Relief efforts gear up for Zimbabwe

Donors look for more progress on national reconciliation
From Africa Renewal: 
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Collecting food rations from a UN warehouse in ZimbabweCollecting food rations from a UN warehouse in Zimbabwe: Another year of serious food insecurity looms.
Photograph: Panos / Giacomo Pirozzi

International humanitarian aid efforts to Zimbabwe to help combat a continuing cholera outbreak and overcome widespread food shortages are intensifying. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also sent a mission to the country in March, the first in more than two years, to discuss with the government its policies for an economy ravaged by plunging revenues, hyperinflation and a collapsing infrastructure.

The moves come on the heels of the establishment of a unity government in February, after months of deadlock following disputed elections last year. Immediately upon taking office, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Finance Minister Tendai Biti (both of the Movement for Democratic Change) asked for a $2 bn loan package from other members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to help pay wages to health workers, teachers and the police, as well as to support other basic services.

But economic assistance is likely to be slow in coming. The extent of SADC support could be affected by the global economic crisis, which is seriously hitting even the richest members. Funding from the IMF, as well as from the World Bank and African Development Bank, will not materialize until the country’s debts to them have been cleared — and approved policies are in place. Above all, economic assistance will depend on further signs of progress on national reconciliation.

Speaking in South Africa on 25 February, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the international community, led by the UN, stands ready to support the people of Zimbabwe. But he cautioned that such efforts “would get stronger and more support from the international community if we can see the promise in political and national reconciliation.” Releasing political prisoners is “important and desirable,” Mr. Ban said, adding that he hoped they would be freed “as soon as possible.”

Food shortages

A UN team, led by Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Catherine Bragg, visited Zimbabwe in late February. It reported that the humanitarian crisis remains grave. Ahead of this year’s harvest in April, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) and international non-governmental organizations are distributing food aid to some 7 million Zimbabweans — nearly 60 per cent of the population — the highest level since the food crisis began in 2002.

Donors have provided more than $240 mn for operations in 2008 and 2009. Even so, WFP reported in February that a growing number of households are reducing their number of meals per day, with over 10 per cent of households reporting that they had not eaten the previous day.

The harvest, while it will bring some immediate relief, is not expected to end the need for substantial amounts of food aid. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned in February that prospects for the new crop are “unfavourable, pointing to another year of serious problems of food insecurity in the country.”

Cholera outbreak

Inadequate food consumption, together with appalling sanitation and the near-collapse of the cash-starved health system, have created the conditions for a cholera outbreak. By mid-March, more than 4,000 people had died since the outbreak began last August and more than 90,000 have been infected. Over 90 per cent of Zimbabwe’s 62 districts are affected, with most deaths occurring in rural areas, where only limited or no treatment is reaching the local population. In January the death rate reported by local communities was three times that within health facilities, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

More aid to Zimbabwe’s health system would help end the cholera outbreak. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) provided $5 mn in January and in March Australia announced it would give more than $6 mn to restore water, sanitation and health services.

By mid-March the death rate in cholera cases had fallen to 1.8 per cent from over 5 per cent in January, WHO reported. With proper care, the death rate is normally below 1 per cent. The rate of infection also seemed to be easing, WHO said, with the number of new cases in the first week of March well down from the previous week. However, the situation remains precarious, with a nurse in Harare telling the UN-supported Integrated Regional Information Network news service that “the storm is far from over.”