A Bounty of Food Relief Sits Unused In Zimbabwe
Claim of Bumper Crop Ties Aid Groups' Hands
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 20, 2004; Page A01
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe -- Giant bags of cornmeal, labeled "USA" for the country that donated them, sit stacked 40 high in a U.N. warehouse on the outskirts of this city. Together with the cooking oil, beans and high-protein meal for porridge also stored here, there is enough to feed hundreds of thousands of people.
But there is no plan to do so.
President Robert Mugabe, the only ruler Zimbabwe has had in the 24 years since the end of white rule, has announced that a bumper harvest will produce more than enough food for the country this year, for the first time since 2000.
That means officials of the U.N. World Food Program, which like other aid groups operates only at government request, have little choice but to ignore the evidence around them -- the brown and withered fields, the beggars on the street and the hungry faces in townships less than a mile from the warehouse, one of several the United Nations maintains in Zimbabwe.
So the World Food Program and other international aid groups here are in retreat. They are cutting staff, dismantling their distribution networks and wondering who, if anyone, will help Zimbabweans who have relied on U.N. feeding centers over the past three years. At the peak in 2003, the U.N. facilities fed more than 6.5 million people, more than half the nation's population of 12 million.
"We have to accept the government's forecasts of a bumper harvest," said Mike Huggins, a spokesman for U.N. feeding programs in southern Africa. "We only hope that people with no source of income will be able to access some of that surplus."
Few independent observers here believe there will be a surplus. In June, U.N. special envoy James Morris warned that as many as 5 million people in the country may need food aid in the coming year.
Mugabe's government has restricted information, shut down newspapers and criticized people who disagree with its pronouncements. In May, it suspended the crop estimate program conducted annually by the government in concert with U.N. officials.
Mugabe has attacked aid groups as a threat to his party and made clear his willingness to expel them if they defy his wishes. A cabinet minister last month told provincial governors they should not hesitate to tell groups that fail to coordinate their activities with the government "to pack their bags and go," according to the government-run Chronicle newspaper in Bulawayo.
As aid groups scale back their operations, Zimbabweans are left increasingly vulnerable.
In Bulawayo, the nation's second-largest city, some residents eke out a living smuggling in goods from South Africa or Botswana to sell on street corners or in flea markets. Others stay with their parents, grandparents or cousins, one of whom might have a steady job.
In the townships and rural areas, where poverty is more severe, people are skipping meals to protect their stocks of cornmeal, which figures show have more than quintupled in price since April. Overall, the annual inflation rate is nearly 400 percent, according to government figures.
Cornmeal is central to life throughout the country. It is typically boiled into sadza, a stiff, sticky mush that often is eaten by hand. Prosperous Zimbabweans have sadza as a side dish with chicken or beef. But many poorer residents eat it at nearly every meal, often with no other food.
The corn harvest, once so bountiful that Zimbabwe exported food, has fallen sharply since 2000, the year Mugabe began violent land seizures of thousands of commercial farms owned by whites. Most of the white farmers have since fled the country, and the farms have been run by the government or doled out, generally to government cronies with little expertise in agriculture.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company