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The Zimbabwean government’s lack of transparency on grain availability in the country could jeopardize access to food for millions of Zimbabweans in the coming months.

The 11-page briefing paper, “The Politics of Food Assistance in Zimbabwe,” documents how the Zimbabwean government threatens its citizens’ access to sufficient food by concealing the basis for its 2004 crop-yield estimate, the size of its strategic grain reserve and the details of the government’s Grain Marketing Board’s operations in food distribution and assistance.

“By withholding vital information on grain availability, the Zimbabwean government is gambling with its citizens’ access to food,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. “Under international law, the government must take all necessary steps to fully ensure its citizens’ right to adequate food.”

In May the Zimbabwean government announced that this year’s harvest would produce 2.4 million metric tons of maize, a figure significantly higher than last year. While there is general consensus that the 2004 crop was better than that of 2003, U.N. agencies, donor countries and nongovernmental organizations have challenged the government’s estimate for this year. In June a member of parliament raised questions about the government’s estimate, leading Parliament to authorize an investigation.

Based on its estimate, the government has decided not to renew its appeal for general international food aid. As a result, despite skepticism concerning the government’s estimate and the widely held belief that Zimbabwe will experience food shortages this year, the World Food Program has been unable to make plans and raise money for providing general food assistance to Zimbabwe.

“Without international food aid, the government’s grain board will be the only source of assistance for many Zimbabweans in need,” said Takirambudde. “In recent years, the grain board has been widely accused of discriminating against supporters of the political opposition.”

The briefing paper also notes that while the donor community has supported limited food assistance in the former commercial farm areas, where land was expropriated and resettled under land reform, political considerations continue to influence the donors’ programs. In addition, the World Food Program and international relief agencies have made strong efforts to prevent and rectify any interference in the process of identifying those eligible to receive food aid. However, Human Rights Watch remains concerned that the process used to register food beneficiaries may still leave out certain highly marginalized groups like households headed by children.

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