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Harare Says Economy Looking Up, but Growth Seen as Slow

Economic recovery has become part of the official rhetoric in Zimbabwe in recent months. The official line is that the country's economy, in decline for more than a decade, will grow by as much as five percent in 2005.

But while economists, such as Tony Hawkins of the University of Zimbabwe, agree that the economy is poised to grow, they are far less optimistic about the strength of recovery.

"I would not go so far as to call it a turnaround," he said. "I think what we are seeing is a bottoming out, a leveling out to be followed by possibly some growth in 2005 but a lot of that is hinged on there being a good farming season and agricultural production increasing by 28 percent in one year which would be pretty phenomenal if that were to happen."

Economists say the rising prices of gold and the expansion of platinum production will help stimulate Zimbabwe's economy, but agree that agriculture, Zimbabwe's number-one foreign currency earner, is still the key to full economic recovery. Agricultural production plummeted in 2000 as a result of drought and the government's badly managed land reform program.

Moses Chundu, an economist with a Harare bank, says the agricultural sector is unlikely to rebound anytime soon.

"There is still gross capacity under-utilization on some of the farms that we knew to be very productive and very central to the issue of food self sufficiency for this economy so I am not very optimistic about that level of growth that we are talking about," he said. "Thank God we have rains but we do not know with certainty what the season is going to be and the last thing we want to see is a drought but assuming there is no drought still the situation on the ground in terms of the state of preparedness, our output is likely to be seriously curtailed."

The drop in farm production only worsened a situation that had started going bad years earlier. After independence in 1980 the government pursued a Socialist program of high government spending - mainly on education and public services - that helped some sectors, but kept foreign investors away. Economist John Robertson says that put a limit on economic expansion.

"They did have very strongly developed social programs at the time and that had come through mainly in government's most spectacular success in the education system," he said. "So from 1980 onwards many more of our youngsters went through high school, many more hundreds of them were qualifying at the end of a good secondary school education with very suitable qualifications for finding work but no new investment was coming to the country and no jobs were being created."

To stimulate the economy, Zimbabwe accepted the World Bank's blueprint for economic growth, adopting the so-called the Economic Structural Adjustment Program, aimed at opening the economy to outside investors. But the plan did not work. Moreover, in the late 1990s, government augmented spending to shore up political support at home and paying for military support to its allies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, at the expense of social services.

Today, Zimbabwe's shrinking economy today is plagued by foreign currency shortages, fuel shortages, power outages, a contraction of the manufacturing sector, rising unemployment, drought induced food shortages and soaring inflation. The HIV and AIDS epidemic has also hit Zimbabwe hard, with one in four adults infected. Skilled workers, unable to find jobs at home are leaving Zimbabwe for a better life abroad.

Some of the renewed optimism in the country's near economic future stems from last year's appointment of Gideon Gono as head of the central bank. His strict monetary policy has brought inflation down to about 150 percent from 600 percent when he took office.

University of Zimbabwe's Mr. Hawkins says international lending institutions and foreign investors are unlikely to put money into Zimbabwe's economy unless the political situation stabilizes. He says the world will be paying particular attention to next year's parliamentary elections.

"I think a lot of it hinges on some fragmentation or whatever of international attitudes towards Zimbabwe, in other words the hidden assumption is that assuming that there are elections in March next year, that the IMF and the World Bank and others will start to lend to Zimbabwe in the course of the second half of 2005," he said.

But he says even with economic turnaround, ordinary people in Zimbabwe are unlikely to feel an improvement in their daily lives for some years to come.