The price and the promise of Zimbabwean recovery
Posted by CM on February 27, 2009
A lot of loose figures are beginning to fly around about what it will cost to revive various sectors of Zimbabwe’s economy. I recognise one must have working figures and estimates, but a lot of the throwing around of figures strikes me as being pretentious. One reason is that they are efforts to quantify the unquantifiable.
What does a statement like, “It will cost US$300m million to revive education, the health sector, agriculture, etc” really mean? You can cost the repair of physical infrastructure, the paying of salaries and so forth, but it is impossible to put a cost on work culture, business confidence, motivation and so on, which are all integral part of functioning systems. These attitude-linked traits take a long time to build up where they don’t exist or where they have been severely damaged, as in Zimbabwe.
A danger of quantifying recovery in purely monetary terms is what we have seen with the racket of so-called ”development aid” all over Africa over the last 50 years or so: billions of dollars expended, but no abiding change in the fortunes of the continent. A few thousand “development experts” from the aid-giving countries do rather well for themselves but the overall condition of the claimed target groups is continuation of wallowing in poverty.
It could be the same with the feeding frenzy that Zimbabwean recovery efforts are likely to be. Millions of dollars will be donated and borrowed, NGOs will spring up at every corner, those with the right connections will suddenly get a new line of access to easy money for conspicuous consumption while the systems the money is supposed to fix continue to flounder. We have seen it all many times before, in Zimbabwe and countless other places in Africa.
This is not an argument against making budgets or against raising money for Zimbabwe’s recovery efforts. It is instead to say that our problems go deeper than can be fixed by merely spending money on them. They also require fundamental attitude change and unusual leadership commitment to rebuilding the whole national ethos. I am not optimistic that there is any sign of this kind of spirit amongst either the old or the new politicians who have come together in the new unity government.
As a related aside, it has become deeply ingrained in the African mind that “we cannot do without aid from the West.” So you have contradictions such as a country claiming to need aid for inexpensive cholera medication because it is broke, but that same country has no problem at all somehow finding the money for expenses such as luxury vehicles for its top few hundred governing elite! When the things we think we ‘need’ in order to run our affairs include lifestyles that some even in rich Western countries that became so in a different age are questioning, of course we will find our low productivity cannot fund them and we have to resort to debt and being beggars. The idea of lean and mean cabinets or business management units who have to work their way up to whatever perks they enjoy by performance is unfortunately foreign in an Africa where we desperately need ruthlessly-evaluated, results-based politicians and businesspeople. But no, some members of the bloated new cabinet are already receiving their new Mercedes Benz sedan (the most prized perk in all of Africa) before they even have offices to operate from! If this is the sort of way that recovery costs are being calculated, any recovery will not match the extent of the money spent on it.
It is interesting that new prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s first ports of call to seek financial assistance were South and SADC, rather than the Western capitals to which he has long been considered beholden. This surprising development is no doubt partly out of the criticism Tsvangirai and his MDC faction have received, of being “stooges” of the West.
There is an interesting dichotomy in Western attitudes about aid. One the one hand there is discussion about how ineffective and wasteful it often is, and as well as about donor dependency and corruption on the recipient end. And yet a unpopular as the idea of aid sometimes is amongst ordinary Westerners for these reasons, their governments have reasons to continue it, and those reasons are not always humanitarian or development considerations.
Aid is quite clearly also a powerful means to exercise influence on the recipient country. Given how Robert Mugabe has framed The Zimbabwe Crisis is being essentially a result of the West preferring a dispensation in Zimbabwe which favored the white minority, especially the farmers, Tsvangirai’s perceived closeness to the West remains a hot potato for him, even as it also provides him with at least the potential to get various kinds of support.
But what if Zimbabwe sought and got most or all of its recovery costs from the southern Africa region; from SADC? Early intimations are that Zimbabwe might well get significant such support, in what would be an unprecedented case of African countries pulling their own resources to help one of their own. In this case if Zimbabwe was indeed economically and politically stabilised this would be money very well spent for the region. The significant regional “contagion cost ” of Zimbabwe’s troubles would be eliminated, and a once-again strong Zimbabwe would have many other benefits to the region as well.
But how would the Western “donors” take such unusual fledgling efforts at African self-sufficiency? Surely they would be relieved and happy to not be expected to exclusively or even mainly fund Zimbabwe’s recovery? Not necessarily! I suspect some would like to be asked, to then loudly grumble about those troublesome, always-begging Africans but then be seen to be oh-so-reluctantly but generously giving in to the requests (purely out of humanitarian concerns for the oppressed, impoverished Zimbabweans, you understand.)
“Ah, but in return for this generous aid we are giving you, what are you going to do about that little matter of the white farms that were taken? What about your too-aggressive indigenization laws that we are worried will affect the operations of our nationals’ companies? What are you going to do about all those mining and other concessions that have recently been going to the Chinese in a country that we have always considered to be under our sphere of influence?” And so on and so forth.
You get my drift. So don’t expect that our Western friends will necessarily be happy if SADC or others prove to be the main source of ‘recovery funds!’
Such a development also has the potential to radically alter African thinking about what it can or cannot do for itself. When the current economic and political dust has settled, the lessons of Zimbabwe, not just the obvious negatives but the positives that will become more apparent with time, will reverberate far and wide on the continent and beyond. Ironically, that may be precisely why the very possibility of an eventually powerful, successful and independently-acting and speaking Zimbabwe causes such hysteria in some circles!
It is to present the image of an African country that breaks the mould of the continent’s mostly pathetically weak, donor-dependent and donor-compliant banana republics. It is to begin to no less than re-shape the African psyche against economic and psychological domination and control by The Other, and to positively and fruitfully, profitably take control over one’s resources and destiny. Unfortunately we simply have not seen this yet in Africa, and for some such a prospect is frightening.