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Regional themes > Food security Last update: 2020-11-27  

Hard truths and soft solutions: the aid industry's approach to the emergency in Zimbabwe

Clare Sayce, Christian Aid

September 2004

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High-profile relief operations have become the lifeblood of the international aid industry. On the back of mass appeals - fronted by wide-eyed, starving children - aid agencies rally attention and gather funds and roll in food-filled trucks to where the hungry people wait. Again and again we feel that we have made a difference, that the rich world has fulfilled its obligation to the poor, and that the rescue missions have been accomplished. But, in reality, no humanitarian emergency is ever quite so simple in its machinations or its solutions. This paper looks at how the aid industry portrays and responds to emergencies, how it interprets and presents people's lives and needs, and how it devises relief operations that too often fail to address the real and difficult causes. In 2002, aid agencies poured into Zimbabwe to avert a famine triggered by bad weather. But the weather was not the issue, many of those who got food did not need it (any more than usual), and the real needs were not addressed.


In mid-2002 a massive international relief operation designed to avert a famine across southern Africa was set in motion. Up to 14 million people, roughly half of them Zimbabwean, were seen to be in imminent danger of starvation following an extended period of drought. Two years on, only a handful of hunger-related deaths have been reported and the rains have returned. On the surface, this is a victory for the aid industry and a great mercy for its beneficiaries. But look a little deeper, and take the case of Zimbabwe in particular, and it seems there is scant cause for celebration. To start with, no credible evidence exists to show that a significant number of Zimbabweans was so severely malnourished as to warrant urgent food aid (Darcy et al., 2003; Itano, 2003). The handouts, together with some long-awaited rains, offered respite in undeniably difficult times, but neither has made people any more able to cope with a bleak future. On top of this, aid workers have found themselves not confronting the root causes of human suffering but only spoon-feeding distorted symptoms. A weary population will continue to run out of food and suffer many other hardships besides because, in any honest assessment of the international response to Zimbabwe, nothing that matters has changed.

This paper, however, is not an assessment of the successes and failures of emergency aid in Zimbabwe. Rather, it is an exploration, drawing on this one case study, of how the aid industry (comprising many actors with varied powers and motivations) portrays and responds to humanitarian emergencies. It examines how people's needs are presented and how relief programmes are devised. It finds that emergencies are a combination of the real, the perceived and the forgotten about. Relief operations, as such, do not offer spontaneous, impartial or necessarily accurate remedies, but are as complex and politicised as the contexts in which they take place.

The body of this paper comprises three main chapters. Chapter 2 ('Emergency portrayal and response') is an overview of the ideas and points of view relevant to any debate around the portrayal of and response to emergencies. It looks at the construction and presentation of needs and at how the aid industry chooses to respond. The use of food aid, the link between relief and development approaches, and the politicisation of emergency programmes are all touched upon. Chapter 3 ('Zimbabwe on the brink') describes contemporary Zimbabwe, looking at where the and why the country has gone wrong, and how this is affecting its people. Chapter 4 ('Seeing and meeting needs in Zimbabwe') brings the two previous chapters together to consider how and to what effect the aid industry has interpreted and responded to the emergency in Zimbabwe.

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