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Volume 405: debated on Monday 19 May 2003

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Jim Fitzpatrick.]

10.22 pm

I am grateful to the Minister for being present at this late hour. I requested the debate because I have had contact for some time through the churches in my constituency with people who are doing work on the front line in Zimbabwe. They have valuable intelligence about the reality of events in some rural areas in Zimbabwe and also identified an aspect of information from the Department in Africa that perhaps does not portray a true picture of the position in Zimbabwe. I want to share some of the feedback from those people with the Minister and ask whether she can take action through our offices in Zimbabwe to try to improve the predicament that undoubtedly faces people in rural areas.

The specific concern arose through information from the Department for International Development office in Harare about the amount of food support that is being provided to rural areas through non-governmental organisations. Some people in my constituency who expressed anxiety to the Department were recently reassured that the position was not as bad as they had believed and that some 90 per cent. of the people in the affected areas were receiving food support from the UK through NGO partners. The people with whom I am in contact said that that was not the case and that the aid was not getting through.

I want therefore to share with the Minister some of the feedback that I received from those people. I am sure that she understands that, since we are in a public forum, I want to protect the identities of those involved. However, I hope that she accepts my assurance that the reports are well founded and from people who are genuinely in the front line of the affected areas.

The Binga district is the area of especial anxiety. It is close to Lake Kariba in western Zimbabwe and is one of the areas that was most affected by political, socio-economic and drought-related developments in recent times. I shall read the response from the head of a church denomination in Bulawayo who has been in contact with people in Binga. He said:

"The Binga district, covering around 100 square kilometres, is arguably the most underdeveloped part of Zimbabwe. The Tonga people are disadvantaged educationally and in every other way. It is a malarial area and people have low incomes…The people feel neglected and there is enormous resentment against the government. Before the Presidential elections food was sent to Binga and it was made clear that this was an incentive to vote for Robert Mugabe. There were threats and intimidation but the biggest vote for the MDC was polled in this area. The mayor actually spoke out against the President in public. Before the local elections there was widespread intimidation, violence, killings and the destruction of homes by government-sponsored agents. All food distribution by NGOs was suspended but still the people voted for MDC. There is very little food now in Binga and this is a deliberate political decision on the part of the government in retaliation for the MDC vote."
One of my constituents' contacts on the ground in western Zimbabwe put questions to a Binga resident. One question related specifically to the Department's comments about the supposed supply of food through NGO partners. The questioner said:
"It is claimed that this area is supported at a much higher level than many other districts. Is this true?"
The response was:
"No it is not true. Many people are starving in Binga. I have come to Bulawayo to get help for desperate people. The District Administrator was attacked last month because the people are hungry."
The question was asked:
"What evidence do you have of the problem?"
The gentleman replied:

"Firstly I am closely connected to the local task force for drought relief. Secondly I know the situation in the church I attend. One quarter of the people in that church are desperate. They have been living on local wild fruits for two and a half months and many of them are getting sick and dying. The rest of the church have very little and are malnourished. People are continually bringing starving children to my door asking for help. I have connections with 15 other churches within a 30 km area and the situation is the same in every one."
The question was asked:
"Are the NGOs operating in your area?"
The reply was:

"I think that CADAC has resumed giving school children some relief but there is only limited distribution by other agencies. There are some important factors here. People at the top of these organisations may not realise the true nature of the situation. When the government came to power the traditional structures of authority in the rural areas were ignored by the government. Now the local chiefs are on the government pay-roll."
I met one of the relief workers who had come back to England 10 days ago. She said that the chiefs as a group had always been relatively independent from the Government, and as such were a trusted conduit for aid. Recently, however, the Government had started to pay many of them, and as a result there was much closer centralised control of the distribution networks.

The contact explained:

"Most NGOs do not have a grass-roots network in this area. They rely on the chiefs and their assistants to supply a list of people eligible to receive food. The chiefs are under instructions that food should go to card-carrying Zanu-PF people. So many people never receive food even when a distribution occurs. In an area where the infrastructure is so poor and people are scattered over a wide area linked only by dirt roads, it is hard for the agencies to monitor what is happening effectively. At the present time 90 per cent. of the people of Binga are not being fed by the UK through NGOs or by anyone else."
That is the key concern. It may appear at first glance to Ministers and officials at the centre that food supplies are being provided through the local networks and the tribal chiefs and are ultimately being received, but feedback from the ground suggests that that is not the case. It appears that the food that is being distributed is going to people on approved lists, which are under the control of the tribal chiefs—who themselves are now salaried employees of the Government. The mechanism exists in local communities to cut off those seen as hostile to the regime.

