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Zimbabwe's tough environment for aid agencies

Aid agencies are occasionally told they can be kicked out of the country if they offend the government.
Last modified: 1 Mar 2013 22:56

The UN dispute tribunal has ruled that senior UN officials did not act on health warnings by a member of its staff in Zimbabwe because the organisation did not want to upset the government of Robert Mugabe.

I don't know whether it's true someone was fired for criticising Zimbabwe's president.

What I know is that it's not easy for local and international aid agencies to operate in Zimbabwe.

With just over two weeks to a referendum on a new constitution, and general elections expected later in the year, offices of aid agencies and non-government offices are being raided by the police. Police officials say they are looking for documents and equipment illegally smuggled into the country.

Human rights activists say the state is trying to intimidate and stifle freedom of speech before the polls.

The mood is tense in Harare, the capital, but not as tense as it was back in 2008 at the height of that year's election campaign.

President Mugabe was facing off with the now Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. 

It was incredibly difficult for aid agencies to work and move around freely in the rural areas.

Officials wanted to expose the human rights violations happening but doing so could mean having your organisation kicked out of the country.

Whether senior UN officials chose to ignore warning bells about Zimbabwe's cholera epidemic may never really be known.

If it is true, it is disturbing especially as the country prepares for another election. How often has this happened and is it still happening?

Intolerance

There have been a few positive developments in the country, but ZANU-PF, Mugabe's party, still does not tolerate criticism.

Five years since a cholera outbreak killed more than 4,000 people in Zimbabwe, families living in Harare's poor suburbs are still struggling to get clean water.

Rosemary Masigare is a very loud and opinionated resident in Harare's Mabvuku suburb.

"We are dying of thirst, we need water for the toilets," she tells me. "We have small children. The flies are coming from the toilet and going on to our food."
 
There are nearly two million people living in Harare. More than a decade of economic decline means the state hasn't been able to repair or replace old infrastructure.

The cholera outbreak has since been contained but occasionally a few people get sick with typhoid and cholera.
 
I wonder if the 4,000 or so people who died of cholera in 2008 would still be alive today if non-government organisation and government officials had acted sooner.
 
ZANU-PF says international aid agencies are allowed to operate freely in the country. But international aid agencies and non-government organisations have in the past been warned they could get kicked out of the country if they offend the government here.

How free are they going to be in 2013 when Zimbabweans line up to vote again?