A CLASH looks increasingly likely between donors and government as politicians continue to flout guidelines for food distribution to benefit ruling-party
Information to hand indicates that despite government’s recent assurances that it would not interfere with non-governmental organisations in their humanitarian aid activities, the situation on the ground suggests food continues to be used as a political tool.
This has prompted donors to set stringent conditions for assistance.
Government recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) stating that there should be no political interference in the distribution of food aid, which is handled by local NGOs.
The government in August announced its intention to own and control the process of food distribution through a new policy that compels NGOs to use local structures such as chiefs, headmen and councils.
“No international donor can tell us that the government should not be involved in food distribution when we are the ones who asked for the food in the first place,” Labour and Social Welfare minister July Moyo was quoted as saying in support of the new policy.
The statement created an outcry in the donor community and the government was forced to climb down, hence the signing of the MOU.
But despite the agreement, the issue of food distribution continues to create tension between NGOs and government, which has accused civic groups of pandering to the whims of the West.
Aid workers this week said the agreed tenets of food distribution were not being passed down to ward councillors and traditional leaders.
“Village heads and councillors are being told that the food being brought in by donors is a direct intervention by President Mugabe and not the product of British, European or American generosity,” said an aid worker.
Diplomats said multilateral and bilateral donors were still not convinced that Zanu PF structures in rural areas would not politicise food distribution. Evidence was that ministers were telling district administrators that whatever assurances were given to the international community, government must still control the process on the ground. Food is now considered a key instrument in the politics of control by Zanu PF which is struggling to gather “gifts” for its rural fiefdom.
WFP spokesperson Makena Walker said NGOs distributing food aid had adopted a zero tolerance on political influence. She said appropriate action would be taken in response to every incident.
“Thorough investigations will be instituted with all key stakeholders, including UN agencies, donors, NGOs and others,” Walker said. “However, the reaction will be determined by how each and every case comes. For example, last year we were forced to suspend food aid distribution in Insiza for six months until the situation stabilised.”
Observers say there are important distinctions to be made in the approach of organisations like the United Nations Development Programme and WFP on the one hand and donors on the other.
Major donors such as the US and EU are keen to see irreversible mechanisms in place for non-partisan food distribution whereas UN agencies are more concerned with remaining engaged with the Zimbabwe authorities.
The European Union, one of the key donors of humanitarian assistance, has drafted guidelines for food aid distribution in Zimbabwe. They bar politicians from involvement in food distribution.
“EU food aid is provided on the basis of priority of human need alone, without conditionality or partisan grounds,” the guidelines said.
Last year, the EU reacted strongly to allegations that government was politicising food aid.
“We would like to strongly react against the fact that the Zimbabwe government is using our aid and our food to put political and economic pressure on its own people,” said Bertel Haarder, European Affairs minister of Denmark, which held the EU presidency. “They use our aid as a tool in the domestic fight against the opposition in order to survive and that is not acceptable,” he said at the time.
Member states of the EU this week said the economic bloc might have jumped the gun in May when it announced a 13-million euro humanitarian aid package to Zimbabwe before ensuring that aid would not be politicised.
“Assurances from the likes of Social Welfare minister July Moyo and his secretary (Sydney) Mhishi that government would not interfere with food aid distribution should be taken with a pinch of salt,” said a US aid worker based in Harare.
“The government has deliberately ensured that traditional leaders and ward councillors are kept in the dark regarding ground rules for food distribution. Aid workers have problems explaining the rules to these leaders who always feel belittled by us,” she said.
Foreign Affairs deputy minister and MP for Gwanda South Abednico Ncube is alleged to have recently stopped a food aid distribution exercise so that villagers could attend a Zanu PF rally he was due to address in the constituency.
Ncube’s bodyguards are alleged to have fired shots after skirmishes with youths who were eventually arrested for refusing to attend the rally.
The incident happened two weeks ago at Bengo primary school near Manama mission where a German non-governmental organisation, Help, was about to distribute food aid to villagers.
The MDC provincial spokesman for Matabeleland South and deputy mayor for Gwanda, Petros Mukwena, who said he was present at the food distribution point, confirmed the incident.
“The government has been denying that some of its officials are politicising food aid but some of our members were denied food right under our eyes by the ward councillor Ephraim Nare and we are saying that is unacceptable,” Mukwena said.
Efforts to get a comment from Ncube on the matter proved fruitless as he was not available on his mobile phone.
An eye-witnesses who spoke to the Zimbabwe Independent said after Ncube had ordered the food aid distribution to be stopped he sent party youths to collect people from surrounding areas and when they got to the business centre they saw three youths one of whom was wearing an MDC T-shirt.
The militia who were with Ncube’s bodyguards gave chase and when they failed to catch up with the youths they fired two shots into the air but the youths did not stop.
They however managed to apprehend two of them who they handed over to the police.
Police at Guyu police station confirmed the incident and said they were investigating the matter.
“There were shooting incidents at the business centre but we are still investigating what really happened,” said a policeman who did not identify himself. — Staff Writers.