Zimbabwe: 'Where's all that money from the United States?'

Donald F. McHenry, United States ambassador to the United Nations, had firsthand proof of the disappointment many Zimbabweans are expressing about Uncle Sam's largesse these days.

Browsing in a downtown store during a quick stopover here, he was recognized by a shopkeeper, who pointedly asked, "Where's all that money from America?"

A number of Zimbabweans -- both white and black, ordinary citizens and government officials -- are asking that question. The cliched maxim that "The Russians provide the arms in Africa, the Americans provide the aid" -- making the United States the more valued friend -- is being sorely tested in this new African nation.

American diplomats here struggle to put the best face on American aid efforts. To its credit, the US has come across with more ready cash than the rest of the world's nations put together. But when other nations redeem their aid pledges, several will have contributed more in per-capita terms than the US. The $20 million in American aid allocated for Zimbabwe this year, coupled with a projected $30 million for the next US fiscal year, has therefore been a disappointment.

Ambassador McHenry, fresh from a meeting with Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, acknowledged there is "a gap between expectations and performance" of the American government in reconstruction assistance after the bitter seven-year war here.

Many Zimbabweans see the aid question in much broader terms than dollars and cents. Instead, they view the amount of American assistance as a rough indication of the degree of confidence in the new government here, and by extension, a judgment on the likely success of multiracial democracy prospering in this former British colony.

Sensitive to the issue, American diplomats are hammering together an additional $50 million low-cost housing loan package. In addition, a new US aid program allows other developing nations to use American grants to purchase Zimbabwe products. Recently, a shipment of Zimbabwe-made tires was sent to Uganda under this program. Consequently, aid grants to other central and southern African nations may have a slight spinoff effect on Zimbabwe.

Part of the problem in channeling aid here has been the speed with which Zimbabwe reached independence.

When the American foreign aid budget was being earmarked last year, Zimbabwe was still the colony of Rhodesia and under worldwide economic sanctions. Consequently, the US government money sent here thus far has largely been plucked from other regional aid programs.

The American aid effort also suffers by comparison with hints made by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that up to $2 billion in aid might be made available if former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith would accede to majority rule.

That overture was part of a joint British- American proposal that was overtaken by the Lancaster House settlement of 1979, which formed the basis for Zimbabwe's independence. Moreover the "Kissinger billions," as people here derisively call them, would theoretically have come from a number of nations, not just the US, and would have been spread over five years.

Those facts notwithstanding, one observer here complains that "in contrast with what was indicated at the time of Kissinger . . . the amount of aid so far granted is a pittance."

That message has clearly gotten through to the Carter administration. Ambassador McHenry, for one, will be conveying the Zimbabwe government's disappointment back to the White House.

In an election year, however, when budget- cutting is in vogue and foreign aid on the skids, increasing aid to Zimbabwe may be problematical.

As one official admits, "We probably haven't done as much as we should, but we've probably done as much as we can."

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