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Briefing on the Food Crisis In Southern Africa

Authors: Walter H. Kansteiner, and Andrew S. Natsios
August 20, 2002
U.S. Department of State

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Walter H. Kansteiner III, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs;
Andrew S. Natsios, Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

Remarks at Special Briefing

Washington, D.C.

August 20, 2002

MR. REEKER: Welcome back to the State Department, everybody. In lieu of our regular daily briefing today, we are very pleased to have a special briefing featuring the Administrator of the US Agency for International Development, Mr. Andrew Natsios, and our Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Mr. Walter Kansteiner, to talk to you about the food crisis in Southern Africa. Administrator Natsios will be leaving Friday to visit the region. He can give you a few opening remarks, and then we will just open it up for your questions.

So without further ado, Andrew.

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: I would like to announce today an additional contribution of 190,000 tons of US food toward the drought in Southern Africa. The United States has already contributed 310,000 tons toward the famine, for a total of just under 500,000 tons. That will be maize, or corn; it will be vegetable oil; it will be coarse corn-soy blend, which is used for acutely malnourished children; and it will be beans, which is for protein.

The drought is the worst since 1992, when the drought threatened in 1992 23 million people. The United States led the world effort to prevent the drought from becoming a famine ten years ago, and we are doing the same thing once again.

This will bring our commitment up to almost 500,000 tons, as I said, which is 50 percent of the World Food Program estimate of their requirement, which is a million tons. So we're about 50 percent.

The European Union has issued a paper saying that the Commission will respond with around 20 percent of the food aid; however, 80 percent of the food that has arrived in the region is from the United States. We have thus far delivered 100,000 tons of food. We have on the high seas, on ships, another 100,000 tons, and then we have on order at the Midwestern grain markets 290,000 metric tons. The total of this contribution is worth $230 million.

The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance is also putting together a package of non-food assistance, as we call it, which will be medical interventions, health interventions, sanitation and water, and immunization of children, because the first thing we do when a famine is threatening is immunize all the kids since they are, by far, the most vulnerable population in any famine.

Two points just on famine, generally. What causes a famine is not necessarily food shortages. It is a collapse of family income and family assets. At the same time, there's a dramatic increase in food prices. That is typically, although not always, the cause is a huge gap between what people can afford to access food in the markets, and then the price of food on those markets.

In Afghanistan last winter, we did not see a rise, dramatic rise, in food prices. We are seeing it in Southern Africa. But we saw a dramatic drop in household incomes and so half of the pattern was evident in Afghanistan. Both are evident in Southern Africa now, so we do have clear indicators. We think we've caught it in time, but this additional contribution by the United States will make a major, major part of the response to this famine.

Just one caveat here. We have made this commitment, but we have to have the cooperation of governments. It is commonly perceived, improperly, that famines, when there's a famine or a drought, that the food that people eat in the drought or the emergency is all from food aid from NGOs and donor governments and the United Nations. That is not the case.

The great bulk of all food in a famine response or a drought response comes from commercial sources on the private markets. All right? And one of the things that the new head of the World Food Program, Jim Morris, who is from the United States and knows commercial food markets very well, has been emphasizing -- and I want to repeat I fully agree with him -- is unless the commercial markets in Zimbabwe are freed of the restrictions the Mugabe government is putting on them, we will not be able to respond adequately to the famine.

There are a number of things -- if I had to list five things that a government could do to turn a drought into a famine, the Mugabe government is doing all of them exponentially. The first thing is, the drought that caused this food shortage is a drought, but if you have irrigated agricultural systems, they are immune from drought because you use your reservoirs. The reservoirs in Zimbabwe right now are full of water. There is no problem with water. The problem is that Mugabe's policies are confiscating all the commercial farms, which is the insurance policy for the people of Southern Africa, not just Zimbabwe, but the whole region. Typically, when there's a drought, those farms that produce the food that have been used to feed people on the commercial food markets and the private food markets. Those farms are all shut down now. Either they have been confiscated or people are being arrested now. It is madness to arrest commercial farmers in the middle of a drought when they could grow food to save people from starvation.

