Following a visit to Zimbabwe from November 18 – 28, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Hilal Elver, released a report of her findings on the ongoing food insecurity crisis in Zimbabwe. Although Zimbabwe’s Constitution guarantees the right to adequate food, Zimbabwe’s current crisis is the result of hyperinflation, unemployment, natural disasters, recurrent droughts, economic sanctions, and the history of corruption and economic mismanagement under long-ruling former president Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe is among the four highest food-insecure countries, alongside conflict-ravaged countries. Elver reported on the issues of malnutrition and failing public services, calling attention to the potential for the food insecurity crisis to escalate into civil unrest and a threat to national security.
According to recent data released by the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee, over 60% of Zimbabwe’s population faces food insecurity, about 5.5 million rural Zimbabweans and 2.2 million in urban areas. According to Elver’s report, “children and women bear the disproportionate burden of the ongoing food crisis,” with nearly 90% of Zimbabwean infants experiencing malnutrition and stunted growth. In describing the situation, Elver said, “the people of Zimbabwe are slowly getting to a point of suffering man-made starvation. Political polarization, economic and financial problems and erratic climatic conditions all contribute to the storm of food insecurity currently facing a country once seen as the breadbasket of Africa.”
Elver also expressed concern for the inhuman living conditions of people searching for opportunities in cities, where they end up living in informal settlements with risks of disease “due to the use of unsafe and inefficient water and open sewage” and a lack of access to health services because of doctors on strike due to low wages. Economic crisis and hyperinflation mean that people struggle to afford food even when it is available As a result of food insecurity and people trying to fend for their families, “school dropouts, early marriage, domestic violence, prostitution, and sexual exploitation are on the rise throughout Zimbabwe,” said Elver.
Zimbabwe’s economic crisis can be traced back to mismanagement during Mugabe’s 1987-2017 presidency. Mugabe’s land redistribution campaign in 2000 forced 4,000 white farmers to give up their land, which weakened the country’s agricultural infrastructure and contributed to one of the country’s worst famines. Mugabe responded to shortages by printing more money, leading to rampant inflation. The political transition in 2017 and the election of Emmerson Mnangagwa gave rise to hopes of economic recovery, but continued problems due to drought and, more recently exacerbated by Tropical Cyclone Idai, have contributed to food shortages and spiraling inflation. In August of this year, the UN reported that Zimbabwe is now experiencing its “worst-ever hunger crisis” and launched a $331m appeal for aid, and the situation has only gotten worse in the months since then, further proving this need for aid.
The UN World Food Program’s (WFP) plans to address Zimbabwe’s food crisis is “to increase aid, especially for drought-affected residents, but also to build community capacity to respond to climate shocks,” according to Spokesperson Herve Verhoosel. USAID also has a history of providing humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe and supports programs that “aim to improve the nutritional status of children younger than five years of age, expand and diversify agricultural production, increase household income, and help communities prepare for disasters through risk-reduction activities.”
In her report, Elver called for the Zimbabwe Government to adopt the necessary measures to reduce the country’s dependence on imported food importation, prepare for recurring droughts, and promote a sustainable food production system taking into account climate and the need for a diverse diet. While weather events like drought are unavoidable, it is possible to prepare for and limit the negative impact on food production and the economy, and Elver believes that “good fiscal and economic governance could change the course of Zimbabweans’ economic and social conditions, particularly their right to food.”
According to Mthuli Ncube, Zimbabwe’s finance minister, the government was working to address the threat from food insecurity with a large allocation for irrigation infrastructure to “climate-proof” agriculture in the 2020 budget. The government will also keep grain subsidies in place for 2020 to protect impoverished citizens from rising food prices. Elver also called for the international community to “scale up its humanitarian assistance and provide for most of the resources needed to eliminate hunger and malnutrition in times of food emergency.”
As an immediate response to Zimbabwe’s food insecurity, food and humanitarian aid are desperately needed to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, but there are also structural and systemic challenges to be addressed within Zimbabwe’s political and economic systems to prevent the food crisis from escalating into social unrest.