ana; mso-fareast-language: JA”>THE announcement by government last week that the country would produce enough food and would not require international aid has been met with scepticism by international crop forecasters and aid agencies.
What particularly raised eyebrows was not the unlikely prospect of the country having a bumper harvest, but the action taken by government the previous week.
Government cancelled a United Nations crop assessment mission by withdrawing its participation. UN assessments are conducted at the invitation and with the participation of the host government.
Agriculture minister Joseph Made, famed for his fanciful crop forecasts since 2000, announced, hours after the cancellation of the UN mission, that the country would produce 2,4 million tonnes of the staple maize and this would far surpass the nation’s annual grain requirement of between 1,5 to two million tonnes.
This was in stark contrast to figures that had been projected by independent agencies.
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fewsnet) in its March food security update questioned the Agriculture ministry’s “optimistic production estimates”.
It argued that “historical data, the reduced contribution of the large-scale commercial farming sector to maize production, the poor rainfall distribution in the early half of the season, reduced use of fertiliser and limited labour for weeding, provide bases for questioning this optimistic outlook”.
The German development agency, Friedrich Ebert Foundation, in a report commissioned last month titled “Famine in Zimbabwe” predicted that Zimbabwe would have food shortages of between 600 000 to 900 000 tonnes.
These disparities, compounded by lack of UN verification, will adversely affect future mobilisation of humanitarian assistance to Zimbabwe if a food need arises later in the year, the UN said last week.
UN resident coordinator in Zimbabwe, Victor Angelo, observed in a statement sent to the Zimbabwe Independent that “credible production figures were an essential tool for planning purposes.
“We are concerned that should a food assistance need be identified later in the year and were the government to issue an appeal at that time, a very rapid response may not be possible,” said Angelo last week.
International human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, accused government of planning to use food as an electioneering tool.
“Political manipulation of food, particularly state-controlled GMB grain by officials and supporters of Zanu PF, has been widely reported in the past two years. Zanu PF has repeatedly used food as an electioneering tool. Viewed against a history of political manipulation of food, the government’s current actions are a cause for grave concern,” Amnesty International said.
The agriculture pressure group, Justice for Agriculture, said “the Zanu PF government’s hypocrisy knows no bounds.
“There is very little that the government has done in the past few years that could be interpreted as being in any way moral. The expulsion of the UN team is the latest show of the moral decadence of the Zanu PF government,” said JAG spokesperson, Ben Freeth.
“They have stolen elections, embarked on a systematic and unconstitutional process of land theft, and have been party to the breakdown of the rule of law in the country… And finally the actions of the government are largely responsible for the current famine in the country, which Made is frantically trying to sugar coat,” he said.
Amnesty International said it visited Zimbabwe in February where several sources in the agricultural sector were quoted as saying food production would fall far below national requirements, adding that both rural and urban populations would be adversely affected by the shortfall.
“With unemployment currently at approximately 70% and inflation hovering around 500%, it is increasingly difficult for many Zimbabweans to access food in the marketplace. Amnesty International is gravely concerned that the present actions of the government of Zimbabwe may be an attempt to control food supplies ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2005,” the rights group said.
It further stated that being a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Zimbabwe is under an obligation to uphold the right to food to all Zimbabweans.
“Zimbabwean authorities should therefore respect the right of all Zimbabweans to food and to immediately allow the UN to conduct a crop assessment mission, with a view to ensuring that any food aid needs are adequately addressed,” the group said.
The Independent was told that Zimbabwe has to quickly mend its relations with the UN and any further acrimony could deal a cruel blow to future efforts to mitigate the complex humanitarian crisis currently facing the country. The combined effects of the drought, the general economic challenges, the strained relations with donors and the high prevalence of HIV/Aids, exceed the government’s capacity to deal with the crisis.
The UN is currently involved in a host of humanitarian assistance programmes in Zimbabwe.
The Independent understands that the UN is currently assisting close to 620 000 children and some 100 000 women with nutritional feeding in the 19 worst affected districts in the country.
Together with its partners, the group is responding to the immediate needs of some 450 000 vulnerable people in the seven most affected provinces by constructing and rehabilitating hand-dug wells and boreholes and continuing to provide technical support and training to communities and local authorities in the management of water and sanitation facilities.
UN agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have also launched expanded social mobilisation campaigns in a bid to promote improved hygienic practices to control and prevent further outbreaks of cholera and other diarrhoea-related illnesses. In addition, training programmes are being conducted for health staff on early case detection, management and reporting of cholera.
The UN is also supporting interventions to control and prevent the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, polio and neonatal tetanus by launching accelerated immunisation campaigns for children aged six months to six years in the affected areas and providing additional training to health staff in the planning and management of immunisation programmes.
The Independent also learnt that the UN was involved in a number of disease control efforts in the country. One such programme is the Malaria control initiative.
Malaria is a major killer in Zimbabwe with an estimated three million people in the country experiencing at least one episode of the disease each year. Together with its partners, the UN is distributing insecticide-treated bed nets and is also supporting the training of health staff and communities in their use.
The world body is also involved in the fight against HIV/Aids.
The UN is currently supporting the Ministry of Education, parents and local communities by ensuring that a population of 58 000 school-age children among the affected population have uninterrupted access to education. The UN is enhancing the quality of education through the provision of appropriate teaching and learning materials, particularly school-in-a-box kits, to learning centres.
Analysts say the sooner government realises the magnitude of humanitarian assistance being rendered to Zimbabwe by the UN and the extent to which it is addressing real needs, the sooner they will stop playing political games with people’s lives.