I do not doubt the motivation of our officials on the ground, but although they may believe that the food is being channelled through the NGOs, ultimately—because the grass-roots networks do not exist—they are operating on hearsay. They are relying on the word and confirmation of the tribal chiefs. Evidence from the few people who are still working in humanitarian areas in that part of Zimbabwe—I admire their bravery—suggests that the food is not getting through to those who need it most.

Let me also share with the Minister some feedback from a western aid worker on the ground in Zimbabwe, who is still doing extremely important work in the communities there. She said to me:
"I am confident that you will protect my identity for the sake of the work I am doing."
I am doing just that tonight. She, too, has talked about the NGOs feeding people in the Binga area of Zimbabwe. She says:

"I am involved in relief work and know that this is not the case. The distribution of this information presents a challenge to our credibility. Please bear with me asking for your help to put the record straight on behalf of the starving people in Binga District, Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe."
The aid worker goes on to give further political background information on the nature of the population in the area. They are people who were displaced as a result of the flooding to create the Kariba dam. She says:
"most of the government officials, teachers and other important roles in that area have been filled by Shona speakers brought into the area from Mashonaland—the northern provinces of Zimbabwe, the heartland of the ruling ZANU-PF party. This has resulted in the marginalizing of the Tonga and Ndebele peoples"—
—the traditional occupants of that area. She goes on:
"The Shona speakers have continued to be given food during the famine and those who are registered by the local headmen have also been assisted."
That relates to the point that I was making a moment ago. She continues:

"Food distribution in every area is based on lists of registered people provided by the traditional leaders. These traditional leaders, ignored by the government for many years, are now well paid and therefore tend to comply with government demands. Hence the needy are still marginalized as, if they do not speak Shona or carry a ZANU-PF party card, it is assumed they belong to the MDC."
One of the tragedies in all this is that there are people who are genuine victims who have no interest or involvement in politics at all, and who perhaps did not even vote in the recent elections. They might be illiterate or cut off from other communities. They are being treated as political pariahs and, as a result, do not receive food. The aid worker goes on to say:
"Amounts of food are being increased but politics not vulnerability is the measuring rod for eligibility. In some areas people who do not belong to the party will buy a card but still many will not compromise with murderers, thieves and liars."
She goes on to restate the point about the amounts of food available.

"Only a few weeks ago we received an urgent cry for help because many people still had no food. They have been surviving by crushing a small wild fruit, mixing it with water to make a thin soup. Now there are no more fruits. This diet has made many sick. The fact that we were contacted means that food supplies are inadequate."
The aid worker also confirms the point made about the activity of the NGOs. She says:
"The main NGO in Binga has always been the Catholic Church through CADAC. Around election time CADAC's distributions were stopped and so were those of Save the Children UK. This was largely because the mayor of Binga spoke out against the government during a pre-election visit by Robert Mugabe. The Catholic church has also taken a firm stand against human rights abuse. There is no doubt in anyone's mind that food deprivation was used as a punishment. CADAC is operating again distributing a high-protein drink in schools and Save the Children is doing some work. ORAP"—
the Organisation of Rural Associations for Progress—
"under the World Food Programme have taken in seed and fertilizer but we know that in many cases the seed was washed and eaten rather than sown."
She goes on:

"We do not dispute that Britain is assisting the hungry people of Zimbabwe and we are very grateful for all that is being done. It is not the fault of the NGOs as they can only go where the government allows access and it is hard to accurately monitor the situation without independent grass-roots contacts. This letter is just to put the record straight. Britain was definitely not providing food for 90 per cent. of the people of Binga…We are convinced that there is still a great need for further help in that area as in other parts of Zimbabwe. Matabeleland, comprising the southern provinces of Zimbabwe, has not benefited from the rainfall that the north has received and will therefore continue to need a lot of assistance in the months ahead."
There is a concern at the heart of the matter: the Government are sending one message about the support that we are providing through the NGOs—the Department is saying that it is all fine and all sorted—but smaller NGOs are still looking to operate almost under the radar, which they can do on the ground because they are small and not noticed, while turning to their supporters in this country and saying, "Please provide us with extra support." If the Department is sending such a message, that support will not be forthcoming.