The second thing they've done is they've re-imposed price controls on the price of maize. The effect of that is to reduce imports. They think they're controlling the price. There's a black market price, and it's dramatically rising, but the official price for large volumes of food coming to the price, it is a controlled price, and while they just recently raised it, it's nowhere near what the actual price is. So no commercial vendor of food is going to import food into Zimbabwe because you'll be paid a quarter of what the world price market and what it cost you to buy it. So that's the second policy.

The third policy is that the central government has got a huge disparity between the actual value of the Zimbabwe currency and the black market price because they have an artificially high exchange rate. The effect of that is, once again, to diminish trade in a dramatic way. The finance minister in Zimbabwe actually just proposed to the president that they equalize the two rates, they go to a free market in terms of floating currency. That was the right thing to do for the famine, and Mugabe called him, I think, disloyal, or something even more severe. His own finance minister was trying to alleviate the disincentives for food importation into the country.

The fourth thing the Mugabe regime is doing now is they are politicizing the distribution of government food aid, Zimbabwe government food aid. Our food aid is going through NGOs. None of it is going through the Zimbabwe Government. But we now have confirmed reports in a number of areas in the most severely affected region of the country, which is the south, that food is being distributed to people who are members of Mugabe's political party and are not being distributed based on need, which is a gross violation of a standard policy which we do not politicize the distribution of food aid in an emergency.

So we urge the Government of Zimbabwe to change their policies before it is too late.

Are there any questions?

QUESTION: If the policies in Zimbabwe are a problem, then what do you plan to do to address in the short term what the Mugabe government is doing?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: We just reached an agreement with the Zimbabwe Government over a swap of grain with them. Our food will still be distributed. The food that is in our control will still be distributed through the World Food Program and the NGOs. So we are talking to them. We have an AID mission in Zimbabwe. It is not easy, however, to deal with the government.

We have been urging them publicly and privately to revise their policies. Jim Morris, the head of the World Food Program, and Kofi Annan met with President Mugabe at the World Food Summit in Rome, which was I think two months ago, and urged exactly what I've just said privately to him.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: If I might just add on a more general macro policy toward Zimbabwe, as President Bush and Colin Powell have both said on a number of occasions, we do not see President Mugabe as the democratically legitimate leader of the country. The election was fraudulent and it was not free and it was not fair. So we're working with others, other countries in the region as well as throughout the world, on how we can, in fact, together encourage the body politic of Zimbabwe to, in fact, go forward and correct that situation and start providing an environment that would lead to a free and fair election. And we're working with the neighbors and others.

QUESTION: Andrew, because Zimbabwe is centrally located, does that make it more of a problem? And secondly, because of that, are you asking for world governments institute some type of ban on luxury imports so that the higher-ups in that government don't suddenly get rich off the backs of the poor and the needy?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: The best way to get food prices down to a reasonable level is to import more food, because when the supply increases, the price drops. The best way to ensure that is to work with the government to ensure that the transportation links are open. And we are doing that in all of the regional governments, but Zimbabwe has an added problem, is that no one wants to import food into Zimbabwe because the pricing system is so screwed up from their policies.

The are centrally located, however. The epicenter of the famine, half the famine -- or the drought, it's not a famine yet. It's going to be a famine if we don't change these policies. The drought, half the drought requirement is in Zimbabwe. Next in terms of severity are Zambia and Malawi. And then third is Mozambique, which has really only affected in a portion in Lesotho and Swaziland.

But the problem is the most severely affected country is the country that is being that is being the least cooperative. But the transportation links are adequate to get food in, but they are worrying us, I have to say, for the very reason you mention. Some of the routes go through the country.

Ben.

