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Zimbabwe’s slow-burning crisis could affect Africa

By Donald Steinberg - posted Tuesday, 7 July 2009

After a few moments of international attention when Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) formed a unity government with their long-time oppressors, Zimbabwe has now been eclipsed by more dramatic headlines from elsewhere. The challenges of rebuilding the country’s ruined political and economic systems are daunting, and the global recession has seriously hurt trade and investment opportunities, as well as remittances from diaspora workers that provide 8 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Meanwhile, foreign donors are understandably repulsed by the prospect of having to support a government still associated with Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF hardliners. Yet strong arguments exist for the world to swallow hard and come to the country’s aid.

After years of self-inflicted economic degradation, abusive government, massive displacement and the collapse of its social infrastructure, Zimbabwe is showing tentative signs of recovery. Hope has surfaced as prices stabilise; the government begins to function after a fashion; civil servants receive small stipends; cross-party co-operation emerges in parliament; schools and hospitals re-open; and humanitarian assistance picks up. Even in the face of non co-operation - some would say, “subversion” - by government hold-overs like the reserve bank governor, the attorney-general, and the security establishment, Zimbabwe seems poised to defy the sceptics.


But Zimbabwe’s timing is awful. It is seeking massive foreign assistance - the government’s recovery plan calls for about US$8.5 billion in the next two-to-three years - and private investment just when donors and international development agencies alike are cutting aid budgets and foreign investors are seeking safe havens in the stormy global economy. Tellingly, no one has called for a “Marshall Plan for Zimbabwe”.

Further, most factors that often generate Western political will for engagement are absent. Neither the MDC nor ZANU-PF consorts with global terrorists, and a collapse of the unity government will not lead to jihadi training camps in rural areas. Zimbabwe is neither a supplier nor a major trafficker in illegal drugs, arms or persons. Zimbabwean refugees are not flooding into Western Europe or the United States. While rich in natural resources, Zimbabwe seems to have the wrong commodities at the wrong time: it has no oil, and most of its minerals face free-falling global demand. There are no exotic diseases that threaten a pandemic: just run-of-the-mill cholera, malaria and HIV-AIDS. The country straddles no sea lanes and has no pirates.

So as Afghanistan, Burma, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and other crises are filling the in-boxes of Western policy-makers, Zimbabwe falls to the back of line, not just alphabetically. Even international crises themselves are slipping down the agenda in a world increasingly focused on domestic implications of global recession.

In this context, there is no easy motivation to compel international engagement. While the scale of suffering in Zimbabwe matches or even dwarves that of other humanitarian crises - with six million people with limited or no access to safe water and sanitation, 1.5 million children in need of assistance to attend school, and millions in need of direct food aid - this rationale only takes us so far in a world facing seemingly infinite humanitarian needs.

The argument for engagement has to be built on circumstantial evidence, but it is a strong case nonetheless.

Start with Zimbabwe’s regional importance. If Zimbabwe is a smallish country of 12 million people, the southern African region - with a market of 200 million, growing oil production, armed forces providing peacekeepers throughout Africa, and a location along key shipping lanes - is by contrast of great strategic, commercial and political importance. A prosperous Zimbabwe could be an engine of growth for the region, providing key links to regional communications, transport and electricity grids. Zimbabwe has long been considered a potential breadbasket for the region, based on what used to be efficient agriculture, albeit in need of serious land reform. Combine this with abundant mineral resources, hydro-electrical power to complement coal-fired power further south, and an educated and productive labour force, and the case for integration becomes even stronger.


By contrast, instability in Zimbabwe is profoundly destabilising to its neighbours. An estimated four million Zimbabweans fleeing economic hardship and political abuses have flooded across borders, overwhelming the social services and the good will of South Africa, Botswana, and other neighbours. The fierce xenophobic attacks on Zimbabweans in South Africa’s townships are just one sign of growing restiveness. Botswana, Africa’s shining star of stability and human rights, has built an electrified fence and resorted to detention and expulsions to keep desperate Zimbabweans out.

A second argument for Western engagement is based on the world’s need for success stories in national reconciliation based on dialogue and rule of law. This is exactly what Zimbabwe is offering. The General Political Accord guiding the unity government is a textbook example of how to rebuild a post-conflict political and economic system: rebalance power between judicial, legislative and executive powers; adopt an inclusive constitution prepared through broad public consultations; defang and reform a menacing security force; eliminate oppressive security legislation; insist on accountability for past abuses; and reinforce civil society enfeebled by Mugabe’s divide-and-rule tactics. Success in Zimbabwe could provide lessons and ripple effects, just as South Africa’s own transition did 15 years ago.

Third, we cannot assume, just because the global effects of Zimbabwe’s implosion have been modest, that “it cannot happen here”. A world focused on only the visible threats of the last crisis is no longer creatively addressing the unpredictable effects of the next crisis. Transnational threats incubate in unexpected ways in the hothouse of instability and weak governance.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online ( Copyright © 2009, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

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About the Author

Donald Steinberg is Deputy President for Policy at International Crisis Group. He served as President Clinton’s Special Assistant for Africa and as Director of the State Department’s Joint Policy Council under Secretary Powell.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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