ZIMBABWE: AIDS service NGOs allowed to resume operations

Photo: Obinna Anyadike/IRIN
Allowed to work, but is it safe?
harare, 13 June 2008 (PlusNews) - The Zimbabwe government has exempted AIDS relief organisations from a ban on NGOs operating in the country, but advocacy groups have reacted cautiously to the news.

Nicholas Goche, the social welfare minister who regulates NGO activity, said on 13 June that more than 400 organisations working in the HIV/AIDS sector would be allowed to resume operations - an about-turn on a blanket ban announced on 4 June.

In the original circular to civil society, Goche wrote: “It has come to my attention that a number of NGOs involved in humanitarian operations are breaching the terms and conditions [by engaging in political activities]. I hereby instruct all NGOs to suspend all field operations until further notice.”

Church-linked organisations were also affected by the ban, which drew international condemnation.

"This is a deplorable decision that comes at a critical humanitarian juncture for the people of Zimbabwe,” the UN's Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said on 6 June. “I therefore strongly urge the government to reconsider and rescind this decision as soon as possible.”

Holmes pointed out that much of the UN’s humanitarian assistance to Zimbabwe was channeled through NGOs, and that aid for two million Zimbabweans would be affected. Among the organisations suspended were those “engaged in vital humanitarian work, fully respecting the principles of impartiality and neutrality,” and he called for them to be allowed to work and for their safety and security to be guaranteed.

In Goche's new circular on Friday he explained: "The suspension does not prohibit those on ARV [antiretroviral] therapy and those benefiting from home-based care programmes to continue accessing drugs and therapeutic feeding from clinics and hospitals.”

He also exempted organisations that provide supplementary feeding for children. “Supplementary feeding is a community-based programme which does not entail community mobilisation by NGOs, hence it falls outside those affected by the suspension.”

Zimbabwe has an adult HIV prevalence rate of 15.6 percent. According to the World Health Organisation, only about 91,000 out of the estimated 321,000 in need of ARVs - which helps prolong life – receive it. An acute shortage of foreign currency has made it difficult for the government and even private pharmacies to import enough ARVs to meet demand.

More than promises needed

In green lighting the operations of the AIDS service NGOs, Goche assured them that they had only been suspended while investigations were pending, and had not been banned or deregistered.

But the organisations IRIN spoke to on Friday said that they had halted all their programmes and were unlikely to resume, despite the assurance from the government.

“A lot of inflammatory statements have been made against NGOs and in this environment of political violence, no matter the political assurances, we have suspended operations. Unfortunately it is the ordinary people who will be hardest hit by the consequences," said a senior NGO official whose agency distributed ARVs, food and home-based care.

''A lot of inflammatory statements have been made against NGOs and in this environment of political violence, no matter the political assurances, we have suspended operations. Unfortunately it is the ordinary people who will be hardest hit by the consequences''
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) says 66 of its supporters have been killed by ruling party militants since March. MDC leaders have been repeatedly arrested, with the party's secretary general currently facing treason and electoral law infringement charges. On Friday President Robert Mugabe reportedly told a rally that the country's war veterans would not accept an MDC victory in the second round runoff of the presidential ballot due on 27 June.

"They said if this country goes back into white hands just because we have used a pen [voted], we will return to the bush to fight," Reuters quoted Mugabe as saying. He has consistently labeled the MDC as a front for Britain and the United States.

More than ARVs needed

Fambai Ngirande, advocacy and communications manager for the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, an umbrella body for civil society groups, told IRIN that while they welcomed the partial lifting of the ban by the government, the suspension needed to be removed completely.

“There are other organisations working in the humanitarian and human rights sector whose operations should be allowed to resume. None of our members engage in political activity.”

Ngirande said that while HIV/AIDS organisations had been cleared to resume operations, HIV-positive people did not just need ARVs in isolation.

Read more 
 NGOs struggle to feed the hungry
 Rural women struggle to get treatment
 Responding to the PMTCT challenge
“People living with HIV need much more than just ARVs. They need nutrition and a lot of other things which were being provided by other organisations who have stopped operating.”

Zimbabwe has been in economic meltdown for the past eight years, with inflation estimated to have reached 1 million percent, only two in 10 people in formal employment, and consumers surviving without basic commodities such as water and fuel.

Harare city council last year said more than a third of the capital's population, officially estimated at around 1.3 million, were living on one meal a day and cases of malnutrition were on the rise.


Theme (s): Aid Policy, Care/Treatment - PlusNews, Conflict, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), PWAs/ASOs - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

Other OCHA Sites
United Nations - OCHA
DFID - UK Department for International Development
Irish Aid
Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation - SDC