QUESTION: Mr. Kansteiner, are you calling for regime change in Zimbabwe? And pending that, doesn't Mr. Mugabe, in effect, have his whole country as a hostage and the United States has no choice but to deliver food to replace everything that his policies is destroying?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: Well, in fact, and that's what Andrew has been looking at very carefully and what we are working with our other donors, is that the food that does go in, as Andrew said, goes in to the NGO community, it goes in to the church groups, it goes to proven NGOs that will not politicize that food assistance. Because there have been reports that, in fact, the Mugabe regime is, in fact, playing favorites and doling out the food to party supporters and denying it to those that do not adhere to his party.

So we are conscious about that and we are working with all of the donors to make sure that that NGO stream stays straight. As far as how, you know, working with others to effect a political change, the political status quo is unacceptable because the elections were fraudulent. The question is: What are the tactics that we can use to work with those inside Zimbabwe as well as their neighbors to encourage a more democratic outcome? And so we're working with a number of folks in the region and elsewhere.

QUESTION: Do you have any ideas what tactics you can use? Do you have any proposals that you've put to these --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: Well, some of the tactics that we share with, for instance, the EU would be travel restrictions, financial freezes. We are looking at ways that we can join the EU in doing some of those financial freezes. We already have a travel ban on the Zanu Party and Mugabe clique from letting them come to the United States.

And so there are both unilateral and multilateral tactics that we are looking at.

QUESTION: Are your talking about trade embargoes here?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: No. And those sticks that we're using now are very much focused on the elite, the Zanu-PF elite in particular.

A trade embargo is a blunt instrument that could, in fact, affect the general population, and we do not want to do that. What we're trying to do is influence those policymakers at the top. And so, in that sense, we're continuing to work with the South Africans and the Botswanans and the Mozambicans on what are some of the strategies that we can use to isolate Mugabe in the sense that he has to realize that the political status quo is not acceptable.

QUESTION: And are you working with opposition groups, either within Zimbabwe or that are based in surrounding countries?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: We're working with the civil society that is in Zimbabwe, and that includes a number of human rights groups, includes some independent journalists groups and so we're actively doing that, as are a number of the European Community countries, too.

QUESTION: In fact, isn't it true that there's a major loophole in your travel ban, and that would be regarding the UN and the fact that there were just recently very senior members of the Mugabe government in New York who not only went to the UN, but also, you know, hung out on Fifth Avenue shopping, enjoying the, you know, enjoying the pleasures of New York, and then went back and actually bragged about how wonderful their trip to New York was and how the US Government really couldn't do anything to them?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: We have so many advantages of having the United Nations in Gotham City and so we're grateful that the UN is in New York. One of the diplomatic agreements that, of course, we have is to allow foreign diplomats to have access to the UN. So, in fact, our travel ban is very tight. These folks that are on our list are not allowed into the United States and they will be turned away except for exceptions such as the UN, which we, by treaty, have to abide by.

And now, they have a very restricted movement. They cannot go so many miles from the Security Council table or whatever it is.

QUESTION: Which is apparently not the case.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: I wouldn't go that far.

QUESTION: So can I just ask how many people -- how many times have senior Zimbabwe officials wanted to come to the United States and you've denied them?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: Multiple.

QUESTION: I'm not asking for the number of people, which I know for some reason is secret, but how many -- without saying the number of people, can you say, you know, is it hundreds?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: It is many. It's many. It's dozens. Dozens.

QUESTION: And these are mainly people who, what, wanted to come here to visit family or wanted to come to --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: You know the way our visa restrictions work is once you're on this list, you're denied a visa. So we don't even -- I can't tell you why they wanted to come here. I don't know if it was to see Disneyland or to go shopping. I just don't know. But they were denied, as they should be. I mean, that's what our whole travel ban is about. I mean, a travel ban is trying to grab the elite's attention and saying, "Look, you know, you're a pariah. What's happening with your political elite, something's wrong." And so that's the message.

