A land where fifty thousand dollars used to buy you nothing

Zimbabwe, November 2, 2009

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    Rob Maroni/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Rob Maroni/Mercy Corps

Last week, Mercy Corps' Boston office (actually located in Cambridge) was fortunate to host our Zimbabwe Country Director, Rob Maroni. Rob had recently gone to Mercy Corps' Senior Leadership Meeting in Portland, Oregon, and stopped in Boston on his way back to Zimbabwe. We hold small events that are open to the public, to highlight and bring to life some of the great work that Mercy Corps engages in with communities around the world.

At the beginning of his presentation, Rob passed around a stack of fifty-thousand dollar bills (Zimbabwe dollars) to each person in the room. He went on to note that even when they were still using local currency in Zimbabwe — transactions these days are made either in U.S. dollars or South African Rand — fifty thousand dollars was worth virtually nothing.

I can't remember the exact amount, but it was something along the lines of 1/100,000 of a penny. Coming from the U.S., where inflation of what seems like anything more than three percent gets people jittery about the future of the economy, that kind of rampant inflation just seems so foreign. We heard stories that during the worst inflation time several years ago, you might have to carry a whole bag full of cash just to buy some food. Wow!

In Zimbabwe, we have a range of programs including water and sanitation, working with orphans and vulnerable children, food and livelihood security, urban programming (including supporting city gardens for vulnerable communities) and programs promoting the protection and rights of people with disabilities.

Since the days of hyper-inflation, the economy has improved. But huge struggles remain, and there has been a cost. Over the past ten years, almost every indicator on the Human Development Index (HDI) has plummeted. Life expectancy is now among the lowest in Africa — largely due to the HIV/AIDS crisis — and the percentage of kids who can read is much lower than it was ten or fifteen years ago.

Mercy Corps is committed to our work in Zimbabwe, partnering with communities to improve people's lives despite the huge obstacles that remain. We look forward to a day when conversations about Zimbabwe will be less about how far $50,000 dollars can go, and more about how 50,000 vulnerable children have received an education and a better chance in life.