The UK aid programme in Zimbabwe

DFID is one of the largest aid donors in Zimbabwe. It plans to spend £88m per year in the period to 2015 – and more if a political transition acceptable to the British government happens. The ‘value for money’ rationale, the Operational Plan for 2011-15 states:

“Political conditions permitting, there is a compelling argument for making development investments now, in order to repair the damage resulting from many years of under or mis-investment in Zimbabwe. Rather than making investments later to build again from scratch investing now has the potential to deliver significant VfM. The relatively high levels of human capital, the latent – albeit dilapidated – quality of the infrastructure stock, the abundant natural resource base and the geographical position in a stable region, all suggest strong potential for significant and rapid developmental bounce-back if the political and economic transition in Zimbabwe is managed successfully”.

Much of the plan is centred on the need for a ‘political transition’. It is clear that for DFID the GNU is unacceptable as an aid recipient. The UK government-imposed restrictions on aid delivery therefore mean that most support must be directed outside government. The plan states:

“The political context for our work in Zimbabwe restricts our current choice of aid instruments. At the moment all DFID resources are channelled through third parties: multilateral organisations, the private sector and Non-Governmental Organisations. We anticipate that following a successful political transition our choice of aid instruments would widen. We are investing now in activities which prepare the ground for the day when we can consider alternative delivery options, such as improving public financial management systems. We could then consider channelling money through Government systems and once the conditions were right, to provide budget support either generally or by sector”.

As noted in a previous blog on donor fads, this reliance on the UN and NGOs for delivery means that sometimes aid quality is poor. The example of the DFID support to ‘conservation agriculture’ as part of (conditions of) input programmes was highlighted. In addition, aid flows are not supposed to flow to the new resettlement areas. Most NGOs boycott these areas too. This means that ‘investing now in activities that prepare the ground’ for future support does not happen, and support to agriculture remains part of what is essentially a relief effort (formerly the ‘Protracted Relief Programme’ – see DFID project overview and details of recipients of the £49m of the second phase), narrowly focused on the communal areas.

The result of this aid focus is that donors, including the British who have a key role because of the size of the aid programme and the history of engagement with Zimbabwe, have often very little clue of what is happening on the ground. This is improving, but I have been shocked at donor meetings with some of the (mis)perceptions which are repeated – especially about the emotive subject of land reform. I am not sure what they get in the foreign office briefings, but a combination of the international press and the cocktail party circuit in Harare can lead to very distorting perspective indeed.

Zimbabwe of course comes into the ‘high risk’, ‘conflict’, ‘failed-state’ category of the UK aid programme, and all that comes with that. Sometimes it gets bundled up with Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan. A recent DFID/FCO/MOD strategy, Building Stability Overseas, noted: “in a range of states, from Somalia to Zimbabwe and Burma, weak and bad governance is entrenched”. Rather different contexts I would suggest. On lists of conflict countries Zimbabwe is always there – sometimes near the top – and according to criteria that often remain opaque. Here is a World Bank listing, for example, with a range of scorings.

The UK’s bilateral aid review, announced by Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell in March 2011, encouraged a focus on such countries, as part of a wider security-governance and conflict prevention agenda. This has its merits, but I wonder if this is the right perspective. Zimbabwe’s problems are rather different to other conflict areas, and while engaging with the current government has problems, DFID has bilateral aid programmes with many worse.

Donors have missed many opportunities to influence the direction of Zimbabwe’s development – in 1998 when a land deal might have been brokered or in 2009 at the beginning of the GNU, for example. Another opportunity is looming following following what will be another fraught election process in the coming year or so. This will no doubt produce another uneasy political compromise with a shaky mandate. Maybe, with the UK government itself an uneasy coalition, DFID will be able to engage in a pragmatic and progressive way, without being burdened by the ideological overtones of ‘sanctions’ (or restrictive aid measures) or the categorisation of ‘failed’ or ‘conflict-affected’ state, and all the often inappropriate baggage that comes with this.

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One response to “The UK aid programme in Zimbabwe

  1. Pingback: Greatest hits. Your favourite posts in the past year | zimbabweland

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