HARARE, Zimbabwe – Name a former British colony whose post-independence leader immediately prioritized development, increased the minimum wage, redistributed land and supported neighboring South Africa’s democratic change. Zimbabwe likely does not come to mind.
Indeed, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe’s first cabinet set the nation on a progressive course in 1980, after formally receiving independence on April 18 of that year. Mugabe, perhaps the world’s most infamously corrupt leader, has consistently choked out free speech and the democratic process and is considered responsible for the nation’s decline into poverty.
Statistically speaking, Zimbabwe ranked “among the best in Africa” in health and education prior to 1990. In just over a decade, the poverty rate more than doubled, rising from 25% to 63% in 2003, largely due to an out-of-control economic crisis.
Agriculture and mining comprise nearly half of Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product; the nation’s economic potential stems from “rich mineral resources and a strong agricultural base.” The 1980s were a veritable economic roller coaster ride due to multiple droughts, foreign exchange issues and brief boosts of agricultural production supported by these resource pools.
A Change for the Worse
The 1990s and 2000s, on the other hand, were a steady downhill plunge.
In 1997, Mugabe faced political pressure from discontent constituents and an opposition party on the upsurge. In order to quell dissidents and guarantee continued rule, Mugabe paid off supporters, war veterans and any audience member at his political rallies to the tune of 50,000 Zimbabwe dollars (about $3,000.)
At the turn of the new millennium, Mugabe’s “chaotic” land reform program, price controls and unrealistic exchange rates stifled agriculture, panicked investors and irked democratic nations. The combined upshot of economic sanctions and uncontrollable debt contracted Zimbabwe’s economy by nearly 40% and resulted in unprecedented inflation rates.
The 2000s: Out of Control
By the mid-2000s, “hyperinflation” was an uncontrollable reality. Food, fuel and other shortages were commonplace any time the government intervened (either by strong-arming supermarkets to halve prices or simply by printing more money). Inflation reached 200 million percent in July 2008.
The following year, the economy was dollarized (Zimbabwe officially transitioned to the United States dollar) and hyperinflation declined, as it still does today (2013 estimates run at 8.5%).
For today’s Zimbabweans, the lingering effects of dollarization have resulted in New York City-level prices for nearly all goods. A haircut costs $20, a carton of yogurt costs $5. Dependence on importation and an overall shortage of U.S. dollars are to blame.
Demographic Trends Add Pressure
Zimbabwe grows at a 4.36% annual rate and has the second-fastest growing population in the world.
The “population pyramid” (long considered a benchmark for measuring the population trends) for Zimbabwe is shaped like the capital letter “A” as opposed to the stable square shape, indicating birthrates that significantly outpace death rates.
Over 38% of Zimbabwe’s entire population is less than 14 years old; the weight of malnutrition in Zimbabwe lands squarely on this sector.
This “extreme” situation is typically not sustainable; the 2012 Global Risks Report identified unsustainable population growth as a “key component” of water and food shortages, emigration and land use issues. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Zimbabwe has the world’s third highest emigration rate, a life expectancy of 55.68 years and a 72% impoverishment rate.
One in every three children is chronically malnourished or suffers from stunting, which contributes to 12,000 deaths each year. Malnutrition in Zimbabwe is most prevalent in rural areas, which are home for over 60% of the entire population.
Food Insecurity Reaches New Heights
For the nearly three-fourths of Zimbabweans living on less than $1.00 per day, food insecurity is of primary concern. The 2013 Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee estimated that 2.2 million people will go without sufficient food in the early winter months of 2014, the highest such figure since 2009 (a poor harvest is largely to blame).
Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP,) traveled to Zimbabwe in February and witnessed firsthand the devastation of a “lean season.” Rising grain and fertilizer prices have depleted agricultural regions’ already scarce resources; many communities “have no food stocks left” on which to subside.
Budget Cuts and Future Needs
Unfortunately, budget cuts to WFP activities eliminated some 600,000 vulnerable people from assistance programs, including any communities that fall outside of “worst-affected areas.” That being said, rationing, food vouchers and medical interventions have improved outlooks for a fortunate 1.2 million via WFP partnerships.
Cousin is optimistic that continued financial support will spur continued outside-the-box schemes to improve the outlook of malnutrition in Zimbabwe.
WFP’s innovative projects include a cash-back program for food vouchers (allowing recipients to buy an additional $5 worth of items at local retailers) and community engagement opportunities that also teach vocational skills.
Both aim to “provide the tools that will give [Zimbabweans] the opportunity to feed themselves and their children.”
Sources: Census Scope, Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook, Michigan State University, New Republic, Population Growth.org, Rural Poverty Portal, UNFPA, UNICEF, World Bank, World Food Programme, World Food Programme
Photo: Michael Justice Photo