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Editor’s Memo

Speaking out

Iden Wetherell

I APPRECIATE diplomats and NGO heads serving in this country have to be circumspect in what they say. Afte

r all, they are required to get along with government as well as society at large.

Some are seen by government as too closely aligned to “the enemy”: the opposition, civic institutions and professional bodies. Ministers no longer attend functions held by European Union, North American and Australasian embassies because they are perceived as hostile to Zimbabwe.

In fact they are hostile to dictatorship and very friendly to democratic diversity. A senior Foreign Affairs official represents government at their national-day functions. But he doesn’t respond to toasts.

On the other hand, many African and Asian states do not bother with civil society, seeing their mission in Harare as pertaining only to relations with government. They evidently haven’t thought how they will be seen by Zimbabweans when we have a democratic government!

One of the international institutions based in Harare that needs to be more responsive to democratic imperatives is the United Nations. The United Nations Development Programme has for some years been overly anxious to be associated with Zimbabwe’s so-called land reform programme. But its audit teams have found the situation on the ground so chaotic that they have been unable to recommend the programme to donors.

This is as it should be. But on the other hand, UNDP staff need to say what the problem is and not remain eternally hopeful!

Unesco facilitates festivities and speeches on World Press Freedom Day. But that’s the first and last we see of them!

The UN agency most in the public eye at present is the World Food Programme. But again it seems reluctant to speak out on the issues.

Take for example the following interview with its director in Zimbabwe, Kevin Farrell, broadcast by National Public Radio in the United States last week.

Farrell was asked by NPR host Renée Montagne: “Why the drop in international aid?”

Farrell: “There are concerns, of course, with respect to southern Africa in general. It’s difficult to measure, but I’m fairly sure that the demands for food assistance in other parts of the country (sic) have probably impacted as well.”

Montagne: “Are donors reluctant to give because of what many Western countries see as ruinous land redistribution policies of President Robert Mugabe? Does that have any part in this?”

Farrell: “Well, I think the first thing I’d like to say is that donors have, in fact, been very, very generous in the past two years throughout southern Africa and including in Zimbabwe. Some of the hesitation perhaps at this time may relate to some difficulties that donors have with economic policies, yes.”

Montagne: “What kind of rations are you running out of?”

Farrell: “The one that we have had a problem with or a shortage of over the last month or so has been the cereal, the corn.”

Montagne: “And how long do you expect supplies to last?”

Farrell: “We’ve had to go onto half rations in December. The January supplies, we may be able to go back up close to a fuller ration of cereal in January, but then February/March is looking very, very poor. Zimbabwe and indeed all over southern Africa, the harvest would normally come in about April, so the next two or three months, February, March and up until that harvest, those are essentially the hungry months. Those are the difficult months, before harvest.”

Montagne: “Zimbabwe used to export food. Could you remind us quickly what happened?”

Farrell: “Certainly. In the last two years, drought has been a factor, particularly in the 2001-2002 season. We’e looking, though, at the whole range of economic difficulties. There’s apparently an inflation rate of about 600%. There’s unemployment of about 70%. On top of all of that, you do have a major problem throughout southern Africa, but I think perhaps especially in Zimbabwe at this stage, a problem of HIV infection. And that is having an impact both on the general economic situation and more specifically on food production.”

Would you say that was a frank and honest assessment of the facts on the ground? Or was it dissembling of the worst sort?

This is what the Daily Telegraph reported recently: “The World Food Programme has slashed by half food handouts to Zimbabwe’s starving millions because President Robert Mugabe’s government failed to alert donors to the scale of the disaster. The WFP, a United Nations agency, said it had cut rations since the beginning of the month to ensure it could feed more than five million people, about half the population, until the harvest in May. The agency said it had not raised enough money to buy the necessary supplies.

“The WFP’s appeal went out six weeks late in the middle of the year because the Zimbabwe government had not quantified its needs until it was too late to get the long ‘food chain’ moving, according to donors in Harare.

“Foreign food suppliers were also showing fatigue at what most see as a ‘man made crisis’. Zimbabwe was once southern Africa’s ‘bread basket’ with huge and efficient farms producing surpluses for sale abroad. But since Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms in 2000, production has tumbled, leaving millions without food.

“Even the United Nations, reluctant to criticise President Robert Mugabe’s administration, has admitted that the government’s confiscation of 90% of productive land from white farmers had been a major cause of the crisis.

“‘When the government finally got its act together, and said how much it needed, we also discovered we would have to fund all food imports without any contribution from the Zimbabwe government,’ said an executive of a major donor agency.”

So not only did Farrell refuse to acknowledge the root causes of the food shortages, namely the Mugabe regime’s reckless economic and land reform policies (and its inability to fulfil its estimated quotas through the Grain Marketing Board), he chose instead to focus on the donors for showing a reluctance to increase their support.

This is not true. The US government, through USAid, donated in fiscal year 2003, US$125 000 000 in humanitarian assistance. This fiscal year alone (October to now) it has donated an additional $72 000 000.

And while problems of drought and HIV infection may indeed be common to the region, the fact is other countries are recovering much faster in terms of food production.

What we need are UN representatives who, without losing their diplomacy, are prepared to tell it like it is. Dancing around the problems in some misdirected concern for the sensitivity of their hosts is simply going to compound official complacency and discourage donors.

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