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We should send food and medicines, not sanctions

After four weeks of delays, the election results are finally set to be announced in Zimbabwe following intense international and domestic pressure. The past month has witnessed violence and arrests that the opposition parties as well as foreign observers and human rights agencies claim are politically motivated. The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has claimed that at least 10 of its members have been killed, 800 houses belonging to its party workers have been burnt, and hundreds of its supporters have been arrested on fraudulent charges.2 However amidst the recount, delays, and intimidation the official results expected to be released later this week are likely to result in a victory for the opposition parties. People of Zimbabwe have voted for change and to put an end to the 28 year long rule of Robert Mugabe.3

Yet Zimbabwe’s problems will not end with a regime change and a smooth and peaceful transfer of power—which seems unlikely given Mugabe’s desperate attempts to cling onto power. The country faces extreme inflation exceeding 100,000 percent 4 this year, the worst for any country in the world. A U.S. $100 bill now buys 44 lbs of Zimbabwean currency. while a loaf of bread costs 7 million Zimbabwean dollars. And it only gets worse: current trends suggest inflation will spiral even further out of control in the upcoming months.5

Inflation represents only one of the problems of the country. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Zimbabwe has had negative GDP growth rate for the past decade, with GDP per capita falling by 40 percent in the past seven years. During the same time Zimbabwe has experienced a 51 percent drop in agricultural output, a 47 percent fall in industrial production, and a 35 percent decline in resources output.6 The alarming warning signs of the late 1990s led foreign investors to withdraw funds from Zimbabwe further aggravating the economic crisis and unemployment. Today, four in every five Zimbabweans looking for work are unable to find it even the the country’s literacy rate is highest in all of Africa. 7

Until last year Zimbabwe was self-sufficient in canned and processed food. 8 However, this year, according to UN World Food Programme estimates, 4.2 million Zimbabweans—a third of the population—will face serious food shortages.9 Many Zimbabweans have been forced to survive on one meal a day. Aid agencies are unlikely to gather enough support from the rest of the world as Zimbabwe has an appalling credit history. After defaulting on its foreign loans in 2004, Zimbabwe was suspended from the International Monetary Fund. Few countries would risk loaning money to Zimbabwe today. Already having substantial difficulty in handling the economy, the government has been unable to attend to other social needs of its citizens, which has resulted in poor health. Thanks in part to its appallingly high HIV/AIDS infection rate, Zimbabwe has the lowest average life expectancy in the world .10

Zimbabwe’s current situation is not representative of its resources or the abilities of its people. Not so long ago, the country was known as the bread basket of Africa11 for its bounteous exports of corn and other staples to the rest of the continent.12 Being rich in minerals, the nation exports copper, platinum, gold and other metals. The workforce too is one of the most educated and talented in the region.

Nor is the current crisis indicative of a greater regional trend. Neighboring countries, while not doing great, are still in much better shape than Zimbabwe. For instance, Zambia grew by 6 percent in 2007. Other neighboring countries have shown similar positive growth.

Even if the transfer of power does take place smoothly, the new government will have many challenges on its plate. This is the first time there has been a regime change in Zimbabwe, and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has no prior experience running a government. Seasoned policy makers would find revitalizing Zimbabwe an ordeal beyond imagination. In this time of grave humanitarian and economic crises, Zimbabwe definitely deserves international support and attention.

The U.S. State Department seems to disagree. Top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, pushed for UN sanctions on Zimbabwe as a world response to violence in the region.13 What Frazer does not realize is that the time lag in the execution of the legislation would result in it hitting the beleaguered Tsvangirai government, rather the oppressive Mugabe regime. Furthermore, sanctions can produce more harm than good in Zimbabwe right now. Pressure applied through sanctions may decrease political turmoil but this could potentially come at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans dying from hunger. The great world economic powers must play their role in recovering Zimbabwe from this doomsday scenario by offering substantial humanitarian aid and support. Hopefully, the U.S. State Department will gain some common sense.

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