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  • CRISIS PROFILE: Zimbabwe's humanitarian situation
    Alex Whiting, AlertNet
    July 26, 2005

    LONDON (AlertNet) - Zimbabwe is in the grip of its worst humanitarian crisis since independence. Twenty years ago the country was hailed as an African success story and dubbed the "breadbasket" of southern Africa. Now its economy is in tatters and the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates a third of the population faces food shortages.

    Farming is the backbone of Zimbabwe's economy, but agriculture has been crippled by the combined effects of controversial government land reforms, severe drought and the HIV/AIDS pandemic sweeping sub-Saharan Africa.

    Zimbabwe is struggling to cope with a growing number of internally displaced people. The government's widely condemned demolition of swathes of urban settlements in a mid-2005 crackdown on illegal shantytowns has left at least 300,000 homeless and without income, aid agencies say.

    Meanwhile, the ranks of Zimbabwe's displaced are swelling as farm workers move about the country in search of work. Refugees International said about 150,000 labourers were uprooted in 2004.

    According to the United Nations, Zimbabwe now has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world and one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates. Just under 25 percent of people aged 15-49 are HIV-positive, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

    And with the economy in shreds, unemployment is running at an estimated 70 percent. Inflation is also rampant, standing at 164.3 percent in the year to June 2005.

    How bad is Zimbabwe's food crisis?
    Although the situation is better than it was in 2003 when more than half the population needed food aid, relief and development agencies say food security in Zimbabwe is precarious.

    The WFP says it aims to supply food for at least 3 million people in 2005, and WFP chief James Morris has said Zimbabwe is one of the countries he is most worried about in the world.

    In July 2005, the government devalued the Zimbabwe dollar by 38 percent in a bid to boost Zimbabwe's exports and help the country earn enough to import more food. But that also raised the price of imports, making it harder for people to afford even the basics.

    How did Zimbabwe get into this situation?
    The causes of Zimbabwe's economic and food crises are hotly contested. While the government blames the region's drought - which has caused crop failures across Southern Africa - opposition parties and aid agencies say land reforms, government price controls and the HIV/AIDS epidemic are also to blame.

    The most contentious of these is the government's land reform policies.

    In 2000, President Robert Mugabe rushed through a series of reforms aimed at giving poor black farmers access to good quality land.

    Under British colonial rule and a subsequent white minority government that came to power in 1965, white farmers had taken most of the best agricultural land, forcing black farmers onto poor quality land.

    Land was an important issue in the ensuing war for independence from white rule. After a British-brokered peace deal in 1979, the new black government led by Mugabe began a long-term land redistribution programme.

    But by 1999, some 11 million hectares (27 million acres) of the best land were still in the hands of about 4,500 white commercial farmers, according to Human Rights Watch.

    In 2000, Mugabe introduced new laws that gave the government greater powers to compulsorily acquire land without compensating former owners. The land reform programme accelerated and by 2003 the government said about 200,000 black farmers had been given new land.

    But critics of the reforms say the process was poorly managed and underfunded. They say the new owners lacked the necessary capital, infrastructure, equipment, seeds and fertilisers, and as a result were unable to farm effectively or at all.

    Meanwhile, most of the wealthy white farmers, who had produced the bulk of Zimbabwe's farm exports, have left Zimbabwe, taking with them knowledge and capital.

    In just a few years the production of the country's main food and export crops plummeted. Zimbabwe's gross domestic product shrank by 30 percent between 2000 and 2004.

    According to Refugees International, many of the new settlers cannot or will not pay farm workers a minimum wage. The group cites reports of workers receiving as little as $3 a month. RI also says some of the new settlers have been forced to turn to fishing, gold panning and sex work to feed themselves.

    Despite Zimbabwe's chronic food shortages, aid agencies say it is difficult to reach all those in need.

    Why doesn't food aid reach everyone?
    The government's food aid programme is managed by the Grain Marketing Board, which sells food at subsidized prices. The government says everyone has access to GMB maize. But Human Rights Watch says some vulnerable groups are excluded.

    The U.S.-based rights group says farm labourers who worked for white farmers have been barred from buying from the Grain Marketing Board. The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, says its supporters are also barred from the distribution programme.

    In the lead-up to elections in March 2005, Human Rights Watch said the government had tried to buy votes with food and had threatened to cut off aid to people who voted for the opposition.

