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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

8 December 2005

The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe was extremely serious and worsening by the moment, Jan Egeland, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.

Reporting on his just-concluded mission to Zimbabwe, he said it was hoped that working together, the United Nations, Zimbabwe’s Government and donors could turn a corner, work in a climate of fewer obstacles and break the vicious circle that had locked the people of Zimbabwe into declining standards of living.

Having just returned from Zimbabwe yesterday, he said his mission to that country, from 3 to 7 December, had been agreed upon at a meeting between President Mugabe and the Secretary-General during the General Assembly’s general debate in September. He had visited a number of United Nations and non-governmental assistance projects around Harare, in the capital and in the south in Bulawayo. He had met with a range of Government officials, and had had a two-hour meeting with President Mugabe, during which he had raised all issues of concern to the humanitarian community in Zimbabwe. He also had a tête-à-tête meeting with President Mugabe to follow up on the United Nations future work and presence in the country.

Given the fact that the average life expectancy was almost half of what it was less than two decades ago, the situation in Zimbabwe could be seen as that of a collapse.

Meeting with the country’s AIDS orphans, of which there were 1 million, had been “heartbreaking”, he said. It had also been heartbreaking to meet with people who feared the future because of food insecurity, which was affecting the majority of the people. Prices were spiralling as food was become increasingly scarce. It was also heartbreaking to meet with the victims of the eviction campaign last summer, who were back in the same place, only in much worse shelter than the houses that had been bulldozed.

The United Nations wanted to do more to help the people of Zimbabwe, he said. In that regard, it had launched last week an appeal for some $276 million for food aid, medical assistance, water and sanitation and general assistance. At the moment, the United Nations was feeding more than 2 million people in the country. In January, it would be feeding 3 million, and that number could grow to 4 million in the spring period before the April harvest.

The United Nations also hoped to provide agricultural and livelihood assistance to 1.4 million people, to immunize more than 5 million children and to give basic health care and drugs to 3.6 million people affected by disease, including the millions of AIDS sick, he added. The United Nations also hoped to be able to give 600,000 mothers and children health care and to improve the water and sanitation conditions for 2.4 million people.

Progress had been made in talks with the Government in some crucial areas, he said. During the visit, his main message had been, “help us help you help your people”. Agreement had been reached on the need to do more to cut the procedures and obstacles which were affecting the United Nations’ ability to work in the country’s crisis situation. The idea now was to have a “one-stop shop” on the Government side, and one within the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on the humanitarian side for the non-governmental organizations who had faced many obstacles in their work.

He said agreement had also been reached on the establishment of a task force on food security, where agencies, such as the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) could work with the Governments to come out of the vicious circle of declining food production in a country that could feed itself. Progress had also been made on food distribution and the provision of 2,500 shelter units to the victims of the eviction campaign.

Asked whether it was correct to say that the number of people initially displaced by the bulldozing, some 700,000, were back in the same place, he said that was not entirely correct. The eviction campaign was an area of disagreement, both in terms of its nature and effects. The Government argued very strongly that it was an urban renewal campaign against illegal housing, businesses and practices, similar to that taking place in many other countries.

The United Nations, on the other hand, believed it was one of the worst things at the worse possible moment in Zimbabwe, he continued. According to the very good report of the Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, Anna Tibaijuka, some 700,000 had been directly affected. Those people were now either living with family or friends somewhere in the country, out in the open or back in the exact same place, like the old Grandmother he met, who had showed him the bricks from which her house had been made and the shack of plastic and branches where she lived today. A few were now moving into Government housing, but the number was very few compared to the number evicted.

Asked to elaborate further, he said the number of people in Government housing would be in the single digit thousands –- perhaps a couple thousand more would move in to those houses. In total, the Government was planning to complete in the next few weeks 5,500 housing units. Many of those who would be going into them were police or Government people, who had been directly affected by the eviction campaign. The majority were living somewhere with other people, overcrowding already bad housing. Thousands were in two big camps outside of Harare. In that context, it was incomprehensible that the tents put up by the United Nations in October had been torn down.

Talking about agreements and conversations with the Government that most of the world held responsible for the very condition Zimbabwe was currently in seemed quite “surreal”, one correspondent said. Had President Mugabe taken any responsibility for the current situation?

Responding, he said it was not surreal that the United Nations worked in countries in adverse political situations in which there was both Government and non-government action against the people they wanted to reach. In the Sudan, for example, the United Nations was sheltering millions displaced in ethnic cleansing campaigns, in which there had been heavy Government complicity in 2004. It was very important that the world not politicize humanitarian assistance in Zimbabwe. Agreements on AIDS work were fully holding in all aspects of the United Nations work. Zimbabwe was, in fact, one of three countries in Africa with a documented declining HIV rate. Progress had also been made in the area of food distribution and shelter.

Asked to comment on the argument that the situation in Zimbabwe had been politicized, Mr. Egeland said that while massive eviction campaigns had taken place in other parts of the world, the point was that Zimbabwe was in deep crisis. Millions of people had their back to the wall and were simply trying to feed themselves. Taking away the modest shelter and informal livelihoods of some 700,000 people was the worst thing that could have happened. While not unique, it had not made it better.

Asked whether an explanation had been given on the decision to take down the tents put up by the United Nations, he said the Government believed that the tents gave the impression that the country was in a crisis. In that regard, he said tents were also used in places such as Europe and North America. Permanent shelter always took too much time. President Mugabe was very against tents. On that issue, he had not been able to convince him at all.

Regarding United Nations houses, he said there were plans to build some 2,500 prefabricated temporary shelters. The units, which could be later extended, were one room prefabricated houses, similar to those built in Tsunami-effected areas. The United Nations was also providing plastic sheeting for people living in shelters made out of plastic and branches.

Responding to another question, Mr. Egeland said he did not know what people thought of his statements. What he told the press was exactly what he told President Mugabe and Government officials. He was as frank and open with Government representatives as with the media. He stood by Ms. Tibaijuka’s report “from A to Z”.

What had President Mugabe asked for in the meeting? a correspondent said. Responding, he said the President had asked him to portray the true picture of the situation. In some areas, they had agreed on the true picture, in others they had not. President Mugabe had also asked for a visit by the Secretary-General, who had, in principle, accepted that invitation. Such a visit would presumably be in the first half of next year. If there were a visit, however, it would have to be action-oriented.

While President Mugabe denied that there was a shelter crisis due to the eviction campaign, he agreed fully that there was a tremendous AIDS crisis. He also agreed that there was a big food insecurity problem. With inflation at 400 per cent, people were not even close to having the buying power needed to buy food on the market commensurate with the explosion of prices.

Regarding the issue of AIDS, the United Nations was working very closely with UNAIDS and UNICEF. The AIDS problem, however, was not unique to Zimbabwe. In Swaziland, HIV prevalence was now 40 per cent. The West was not even close to understanding how AIDS was wiping out an entire generation.

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For information media • not an official record

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