New York — ``Zimbabwe is poised to be the first country on the continent to end the persistence of hunger,'' said Bradford Morse of the New York-based Hunger Project, in awarding the Africa Prize for Leadership to President Robert Mugabe. Mr. Mugabe's policies are credited with encouraging the ``skyrocketing'' of agricultural production in Zimbabwe since 1980. Aid donors and Western diplomats say the Mugabe government has also avoided much of the corruption and inefficiency prevalent in many other African countries.
Mugabe attributes Zimbabwe's success to the careful choice and pursuit of development priorities, and a concerted effort to stay close to the people.
Practically all African countries are agriculturally based, Mugabe says. But ``the leaders must be interested in agriculture.''
In Zimbabwe, ``we knew from our own experience that agriculture is the backbone of the country. But we had to give it emphasis ... to set directions ... and provide a definite input of resources.'' Then, he says, you have ``to sell these to the people ... so they can respond to your programs.''
What has to come across, Mugabe says, is a ``selfless spirit'' on the part of the leaders. The leaders have to show that they identify with the people's problems and do something about them.
``The people cannot do very much unless the leadership is there in practical terms to lead them. If they want to live in an ivory tower and look down upon the people, condemn them for being lazy, condemn them for not knowing anything, then the people cannot do much ... once the people notice that yours is a policy of self-aggrandizement. You want wealth for yourselves. Ah, then they take great exception to it and start talking against the leaders.''
Mugabe says he asks his top officials - even those in charge of finance or foreign affairs - to get out to the countryside weekly. His government also tries to ensure that ministers and parliamentarians are paid well to reduce the temptations of corruption.
Zimbabwe's economic successes are equally founded on concrete government support for agriculture and effective use of the market, he says.
One of the first steps taken was to ensure that small-scale black farmers had equal access to markets and received prices equal to those for white commercial farmers. ``Everybody was encouraged to come to the market and to grow more next season,'' he says.
At the same time, within the budget available, he says, the government focused on providing basic tools and training to the small farmer and building a support network they could use.
The government, according to Mugabe, diverted official vehicles to help transport grain to the markets. It created and managed local collection points and larger depots for storing grain. Loans and credit to small farmers were increased. Landless peasants were given plots of their own. And, he says, women farmers were given land rights and training equal to those for men, and family planning was encouraged.
Mugabe quickly adds that Zimbabwe still has a lot of economic hurdles to jump. But he is clearly pleased with the international acknowledgment that the country is on the right path.