By Stephen Gowans
There is no evidence that the government of Zimbabwe is using food “as a political tool to intimidate voters ahead of an election” or that it is deliberately denying “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Zimbabweans” food aid, as Human Rights Watch and The New York Times allege.
In fact, a careful reading of what both sources claim, points to a deliberate and knowing attempt to palter with the truth, reflecting and reinforcing a narrative that holds Africa, and particularly Zimbabwe, to be marked by suffering people, corrupt and monstrous governments, and endless chaos.
The New York Times began a June 4 article on Zimbabwe by announcing that “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Zimbabweans — orphans and old people, the sick and the down and out – have lost access to food and other basic humanitarian assistance.”
It’s true that Zimbabweans have lost access to food delivered by Western NGOs, but not food aid altogether, and only for the duration of the presidential run-off election campaign. In the interim, the government has made arrangements to take on the job of distributing food aid to those in need. No government-engineered famine is imminent, notwithstanding what The New York Times says.
Harare has ordered NGOs to temporarily scale back or cease operations, accusing them of illegally channeling funding to the opposition MDC party and in March’s elections of “going around threatening villagers in rural areas that the donations they were handing them would be the last if they voted for Zanu-PF and President Mugabe.”  It is out of a desire to eclipse Western interference in the election that the Zimbabwe government has taken this step.
Are the government’s accusations credible?
For the last seven years, the US and its allies have cut off all development assistance to Zimbabwe, disabled all lines of credit, stopped the World Bank and International Monetary Fund from providing financial assistance, and have pressured private companies from doing business with the country. The result has been “a form of collective punishment designed to destabilize the country and shake the population’s faith” in the government.  Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Zimbabweans — orphans and old people, the sick and the down and out – have suffered. And to hide their hand in creating the misery, the US and Britain and their allies have blamed it all on Harare’s land reform policies, an inversion of the causal chain. It was not Harare’s land reform policies that created the disaster, but the West’s meting out collective punishment in response to the land reform policies that undermined Zimbabwe’s economy and created widespread suffering.
It is hardly outside the realm of high probability, then, that Western governments that continue to use sanctions “to weaken the economy of the country, to get the people of Zimbabwe so poor and hungry they can change their voting behavior,”  would also use food aid directly as a political weapon to shape the outcome of the upcoming election through their influence over NGOs operating in the country. After all, creating hunger in Zimbabwe is exactly what Western governments have been doing for the last seven years, indirectly, through the use of sanctions.
But Human Rights Watch and The New York Times say nothing about Western sanctions and instead accuse the Mugabe government of making Zimbabweans miserable, and further, of deliberately inducing hunger. Human Rights Watch researcher for Africa, Tiseke Kasambala, accuses Harare of taking a decision “to let people go hungry,” citing it as “yet another attempt to use food as a political tool to intimidate voters ahead of an election.”  Kasambala conjures the impression that (a) the government is deliberately inducing hunger and (b) that this will somehow help Mugabe’s chances of winning the presidential election run-off poll. But while the HRW researcher says the government is letting people go hungry, he also complains that it is picking up the slack, delivering food aid in place of the NGOs. The government, he says, should not be distributing food but should “let independent aid agencies feed people.” 
Harare, then, stands accused of two opposing crimes: of letting people go hungry, and of delivering food aid (in place of NGOs) and thereby saving people from hunger. Kasambala’s “you’re guilty no matter what you do” approach reveals that what’s really at issue isn’t whether people will go hungry (and they won’t, though Harare’s accusers play politics by carefully couching their comments to make it seem a government-engineered famine is imminent); the real issue is who controls the food aid. The problem from Kasambala’s and New York Times reporter Celia Dugger’s point of view, is that it isn’t Western-funded NGOs that will be doling out relief for the duration of the election campaign. Dugger acknowledges that the government has bought 600,000 tons of corn to distribute to the hungry, but warns Harare could (not will, but could) use food “as an inducement to win support.”  Of course, she offers not a whit of evidence that it is doing so or will do so. On the other side, there is good reason to believe that if Western governments are consistent, they’ll use their funding arrangements with NGOs to extend their policy of bribing the people to vote for their candidate – this time with threats of food aid deliveries stopping if the wrong candidate is elected.
