Is the UN to blame for Zimbabwe's cholera crisis?

A new documentary on Zimbabwe's cholera epidemic quotes a former UN humanitarian official as saying:

The United Nations deliberately downplayed the crisis to avoid confrontation with President Mugabe and his ZANU-PF regime.

The Geneva-based International Council of Voluntary Agencies goes further and calls for the UN to sack the current UN humanitarian coordinator in Zimbabwe, Augostino Zacharias, because he's too closely tied to Mugabe and won't speak out against him. This blame-and-shame approach does make enticing news copy, but unfortunately does not address the real issue.

That the UN engages in quiet diplomacy with the host government should come as no surprise. It was this type of closed-door dialogue that ultimately persuaded Mugabe to allow humanitarian organizations to resume operations after a four-month mandatory hiatus in 2008.

So what are the real issues? Let's start with Mugabe's 2005 nationalization of municipal water services for political gain and profit. After the government took control, it abrogated its most fundamental responsibility toward its citizenry by

  • dumping contaminated waste into the water reservoir
  • failing to maintain the reticulated water system
  • neglecting to procure enough aluminum sulfate for water treatment
  • shutting off water to selected communities
  • abandoning municipal waste collection
  • ignoring sewerage repairs

It's Mugabe's malfeasance that directly caused the eight-month-old and ongoing cholera epidemic. So if there's anyone to blame, it's the octagenarian with all the power.


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