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Zimbabwe aid ban puts many in peril

By Farai Sevenzo
Harare

Woman puts maize into a bag in Domboshawa (23 April 2008)
Basic foods are fast becoming beyond the reach of even those with jobs

In the week in which world leaders met in Rome to discuss an ongoing global food crisis, will Zimbabwe's own food crisis be exacerbated by the announcement that aid groups and non-governmental organisations should stop operations at once and re-apply for their permits?

Put together the facts - a recurring poor harvest of basic cereals like maize and wheat; persistent droughts; a farming infrastructure which has been in renewal or chaos; economic inflation beating even the projected figures - and you can see that this country is seriously in need of the kind of assistance these groups have been told to stop providing.

And there are many of them, all channelling food for the needy throughout Zimbabwe from the UN, the World Food Programme (WFP) and elsewhere.

A quick look through the Harare phonebook will reveal the existence of Save The Children UK, Save The Children US, Save The Children Norway, Care International and Christian Aid - all operating in Zimbabwe.

No-one will talk for fear of jeopardising access to people who still need help
USAid doctor

The country directors of these organisations have become strangely reticent on the nature of their work, who they are feeding and where.

A call to Save the Children Norway, in the capital's Five Avenue, has one begging for anonymity and then clamming up. "No comment at this stage, please," he says.

Efforts to talk to others proved just as fruitless.

"No-one will talk for fear of jeopardising access to people who still need help," explains an doctor with the US Agency for International Development (USAid).

"We don't know what the ban means, so we won't say anything at the moment."

Inaccessible countryside

The charge against them is that they have been campaigning for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) under the pretext of distributing aid.

Robert Mugabe at the Food and Agriculture Summit (June 2008)
Zimbabwe's government said aid agencies were helping the opposition

Aid in Zimbabwe's case encompasses hospitals and their medicines, the care of orphans, Aids, schools, water and the search for it in the shadow of drought.

And while undertaking all these tasks, it is the government's contention that medics are neglecting polio immunisation programmes in favour of distributing MDC campaign matter.

Large parts of the countryside have become inaccessible to the media and to international agencies as roadblocks controlled by pro-government militias have sprung up.

Opposition supporters have meanwhile lost relatives and limbs in a post-election campaign of incredible brutality.

The Red Cross had begun to treat the victims, many of whom have horrific injuries.

USAid had been distributing tents in areas as far afield as Mhondoro. The handing out of basic foodstuffs like cooking oil and maize meal was many residents' only lifeline.

Late on Thursday evening, a moneychanger sent a text around to his usual clients: "110 million to the US."

The implications of this are enormous for the 80% of Zimbabwe's population that is unemployed - everything is pegged to a currency industrialists can believe in.

Bread, flour, maize meal, cooking oil are fast becoming beyond the reach of the workers with jobs, and impossible for the millions still waiting to harvest their crops.

'Burnt to death'

Tinei Munetsi is an MDC officer in the village of Ngezi, in Mohondoro.

Morgan Tsvangirai visits an MDC supporter injured in post-election violence
We are not allowed to campaign in these areas, and the government is doing everything to disrupt our president's campaign
Tinei Munetsi
Movement for Democratic Change

"Look," he says. "I know the donor agencies have been stopped from working. But in my area, we are still dealing with the violence.

"This Friday afternoon, Amai Chipiro, our organising secretary's wife, was burned to death in her hut.

"We are not allowed to campaign in these areas, and the government is doing everything to disrupt our president's [Morgan Tsvangirai] campaign.

"How do you suppose the agencies would campaign on our behalf?"

Failed crops and new farmers who prefer the cash crops of tobacco and cotton mean the work of the banned agencies is needed now more than ever.

But the business of politics will take the front pages until the presidential run-off election between Mr Tsvangirai and President Robert Mugabe on 27 June.

Map of food shortages in Zimbabwe




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