Sun, Jul 18, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Inflation forcing Zimbabweans into crushing poverty

HARD TIMES The government blames things on low commodity prices and bad press. Economist blame the government. And pensioners can't buy a basket of fruit


Pensioners buy a single egg when they shop. School numbers are falling because parents can't afford to feed their children, let alone educate them. One desperate man who couldn't make ends meet chose to pay with his life.

Runaway prices are changing, perhaps for generations, the way people live and die in Zimbabwe, a once relatively prosperous nation now ravaged by the world's highest inflation rate.

Economists and international donors say mismanagement by President Robert Mugabe's authoritarian regime -- especially economic disruption related to his controversial policy of seizing white-owned farms -- is behind an annual inflation rate now close to 400 percent. The government points the finger elsewhere, at culprits including falling commodity prices.

What's beyond dispute is that the human cost continues to rise.

Zimbabwe once boasted one of the best educational systems in all of Africa.

But enrollment is down 30 percent since 2000, according to the UN Children's Fund, because parents are struggling to feed their children, increasing numbers of whom are forced to work, beg or turn to prostitution.

`Zero, zero, one'

Mildred Chizema, a secretary, said she and her two children live on what she calls the ``zero, zero, one diet'' -- no breakfast, no lunch, just one evening meal. She dreads staying home on weekends.

"The kids just gaze at me hoping for something more to eat," she said.

She earns the equivalent of about US$75 a month. Data from the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe say that the average family of four needs at least double that to provide for an adequate diet, basic shelter, clothing and food.

Salaries and pensions are being left behind by galloping prices.

Zimbabwe's official inflation rate was 394.6 percent last month. That's down from a peak of 600 percent earlier this year but remains the highest in the world, with Turkey a distant second at 60 percent, said Harare economist John Robertson.

As recently as 1997, inflation in Zimbabwe was 18 percent.

White-owned farms

With the help of white-owned commercial farms, Zimbabwe prospered and developed into a regional breadbasket after Mugabe led the country to independence from Britain in 1980. But the economy began to falter in the late 1990s and has teetered near collapse since 2000, when political violence and often-violent farm seizures disrupted agriculture and tourism.

The land seizures, coupled with erratic rains, have crippled Zimbabwe's agricultural sector, which once accounted for one-third of its foreign-currency earnings.

Unemployment is estimated at 70 percent.

The government blames declines in commodity prices, corruption in the private sector and negative reporting by the international media, which it says has led to the destruction of tourism.

Authorities say they are fighting hyperinflation by cracking down on corruption and black-market currency sales.

But analysts predict that things will get worse unless the government can reduce spending and reassure spooked investors.

"We cannot expect price increases to decline," Robinson said.

"With continuing foreign currency shortages, there will also be scarcities of goods to drive up prices," he said.

The very young and old are suffering the worst in Zimbabwe.

Vitamin deficiency

Doctors report increasing numbers of retirees are suffering from vitamin deficiency because they can't afford fruit, a basket of which can cost more than a monthly pension.

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