Finance Minister Bogged Down In Search Of Elusive Aid

Washington, DC – Despite reports of growing divides in embattled Zimbabwe's unity government, Finance Minister Tendai Biti called for increased aid and investment in an optimistic speech in Washington, DC this week and made a stop over in the United Kingdom .\r\n

In his twitter message, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said, "I met Tendai Biti, Secretary General of the MDC and Minister of Finance in the new transitional government. His economic responsibilities are massive – but the use of Dollars and Rand as hard currency has brought inflation down from crushing levels and brought food and goods back into the shops. His economic plan is a good basis for progress. But politics hold the key – whether Prime Minister Tsvangirai and his colleagues are able to exercise the power for which the Zimbabwean people voted, and which the agreement to a transitional government provides. That is the basis for the re-engagement of the international community on which Zimbabwe depends." 

Biti was in the U.S. capital for the spring meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and he also met with United States officials. Following the meetings, he addressed Zimbabwe observers for over an hour at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Biti said that Zimbabwe was experiencing peace and stability, "the biggest achievement of the inclusive government." But, he added, "peace and stability does not make headlines."

Biti said that progress made over the past two months had opened the door to change "slightly ajar."

"The only way we can deal with toxicity by ensuring that door is fully opened, but it cannot be fully opened if there is no investment in this experiment," he said.

After meetings with Biti, the U.S. gave no signals that it was going to shift course in its Zimbabwe policy. "We want to see how the government is making progress on democratic reforms, economic reforms and then we will make a decision on whether we want to provide significant development assistance," State Department spokesman Robert Wood told Reuters.

The United States still has targeted sanctions against many Zimbabwean political leaders, including President Robert Mugabe other key members of his Zimbabwe Africa National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) party. The United States does give humanitarian aid to non-governmental organizations in Zimbabwe.

Human Rights Watch, in a statement coinciding with Biti’s arrival in London on Wednesday, seemed to echo the U.S. position, encouraging donor governments and institutions, the United Kingdom in particular, to continue to take a wait-and-see approach.

"Until the new government takes bold, irreversible steps to end human rights abuses and carry out major legislative reforms, the international community should continue to withhold longer-term development aid and maintain its targeted sanctions," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Donors in Washington appeared to agree with Biti’s plan to begin to rebuild Zimbabwe, but questioned the sincerity of Mugabe and other Zanu-PF leaders’ commitment to change.

Biti acknowledged that major issues remain, including the recent invasions of farm land and the continuing detention of members of his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). He said that the time has come for Roy Bennett, the MDC treasurer, to be sworn into his cabinet position.

He blamed the current obstacles on "catfish" in Zanu-PF because "where there is clarity the catfish starves."

Biti also said there were ways to work around the problem of sending aid directly to government coffers, including setting up trust funds in foreign embassies in Zimbabwe.

Biti’s fractious relationship with Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono seems to be deteriorating. Biti wants Gono to leave his position, but Gono so far has refused, apparently backed by Mugabe.

On Monday, Biti strongly criticized the Reserve Bank without naming Gono, and outlined a plan for reform which calls for weakening the bank’s powers. Biti said that adopting multiple currencies would limit the bank’s quasi-fiscal activities, which have in the past been used as a vehicle to buy support for the ruling party. 

Earlier this month, Biti reportedly accused Gono of borrowing U.S. $1 billion without approval. The two also clashed over 50 cars that Gono distributed to members of Parliament.

Gono shot back, though, in a paid advertisement in the state-owned Herald newspaper on Monday, questioning Biti’s proposed budget and strongly criticizing a reduced allocation for quasi-fiscal activities. Gono added that Biti’s budget had "alien pieces of advice."