The heads of U.S. and international aid agencies say Zimbabwe's government must ensure food aid to the country is not politicized. The warnings came in testimony Thursday before a congressional committee examining the drought and food crisis affecting southern Africa, where an estimated 13 million people are facing shortages and possible famine.
Six countries are most severely affected. Of the 13 million people worst off, almost half are in Zimbabwe, a quarter in Malawi, with the rest in Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zambia.
Even as the international community responds, critics are drawing attention to what they call disastrous government policies making the situation worse. The focus Thursday was squarely on Zimbabwe.
Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, was blunt. "We have two reports in Zimbabwe, of politicized feeding, that people have been chosen for feeding based on political loyalties," he said. "In one line we had eyewitness accounts of children being taken out of feeding lines in a school, for supplemental feeding, whose parents were supporters of the democratic opposition in the last presidential election of President Mugabe. That is unacceptable."
Those two confirmed reports came from a private voluntary organization, Danish Physicians for Human Rights, and from the United Nations World Food Program, WFP.
In two recent meetings with President Mugabe, WFP Executive Director James Morris says he repeated that warning. "I made it very clear to him that we needed his cooperation to make it easy for us to do business in the country, both for the WFP and our NGO partners," he said. "I made it very clear to him that we would tolerate no political interference as to where we would do our work, that we would have access to the entire country. Third, I made it very clear to him that in our judgment there is no chance to solve the problem unless he is willing to let free market grain traders come in and provide part of the resources needed."
Mr. Morris believes he got his message across to the Zimbabwean leader. Earlier this week, the WFP chief said Mr. Mugabe had given assurances there would be no political favoritism.
USAID director Natsios says so far, none of the food mis-used for political purposes involved the 236,000 metric tons of U.S. grain that will have been shipped by July.
Mr. Natsios says there have been no similar problems in the other countries concerned. But he says if the problem in Zimbabwe continues, he intends to raise the stakes by drawing more public attention to the problem.
At Thursday's hearing, U.S. lawmakers expressed exasperation with the situation in southern Africa, which is made worse by HIV-AIDS. Here is the chairman of the House Africa subcommittee, Congressman Ed Royce:
"We need to be clear. This is not primarily a problem of drought, as the Mugabe regime would have the world believe," Congressman Royce said. "Not unlike in North Korea, we are confronting in Zimbabwe a regime that is willingly starving its political opposition."
Several African-American lawmakers cautioned against what they said was an effort to shift the focus of the hearing from economic causes of drought to political issues. Here is California Democrat Congresswoman Maxine Waters. "I am hopeful that we will not allow babies and children to die because we are concerned, or disagree with, and opposed to the policies of Mugabe in Zimbabwe," she said.
In response, Republican Congressman Chris Smith heatedly denied that any food aid would be held up because of the policies of President Mugabe. "Everyone is working to ensure that the suffering people have their needs met, notwithstanding what is one of the primary reasons for their suffering, and that is Mr. Mugabe in Zimbabwe," he said.
Witnesses said Zimbabwe and Malawi are the closest to outright famine. Bruce Wilkinson of the private aid group, World Vision, says things will be worse by September unless 1.2 million metric tons of food are sent immediately. He says the situation is compounded by the AIDS crisis in the region. "Not only are the people of southern Africa facing a devastating famine, but incredibly high rates of HIV-AIDS, ranging from 15 to 25 percent infection rates," he said. "This will result in a greater loss of life and more orphaned children."
Lawmakers also expressed concern Thursday about Angola, which was the subject of a separate hearing on Capitol Hill.
The French aid group Doctors Without Borders said this week nearly half-a-million Angolans are threatened by starvation. The group accused the Angolan government and the United Nations of moving too slowly. A U.N. coordinator in Luanda called that inaccurate and misleading.