Food aid welcome, if crisis blamed on drought

The Zimbabwean government has acknowledged it is facing a severe food crisis and has welcomed food aid - so long as no “political strings” are attached.

A joint Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) team was invited to asses the food security situation in Zimbabwe late last month after President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government declared 2007 a drought year.

"I have received a preliminary report from [WFP/FAO] which confirms our earlier fears of food shortages. In their report they are saying the country will this year harvest between 600,000 and 800,000 metric tonnes of grain, which falls far short of the national requirement of about 2 million metric tonnes. In my view, I think this is a fair assessment," agricultural minister, Rugare Gumbo, told IRIN. 

Admitting international assistance was required, he reiterated the government's position that Zimbabwe would not accept "aid with political strings attached".

Cees Wittebrood, head of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) for Africa, Caribbean and Pacific, who visited Zimbabwe last week, said the authorities needed to acknowledge the need for aid stemmed from "man-made" causes. "Zimbabwe is facing a situation where the agricultural policy is failing [and] overall governance is not effective." 

The WFP/FAO needs assessment is due to be formally released next week.

Zimbabwe has experienced severe food shortages over the past seven years due partly to recurrent droughts, but mainly because of the government's chaotic land reforms that have slashed foreign earnings.

"Zimbabwe has faced droughts before but was very much capable of dealing with a drought thanks to effective governance. They had the systems, water reservoirs, irrigation, inputs, knowledge and technology to survive a period without rain. But they don’t have that any longer - because the agricultural policy and their policy in general is failing - the drought can give them [farmers] that last push over the edge," Wittebrood warned.

Addressing the aid issue with the authorities was extremely sensitive: "The government does not like to discuss humanitarian assistance because they recognise it could be a testimony of a failing policy," he added. 

In addressing Zimbabwe's needs, Wittebrood said humanitarian agencies faced tough challenges, including an inflation rate topping 3,700 percent and government plans for strict registering of NGOs - the local parners of the humanitarian community. Critics widely regard registration as intended to dissuade NGOs from meddling in politics.