It’s Complicated

This film sucks, by the way.

It seems like the media is beginning to wise up to something I’ve argued repeatedly in the past: the situation in Zimbabwe is far more complicated than the “hell on earth, blame Mugabe” narrative that has dominated popular coverage of the country over the last five to ten years.

The BBC is giving coverage to an IDS report which suggests that land reform is not only not an unmitigated failure, but it’s also far less corrupt and politically involved than popularly believed.

Amazing what a little dispassionate analysis can reveal, isn’t it? Mugabe is so distasteful that we all want him to be the fount and sustenance of all of Zimbabwe’s woes, but thinking so does no justice to the immense difficulties of its particular historical circumstances nor our own complicity (through the structural adjustment of Zimbabwe – a policy that worked in some places but should never have gone near Zimbabwean export industries) in the decimation of one of Africa’s most promising economies.

The Retired Dictators’ Old Age Home

New home for Robert Mugabe?

I say we let him move into the East Wing.

The Grauniad is reporting that the magnificently-monikered Lord Renton of Mount Harry (where the hell is Mount Harry? Who calls a mountain ‘Harry’?) yesterday proposed to the House of Lords that the most effective way for the British public to support the people of Zimbabwe would be to provide Robert Mugabe with a safe, comfortable home in the UK. The man is not a simple crackpot in the House thanks to a hereditary title based on land grabs in the 16th Century; he’s a former Minister in the Foreign Office under Thatcher.

Even leaving aside the fact that the current Government is trying to reduce rather than increase the burden of housing benefits in the UK, Lord Renton of Mount Harry may wish to reconsider. The basic idea of his proposal is clearly that getting Mugabe out will solve a lot of Zimbabwe’s problems. There might be some merit to this, but it really doesn’t seem like the best use of our resources for the following reasons:

  • He’s operating from the premise that Mugabe caused or is perpetuating Zimbabwe’s problems – in other words, he is buying into the classic western interpretation which attributes an astonishing amount of agency and blame to Mugabe. I’ve written before about how this view is misguided, saying “It’s almost as if all of the problems in Zimbabwe have been crystallised in one immense figure of villainy.” The problems in Zimbabwe stem from much deeper roots than the megalomania and incompetence of a single man, and will take far more to fix: indeed, getting rid of him may make almost no difference to Zimbabwe’s economic and social conditions.
  • Mugabe did institute and persecute some incredibly bad and damaging policies that have hampered the economy and polity of Zimbabwe – in my last piece on him, the comments mention some of them. The primary focus of efforts to improve the situation in Zimbabwe must be to establish what policies are needed to undo this damage and how they can be implemented. Getting rid of Mugabe might be part of this, but is probably not the most difficult or time consuming part. It’s only a matter of time before nature rids Zimbabwe of him anyway.
  • Lord Renton of Mount Harry may also wish to consider the moral hazard he creates if Mugabe gets a safe, comfortable life in the UK. Suddenly, every leader with aspirations of a country house in Cheshire knows what they need to do: oppress people horribly enough and long enough and you’ll either get a place to stay in England or in The Netherlands. Both come with guards.
  • In the context of riot-inducing cuts in other aspects of UK life, taxpayers may look unfavourably on purchasing, heating and guarding a home for an incredibly rich dictator (this can be avoided if he is simply allowed to live in an unoccupied wing of Buckingham Palace).
  • Finally, I think the people of Zimbabwe would be happier to democratic process or the passage of time improve political governance there. Bribery is not a good basis for democratic succession.

Any one care to stand up for Lord Renton? In his defence, a quick Google search suggests there are plenty of stately homes in Mount Harry that Mugabe could occupy.

UPDATE: Not to worry, Lord of Harry! According to my friends in Hong Kong, Mugabe already owns a US$ 5.7 Million house in Tai Po in Hong Kong. Maybe access to a safe and comfortable house isn’t the only thing stopping Bob from leaving his money-spinning job in Zimbabwe…

Heroes and Villains in the Same Body

An unmitigated disaster, or a product of his context?

An unmitigated disaster, or a product of his context?

We recently celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Mandela’s release from Robben Island. It’s hard to believe that was as recently as 1990. Not many independence heroes remain from the wave of Sub-Saharan liberations, though that wave spanned more than 30 years. The leaders of the independence movements which started with Ghana in 1957 and spanned the 1960s remain cultural and political touchstones for Africa: Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (so famous his name is recognized by my MS Word spell-check); ‘Mwalimu’ (Teacher) Julius Nyerere of Tanzania; ‘Ngwazi’(Hero) Hastings Banda of Malawi; Kenneth Kaunda from Zambia; Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. In the mid 70’s more difficult, violent independences were won: Mozambique through Frelimo in 1975; Angola’s, so wonderfully evoked by Kapuscinski’s Another Day of Life. And in 1990 Mandela’s release led to his election.

