The Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) Network has finally hit the nail on the head. While the debate about food in Zimbabwe rages on, the main problem at the moment is affordability rather than availability. People need cash to buy food rather than food aid itself.
According to its update for October, FEWS says due to higher than expected maize prices with no commensurate increase in rural incomes, more people in the rural areas are now in need of food aid than previously estimated because they can no longer afford to buy food at current prices. Even in urban areas, wages are lagging far behind the cost of living.
It says that while it had been anticipated that maize would be available from the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) at $471 a kg, the price had increased to $720 a kg at the GMB and was as high as $1 000 a kg on the parallel market.
Maize prices normally start going up in December-January, three months from the harvest, but this year, they started rising soon after the harvest.
“In the grain surplus areas of the north central part of the country, maize prices rose from $8 000 a bucket (18kg) in April-May to between $10 000 and $15 000 a bucket in October,” FEWS, which is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), says. “Maize prices in the deficit areas were in the $15 000 a bucket range after the harvest and went up to over $20 000 a bucket by the end of October.”
FEWS says food security continued to be eroded by high inflation. Though inflation had dropped from 622 percent in January to 209 in October, it remained among the highest in the world. Besides, the cost of basic commodities had shot up to nearly $1.5 million by September while the average salary for a commercial worker was a third of that.
The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVac) estimated in May that 2.2 million people would need food assistance of at least 52 000 tonnes from August to November.
The government stopped food assessments by the World Food Programme (WFP) in April claiming that the country had enough food. It said the country had harvested 2.4 million tonnes of maize, a figure disputed by aid agencies as well as the opposition Movement for Democratic Change which say the harvest is less than one million tonnes.
The government has been accused of inflating the harvest to give the impression that the land reform programme was a success while donors and the opposition are accused of underplaying the harvest to prove that it was a disaster.
A Parliamentary select committee which looked into food availability reported last week that the GMB only had 351 810 tonnes as at 18 October with some 224 554 tonnes to be imported. The country was therefore likely to run out of stocks before the next harvest.
While food agencies have been pressing the government to allow food aid into the country accusing it of planning to use food as a political weapon in next year’s elections, a special report on food aid in the German magazine “Development and Cooperation”, says the WFP tends to overestimate food aid needs because it underestimates farm yields.
It says “aid organisations are too fixated on food deficits and fail to consider the social situation of target groups as a whole. Because of this.. appraisals of the economic situation of aid recipients have tended to be inaccurate in the past.”
The report says that though food aid is essential because it saves lives in emergencies cash would be better because it is “considerably more efficient to give cash to the needy rather than food”.
It says that food aid is very expensive and is not always available when it is needed but rather whenever donors want to get rid of their surpluses.
“Food aid is big business and creates structures which are not easy to dismantle. Many actors involved earn a lot of money,” the report says.
It says transport and logistical services, for example, swallow up half of the budget for the World Food Programme’s Afghanistan operation.
The report quotes a World Bank official, Peter Midlebrook, as saying: “Food aid subsidises the transport sector more than it supports the rural poor.”
The United States, which supplies over half of all the food aid, for example, insists that all its food aid should be exportable surpluses. It also requires, by law, that 75 percent of commodities, including those for relief purposes, should be shipped in US registered vessels.