Posted on July 19, 2004

Zimbabweans Struggle With Runaway Prices

Angus Shaw, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jul. 18

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Pensioners buy a single egg when they shop. School attendance is falling because parents can’t afford to feed their children, let alone educate them. One desperate man who couldn’t make ends meet took his own 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.

Whatever the reason for the crisis, its human cost continues to rise.

Zimbabwe once boasted one of the best education systems in Africa. But enrollment is down 30 percent since 2000, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, because increasing numbers of children are forced to work, beg or become prostitutes. Mildred Chizema, a secretary, said she and her two children live on what she calls the “zero, zero, one diet” — no breakfast, no lunch, and 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 $75 a month. The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe estimates an average family of four needs at least twice 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 in June. 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.

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 a 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 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.”

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

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.

Those who retired a decade ago — when $1 bought seven Zimbabwe dollars instead of 5,300 today — have seen the value of their pensions decline at least twentyfold. For those who cannot afford a whole carton, food stores will sell single egg — but even that costs about 1,000 Zimbabwe dollars, or 20 cents, one-fifth of the average daily income.

A women’s tennis club in Harare has begun delivering free meals to impoverished pensioners.

One of the beneficiaries of the project, a widower, shot himself earlier this year. He had worked for the government for 40 years planning public works projects.

“After a long working life, he couldn’t go on. His pride was hurt,” said a family friend who asked not to identified.

Other countries such as Argentina that have experienced hyperinflation brought prices down through fiscal discipline and devaluation, said Robinson, the economist.

But Zimbabwe remains deep in the hole. It has been $290 million in arrears to the International Monetary Fund since 2001 and risks being expelled next year. The government has offered to pay $1.5 million a month.

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