Zimbabwe Lifts Ban on Aid Groups, but Its Effects Linger

JOHANNESBURG — Zimbabwe lifted an almost three-month-old ban on the work of aid groups on Friday. The government had imposed the ban because it claimed some of the groups had been backing the opposition during a bitter election season in which President Robert Mugabe was fighting for his political survival.

The suspension of the groups’ field operations deprived more than a million orphans, schoolchildren, the elderly and other impoverished Zimbabweans of food and other basic assistance, according to the nations that donated the aid.
The effects of the aid restrictions will linger. The United Nations World Food Program had planned to feed 1.7 million Zimbabweans next month, but was unable to deploy its partners on the ground, the suspended aid groups, to identify and register the needy this month.
“We will not be able to reach most of those 1.7 million people,” said Richard Lee, a spokesman for the World Food Program. “We will try to reach as many as possible, but we haven’t even begun to do the essential preparatory work.”
The groups have long said they provide aid based solely on need, not politics. But Zimbabwe’s minister of information, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, on Friday reiterated the government’s charge that some of the international aid groups had backed the opposition against Mr. Mugabe, providing food only to opposition supporters and funneling aid money into the coffers of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.
“During the elections they were monsters,” he said. But now, he added, “since there are no elections, we hope they will now go back to their core business.”
“I hope some have now repented,” he said.
The aid groups have challenged the government to prove its case. Asked which nongovernmental organizations had used food for political purposes, Mr. Ndlovu declined Friday to name any. “They know themselves,” he said.
The United States, which last year provided $171 million in food aid to Zimbabwe, said that it was Mr. Mugabe’s government that used food for political ends. This week, the American ambassador to Zimbabwe, James D. McGee, wrote to the social welfare minister, Nicholas Goche, demanding that the United States government be reimbursed for the theft of 20 metric tons of American-donated food. The aid had been meant for schoolchildren, but was instead confiscated by the authorities and handed out at a ruling party political rally.
In the letter, Mr. McGee also said that 170,000 schoolchildren had been denied food donated by the United States because of the ban, while 455,000 people had missed out on water, sanitation and public health programs. Mr. McGee said the government must immediately lift the restrictions and stop harassing aid workers.
“However, if you choose not to act, we will hold you personally responsible for the inhumane suffering caused by this ban,” Mr. McGee wrote.
Mr. McGee said in an interview Friday that the government’s restrictions on aid groups were a crime against Zimbabwe’s people. “This is purely politically motivated,” he said. “To talk about NGOs being politicized to get support for the opposition, it’s garbage.”
Aid officials had expected the government to end the ban after the June 27 presidential runoff, which was widely denounced as a sham. The opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, dropped out days before it was held, citing state-sponsored violence against his supporters. Zimbabwean political analysts said they believed that the government instituted the ban to clear the rural areas of aid workers who could have witnessed the worst of the state-sponsored violence against the opposition.
But the ban dragged on for two more months after the runoff, prompting a plea from Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, for restrictions to be lifted to avert what he called “a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.”
There was much speculation about why the government kept the ban in place for so long. Aid groups have been able to creep back to work in some parts of the country, but most of their field work remained suspended.
Some aid officials suspected that the aid restrictions had become a bargaining chip in power-sharing negotiations between Mr. Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, in office since 1980, and the opposition. Mr. Tsvangirai, has repeatedly demanded that restrictions on aid be lifted. His party wanted help for its supporters displaced by the political violence.
Mr. Mugabe’s deep suspicion of the United States and Britain, both harshly critical of him, may also have rubbed off on aid groups financed by the two nations and made him more resistant to lifting the restrictions.
What is indisputable is the suffering of Zimbabwe’s people. Unemployment stands at more than 80 percent. Inflation is running at more than 11 million percent. And the United Nations forecasts that 45 percent of Zimbabwe’s population, some 5 million people, will need food aid by the hungry season, from January to March.
Already, the United Nations has collected anecdotal accounts of people’s desperate strategies for survival. Beyond eating fewer meals, they are foraging for wild seeds and fruits. They are selling off their belongings — cows, bicycles, pots and pans — for money to buy scarce and ever more expensive food.
And their coping abilities are stretched thin, especially since this is the sixth year in which millions of them have needed food aid in a country that used to be southern Africa’s bread basket.
“We’re hearing these anecdotes widely and early in the year, and that indicates the situation in many areas is already serious,” said Mr. Lee of the World Food Program.
Economists say the government’s policies are to blame, while the government claims that Western sanctions on the country’s elite have ravaged the economy.