Today one-half of Zimbabwe’s population of nearly 14 million is considered food-insecure, living in a household that is unable to obtain enough food to meet basic needs. A three-year drought, international sanctions and the withdrawal of international non-humanitarian support, the government’s mismanagement of the economy, and the fast-track land reform program all worked together to cause the current food emergency. The international aid community, led by the UN World Food Programme (WFP), is currently providing relief rations to over five million people and the number may well exceed seven million by 2004. The government subsidizes grain through its own program of importation and distribution, managed by the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) and the government’s Food Committee.
Local and international rights and relief agencies have been complaining for more than a year that food distribution is being manipulated for political ends, favoring those who support the government and the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF), the ruling political party. This politicization is widespread in the GMB program and is present to a far lesser degree in the international relief program. Manifestations of shortcomings differ between the two food regimes. In addition to politicization at all levels of grain procurement and distribution, the GMB suffers from corruption. The international relief efforts become politicized unavoidably when they must rely on local authorities when determining beneficiary status. But, the international programs are also politicized. According to insiders of the international aid regime, some international donors are opposed to funding aid for those who have participated in Zimbabwe’s land reform program. A policy excluding resettled farmers, like many of Zimbabwe’s government policies, ignores the only proper condition to receive aid – need. Human Rights Watch investigated these claims of politicization in Zimbabwe in February and March 2003 and found evidence to support them.
Despite efforts by many international relief organizations to prevent politicization, local officials – mostly ZANU PF – have been able to manipulate the processes for registering beneficiaries, preventing non-ZANU PF-supporters from receiving food aid. The WFP and international donors, as well as the local implementing partners, are aware of this weakness and are trying to impose tighter controls on their programs. Nonetheless, observers close to the ground state that politicization is an ongoing and serious problem. In 2002, there were a few incidents in which local government politicians used international food aid to reward supporters, but the international community quickly responded to stem the problem.
The wider politicization of the GMB program affects many people at all levels of the food aid structure. The program and its management task force lack transparency and accountability, making observation and judgment of its effectiveness very difficult. Nonetheless, widespread corruption and profiteering characterize the GMB program, and assessments indicate that a great deal of the grain never reaches its targeted population. Instead, local officials in a position to profit divert the grain through other channels for sale at inflated prices. Much of the grain ends up on the black market, where the price of maize (and other foods) soars several times above the official price. Some grain may also end up in neighboring states where maize prices are even higher. The resulting shortages of GMB maize in towns and villages mean that more and more people must rely on international assistance and relief aid.
Those experiencing trouble accessing GMB maize share a common identity: they are perceived political enemies of ZANU PF and the government. Known members of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), top this list of perceived enemies. But the list also includes many teachers and ex-commercial farm workers – both thought to support the MDC. The government also regards urban residents in general as disaffected and suspect, mostly because, in elections since 2000, many have voted for the MDC. In effect, rural or urban people without ZANU PF party cards are unable to register for or receive GMB maize. They must, instead, turn to the more expensive black market. Witnesses reported that they had seen ZANU PF officials selling GMB maize to ZANU PF cardholders at relatively low prices during election campaigns, often in areas where maize had been unavailable for some time.
The government further compounded food shortages and consolidated its control by halting private merchants, the MDC and all but a handful of NGOs from importing grain. The government also closed down relief operations in areas where residents were thought to support the MDC. For instance, the government disrupted feeding operations in the MDC-stronghold of Binga by the local Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, and by Save the Children Fund-UK.
The supply of relief maize (maize supplied by the WFP and international donors) is insufficient to meet the requirements of those in need. People cannot register for relief maize if they earn a wage; but the wages do little since there is insufficient GMB maize to purchase and black market maize is costly. Experienced humanitarian and relief agency workers point out that the combination of grain shortages and restricted access to GMB and relief supplies makes the Zimbabwe situation particularly acute.
The politicization of food takes place within the larger national context, where party-political violence and repression are widespread. The government uses veterans of the war for independence, police, ZANU PF youth, and the recently created youth brigades to enforce its food distribution policies. Army leaders are central to the operation of the GMB and its Food Committee. Even as international humanitarian assistance helps feed hungry Zimbabweans, the longer-term humanitarian and political dilemma of how to help the impoverished ex-commercial farm workers and new settlers on the old white farms remains.