ZIMBABWE is grappling with its worst drought in decades which has left nearly half the population in need of food aid. Early this month the United Kingdom (UK) announced it had increased humanitarian assistance to Zimbabwe through the Department for International Development (DfID). The UK also partnered Zimbabwe’s commercial grain traders through an import facility for 55 000 metric tonnes of white maize to be sold on the open market to avert the food crisis. Zimbabwe Independent reporter Hazel Ndebele (HN) caught up with DfID head in charge of Zimbabwe, Annabel Gerry (AG), who explained details of the facility and the UK’s position on the politicisation of humanitarian aid and food. Below are excerpts of the interview:
HN: More than 5,2 million people in Zimbabwe will require humanitarian assistance by March 2017 due to the El Niño-induced drought and the UK has pledged support worth US$73 million. Can you give us a breakdown of these funds and what they will be used for?
AG: UK humanitarian support from September 2015 to March 2017 now totals £55,6 million (US$73 million). The exchange rate we used for figures is £1=US$1,3. This includes an additional £32 for electronic cash payments to the poorest who have reached 360 000 and we are paying them US$7 per person per month, making a total of £42 (US$54,6 million).
An additional £8 million (US$10 million) for prevention and treatment of acute malnutrition, and 12 000 will receive treatment and £5,6 million (US$7,3 million) for child protection. The additional UK support on malnutrition responds to information from the July Zimbabwe vulnerability assessment which showed an increase in risk and occurrence of malnutrition as a result of the drought.
HN: What is the aim of the grain market facility in which the UK partnered with Zimbabwe’s commercial grain traders?
AG: Given the cash crisis in Zimbabwe, the private sector is struggling to pay for grain imports and the key constraint is their inability to transfer the US dollar out of Zimbabwe. Therefore, the UK has designed an innovative solution to help ensure that commercial grain traders are able to purchase grain on international markets. DfID is not providing a grant or subsidy and is not purchasing or distributing the food. Commercial grain traders will import 55 000 metric tonnes of maize to sell on the open market. This is a third of the food gap, enough to meet over 1,6 million people’s food requirements for three months.
This time (of the year) is critical as we are entering the peak hunger season with 5,2 million people affected by the El-Niño-induced drought. The facility allows commercial grain traders to deposit funds with Crown Agents in Zimbabwe. The UK credits equivalent funds to Crown Agents to settle approved international grain import contracts on behalf of importers. It is a facility only unique to Zimbabwe as we are trying out because of the cash shortages.
HN: How were commercial grain traders selected?
AG: Crown Agents have run a competitive selection to identify reputable commercial grain traders who are able to supply grain into remote rural markets in Zimbabwe, including those where our humanitarian effort is concentrated. Crown Agents conducted a rigorous due diligence that is used for all suppliers. International standards have been applied.
Once due diligence had been met, the selection was done on commercial criteria, including price, track record and capacity to supply rural markets. To ensure transparency, Crown Agents consulted with relevant private sector associations, the Grain Millers’ Association of Zimbabwe and Oilseed Traders’ Association of Zimbabwe to ensure that all relevant commercial entities were invited to apply. The facility was designed to work with existing market and minimise disruption.
HN: How will you ensure that the distribution of the grain will not be on a partisan basis?
AG: No government entity or political party is involved in deciding where or to whom the food should be sold. The facility is a business arrangement and is supporting the private sector to perform its normal market function.
Commercial importers will sell maize-meal through their existing depots, including the drought affected areas.
Therefore, the people we are assisting with funds through electronic mobile transfers can then also manage to purchase the maize.
HN: You said humanitarian assistance is not channelled directly to government, but we have reports that between 2008 and 2009, 27% of the aid was channelled directly to government. What is your comment on this?
AG: I do not think that is true, I was not here then and we do not have the records, but our policy is definitely not to go through government. We cannot go through government because the financial systems need to be very robust.
HN: What is the UK’s position on the politicisation of food aid?
AG: We are concerned about politicisation of aid in Zimbabwe. We have written to the government of Zimbabwe to express our concern, and take every opportunity to push for greater transparency and controls across all aid operations whether donor-supported or government-led.