Kasambala, representing a rights organization that is dominated by the US foreign policy establishment, and can therefore hardly be expected to be politically neutral where Zimbabwe is concerned, goes further by predicting Harare will withhold food aid as “a political tool to intimidate voters ahead of (the) election.”  In a milieu in which the “media have long since largely abandoned any attempt at impartiality in its reporting of Zimbabwe, the common assumption being that Mugabe is a murderous dictator at the head of a uniquely wicked regime,”  Kasambala’s dark prediction has a ring of plausibility to it, but if you examine his accusation critically, it falls apart.
How, one might ask, could a government induce hunger and expect to win support, when a hungry electorate would be far more likely to vote against, not for, whoever caused the hunger? Indeed, the aim of sanctions is to create enough misery to force the voters to cry uncle by voting Mugabe out of office. It would surely be a government of fools that would add to the misery already created by sanctions by deliberately engineering more misery. This would serve the aims of the regime changers in the West, not Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party. According to Kasambala’s logic, if John McCain wants to win support, he should announce that, if elected, he will restore the draft and hike taxes sharply across-the-board.
Western media and organizations allied with US and British imperial goals are trying to create the impression that the government of Robert Mugabe is deliberately inducing hunger and using food aid to shape the outcome of the presidential run-off election, that is, when they’re not accusing him of planning to rig the election. One wonders why Mugabe would tamper with the election results if he is using food as a political weapon, and vice-a-versa. Apparently, the aim of the demonization campaign is to hurl as many accusations at Mugabe as possible, in hopes that some or all of them will stick, even if they’re mutually contradictory.
It is Western countries that have created hunger through a program of sanctions that has sabotaged the Zimbabwean economy and led to widespread misery and need for food aid. Mugabe’s government has temporarily suspended the operations of NGOs, not to seize control of the delivery of food aid for political gain, but to block Western governments from operating remotely through NGOs to channel funding to the campaign of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and to use food as a political weapon. If you read the Western press uncritically and absorb Human Rights Watch’s analyses without a healthy dose of skepticism, it doesn’t seem that way, but as Malcolm X once said, “If you’re not careful the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” 
1. Herald (Zimbabwe) May 29, 2008; June 4, 2008.
2. CPGB-ML Statement, “Hands off Zimbabwe,” May 12, 2008.
3. Peter Mavunga, Herald (Zimbabwe) May 3, 2008.
4. Guardian (UK), June 4, 2008.
6. New York Times, June 4, 2008.
7. Guardian (UK), June 4, 2008.
8. Seamus Milne, Guardian (UK), April 17, 2008.
9. New African, June 2008.
5 thoughts on “Zimbabwe: Politics and Food Aid”
Great article. Zimbabwe was known as the bread basket of Africa. Some would like it to become the bio-fuel tanker of the West. Surprise, surprise it’s about oil.
I found this article http://www.alternet.org/module/printversion/86984 I think it is close to your own principled anti-imperialist position.
“as Malcolm X once said, ‘If you’re not careful the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.’”
This is even more true now than in Malcolm X’s time.
Today, the American/Western media in particular and Capitalist media in general have developed a science doing what Malcolm talked about.
It’s not hyperbole to say that the American media is by far the greatest propaganda machine in human history.
Worst of all, this media is able to masquerade as a “free press” and is still seen by many people as the epitome of press liberty no less.
America has hijacked the very idea of Freedom itself and, in a perverse inversion, twisted it into a political mask for Capitalist tyranny.
The American media is the global Matrix in all but name.
thanks again for analysing and clearing the regular crap that is the mainstream media.
The point about the absence of impartiality is true enough. Here in England, TV news programmes do not even bother to report an opposing view: When Mugabe spoke at the food conference yesterday, TV news programmes showed a soundbite of him blaming UK and UK sanctions. This was not rebutted as being untrue – the existence of sanctions is not even mentioned. Indeed, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the third largest party in the UK parliament, today called on the government to do more to help oust Zanu-PF. The worst thing is that it’s never mentioned that Zimbabwe is a former British colony – there was talk of removing Mugabe’s knighthood, but no mention of why he got it in the first place. In the early nineties there was hunger in Zimbabwe, as in other countries in the region – but the difference was that then Mugabe was the golden boy, the example for post-apartheid South Africa to aspire to: multipartyism, continued foreign ownership of the economy.