26 November 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York





A top United Nations humanitarian official today appealed for massive international assistance to help alleviate the severe humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe, without which she warned the situation was going to get much, much worse.

Addressing a press conference today at United Nations Headquarters in New York, Catherine Bragg, Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), described the situation in the southern African country as “acute” and expected to worsen towards the end of the year.  Currently, there were slightly less than 4 million people who were considered food insecure and in need of food assistance.  That number was going to rise as the “hunger season” approached, traditionally between January and April.  Without massive international assistance, the situation is going to get much, much worse.

Her appeal came on the heels of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s statement on Zimbabwe yesterday and the launching of the consolidated appeal for that country earlier in the week.

She told correspondents that what was prevailing in Zimbabwe today was not just a food insecure situation; it was also a multisectoral humanitarian situation.  There was now an outbreak of cholera in the country, which had spilled over into the country’s neighbours, as well.  The number of victims of cholera had now reached almost 9,000 -- the highest the country had ever recorded -- and the number of persons who had died of the outbreak had reached 366 as of yesterday, which she said was a “very high mortality rate”.

She told correspondents that the number of cholera incidents at the moment, as well as the high mortality rate, was directly traceable to the fact that many communities now had depleted their ability to provide clean water, because of the lack of chemical treatment.  Thus, there was now an urgent need for water and sanitation.  It was also directly traceable to the collapse of the health system, due to insufficient health personnel, as well as insufficient medical supplies.

Also, she said, at the moment there was a breakdown both in health services and in education.  There was now less than 20 per cent school attendance, in a country that used to have over 90 per cent attendance.  That was largely because of teachers not being paid, or being paid insufficiently to cover even one day of transportation to the school.  So, they simply did not show up.  Further, students sometimes were unable to attend school because some schools in the country were demanding payments in food, which, of course, the students did not have.

“So, we’re very concerned about this very, very low level of school attendance at this point”, she said, adding that, in light of that dire situation, this week the United Nations had launched the consolidated appeal for 2009 for a total of $550 million, the highest appeal ever for Zimbabwe.  Last year’s appeal had been just under $400 million and had been “very well subscribed”, and was, at this point, 75 per cent funded.  However, that 75 per cent funded was for the original number.  OCHA’s calculation, because of the changing circumstances and the fast-deteriorating situation, was that there would be a shortfall until the end of the year of roughly $2 million, before getting into what was needed for 2009.  About 60 per cent of the $550 million was for food.

Continuing, she appealed to donors for continued generosity to deal with what she said was a “very serious situation” and also assured them that their aid was going through.  “We are able to reach the 3 million beneficiaries who were in need of aid at the moment”, she said.  “That is not to say that the operating environment is not challenging.  In fact, it is very challenging.  With hyper-inflation, the Government is sometimes accessible, and sometimes it is not; sometimes cooperative, and sometimes not.”

Responding to a correspondent’s question, Ms. Bragg confirmed the United Nations had completed a detailed and comprehensive study of the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe and that was what the consolidated appeal had been about.  The consolidated appeal was not just a funding appeal, but was actually a strategic overview of the situation, as provided by the participating organizations -- the United Nations and the non-governmental organizations.  A total of 35 such entities participated in the consolidated appeal process in the case of Zimbabwe.

Asked to elaborate on the general state of the health sector in the country, she said, in the last few weeks alone, there had been closures of major hospitals, because of the lack of medical personnel.  Many of those personnel simply did not go to work, either because they did not get paid or they just could not afford even the transportation to get to work.  There was also “quite a brain drain” of health-care workers leaving Zimbabwe itself and a severe depletion of medical and health-care supplies.

To a journalist who wanted to know what was responsible for the depletion of medical supplies in the country, Ms. Bragg answered:  “Because of the breakdown in the whole economy, the government expenditure is, in fact, insufficient to support any of the basic social services.  And that’s just one of the symptoms of it.”

Asked what the United Nations system was doing on the cholera outbreak, in light of reports indicating a lack of chemicals to purify water in the country’s major cities, she said the United Nations was part of a task force within Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health set up to coordinate the response to the cholera situation.  Also, because of the hyper-inflation now buffeting the country, the United Nations had recently managed to negotiate “the dollarization” of the humanitarian operation, thereby avoiding the foreign currency exchange rules of the Zimbabwean Reserve Bank, which tied all currency transactions to the local currency.  That somewhat protected against wild fluctuations in the cost of delivering aid, she said.

Asked if anyone had indicated readiness to fund the end-of-the-year funding gap, she said that many donors were ready to fund the gap between now and the end of the year.  No actual pledges had been received for 2009, because the appeal had only been launched last week, as part of the global appeal, and only two days ago, locally, in Harare for Zimbabwe.  With the exception of China, which pledged a contribution whose details she did not readily have, no other donor had done so since the Harare launch meeting two days ago.

Given the political situation in the country, did she think there was “donor fatigue” within certain traditional donors to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe? another correspondent asked.  Ms. Bragg replied:  “I would think that the fact that the 2008 appeal has been subscribed to 75 per cent, making it one of the top three appeals we have globally, indicated that, in fact, donors are quite able to distinguish between humanitarian needs and any political development and their own political viewpoint.  I would imagine that that would go forward as well.”

She added that OCHA had been talking to many donors about the funding situation in 2009, not just for Zimbabwe, but globally as well, and OCHA’s reading at this point was that the level of contributions would probably be maintained, rather than being diminished.  That was largely because, for most of the donors, their budgets for 2009 had already been allocated.

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For information media • not an official record