In Brief

Why Is Zimbabwe Starving?

Long-standing financial troubles and drought in Zimbabwe have pushed millions to the brink of starvation.

Zimbabwe’s government has declared a state of disaster as months of drought have exacerbated a national crisis rooted in decades of mismanagement under longtime leader Robert Mugabe.

What’s happening?

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More than five million people, roughly one-third of the population, are in need of food aid, according to the World Food Program. President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the United Nations have made a broad appeal [PDF] for international assistance, but analysts say that Zimbabwe is now at a breaking point, and the main opposition party called for a nationwide strike to take place Friday.

A Zimbabwean man rests outside a church at an informal migrant camp in Musina, South Africa.
A Zimbabwean man rests outside a church at an informal migrant camp in Musina, South Africa. Luca Sola/AFP/Getty Images

The drought hit as the country’s economic woes—hyperinflation and cash shortages foremost among them—have deepened. The inflation rate stood last month at around 175 percent, the highest in a decade, and the finance ministry has since said it will not release inflation statistics in the coming months. Prices of staple foods, such as bread and cooking oil, have risen by as much as five times over recent months. Medical supplies are becoming more scarce, and some people are forgoing medicines or treatment because of high costs.

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Water scarcity has led to crop failures, pushing food insecurity to new highs, and raises the risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera spreading. The government is distributing food to Zimbabweans in cities for the first time. As the output of a major hydroelectric plant has dwindled, the state power utility has imposed rolling blackouts lasting up to eighteen hours per day.

A man cleans up a destroyed house in Chimanimani.
A man cleans up a destroyed house in Chimanimani. Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images

At the same time, the country is still recovering from Cyclone Idai. Roughly a quarter-million Zimbabweans were affected by the cyclone when it hit Africa’s southwest coast in March. Among them, more than fifty thousand were displaced.

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How did Zimbabwe get here?

Zimbabwe descended into financial calamity under the thirty-seven-year rule of Robert Mugabe, who is widely accused of mismanaging the economy as he consolidated power through patronage and repression. The country’s per capita income fell by half over the decade that started in 2000.

A customer buys cooking oil at a stall in Harare.
A customer buys cooking oil at a stall in Harare. Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images

While Mugabe was forced out in a military coup in late 2017, the economic crisis has continued under Mnangagwa. Price hikes at the start of 2019 prompted protests and a violent crackdown by security forces. In June, Mnangagwa outlawed a payment system that allowed use of the U.S. dollar and ordered that a local quasi currency be used exclusively, causing prices to soar. Austerity measures backed by the International Monetary Fund, including cuts to fuel subsidies and a new tax on electronic transactions, appear to have placed even more stress on Zimbabweans.

Are there any signs of relief?

Mnangagwa has promised an economic recovery, but the United States and Europe have kept up sanctions on the country and the prospect of an international bailout remains dim.

More on:

Zimbabwe

Southern Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa

Food and Water Security

Economic Crises

A Zimbabwean boy does his homework under candlelight in Harare.
A Zimbabwean boy does his homework under candlelight in Harare. Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images

The government is importing electricity from neighboring countries, and it has signed deals for twenty-year loans with China and India to boost power generation, but in the meantime, the long outages are taking a heavy toll on businesses and families. Factories, which were exempt from the blackouts until June, have reported drastically cutting production since then, leaving industry effectively at a standstill and many workers without an income.

While regional rains are expected in two to three months, there’s no guarantee they will be on time or be plentiful, raising pressure on the government to find other ways to ease the pain.

Sabine Baumgartner contributed to this piece.

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