Saturday, February 7, 2009

Dead Silence: The Aid Industry and Zimbabwe

Amongst the catalogue of African economic basket cases one stands head and shoulders above the rest – Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe, is quite simply, a complete and utter disaster. Gross negligence and mismanagement on the part of Robert Mugabe’s regime has enriched a few, and impoverished the rest. Mugabe’s regime has taken a once prosperous and successful Zimbabwe, the onetime bread basket of Africa, and turned it into a case study for economic failure.

The numbers are staggering and unprecedented. Hyperinflation has reached levels once thought impossible – prices double every 32 hours – a 516 quintillion annualized percentage rate. The Zimbabwean Central Bank prints money as fast as it can obtain the banknote paper. Basic services are non-existent. Shelves are empty, goods can only be obtained on the black market. Cholera has broken out and killed thousands. People are starving. Zimbabwe has turned medieval.

And yet, within this mess, Mugabe still survives. Supported by an inner circle of advisors who have grown rich through currency controls and through various mineral deals with international companies.

If ever there was a poster child for the aid industry – one would think this would be it. Yet there is nothing. There is no outrage. There is no hand wringing or calls for international action. Yes, we should go Save Darfur, but don’t bother about Zimbabwe. Even the most vocal, upright and morally conscious aid organizations; Global Witness, the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children are dead silent.

The most Global Witness can muster was a press release in December calling for Zimbabwe to be excluded from the Kimberly Process. And yet, there are large publicly listed multinational corporations providing direct financial support to a corrupt and malicious regime in exchange for mining concessions. This would seem to be a giant red flag for Global Witness, who in the first sentence on their website state that they “investigate and campaign to prevent natural resource related conflict and corruption.”

Despite being actively involved in Somalia and Darfur, the International Rescue Committee only recently woke up to the issues in Zimbabwe when a reported 21,000 cases of cholera broke out. Despite thousands of people being infected with the disease the IRC managed to send exactly one doctor to Harare to help train local medical personnel.

Save the Children, which lists ten African countries it is involved in on its website, claims to have operated in Zimbabwe for over 25 years and states that they are feeding over 200,000 people with their 200 man strong team on the ground. Yet, this magnificent effort doesn’t rate listing Zimbabwe as one of the countries it is involved in in Africa.

The recently formed Enough Project claims to be building a permanent constituency to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity. Its focus is on Sudan, Chad, Congo, Uganda, and the horn of Africa – yet one of the gravest crisis’ in years has escaped its attention. Granted – the Enough Project doesn’t actually do anything – it is focused on raising funds to support its Washington, D.C. based lobbyists and a few insignificant staffers in the field whose sole purpose is to lend a modicum of credibility to the organization.

Why the silence? There are three possible reasons.

The first is that they don’t care. Zimbabwe is a problem for Zimbabwe. This attitude would be an abrupt turnabout for the various aid organizations who have spent their entire history claiming to care when others do not, and then raising funds to help find solutions to those problems. It is highly unlikely that the naïve and well meaning staffers at these organizations really don’t care about the people of Zimbabwe – so perhaps there is another reason for their silence.

The second possible reason is that the aid organizations do care and want to do something – but cannot. They are barred from Zimbabwe, harassed by the secret police and its just too dangerous to operate there. While plausible, this is probably unlikely. Aid organizations operate in Darfur, an equally dangerous location. And even if they can’t operate physically on the ground, they have provided no pithy sound bites to the international media on the situation, given no interviews and have not called on any international organizations to do something. Contrast this situation with the one in Darfur and one can see the disparities in effort. No one is selling Save Zimbabwe t-shirts on college campuses.

The third possible reason is that the aid organizations don’t see any benefit in calling for action on Zimbabwe. Once the layers of moral indignation and bushy-tailed naïveté are peeled back one realizes that the real purpose of aid organizations is to perpetuate themselves. As such, they are on a perennial fundraising mission.

Aid organizations must make cost/benefit decisions just like any other business. As such, any new endeavour requires a detailed analysis on the cost of that new project, versus the benefit – i.e.: how much money can be raised from donors?

There are two fundamental problems with the Zimbabwe crisis which preclude NGO involvement. The first is that the crisis has been burning slowly over the past decades. There has been no seminal event – no tsunami, no earthquake, no war which creates a dramatic beginning to the problem. Western donors, and aid organizations by correlation, like issues neatly packaged into Hollywood beginnings, middles and ends. Additionally, aid organizations need graphic images of suffering in order to encourage Western donors to reach for their wallets. There are no such images coming out of Zimbabwe. There are no dramatic scenes of horseback mounted Janjaweed raiding helpless villages.

The second problem precluding NGO involvement is that the crisis has been self-inflicted. Mugabe’s economic and political policies have driven farmers off of their lands, exacerbated crony capitalism, drained the treasury, driven legitimate business underground or abroad, and forced the entrepreneurial class to flee. Mugabe’s regime is a case study for bad policy. There is, however, a method to his madness – Mugabe’s policies have all been intentionally designed to support and enrich an inner circle of supporters to ensure the continuation of his rule. Mugabe’s supporters dine on steak and champagne and his wife takes lavish shopping trips to Hong Kong while the populace slowly starves and succumbs to cholera and other illnesses. Thus, its hard to paint Zimbabwe in any type of sympathetic light, even for a group of professional NGO spin masters who have honed their skills at exploiting Western guilt towards Africa.

Thus, the deafening silence on Zimbabwe can most likely be attributed to the last reason – its just not good business. Why sink funds into a “cause” that won’t net the aid organization any tangible return? Once one understands the “non-profit” aid organizations for what they are – businesses that exploit Western guilt, things start to become a little clearer.

1 comment:

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