    The international response is managed by the WFP and to a lesser extent a group of non-governmental organisations called the Consortium for Southern Africa Food Emergency (C-SAFE).

    But the agencies say they have to operate under tight government controls. They say it is difficult for them to assess actual needs because the government rarely reveals the size of the country's food stocks.

    And according to Human Rights Watch, the government bars foreign agencies from supplying certain vulnerable groups, including those living in resettled areas.

    Crisis Group, a Belgian-based think tank, says the situation is likely to get worse for international agencies because the government has appointed the head of the Central Intelligence Organisation and State Security Minister to oversee food security.

    AIDS takes a deadly toll
    Zimbabwe has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world.

    According to UNAIDS, in 2003 an estimated 3,300 people died of AIDS every week in Zimbabwe. As with neighbouring South Africa, the epidemic has had a devastating effect. In 2003, there were an estimated 980,000 AIDS orphans, according to UNICEF.

    Tuberculosis has increased by 500 per cent in the last decade -- the majority of TB patients are living with AIDS.

    The virus has spread despite Zimbabwe being one of the first countries to take the epidemic seriously. In 1987 the government set up the National AIDS Coordination Programme to lead the national response.

    In 1999, Zimbabwe became the first country in the world to introduce a three percent levy on all taxable income to finance HIV/AIDS activities. By December 2003, it had raised approximately $2 million, says UNAIDS.

    The government set aside $2.5 million in 2004 to buy antiretroviral drugs. Even so, only 5,000 people - less than 1 percent of those eligible - are currently on AIDS drugs in Zimbabwe.

    External donor funding for drugs has been very limited. But Zimbabwe is due to receive some help under the World Health Organisation's "3 by 5 Initiative", which aims to give AIDS drugs to three million people by the end of 2005.

    The general health of Zimbabwe's people has also plummeted along with the economy. The United Nations says Zimbabwe now has one of the lowest life expectancies in Africa - just 33 years. In 1970, it was 56 years.

    Zimbabwe's health care system was once considered a model for the region, but has come under severe strain because of under-funding and lack of foreign exchange for importing drugs. The sheer weight of the AIDS crisis has also taken its toll.

    There is an average of one doctor per 16,800 people, according to the World Health Organization. Zimbabwe is believed to have lost two-thirds of its workforce in the last five years, including many doctors, because of the economic and political crisis.

    According to the United Nations Children's Fund, the number of child deaths has risen faster in Zimbabwe than anywhere else in the world. In 1990, the child mortality rate was 80 deaths per 1,000 live births. By 2003 it had risen to 123.

    Zimbabweans on the move
    More than three million Zimbabweans now live overseas. Among the 11.7 million who are left, a growing number have been forced to leave their homes.

    In June 2005, at least 300,000 people were made homeless in a government crackdown on illegal traders and shantytowns. According to the United Nations, another 2.4 million people have been affected one way or another by the operation.

    Police bulldozed homes and market stalls in cities across the country in what the government calls an attempt to flush out black market traders and clean up cities.

    That same month, the head of police reported that crime figures had fallen since the start of the crackdown.

    Mugabe has said the operation was part of a plan to build up to 1.2 million new housing units by 2008 and help small and medium-sized businesses "grow and expand in an environment that is supportive, clean and decent".

    But the United Nations, Britain and the United States have expressed concern for the welfare of the thousands who lost their homes and have criticised the way the crackdown was handled. A U.N. report out in July 2005 called the demolitions a disastrous venture "carried out in an indiscriminate and unjustified manner, with indifference to human suffering".

    In September 2004, Refugees International said 150,000 former farm workers had become internally displaced. Some of the workers had been violently evicted by war veterans who seized some of the white-owned farms. Others have been unable to farm their new land and been forced to find work elsewhere.

    To find out more about...
    ...the government's position on the crackdown on shantytowns and the land redistribution programme, visit the government website and the ruling Zanu-PF party website, visit the World Health Organisation website and UNAIDS ...refugees, read the Norwegian Refugee Council's 2004 report on IDPs ...the political situation, read the International Crisis Group 2005 report on post election Zimbabwe aid, visit the World Food Programme or read a Human Rights Watch report on the politics of food assistance in Zimbabwe ...political support, land use and food security by province, see Maps of Zimbabwe on the Global IDP Database

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