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Relief and recovery in Zimbabwe: Food security in the current humanitarian crisis

Dr Rene Loewenson
Training and Research Support Centre

March 2003

Posted with permission of Dr Rene Loewenson
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Background: defining the crisis

No-one working in the public health, education or social sectors in Zimbabwe in the 1980s would have predicted the breadth and depth of the country.s current humanitarian crisis. At the time of writing this paper, 7, 2 million people in Zimbabwe, at least 60% of the population, need food aid. Nearly half a million farmworkers need assistance for food needs or displacement and only 30% of national drug needs for treating malaria are available, Child dropouts from schools are increasing and 19-46% of the adult population are estimated to be HIV positive (Zimvac 2002; UNRRU 2002).

Yet it is important that this crisis is not mis-defined as an acute or recent shock on a society otherwise meeting basic economic and social development needs. For certainly by the late 1990s it became a more predictable possibility, as a range of factors pushed more and more households into chronic vulnerability. In the past 18 months changing rainfall, collapsing production, uncontrolled speculation, conflict and displacement have generated acute shocks on top of this chronic vulnerability. If we are to shape appropriate humanitarian response to the current situation, it is critical to properly understand the nature and driving forces of the crisis and the levels at which they can and must be addressed.

We also need to understand the institutional weaknesses in the national and international agencies that are responsible for stewarding that response. In one chronology of the 'famine', Save the Children Fund (UK) noted that early warnings from household surveys in Malawi and Zimbabwe made by non government organisations (NGOs) working in communities in November 2001 led to little response. It took a further 3 months for the situation to trigger UN response in February 2002, when FAO issued a special alert warning of 4 million people at risk of hunger. At national level Malawi declared a state of emergency by end February 2002, but Zimbabwe did not do so until end April 2002, after the Presidential elections (SCF 2002).

At international level, UN agencies operate on triggers: WHO declares a famine when 'the severity of critical malnutrition levels exceed 15% of children aged 6-59.9 months'. FAO define famine as 'an extreme collapse in local availability of and access to food that causes a widespread rise in mortality from outright starvation or hunger related illness' (Patel and Delwiche 2002). These triggers of acute collapse, leading to mortality, assume acute hunger against a background of general food security. They imply that a time bound input of food or drugs will deal with the acute shock, leaving households pursuing a more self reliant path. They wait for a particular level of acute collapse to trigger this time bound input.

While this makes assistance manageable, it does not reflect the reality of chronic and structural poverty, deepening social deficits, collapsing public infrastructures and services and long term nutritional decline that has occurred in Zimbabwe and other parts of the region. There must be a bridge between the way we understand and manage relief, and the factors producing a need for relief, if real recovery is to be planned. At international level this link between aid and political economy must become cause for concern: The co-existence within the same time period of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) putting 45% of its total relief food spending since its inception into Africa with an increase in Africa of chronic hunger by 30 million more people (1992 -1999), and a turnaround of the continent since 1980 from being a net exporter to a net importer of agricultural products must be food for international thought (FAO 2002).

Organisations closer to community level, such as SCF(UK) and national NGOs in the Zimbabwe National NGO Food Security Network (FOSENET) have identified that old indicators of acute hunger - such as acute malnutrition - are poor predictors of the household collapse that occurs due to chronic hunger. They note the harm that is caused to chronically poor households by waiting for such indicators to intervene and by structuring interventions outside the wider framework of public policy and accountability that defines how states are meeting the social needs of citizens (SCF 2002; Fosenet 2002a).

More recently, HIV/AIDS has been 'discovered' as the possible cause of a 'new variant famine', attributing the intensity of the current crisis to the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic (de Waal 2002). However it would be a mistake to attribute the depth of the current crisis purely to HIV/AIDS, and while mainstreaming HIV/AIDS interventions into current programmes is critical and necessary, it is simply insufficient if the underlying political, economic and social drivers of the level of household vulnerability in this crisis are left unaddressed.

Together with HIV/AIDS in August 2002, SADC Health Ministers noted the impact of reduced productivity related to land access, poor farming, insecure water supplies, high levels of poverty; with an average of 68% of families living below the poverty line in the region; soil degradation, with over 500mn ha affected by soil degradation since 1950, or up to 65% agricultural land and high debt burdens and unequal terms of trade, with market access restricted by price differentials cased by subsidies to US and EU farmers (SADC 2002). Added to these factors are the costs of war, violence and civil conflict, non transparent public policy processes, pressures for wealth redistribution through short term speculative processes and the extent to which current policies shift the burdens of economic growth onto households and poor communities.

This paper therefore seeks to contribute to the analysis of Zimbabwe.s relief and recovery in terms of the immediate issues to be addressed, the longer term problems that underlie them, and the processes needed to ensure synergy between the immediacy of relief and the deeper demands of recovery. For inasmuch as Zimbabweans have a need for relief, they have a right to adequate food, water, sanitation, emergency health care, shelter and security and to public policies and services that provide these in an accountable manner. Relief as a response to need must relate to the public policies and institutions through which recovery addresses these basic rights.

While this paper focuses on food security, this is inseparable from the wider concerns of social services, social networking, economic security and political accountability. Humanitarian responses at minimum should not draw attention away from the much deeper solutions demanded for meeting the decline across all of these areas. Further, there is a bottom line to be addressed in meeting the basic rights to individual, household and community security that must underlie any form of intervention. Social rights abuses, violence and attack on community groups catalyse insecurity across all areas of essential needs and interfere in processes that aim to address these needs. Violence and insecurity displaces people from normal sources of economic and social support, while impunity creates conditions for speculation and bias in access to essential goods.

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