By Colin Freeman
A British company has been criticised for organising a beauty contest in famine-hit Zimbabwe to help to improve the country’s poor international image. With four million Zimbabweans facing starvation, a Nottingham-based company, Miss Tourism World, is arranging for 1
00 “stunning” models to strut down the catwalk in Harare. Promotional material for the pageant describes Zimbabwe as “one of many magnificent countries to be found in Africa”, but makes no mention of the famine that the United Nations fears is about to engulf the country.
The company, which hopes to televise the event to up to a billion viewers, says it will “help to amend the country’s tourism profile”. Critics, however, say it is bolstering Robert Mugabe’s pariah regime. “These people are simply acting as PR people for Mugabe,” said Wilf Mbanga, the editor of the British-based Zimbabwean newspaper. “When Mugabe has rendered 700,000 people homeless and deliberately starved nearly five million people, it is disgusting for anybody in Britain to be helping to prop up his government.”
The row comes as Zimbabwe faces expulsion proceedings from the International Monetary Fund for non-payment of almost $300 million (£163 million) in loans – a move that would deepen its economic crisis. The Chinese government, which wields increasing influence in Zimbabwe as a key trading partner, reportedly tried to stop the expulsion last week by making an expected down payment of $120 million (£65 million). Mr Mugabe, the country’s President, is believed to have negotiated the deal on his recent visit to Beijing. The Miss Tourism World contest will take place at the Harare International Conference Centre next February, with “over 100 stunning ambassadors from around the world to help amend the country’s tourism profile”. A similar pageant was held in February. Despite an acute shortage of foreign currency, the Zimbabwean government paid Miss Tourism World $2 million (£1.1 million) to host the event. The contest escaped international attention because it took place in the run-up to the country’s parliamentary elections.
UN Officials estimate that four million people urgently need relief food to survive until the next harvest, a crisis widely blamed on the government seizure of white-owned farms. The government has refused to appeal for international aid. The people’s plight has been worsened by Mr Mugabe’s forced slum clearances around Harare which the UN says have left up to 700,000 people homeless. Their misery is in stark contrast to the red-carpet treatment of 85 “ambassadors” who took part in the pageant. Zimbabwe flew them in from London and put them up in first-class hotels. Mr Mugabe’s wife, Grace, announced the winners alongside Miss Tourism World’s president, John Singh. The contest culminated in controversy, however, when tournament officials agreed to ban Miss Tibet from the final stages after the Chinese embassy in Harare apparently protested at her presence. Chinese diplomats also insisted that Miss Taiwan re-enter as Miss Chinese Tapei.
In a written statement, the company said: “The Miss Tourism World, world finals in February 2005 were originally contracted by the private sector in Zimbabwe. However, due to the sheer magnitude of the event, this was then taken over by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. The Miss Tourism World Organisation is non-political and purely promotes eco-tourism working closely with the tourism departments. We also promote HIV and Aids awareness and educational awareness campaigns on tourism, wildlife and the environment.” It said tourism in Zimbabwe had risen 30 per cent as a result of the publicity generated by the contest, “hence creating much-needed employment”. It also claimed that its normal fee for the event was $5 million. Miss Tourism World’s website lists as “2005 official sponsors” a number of multinational companies, including Coca-Cola, Sheraton Hotels and Moët & Chandon champagne. All three companies denied any connection to the event and said they would be asking why their logos appeared on the website. When asked repeatedly to explain this, Miss Tourism World responded: “We’ve wasted enough time with The Sunday Telegraph.” Miss Tourism World’s website also describes itself as the owner and producer of Miss Great Britain, the long-running contest which began in British seaside resorts 60 years ago. A spokesman for Miss Great Britain said that the event had been sold to new owners in May and no longer had any connection with Miss Tourism World.
By Colin Freeman