I’ve missed out many leaders, but by far the most obvious is Robert Mugabe, the only one still in power. Zimbabwe / Southern Rhodesia suffered the indignity of ‘independence’ in 1965 declared by white settlers, aiming to head off managed decolonisation by the British, so their privilege could be maintained through a restriction of the franchise to whites. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF was one of two leading lights of a guerrilla war for independence against white minority rule that ran until 1980, when true independence as defined by franchise for the black population of Zimbabwe, was won. It was a war won by the young – when it ended, two-thirds of the guerrillas who went through demobilization were 24 years old or younger.

It’s difficult for Westerners, particularly those who have come of political age in the last ten or fifteen years, to understand it, but Mugabe remains popular. Almost everyone accepts he has overstayed his welcome, but still hold affection for him. Malawi inaugurated a Robert Mugabe Highway just a couple of years ago; similar roads are found in most major African cities. Yet, in the West, his name is a by-word for economic mis-management, suppression of rights, and all that is wrong with governance in Africa. This is despite the fact that other, much loved, African leaders did similar things to Mugabe without incurring the same poor reputation. Nyerere seized property from Tanzanian Asians and forced socialization of villages in Tanzania, yet is still rightly revered as the father of modern Tanzania. How do we reconcile these views?

At root, these questions derive from selective memory on both sides, and differing readings of the land question. The first point to make is about the source of Zimbabwe’s catastrophic economic decline. Many in the West make the lazy assumption that Mugabe precipitated economic collapse through the land seizures. This is not true, though they certainly have in many ways contributed to the continuation of suffering. Economic collapse predated the land settlements. The ultimate source was structural adjustment. To quote from Africans:

Even more damaging was the [structural adjustment] programme devised in 1991 for Zimbabwe’s relatively successful economy. By opening its industries to South African competition, structural adjustment reduced manufacturing output by 21 percent in four years, exports declined, unemployment rose, debt increased sharply, and when world tobacco prices also fell at the end of the decade, the regime took refuge in an expropriation of surviving European farms, which devastated agricultural production.

However, this reading of the land question is also incomplete: it implies that Mugabe seized land because sources of revenues and financing for the complex patronage systems that keep leaders like him in power were devastated by structural adjustment, and therefore land seizures were undertaken as a means to spread patronage. I recently read an old-ish piece by Mahmood Mamdani in the LRB which roots the land seizures much more firmly in a historical moment, both as the culmination of pressures on Mugabe and the response to intense historical injustices.

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What’s the rush?

Oh yes, that's the second Spaceballs reference in a week.

Oh yes, that's the second Spaceballs reference in a week. But seriously, this is what it feels like at any meeting with enough donors, unless it involves actually doing something.

Despite the reality that development is a gradual, plodding process, a lot of us seem to be in a huge hurry to get things done now. This can be rather irritating, as we tend to push concepts and projects out the door before they’ve been properly thought out or tested, or we let money flow before the mechanisms are in place to properly account for it.

There are plenty of factors behind this urgency. Aid agencies have very powerful personal and organisational incentives to spend all of their money in a given year, or before the competition of a project. I am likely not the only one to have gone on a donor-sponsored workshop that only existed to act as an excuse for exhausting a budget.

The rush is often driven by self-imposed deadlines. We set a goal in stone (often without careful thought), and refuse to budge from that goal until we’ve accomplished it. This would account for the enormous sense of urgency being driven by the Millennium Development Goals. One could argue that this urgency is entirely manufactured: there’s nothing particularly significant about meeting our targets by 2015, other than that’s what we agreed to do. Bill Easterly recently wrote about the problems with over-committal, so I won’t cover them again here.

Perhaps the largest factor in the “environment of urgency” that has sprung up is the global cost of poverty. Every day X children die because they are poor. X number of people have HIV/AIDS. X number of people die of easily preventable diseases. This is the most reasonable rationale for urgency, although often it is not entirely level-headed. The goals driven by this sense of urgency (such as the MDGs) value the reduction of poverty and suffering a great deal, so long as the reduction happens now, or soon (before 2015), but inherently have little opinion on long-term progress. It is highly likely that the types of policies we should implement when thinking about poverty for the next 100 years differ significantly from those we would use when thinking about poverty for the next 20, or 5 years. This is the biggest danger: that we eschew long term gains wins to score quick wins.

These thoughts came to me when I recently read about the debate over what to do with the first hunk of foreign aid handed over to Zimbabwe’s coalition government. From the BBC:

Two key figures in Zimbabwe’s shaky power-sharing government are divided over how to spend some $800m (£500m) in recently approved donor funding.Central Bank governor Gideon Gono – an ally of President Robert Mugabe – has said Finance Minister Tendai Biti is being slow to spend the money.

Yes folks, that’s the Gideon Gono, recent recipient of an Ig Nobel price in Mathematics for his astonishingly bad monetary policy, who apparently had little sense of irony when he went on to say:

“I called the minister of agriculture… and told him that if he is not careful, he will lead this country to hunger.”

If there’s any country in the world that needs to think carefully about how to spend its aid, it’s Zimbabwe.