She is the first head of a UN agency to visit Zimbabwe in three years, and her trip comes at the time of a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 2,000 people, food shortages affecting 5.5 million and a long-endured economic crisis that has paralysed the country.
During Veneman’s three-day mission she met aid workers, NGOs and President Robert Mugabe to discuss the humanitarian situation.
In response to questions from IRIN, Veneman said: “There has to be a humanitarian prioritisation of immediate needs … There should be planning in regard to rebuilding structures in health, education and sanitation. This is a country that has had one of the best education systems in Africa.”
The UN official said the collapse of services needed to be urgently tackled to create a better future for Zimbabwean children.
“There is an issue with water and sanitation systems which are old and will only spread diseases. As UNICEF, I don’t think we have the capacity to overhaul the water systems. However, we have a programme to drill 100 boreholes in areas in need of water.”
Zimbabwe was faced with many complicated and interlinked problems, she noted.
“The cholera outbreak is the tip of the iceberg. The economy in Zimbabwe is crumbling with the highest inflation rate in the world at 231 million percent. Over half the population is receiving food aid, health centres have closed and when the school term starts, there is no guarantee that there will be enough teachers.”
Veneman announced a US$5 million initiative involving UNICEF and humanitarian partners to provide striking public health workers with short-term financial "incentives" to encourage them to return to work. As the economy continues to disintegrate, women and children would have little or no access to health services, she said.
But major international aid is contingent on a workable and genuine power-sharing deal between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T).
Tsvangirai, who flew into Harare on 17 January for talks with Mugabe, said he would not allow MDC-T "to be bulldozed into an agreement which does not meet the aspirations of the people of Zimbabwe".
Tsvangirai, who has been based in neighbouring Botswana and South Africa for the past two months, said he hoped the 19 January meeting with Mugabe would "find a lasting solution to the crisis" – triggered by last year’s elections, almost universally condemned for the violence unleashed on the opposition.
South African President Kgalema Motlanthe is to mediate in the talks – aimed at clearing the hurdles to a unity government – joined by Thabo Mbeki, his predecessor, and Armando Emilio Guebuza, Mozambique’s president.