discussing a fairly wide humanitarian agenda but also regional issues, as well as South Africa's new entry into the role of being a donor country, a partner country for us. Kofi Annan is hoping to come and visit Zimbabwe. He has been invited by the government. It's a question of finding the time and the circumstance. And I also do hope we can make some progress on some of the issues I mentioned here and other issues before that time. But he is looking forward to come and visit the Zimbabwean people and the Zimbabwean government at some point.

Associated Press: Are there donors who are saying they will support provision of shelter in the follow up to this self-inflicted damage?" Have they come forward?

Egeland: Some donors have; other donors have not. This is a discussion between the UN and some of the donors -- what should be funded, how it should be funded. My position is quite clear. If there are humanitarian, objective humanitarian needs, we answer to those needs. We don't look at how it was caused and who caused them. This is what our position has been for the last generation all over the world. So the only honourable thing is to assist those who are without shelter to get shelter. However, we certainly have to have a very forceful advocacy campaign against evictions and against the root causes of a shelter crisis and to speak the truth, always the truth on these issues. But it is no good signal to any government that you don't want to assist people who are in great need. It is only difficult to the people who do not get help.

Times of London: All year, we have seen persistent refusal by the Government to countenance food aid -- and Murambatsvina as well -- absolute rejection of assistance for a long time. NGOs have been blocked. Now the government has turned around.

Are you not puzzled by the sudden change of mind of the government? Do you not have reservations on the Government's past agreement on your involvement?

Egeland: I am a humanitarian worker. If we have now turned the corner and will have easier working conditions here in all areas of our work and, for example, with shelter, it still remains to be seen how far we will be able to go, it is all to the good. I am not looking for any hidden agenda in anybody. I believe people when they speak to me and when we reach agreements about helping people and helping people to help themselves. The only future for all of us is to break out of the vicious circle we find ourselves in here and elsewhere. And as I say again, it takes the Government, it takes us, it takes the donors, it takes everybody to see that we now need to move forward. And I hope and believe that my visit will contribute to the positive trend in partnership between the UN system and the government here after many, many problems in the past.

Question: The Government sees your visit as probably a reversal of Anna Tibaijuka's report. It has been talking about something along those lines. What do you have to say?

Egeland: I came here to reiterate the recommendations of my friend Anna Tibaijuka and I also reconfirm that we did review the report. It is not her report. Many people say its Anna's report. No it is our report; it's a common report. We stand by that. We want to see speedy implementation of the recommendations. But I am also here to say we have a wider agenda. Yes, hundreds of thousands were affected by the eviction campaign; millions of people are struggling with their backs against the wall to fend off hunger and to fend off AIDS and other things; millions of people. So, we have a big, big common challenge here, and I invite partnership with the government to meet these challenges. I am hopeful that it will happen with a more productive partnership in 2006 and am optimistic about it.

Hiro Ueki: Thank you very much.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:

To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit http://unocha.org/.