QUESTION: Let me make sure I understand this. These are people who have actually showed up at a US embassy or consulate, in Zimbabwe or elsewhere, and asked for a visa and were told no?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: Correct.

QUESTION: With the arrests of white farmers recently that have been now either jailed or brought into the court system, is there any way of working out between our government and the EU some positive steps to allow them to at least go back to those farmlands to supervise, to get some of the -- I know it's late in the game, but some of the crops planted and distributed?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: Right, and we have made inquiries on that.

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: Some of the farms -- and this is public record -- have been turned over to members of President Mugabe's family and to cabinet ministers and to members, senior members, of the military. So they are not exactly turning these over to poor people. That's the impression they give publicly. That is not what's really happening. It is a disgusting grab where you're just basically stealing land from one group to another. The distinction here is the group that's being stolen from are very good farmers, and the people they're giving the land to cannot farm anything.

QUESTION: Does the US have any position on the offers by Malawi and Mozambique to take in these people who have -- these commercial farmers who have been evicted? Is that a good idea, does the US think?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: You mean the commercial farmers?

QUESTION: Yes.

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: I know the Mozambican Government, believe it or not, took a bunch of Afrikan farmers from South Africa who wanted to farm in the northern part of the country, which was relatively uninhabited, and they rented land to them for a hundred years. So I wouldn't be surprised if that's happening.

I do know that something people don't realize is there were a couple of million farm workers on those commercial farms, and many of those are Malawian citizens who now have the problem of not being able to go home, because there's no food in Malawi, and they are now unemployed in Zimbabwe. They are living in Zimbabwe.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: And, in fact, that is -- it's a tragic case, but it's the farm workers that are really taking the brunt of these ill-prepared and ill-thought-out policies.

QUESTION: Mr. Natsios, for the sake of market reports, could you give us details on delivery times and types of grain included in the new 190,000 tons?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: The EMOP, which is the Emergency Appeal from the World Food Program, is 800,000 tons essentially of corn, of maize. The rest of it, the other 200,000 tons of the appeal, is vegetable oil, corn-soy blend, which is used for acutely malnourished children, and beans for protein.

Our contribution is in the same kind of proportions. So ours is maize mostly, it is corn-soy blend, vegetable oil for fat, and beans or pulses for protein.

QUESTION: And do you know what the delivery is for this?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: We've bought 100,000 tons and it's delivered in country.

QUESTION: Yes, but the new lot, the 190,000?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: I can give you -- actually, do we have the schedule here? We can give it to you later, if you want. We have a delivery schedule, actually, for all of the shipments.

STAFF: Mostly all of the commodities --

QUESTION: Yes, I know. The new stuff.

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: No, the new amount is 190.

QUESTION: Yes.

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: Right.

QUESTION: But it will be shipped over what period, then?

ADMINSTRATOR NATSIOS: Between now and the end of the year.

QUESTION: Could you put a dollar value on the other assistance, the medical, health, sanitation and water, and child immunization?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: Is it 30 million? I think I recall from the briefing memo that it's up to 30 million now.

QUESTION: The debate over genetically modified corn. The Zimbabwean Government refused to accept un-milled corn, feeling that it would cross-breed with their corn and that therefore the Europeans would not accept it at some point in the future.

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: I don't think Zimbabwe is going to, with these policies, going to be exporting corn, even if there's generous rains for a very, very long time. But anyway, you're right. They did take that. And we developed an exchange agreement, which was finalized this week that -- actually, we didn't do it, the World Food Program did it. We have approved them doing it, but we are not signatories of the document. It is 17,000 tons of their food that is not biotech food that they're going to give us -- of maize -- and then we give them our 17,000 tons of biotech maize, and they will mill it. They're planning to mill their food anyway, so this is an exchange of our food for their -- our maize for their maize. They mill it at their own expense and distribute it through their mechanisms. We take the 17,000 tons of maize that they gave us and we distribute it through the NGO community and the UN.