That is the real worry of those NGOs. They believe that they are operating on the front line, and that they have a distinct and unique ability to make a difference on that front line in a country where some hardships are creating desperation. They are extremely concerned that Ministers get the message, "It's not all working according to plan. The things you are trying are not getting to the front line in the way that you hope they are." If the Department gives out the wrong message, that will make it more difficult for those who are there to secure the support—financial and otherwise—from within this country to help them to carry on with their work.

It is very much my hope that that information from the front line in Zimbabwe gives the Minister an additional backcloth to events and helps her to provide a briefing to her office in Zimbabwe on the issues on that front line. I hope also that it enables her, her Department and the NGOs, both large and small, working in Zimbabwe to make a difference in a country where there is undoubtedly huge human hardship. We may not be able to do all that we would like to ease that hardship because of the nature of the regime, but every small thing we can do is clearly not only desirable, but necessary.

10.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for international Development
(Ms Sally Keeble)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing the debate and his presentation of the issues, which was clear and helpful. I assure him of two things: first, the concern about the plight of the Zimbabwean people, especially in the rural areas that he described, is shared equally across all parties. We on the Government side certainly are not complacent about the position of people in Zimbabwe, and I welcome the chance to set out some of our approach, because quite a few issues are worth rehearsing and explaining.

Secondly, I understand why the hon. Gentleman is protective of the contact with his constituents. I pay tribute to them and the work that they do in extraordinarily difficult circumstances and at considerable risk to themselves to meet profound humanitarian needs. Labour Members would not look to increase the pressure on them any further.

I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's points, but, perhaps at the end of my speech, I will give reassurances on how the information that he has provided will be treated and fed back into the system. Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis is, of course, part of a wider political and economic crisis. Unfortunately, the suffering of ordinary Zimbabweans will continue, despite the best efforts of the international community, until the appalling failures of the Mugabe regime are reversed. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that at the heart of the matter is a profound political problem. It is not just humanitarian.

I assure the hon. Gentleman of the Government's commitment in relation to Zimbabwe. We have pressed extremely hard for reform and will continue to do so, but we cannot secure change on our own. Therefore, we strongly welcome the recent initiatives that have been taken by the Presidents of South Africa, Nigeria and Malawi to start a dialogue between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change. Pressure from the African Governments is essential to deliver the change of policies and a return to legitimate democracy that Zimbabwe so badly needs.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Zimbabwean Government's disastrous land reform programme is at the heart of the crisis. Far from improving agricultural productivity or helping the poor, it has contributed to a humanitarian crisis that is deeper than any in recent times; far from learning from elsewhere, it ignores international recommendations and the Zimbabwean Government's own principles, which were adopted at international conferences.

It was clear at independence that land reform was needed. Since independence, Britain has provided £500 million in bilateral support for development work in Zimbabwe and £47 million specifically for land reform, of which £3 million was returned because of a lack of specific proposals on land reform. We have not reneged on the Lancaster house commitments and we continue to want land reform, but Zimbabwe needs reforms that benefit the poor, not Mugabe's henchmen, which is one of the reasons why there are particular problems in rural areas.

The situation of the ordinary people in Zimbabwe in rural and indeed urban areas is increasingly difficult. Food shortages affecting nearly 7 million people—more than half the population—have been well publicised but that is just one aspect of the crisis facing the poor. Access to official assistance for education, Government food aid, justice and medical treatment can depend on where people live and, as the hon. Gentleman said, which party they support. Constitutional rights are being abused by the very institutions of state responsible for their protection.

Zimbabwe has the fastest collapsing economy in the world. Falling exports mean that there is little foreign exchange to buy food, fuel or power. Jobs are disappearing. Officially, inflation is 228 per cent. and growing at about 10 per cent. a month. Even for those with cash, prices are rising rapidly and basic goods are often unavailable except on the black market. Attempts to control prices and to operate subsidies without making financial provision have served only to distort markets and cause shortages and fuel inflation.

In total, about 70 per cent. of people live below the poverty line. People are increasingly dependent on informal livelihoods and food aid. Many skilled Zimbabweans are opting for emigration in the hope of a better life.

Order. It is not the convention to have interventions from the Opposition Front Bench.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I will come on to some of the specific points about food aid. It is also important to set some of the difficulties in the wider context. I know that hon. Members have raised questions about the Government's approach more generally to what is happening in Zimbabwe. It is important to take this opportunity to deal with those concerns, but I will of course deal with the remarks of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, too.

As the hon. Gentleman said, my Department provides substantial support for Zimbabwe. We are the second largest bilateral donors and have made substantial increases in assistance to protect the poor and vulnerable. Our programme is now entirely focused on humanitarian assistance.

