Aid remains elusive for Zimbabwe

Harare – A Zimbabwean government plan to rescue the shattered economy hasn't made life any easier for many people who are losing patience with no Western aid in sight.

The credibility of the unity government between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai depends largely on its ability to persuade Western donors and foreign investors to pour billions of dollars into the country.

That could take months, or years, because donors first want serious political and economic reforms before making any commitments. So the new leadership will come under mounting pressure to ease widespread hardships in the meantime.

The unity government has launched a short term recovery plan designed to raise industrial output and remove government controls over the economy. It also involves political reforms.

The plan has injected life into what was a promising African economy before what critics say were catastrophic Mugabe policies such as seizures of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to inexperienced black farmers.

Shops are full, bank queues have disappeared and a decision to allow the use of multiple foreign currencies has provided some relief for Zimbabweans who have been battered by the world’s highest inflation rate.

People need help

The availability of more goods has opened opportunities to generate cash. But the real test is whether Mugabe and Tsvangirai can create jobs, with unemployment at 90%.

Japhet Ndoro, 40, earned a living by repairing watches and selling cheap jewellery at a busy Harare street corner. He can now offer cigarettes, vegetables and biscuits as well. It’s still a struggle nevertheless.

"It’s not easy making ends meet in this town, and I have had to hawk some foodstuffs here because many people can only afford essentials now," he said, pointing at vegetable bundles spread on a plastic mat next to his wooden watch repair stall.

There are still concerns that old rivals Mugabe and Tsvangirai may not be able to make the government work after decades of animosity, although political tensions have eased.

"People are suffering and that’s a reality. When you have 95% of the population living below the poverty line, surviving on less than 20 cents a day, that’s a disaster. So I think our people need help," Finance Minister Tendai Biti told BBC Radio 4.

At first people like Jeminosi Gumbo cheered a new monthly flat $100 wage the practically bankrupt government started paying to all civil servants – from the head of a ministry to an office cleaner.

Tighter in rural areas

But daily costs are still crippling and the money doesn’t go very far on covering transport, food and school fees. On average, a civil servant spends half his wages on rent.

"It’s very tough, and I think it’s going to stay like this for a while," said Gumbo, a senior accounts clerk in a government department.

The 56-year-old father of five is still overwhelmed despite earning an extra $200 by hawking used clothes at a flea market.

"The government just has to put more effort to ease our plight," he said.

Money is even tighter in rural areas.

Villagers in some districts are forced to barter to access some services. Hospital fees are paid with beans, groundnuts and chickens and repairing many dilapidated medical facilities may not be possible without enough foreign aid.

Zimbabwe has secured $400m in credit lines from African states to revive its ailing industries, state media reported on Wednesday, in the first major financial package since a unity government was formed.

Donors remain sceptical

That won’t come in time for thousands of disgruntled teachers who are threatening to strike again before the new school term next week if wages are not raised.

The southern African state’s vital industrial sectors are operating at below 20% of capacity, and the new government, even with support from some UN agencies, is struggling to meet the current wage bill.

"The government is in a difficult situation to deliver quickly, but both industry and ordinary people are desperate and will be pressing," said John Robertson, a Zimbabwean private economic consultant.

Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has driven about a quarter of the 12 million population abroad, many to neighbouring South Africa, to scratch a living. Many are waiting to see if the new government can deliver before they consider returning.

Those who stayed may have been encouraged by the power-sharing deal. But it’s difficult to keep hopes up, especially when Western donors remain sceptical.

"At 31, I should be taking care of myself but I am having to rely on a subsidy from a sister who is in London," said Josephine Banda, a teller with a commercial bank in Harare. – Reuters