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What The U.N. Is Doing To Counter Zimbabwe's Food Crisis

NOEL KING, HOST:

The U.N.'s World Food Program had been giving cash to 8 million people in Zimbabwe who don't have enough food to meet their basic needs. The WFP is taking an unusual step, though, and they're moving to food assistance instead. Drought, climate change and inflation have caused a crisis in which half of the country's population is going hungry.

Gerry Bourke is a spokesperson for the World Food Program. He was in Zimbabwe last week, and he told me what he saw there.

GERRY BOURKE: Well, it's a very, very grim situation. In fact, it's a national catastrophe, nothing short of that. Eight million people - half the population - on the brink of starvation, literally not knowing where their next meal is coming from, so many families desperate, hurting, struggling. They're skipping meals. They're taking their kids out of school. They're selling off what little they have by way of precious belongings, family assets. Malnutrition rates are rising. So it's an absolute disaster.

KING: What is behind this disaster?

BOURKE: Well, there are two principal contributing factors. One is climate change. Zimbabwe, like much of the rest of southern Africa, has had one normal rainy season in the last five years. The other is an economy in freefall - absolute economic meltdown. Hyperinflation is a huge problem. So Zimbabweans are hurting in so many ways.

KING: I understand that for a few years now, WFP has been giving cash transfers to organizations and people in Zimbabwe, meaning giving them money as opposed to sending in big sacks of food, which I think we remember from the '80s and '90s. But for the moment, you are now shifting back in Zimbabwe to the big sacks of food rather than the cash. Can you tell me why the shift in strategy?

BOURKE: Well, there is very limited local currency available, so Zimbabweans who we support are telling us, please give us food; please don't give us cash because cash becomes devalued so quickly.

KING: I would imagine that one of the logistical benefits to cash transfers, to just giving people money to buy food, is that it's easier. Can you talk about the logistical complications of getting food into Zimbabwe and then getting it distributed to those millions of people?

BOURKE: For sure. Because much of the rest of southern Africa has been hit hard by drought and flooding this year, there is relatively limited amounts of food that we can procure in the region and on the continent. So we are having to go to Latin America, to Europe and to Asia to procure the food commodities that we need for Zimbabwe. So it can take weeks or months to ship them in. Zimbabwe is a landlocked country, so that food has to be shipped into ports in South Africa and Mozambique and then trucked into Zimbabwe.

KING: Given the factors that are at play here - drought, climate change, hyperinflation - how long do you imagine this crisis continuing?

BOURKE: It looks like it will go on indefinitely. The emergency operation that we are undertaking, it's a Band-Aid. It's a short-term fix. What really needs to happen is that the vulnerable communities in Zimbabwe are helped to be able to withstand the impacts of climate change.

KING: Mr. Bourke, thank you so much for your time.

BOURKE: Thank you very much.

KING: Gerry Bourke is the Southern Africa spokesman for the World Food Program. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.