At the height of Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis in 2002, seven million people were in need of food aid. A decade later, the number of people in need has declined to a million, though it could go up by another 600,000 in 2013.
Still, two of the country's biggest donors, the European Union and the US, and their implementing partner, the UN, say Zimbabwe is on its way to recovery and development. The EU has announced that it is scaling down its humanitarian assistance.
The decision should come as no surprise, reckoned the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO). The department "has progressively decreased" the funds allocated to Zimbabwe, from about US$18.9 million in 2010 to around $12.6 million in 2011, then to approximately $6.3 million in 2012, said David Sharrock, the European Commission's spokesperson on International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response.
Yet the decision comes amid a drought that the World Food Programme (WFP) says will leave one in every five rural households in need of food assistance next year.
NGOs also warn that a tense stand-off between government coalition partners ZANU-PF and factions of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on a new constitution - critical for holding free and fair elections - could lead to violence.
Meanwhile, the coalition government, formed in 2009, is cash-strapped. Newspapers reported last week that the government had turned to South Africa and Angola for help with a $400 million shortfall in its budget. Finance Minister Tendai Biti was quoted saying the country needed the money to fund the 2012-2013 agricultural season, annual bonuses and a possible referendum on the new constitution.
"Unexpected events will continue to require intermittent and targeted humanitarian assistance until the country's economy more fully recovers," Hillary Renner, a US government spokesperson told IRIN. But the US government is "optimistic that the large-scale 'humanitarian emergency phase' of Zimbabwe's history has passed".
Donors switching tracks
The latest data from the UN Financial Tracking Service (FTS) shows that the December 2011 consolidated appeal for more than $268 million for Zimbabwe has received little more than half that amount.
Donors, cash-strapped themselves, have begun to examine the effectiveness of continuous, large-scale aid interventions, said an aid worker. "With the incessant crises [like the Horn of Africa last year and Sahel this year], they have to now look at interventions relatively. Then Zimbabwe does not seem like such a major crisis."
An early warning official pointed out that even the food crisis in Zimbabwe is "not really that serious" compared to the several millions in need in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.
Sharrock explained that the EU's funding has gradually evolved from large-scale emergency response to "smaller and more targeted assistance focusing on the most vulnerable groups and aiming at improving the population's resilience." Or as one aid worker put it, seeing "how much value you can get for a stretched dollar."
The EU has moved from funding only emergency food aid to funding nutrition, health, water and sanitation, and protection programmes. FTS data show that the health and education sectors are better funded than last year, but agriculture programmes are worse off.
Sharrock hastened to add that the EU was not aware of the emerging food crisis when the funding allocation was made last year. "However, the situation is linked to chronic food insecurity and is not likely to result in a severe food emergency characterized by high acute malnutrition rates and above-average mortality rates," he said, adding that the EU is assessing the possibility of providing assistance.
NGOs like World Vision say it is difficult to categorize the situation in Zimbabwe. "In a complex context like Zimbabwe, it is not either 'emergency' or 'development,'" wrote Edward Brown, World Vision's national director in Zimbabwe, in an email to IRIN. "In fact, it can be both at the same time. Disasters can be highly localized, and economic growth may only happen in specific areas." The NGO is focusing on both short and long-term solutions.
Brian Raftopoulos, a Zimbabwean academic at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, echoed this idea, saying, "You cannot say that Zimbabwe is in an emergency or development phase - it is not one or the other."
Aid in Zimbabwe is about maintaining a balance between "continuing to scale-up service delivery, particularly in the social sectors, while enhancing national systems in these sectors", said Alain Noudehou, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Zimbabwe. The focus is on "sustainable recovery", while the "general humanitarian situation in the country had remained stable".
Although the EU is reducing its humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe, its development aid policies to the country are being reconsidered as long-imposed sanctions are suspended.
European governments placed targeted sanctions on the leadership of ZANU-PF, then Zimbabwe's ruling party, after flawed presidential elections in 2002. Two kinds of sanctions were used, "restrictive measures" and "appropriate measures", said Piers Pigiou, the project director of Southern Africa for the International Crisis Group. Restrictive measures included a travel ban and asset freeze on President Robert Mugabe and over 100 senior party officials, while appropriate measures suspended EU aid to the Zimbabwe government under Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement.
Since 2009, the EU and its member states have provided Zimbabwe with $1 billion in development assistance, though none directly to the government.
But since the beginning of this year, "there has been a paradigm shift" in the EU's relationship with Zimbabwe and ZANU-PF, said Pigou. In July, the EU suspended the appropriate measures, sending the message, "let's try and breathe some life" into this stand-off, as the sanctions had not been effective in making ZANU-PF reform, Pigou explained. Rather, they had been used as "propaganda" by the ZANU-PF, which portrayed the sanctions as an effort to cripple the country. "[The EU] can no longer allow ZANU-PF to win this propaganda war."
The EU was also responding to repeated calls from the Southern African Development Community - which has been trying to normalize relations between ZANU-PF and the opposition - to remove all sanctions. "With the suspension of the appropriate measures, the EU is also now telling SADC, 'We trust you with the process.' So the ball is now in SADC's court," Pigou said. In July, the EU also indicated it was willing to remove most sanctions targeting ZANU-PF members and allies should they hold a credible referendum on the constitution.
Still, the EU has not yet reinstated development aid to the government, taking a wait-and-see approach to the recent developments.
Pigou pointed out, "Should the country slip back into a crisis, in the absence of a free and fair elections, [with] violence next year, the EU can easily revoke the suspension."
Catherine Ray, the EU's development spokesperson, said the EU suspended the appropriate measures after being "encouraged by the steps taken by the Inclusive Government to improve the freedom and prosperity of the Zimbabwean people."
The move will hopefully "add to the positive momentum and encourage further reforms in the preparations for credible and peaceful elections," she added.
Although the coalition government does seem to be making progress, many fear that the ZANU-PF has not really reformed. The US government has begun to laud the recent progress, but it has not revoked its own sanctions on direct support to the government or travel restrictions on ZANU-PF officials.
In its World Report 2012, Human Rights Watch acknowledged that Zimbabwe had made "significant progress in improving the country's economic situation and reversing the decline of the past decade", but also said human rights activists and journalists continue to be intimidated and that laws are being used selectively to restrict and harass them.
Reactions in Zimbabwe
The political situation - combined with the scale-down in humanitarian aid - has caused concerns.
Should humanitarian aid actors withdraw, food aid could be used as a "political weapon" by ZANU-PF, especially during elections, which will likely be held next year, Abel Chikomo, executive director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, said.
The same concern was reiterated by Japhet Moyo, secretary general of the labour federation Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. He said that with no support systems in place, the elderly, unemployed and others could fall victim to the use of food as a political weapon.
"The government is bankrupt as it cannot support the welfare system, which is why we find the decision [by the EU] very puzzling indeed," said Moyo.
Meanwhile, the food crisis in Zimbabwe is deepening. Last week, the country's National Early Warning office said parts of the country could be affected by yet another dry spell during the coming planting season, and urged farmers to sow varieties of maize that take longer to mature.
Alfred George Bango, a retired civil servant from Sontala Village in Matabeleland South Province, reported, "There are no pastures for our livestock to graze. We are receiving a 50kg bag of maize from government once every four months, which is not adequate, but other villagers are surviving by borrowing food from neighbours. A large number of people eat only one meal a day."
EU's Sharrock said the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe, "though still fragile, has stabilized considerably since the political crisis and socio-economic breakdown of 2008-2009 - which resulted in widespread violence, a major food crisis and a large-scale uncontrolled cholera outbreak with many deaths."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]