James Morris, the head of the World Food Program, has held talks with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe about that country's escalating food crises. The talks come against the backdrop of a government crackdown on street traders and informal settlements that have seen more than 10,000 arrested and hundreds of thousands left homeless.
Mr. Morris discussed with Mr. Mugabe the need to increase food aid to millions of Zimbabweans following a collapse in the country's agricultural sector. The Zimbabwe government has said nearly three million of its citizens will need food aid, but some humanitarian organizations say the real figure could be as high as five million.
Experts say the collapse in the country's food production was set in motion by Mr. Mugabe's chaotic and often violent land reform program and that subsequent droughts have worsened the decline.
Last year, Mr. Mugabe rejected food aid from the international community, saying that his country had a bumper harvest and that food aid would, in his words, "choke" his people. His critics have charged that Mr. Mugabe wished to have control over all food distribution leading up to a general election last March so that it could be used to convince voters to endorse his party.
At a briefing prior to arriving in Zimbabwe, Mr. Morris told reporters in Johannesburg that he would not be engaging Mr. Mugabe or members of his government on political issues.
"And I am not at all involved with the political issues in Zimbabwe," he stressed. "My concern, and the concern of the World Food Program, is that people don't starve, that their livelihoods are protected, and with a real special focus on vulnerable women and children."
Mr. Morris added that it would be the World Food Program and not the Zimbabwe government who would be responsible for the distribution of his organization's food aid.
"President Mugabe and I have had extensive conversations about the way the World Food Program works in his country, and we have a good understanding that there is to be no political interference in our work, that we are able to take our food wherever its needed in the country, and that we do our distribution through our NGO [non governmental organizations] partners," he said.
Mr. Morris's visit comes against the backdrop of a government crackdown on street traders and informal settlements. The government says its goal is to clean up its towns of unsavory and criminal elements, but critics charge the crackdown is a punishment for voters in urban areas who supported the opposition in the March election. The crackdown has been widely criticized by the opposition and humanitarian organizations.