The new maize harvest is improving the position in Zimbabwe in the short term but the Zimbabwean Government have failed to import significant volumes of food or to help some areas for many months. Areas where there has been no harvest will continue to depend on international aid throughout the year. We expect a serious national food shortage to re-emerge by the end of the year. As yet, the Zimbabwean Government have not given any plan for tackling it.

The international relief effort over the past year, led by the United Nations World Food Programme, has been substantially successful within the terms in which it can operate: providing humanitarian assistance. The US, the EC and the UK have been the major donors.

A national survey of health and nutrition status shows that there has been only a slight increase in the rate of malnutrition overall. Of course, any loss of life is extremely harsh. Many lives have been lost through AIDS—about 3,000 a month—but there has been little evidence of deaths related solely to malnutrition,. Of course, many other conditions are associated with the circumstances and humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe, which will, sadly, produce deaths.

In addition to funding food assistance, the donors have funded monitoring programmes to examine carefully the way in which our assistance is provided and its effectiveness at reaching people in the front line. We have difficulties, because the Zimbabwean Government also produce a large amount of food aid, about which I shall speak briefly later. We are not provided with information about the way in which that aid is distributed, and there is a substantial question mark over it.

The Zimbabwean Government must play a major role in providing food assistance but, as has been said, that role is biased. The Zimbabwean Government were the largest importer of food overall in 2002, but—as the hon. Gentleman highlighted—there was no transparency in the way in which they distributed their food stocks and there were widespread complaints that they were both biased and corrupt.

By contrast, the food aid provided by the UN and by donors, including DFID, is not distributed through Government channels and is allocated strictly on the basis of humanitarian need. The international efforts are closely monitored to ensure that this humanitarian approach is maintained. All of DFID's humanitarian effort has been independent of the Zimbabwean Government.

I note the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the Binga area. We were aware of the disruption caused to food distribution there, in particular the distribution through Save the Children and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, which have been feeding about 90 per cent. of the local population. We understood that the concerns had been resolved to a great extent and that the food aid had been resumed. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman will not want to disclose the identities of those who provided him with information, but I shall check what he said and provide him with written assurances about the area. However, our information was that the problems had been resolved, or at least that the feeding programmes had been resumed.

That is the nub of the point. It is my constituent's belief that her information is precisely that. However, it is simply a question of whether the sources of information are giving a true reflection of the realities on the ground. It may not be easy to check that, but it would be helpful if the Department looked at ways of doing that.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. He will understand that, in such a situation—where people are operating in an extremely difficult environment and depend on donors who have to operate under great pressure—we are confident that we have monitoring regimes in place. Our food aid does not go through the corrupt political channels; but if there are allegations to the contrary, they must be looked at and checked and I shall certainly make sure that that happens. I have the greatest respect for the work that our people do in Zimbabwe and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that our information is the best we have, based on careful distribution and monitoring arrangements.

One of our concerns about the coming year is that the Zimbabwean Government's food imports are likely to be reduced because the economic crisis means that they have fewer resources available for foreign purchases. The task for the international community might be as large as, or greater than, it has been during the last year.

I wish to deal briefly with the pressure that the UK has applied, a concern raised by the Conservative party. The British Government have spoken out for a long time about democratic rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe. We have supported EU and Commonwealth attempts at dialogue and eventual censure, and debate at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. The EU renewed targeted sanctions against 79 members of the ZANU-PF leadership in February.

The EU issued declarations on Zimbabwe in February and March, expressing concern at the increasing incidence of arrests, inhuman treatment and torture of members of the opposition and of civil society, and called on the Government of Zimbabwe to respect human rights and to end the harassment and violence that have become such a part of the political landscape. We are also working with others in the international community to lobby for change in the economic and social policies that are at the root of the crisis. We will of course continue to bring pressure to bear. The recent increase in violence and political retribution has shocked other African leaders, who have publicly supported Zimbabwe until now. We therefore very much welcome the efforts of the Presidents of South Africa, Nigeria and Malawi to generate genuine interparty dialogue and to find a way forward for the people of Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe's crisis and the increase in poverty are the results of adherence to ill-judged and failed policies, and of the disastrous regime of Robert Mugabe. Economic mismanagement has led to shortages of food and fuel, high and rising inflation, a rapid increase in unemployment, a fall in real incomes and, as the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell has outlined, disastrous consequences for some of the poorest people in Zimbabwe. The failed land reform—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.