Zimbabwe debt hurts health spending
AIDS patients, women and small businesses hit hard by $8.3bn in external debt owed to International Financial groups.
Last Modified: 20 Oct 2010 07:44 GMT
Women in Zimbabwe have been forced to give birth at home due to under-funded healthcare facilities [GALLO/GETTY]

Zimbabwe’s debt burden of about $8.3bn, owed to internal and external institutions, is crowding out essential national budget items such as health and basic services, with detrimental effects for particularly women.

Indications are that many Zimbabwean women opt to give birth at home, with some children being born HIV positive because their mothers cannot afford the maternity fees or the fees charged at hospitals and clinics for the prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV, according to the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD).

ZIMCODD is a coalition of organisations working on social and economic justice issues in the politically beleaguered southern African state. Its calculation of Zimbabwe’s debt as being $8.3bn includes interest costs.

Hospitals and clinics in Zimbabwe’s urban areas charge $250 and $50 respectively in maternity fees. Delivering a baby at state hospitals with the help of a professional midwife costs $173.

Given that even civil servants mostly earn less than $200 a month, the charges put health services out of reach for most citizens.

Says Tariro Chikwanha: "We cannot get AIDS drugs or drugs for opportunistic infections because they are too expensive." Even the tests to determine whether an HIV-positive person should go on to antiretroviral drugs are out of reach, costing $10 each at state hospitals.

Chikwanha, who has lived with HIV for 13 years, is increasingly worried about the inaccessibility of health services in Zimbabwe. She founded DREAMS, an organisation that works with youths who are living with HIV and AIDS or are affected by it.

"Because of the cost most people give up and wait for death at home," explains Chikwanha.

She blames the country’s unsustainable debts levels for the dearth in state funds for public healthcare. The government has a so-called "social dimension fund" which is supposed to take care of these needs but it is virtually non-existent.

"Government debts are killing us as women. The government should stop getting more loans," Chikwanha said. "We have enough money to look after ourselves. We have diamonds, platinum and gold. They should sell these minerals and get us money to live a better life."

The ZIMCODD ran an awareness campaign against debt and the international financial institutions (IFIs) that ended on October 17. The IFIs are the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

ZIMCODD estimates that, at current debt levels, each Zimbabwean owes the IFIs $525.

According to health ministry statistics, Zimbabwe spends only nine dollars in health fees per person per year. This level of spending is inadequate and the country will not achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at this rate.

The awareness campaign’s theme was "responsible lending and borrowing to guarantee people’s social and economic rights" and involved the launch of a "Citizens’ Guide to Debt", theatre plays and a music concert.

"We are using these artistic expressions to help explain the issues of debt and how they affect citizens of Zimbabwe," Dakarai Matanga, ZIMCODD executive director, said.

A play entitled "No loans without us" was performed in Harare, the capital, making the connections between national debt and people’s lives and emphasising that the government should consult citizens before taking on loans.

According to the Harare Residents’ Alliance, the channelling of state money to debt repayment means the diversion of money away from basic services such as water. Residents are thus forced to buy water.

Anilia Masaraure, representing the Alternative Business Association (APA), decries women having to work harder because of the perennial lack of water and electricity.

"Women have to spend more time looking for firewood and water instead of operating their market stalls and businesses to earn an extra dollar to fight poverty in their families," Masaraure said. APA is a group of small business enterprises operated by women.

Lovemore Matombo, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, said that African countries should not repay debt owed to the Washington-based IMF and World Bank.

"In western countries buses and trams move around, transporting two or five people. They can afford to do so because tax is used effectively and transport is subsidised by governments. But when they (westerners) come to Africa they tell us to privatise," argues Matombo.

"They are not doing in Africa what they are doing in their own countries. These (IFIs) are criminal institutions. The debt must not be paid. Paying such debt is like throwing money in a latrine," adds Matombo.

ZIMCODD’s position is that African countries should reject loans that come with conditionalities. It also demands that African governments practise responsible borrowing that is transparent, accountable and channelled towards production rather than consumption.

Furthermore ZIMCODD says parliament and civil society should participate meaningfully in government decisions about loans.

This article first appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.

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