Cash transfers disrupted in Zimbabwe, NGOs warn of food shortages

A woman poses with Zimbabwe banknotes in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo by: REUTERS / Philimon Bulawayo

NAIROBI — Failed rains and erratic weather events over the past five years have led Zimbabwe into a massive hunger crisis, with millions of people in need of food aid in the coming months.

But the unpredictable climate alone is not to blame. Rapidly rising inflation in the country has worsened the crisis and is complicating the humanitarian response.

“It's a perfect storm where you've got the economic crisis compounded by the natural disaster of the failed rains,” said Verity Johnson, country representative of Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and Malawi at the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development.

“The real concern is whether this will be a continuing crisis going right into 2021.”

— Verity Johnson, country representative of Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and Malawi at the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development

Price hikes, lack of availability of commodities, and a lack of liquidity in the national currency have forced organizations in the country to stop providing cash transfers — seen by many in the humanitarian sector as a more efficient way to deliver aid —resorting back to providing food aid.  

With insufficient funds and logistical challenges, there is concern among responders that food aid could run out by March.

Failed rains

The hunger crisis in Zimbabwe is rooted in recurrent droughts and dry spells the country has experienced over the past five years, weakening the resilience levels of smallholder farmers, who produce most of the country’s food. It is also a product of Cyclone Idai, which devastated eastern Zimbabwe, destroying crops, right before the harvest last March.

Large scale food aid is needed to support people at least until April, but likely beyond, because the prospects for this coming harvest expected in April also look grim. The most recent rainy season, which typically arrives in October, came instead in December, and those rains have been inadequate, said Gerald Bourke, regional communications officer for southern Africa for the World Food Programme. For many farmers, this has meant the seeds they planted did not germinate.

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“What we're feeling at the moment in terms of the food crisis is the impact of last year's failed rains. And so far, this rainy season has also been really poor,” Johnson said. “The real concern is whether this will be a continuing crisis going right into 2021.”

Zimbabwe is not the only country in the region suffering. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that a record 45 million people in southern Africa will remain severely food insecure through April — which is when the main harvest season happens.  

“The food security situation in southern Africa as a whole has been the worst in years we’ve seen,” said Dr. Michael Charles, head of the southern Africa cluster at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “You have people that used to eat three meals a day that are now barely eating one meal.”

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, southern Africa is warming at twice the global rate.

Rapid inflation

Further exacerbating the situation is Zimbabwe’s deteriorating economy.

In June, the government banned local trading in foreign currencies, including the U.S. dollar, and re-introduced a national currency, leading to high levels of inflation. Foreign currencies became legal in 2009 after an economic crisis in the country led to inflation at 500 billion percent.

WFP has progressively increased the amount of cash it distributed in Zimbabwe over the past few years, with cash transfers accounting for 70% of the aid it provided in the country until December. As the national currency lost value rapidly and became limited in quantity, WFP made the switch to providing in-kind food aid, with an exception of a small number of ongoing cash transfers in urban areas, said Eddie Rowe, Zimbabwe country director at WFP.

“There was not enough cash in circulation and we couldn’t access enough cash from the Reserve Bank to continue our cash assistance programs,” Rowe said. “We started realizing that most of the markets in rural areas were not functioning properly — there were acute shortages of basic food items. And in markets where you could find food available, the prices were skyrocketing.”

While the decision to move from cash to food aid was made in September because of logistical hurdles, Rowe said, including consultations with donors, the government, and market analyses, the switch to food aid began with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development in October, with the rest of the donor funds switching to food aid this month.  

IFRC also recently decided to stop distributing cash in the country because of the economic situation but is currently sorting out the logistics for that switch, Charles said. The Catholic Agency for Overseas Development switched from cash to food aid about six months ago.

One of the advantages of cash as a delivery of aid is that it contributes to stimulating local markets, which is something Zimbabwe currently needs, Johnson said.

Overseas procurement

Typically, WFP procures much of the food for its operations in Zimbabwe in southern Africa, including from neighboring Zambia, which is typically a surplus producer of food in the region, Rowe said. But because the whole region is suffering from drought, the organization has also had to look beyond the African continent for much of the food its supplying to Zimbabwe.

For example, WFP has procured food in Mexico and Ukraine, he said.

Zimbabwe’s government also bans the import of genetically modified crops, further limiting WFP’s ability to source certain crops from surrounding countries — such as South Africa, which has high levels of genetically modified maize, according to Rowe.

But sourcing the food from distant locations leads to long delays between when a funding pledge is made and the food makes it to the ground, Bourke said.

“Because of those long lead times and the need to put food on ships in Asia and Latin America and Europe and get it to ports in South Africa and in Mozambique and then truck it into Zimbabwe, which is landlocked, it takes a lot of time. It can take up to three months between a funding pledge and food on the ground,” Bourke said. “The urgency is very much there. We need the commitments now, and we need substantial commitments.”

As of mid-December, WFP was providing food for about 2 million people in Zimbabwe, now there is a rapid scale-up with aims to support 4.1 million people from January through the April harvest, Bourke said, but these numbers could grow.

But with funding shortfalls of about $200 million, there is concern that starting in March, there could be food shortages, Rowe said. Funding has been secured and food has been procured for January and February, but not March, he said.

“We're very much concerned that there are not enough resources to allow us to procure food quickly and deliver on time to meet the needs of the beneficiaries,” Rowe said.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a Global Health Reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.