That was a shipment of 17,000 that had arrived that they would not allow in the country. They are not arguing there is a health risk. They are just talking about the commercial markets being compromised.

QUESTION: You talk about working with NGOs, but do you see any problems with Mugabe's government about allowing this aid in and distributing, and how will you counter that?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: President Mugabe has told the World Food Program and the NGOs that he will allow their programs to go forward as they are designed. However, members of his party in the parliament have gone around threatening people that if you are -- that we don't like these NGOs, we don't want them in the country, and that kind of thing.

What I care about is what they do, not what they say. I've been listening for 14 years to the assurances of government that are predatory, and tyrannical and they frequently tell you one thing and do another. So we are watching very carefully to ensure that the comments that President Mugabe has made, the commitments he's made, in fact, are carried out.

QUESTION: Did this famine catch you off guard?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: It's not a famine yet.

QUESTION: Okay.

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: We could be approaching --

QUESTION: Did this drought catch you off guard? And did you have to plan for this, essentially, at the election time in Zimbabwe?

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: No, we started planning for this last spring. It became more public in May or June and now we're hitting the hungry season. There actually was a rise of malnutrition rates in February in Malawi. And if you look at the rates now, they've dropped because the food aid is beginning to get in the country and there's been a harvest since then.

And so, but we did catch it in time. It was last spring that we began the shipments. That's how we were able to get 100,000 tons in the country, distributed, and another 100,000 tons on the high seas. Because it usually takes three to four months to order food. The Midwest grain markets ship it on the ships, get it to port, transport it over the port and then get it into the villages. So if we hadn't done this a long time ago, we wouldn't be where we are right now.

Ben.

QUESTION: When the United States gives this kind of aid, does the United States get anything in return? In some cases they get sort of a -- forests being preserved, or any sort of --

ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS: No, we never do that with famine assistance. The President has stated very clearly, he's repeated to me three or four times and there's no debate in the Administration about this: Food aid will not be used for political or economic purposes or as an instrument of diplomacy in an emergency.

The purpose of food in an emergency is to feed hungry people. And the only reason why we would not distribute food is if it weren't getting to the poor people who are at risk. In other words, if it were getting diverted on a massive scale or being abused, then we would not distribute it. But that's not for political reasons, that's for humanitarian reasons. So we are carrying out his instruction, which is, at this point, sacrosanct for us.

QUESTION: This is for Walter. We don't really get you that often and -- a lot of reports today and yesterday about the woman being stoned to death in Nigeria.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: Phil and I were just talking about it on the way in.

QUESTION: Can you say -- is there anything you say? Do you plan to take this up with the Nigerian Government or do you think that this is an area of Sharia law that the United States is not supposed to be involved in?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: Well, first of all, we're trying to get some clarification. Aren't we, Phil?

MR. REEKER: Yes. I don't have --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: We're trying to get exactly what the court ruled and what they didn't rule and what is the appeal process. We do know that there is an appeal process and so we assume that that goes forward. So we're trying to get up to speed on it, to be honest with you.

QUESTION: Human Rights Watch put out a report on the Congo and --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: Yes, I saw that.

QUESTION: -- in this they identified three rebel leaders who they say either participated in or had knowledge of killings in --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: In Kisingani, yes.

QUESTION: Could you comment on that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: We saw that report that just came out today and we're looking at it. And, of course, the UN has been looking at the tragedies and the atrocities that took place in Kisingani. So we're going through all of these now.

It seemed to be that report, the Human Rights Watch NGO report, seemed to be pointing the finger particularly at RCD Goma. And so what we're now trying to do is get some collaborative and supporting evidence. And the UN has done some good work on this and they are doing some more. So we're waiting to see exactly -- pull all these together and see if we can come up with some conclusions.

QUESTION: With that information that they've supplied, would that be a war crime that these -- these atrocities they document, are those war crimes or something that would be considered war crimes?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KANSTEINER: If they prove to be substantial and substantiated, yes, it could very well be.

Thank you all.

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