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The pitfalls of aid that is designed to weaken and control a nation

Posted by CM on August 10, 2008

EU representative to Zimbabwe Xavier Marchal was the guest of honour at the recently held annual congress of the Commercial Farmers Union, the representative body of the majority of Zimbabwe‘s white farmers.

In his speech he talked about the dire food situation in Zimbabwe.


Agriculture has collapsed. This year’s harvest of the key crops has been catastrophic. Rural communities have faced extreme political violence, and their assets destroyed. Commercial farmers have been brutalised, their farms grabbed for the wrong reasons. Zimbabwe is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, with extremely poor prospects for the next agricultural season.

Marchal goes on to mention how much money the EU has provided in humanitarian assistance in the last several years of economic decline, and of the commitment to provide more in the next several months of expected widespread hunger.

He then repeatedly mentions how much more assistance could be forthcoming, ”When and if normality and legitimacy are re-established in Zimbabwe as a result of a fair political Agreement, endorsed by the European Union.”

Just by that simple, innocent-sounding phrase, Marchal shows the great pitfalls Zimbabwe faces as its politicians sit down to try to work a way out of the deep hole the country is in.

I do not question that the assistance the EU has provided and is prepared to continue to give and even increase is out of genuine humanitarian concern. But the cleverly couched hint of a bribe and a threat in Marchal’s message is also unmistakable. It is a clear-cut testament to what a double-edged sword Africa’s deep donor dependency has become for the continent.

What I read in Marchal’s statement is ‘your country’s agriculture is on its knees and you need the help we are willing to provide…if you come up with a political agreement which is acceptable to us.’ In this Marchal was merely re-iterating what other EU and Western officials have said.

The problem is that it seems quite clear that these countries are giving themselves the right to decide what they believe is in Zimbabweans best interests in the current negotiations. A political agreement could well include compromises that no one would be completely happy with, but that is what coming to the negotiating table to resolve an intractable problem may take.

If the MDC reluctantly accepts an agreement in which Mugabe remains president, this would be the worst outcome for the EU, as they have made quite clear. Many Zimbabweans would also be dismayed at this. But if, just if, all accepted this as the price of getting Zimbabwe to halt its slide, on what basis would the EU have to not accept this outcome?

The EU’s heavy-handed, racist stance on this issue should make us think anew about the very high cost of donor-dependency, whether it is humanitarian, well-meaning or not. This is a reminder of how even when aid is well-intentioned, it is also inevitably an instrument of control.

Zimbabwe will need all the help it can get to recover. Yet the kind of aid dangled by the likes of Marchal is assistance that seeks to weaken and control us in the long-term, even as it assuages pain in the short term.

Unfortunately, I have zero confidence in the ability of a possible MDC government to manoeuvre between getting assistance and remaining ‘sovereign.’ The MDC is so deeply in the pockets of the Western countries that Zimbabwe would revert to the model of client state fed with aid in exchange for never again entertaining ‘Mugabe-like’ notions of trying to be in charge of its own destiny.

This is part of why I do not share the excitement of many others about the outcome of the on-going talks. Zimbabwe has no prospects of getting out of its economic hole when powerful Western countries are so determined to close off all doors to a Mugabe government, quite apart from the man’s cruel despotism. Yet there are many indications that the Tsvangirai government that would make those Western countries happy and eager to prop him up would be on the model of the spineless, pliable donor-dependent governments we see all across Africa.

The destruction of so many systems in Zimbabwe has had catastrophic effects. But that actually gives a new government the opportunity to start afresh with some new ideas to problem-solving, the like of which we have seen too little of in Africa. The many needs may seem to indicate the necessity of getting any help from anywhere. But instead of reacting in a panicky, knee-jerk ‘anything you say baas’ way to aid dangled in patronising, ultimately dis-empowering ways, this should be the time to think hard about how to avoid the seductive aid traps that have helped Africa in short term ways but also failed it in the long term, leaving it weaker and more compromised than ever before.

Radio VOP

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