The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, caught with its hand in the proverbial cookie jar, has returned more than $7 million it confiscated from an account intended for groups fighting AIDS and other diseases there.
Threatened with a possible cut-off of other aid funds, bank officials reversed themselves and repaid the account without saying where the money went. In the future, though, aid recipients under the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria will be able to use U.S. dollars for all local transactions, thereby eliminating foreign exchange and loss of value from the country's massive inflation, now measured around 231 million percent.
That's welcome news for humanitarian aid groups and the people they serve. Zimbabwe has one of the world's worst AIDS epidemics, a collapsing health care system, and a serious and growing hunger crisis. The country's banking problems and cash shortages are severely hampering international aid efforts to feed the hungry and care for the sick.
The government of Robert Mugabe has made things worse by treating the foreign aid accounts as a source of the hard currency it badly needs to fund operations and remain in power. Besides the Global Fund, other aid groups have had money on account in the Reserve Bank frozen or diverted for possible government use. This comes on top of severe restrictions that the Mugabe government placed on aid groups this summer during the presidential elections because of their alleged political interference.
The Reserve Bank's reversal may be too little and too late, however, to preserve the government's access to the aid accounts. "We do not want to see the people of Zimbabwe who need this money disadvantaged," said U.S. Ambassador James McGee. The United States and other foreign donors will now be looking for other means to fund hunger, medical and other humanitarian projects, possibly through accounts in banks outside Zimbabwe. The U.S. is committed to helping the people of Zimbabwe in any way it can.