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Zimbabwe Struggles With Economic Problems

Finance Minister, Tendai Biti, says Zimbabwe has made some progress as the new administration struggles through its first 100 days to fix a country ravaged by hyperinflation and political and social violence.

President Robert Mugabe and political rival Morgan Tsvangirai joined a power-sharing administration in February and immediately started trying to raise billions of dollars needed to rebuild a country crippled by years of neglect and mismanagement.

Biti, a lawyer by profession who is also the secretary-general for the Movement for Democratic Change, spent his first day as finance minister trying to figure out how to find $28 million to pay public servants. The government had only $2 million in its coffers.

In an effort to shore up the difference, the government, under Biti's stewardship, abandoned the Zimbabwe dollar in favor of the U.S. dollar or the South African rand.

Civil servants are now paid $100 a month as allowances that are not taxable, but that will have to change soon he said.

Aid desperately needed

Biti adds that Zimbabwe desperately needs aid from the West beyond humanitarian assistance. Western countries have resisted giving aid because they say there are still too many outstanding problems with the power-sharing government.

"The West is being unscientific and ahistorical, what needs to be understood is that if this experiment fails, we have no cheaper alternative, no cheaper option," said Biti. "I speak as one, the only thing the struggle has not done to me is kill me. Prisons? I can write a guide book to Harare prisons."

Biti says he is hopeful that bit by bit there are signs the West is softening and there are signs that some in Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF are beginning to open the door to better governance.

"The balance of risk is now in favor of re-engagement and support. It can be pushed, only be pushed by resources," added Biti. "Where there is no resources and delivery, this dictator says, 'Why am I opening the door?', and we have opened the small door."

Problems remain

But problems in some sectors remain. Farmers say the just harvested maize crop will be less than a quarter of the country's needs.

To help restart food production by communal and small-scale farmers, Biti says he has asked the United States to remove restrictions on two key Zimbabwe banks, Agri Bank and Zim Bank.

As the government works its way through a host of problems facing the country, there are some signs of progress. Veteran commentator and political scientist Eldred Masunungure said the finance ministry had made a fundamental impact in first 100 days as there is food in the shops and in many rural areas, and the MDC is now able to operate freely.

People waiting

But he echoes Biti's comments about the need for Western aid and says without help, the small strides to better governance will be lost before elections in about two years.

Outside Biti's office each day are lines of people waiting to see him.

He said he wished he had time to attend to debate about a new constitution and the democratization of Zimbabwe, but that his days are long and tiring.

Biti says there are many expectations from the people, particularly those whose lives and property were destroyed during years of political strife.