Biti says aid needed to avoid disaster

HARARE – Zimbabwe’s Finance Minister, Tendai Biti, said the country needs urgent financial help to avoid “disaster,” the first time he has acknowledged the depth of the crisis since taking up his post last month.

Biti was appointed on February 11 as part of a power-sharing government between his Movement for Democratic Change and President Robert Mugabe’s ruling party. Together with other government officials he has held talks with South Africa and other southern African countries where he sought about $2 billion to revive the country’s economy, ease a famine and tackle a cholera epidemic over the rest of this year.

“Our political recovery, even political stability, is linked directly to our economic recovery,” Biti said in a telephone interview. “We can’t afford to fail with this transitional government because failure spells disaster for Zimbabwe. We need help or we perish.”

Biti’s appointment was part of a political agreement that ended an impasse between the MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front following the MDC’s boycott of presidential polls in June because of alleged attacks on the party’s supporters. Zimbabwe has been in recession for a decade and shortages of good ranging from gasoline to staple foods have shut most schools and hospitals.

Biti, who is also the secretary-general of the MDC, said the country may descend into “chaos” without help from governments. Money channeled through aid organizations won’t suffice, Biti said.

IMF Team

Australia said March 11 that it would allocate 10 million Australian dollars ($6.6 million) to Zimbabwe, split between the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and Britain’s Department for International Development.

The finance minister welcomed the Australian donation, the first since the formation of the joint government on Feb. 13.

A team from the International Monetary Fund is in Zimbabwe until March 24 to review Zimbabwe’s economic situation and prospects, the lender said March 5. The IMF stopped lending to Zimbabwe in 1999 over the valuation of the Zimbabwe dollar and a presence of Zimbabwean troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2003 the Washington-based lender suspended Zimbabwe’s voting rights.

As many as 7 million Zimbabweans, over half the population, rely on food aid and 94 percent of the population has no formal employment, according to the UN. Over 4,000 people have died since August because of a cholera epidemic, according to the World Health Organization.

The U.S., one of Zimbabwe’s biggest donors, last week extended targeted sanctions against Mugabe and members of his party. (Bloomberg)