Should Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe attend the UN food summit?

Although many world leaders said that Robert Mugabe’s attendance at previous years’ summits of the same kind was a disgrace – some even labelling it as “obscene” – any country that can draw parallels between its food problems and those of Zimbabwe has an obligation to be present when this year’s talks are underway to address these horrific issues – irrespective of their human rights records, or global opinions on their policies and ideas.  This year’s UN Food Summit has come at a time when 963 million undernourished has caused the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) Director-General Jacques Diouf to call for the meeting to be held.

While Mugabe’s presence (the presence of a man who has often ignored the social and political problems in the country he now governs alongside the opposition MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai) may be insulting to some, being at the scrutiny of – and subject to – the rest of those in attendance can act as a powerful tool in portraying the message that the world is serious about tackling these problems, and that he and the Zimbabwean government have an obligation to accept responsibility for their actions and their people.

In any case, the state of affairs in Zimbabwe is nothing short of dire – a sad contrast to its once export driven food industry.  Provisional reports displayed on the FAO website state that “about 2.8 million people will face food shortages in the 2009/10 marketing year” (which runs from April 09 – March 2010) needing around 228,000 tonnes of food assistance.  Add to this the need to import 680,000 tonnes of cereal for domestic use, and Mugabe, Tsvangirai and Zimbabwe are faced with a very unfavourable situation.

Much of the blame has been pointed towards Mugabe’s poorly received and seemingly rash land reforms of past years which saw white farmers forced from their land, (most often, violently) cutting the countries biggest food producers off from their livelihood, and leaving their crops fallow.  On top of this, millions of black farm workers have also been displaced, probably to even more adverse effect.  Land reform issues (or crackdowns, as they are being seen) aren’t the only poor decisions Mugabe is making, however.  Crippling drought polices, and policies to selectively supply only those who support Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party with staple foods, has only served to worsen the situation,  Mugabe continuing to make further incomprehensible and unjustified policy decisions.

Clearly though, allowing Mugabe into the discussion – rather than banning him – when the food summit (which is said will be held around November) takes place, will allow his policies to be directly assessed before a board of countries whose representatives possess invaluable knowledge and experience on these issues.  It should be time for him to face the music.

Mugabe has long touted the view that western interests revolve around White Colonialism.  An opportunity to speak openly and face-to-face on the pertinent issues should be seen as an olive branch of sorts – an offer to promote and nurture his feasible ideas (the government earlier this year announced the liberalisation of many if its markets, and a total revamp of its grain market, as well as the abandoning of the worthless Zimbabwean dollar) and refashion those ideas of ill conception, with an interested audience, and amongst a group who hold high the importance of sustainable food supply.  Turning our backs on an occasion to do so is destructive, negative, defeatist, counterproductive and in many cases, antagonistic.

In 2008, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported the then Foreign Office Minister for Africa, Asia and the UN as saying that “this is like Pol Pot going to a human right’s conference” – an absurd comparison of Mugabe’s attendance at the 2008 UN food summit.  World leaders at this year’s event can’t be expected to shake hands, kiss and make up, but they ought to be expected to create constructive, helpful, positive and optimistic dialogue, in a cooperative and tolerant atmosphere, for the sake of the world’s hunger.

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