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Zimbabwe’s latest crisis: it’s the economy – and politics, stupid!

The images of economic crisis in Zimbabwe are all too familiar. Queues for petrol and cash, commodity hoarding, parallel markets in currency, rising inflation and so on. It all seems reminiscent of the dark days of the mid 2000s, in the build-up to the full-blown crisis of the hyperinflationary collapse of 2008. This was not meant to be how the much-hailed second republic started out.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 election slogan, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ does ring true. Years of economic mismanagement, deep corruption and failure to invest, combined with sanctions, credit embargoes and investment freezes, have taken their toll. But the current crisis is also to do with politics, both domestic and international.

The dimensions of the economic crisis

Tony Hawkins, an economics professor at the University of Zimbabwe, recently gave a widely-circulated talk to the British Council on the economic travails of Zimbabwe. There was much to agree with in his summary of the situation.

The economy is uncompetitive, he argued, not helped by the appreciation of the US dollar by 17 percent since dollarization, the huge loss of value of the South African Rand and rising oil prices. Estimated 14% revenue increases from tobacco, gold and other minerals are offset by a massive hike in state expenditure, up 57%, exacerbated by election commitments to public servant wage hikes. The budget deficit has ballooned to $3.3 billion, with a projected trade gap of around $2.5 billion.

What’s more, he said, the total national debt now stands at a staggering $22 billion, now more than the GDP. Government borrowing continues to grow, crowding out the private sector, and putting pressure on available finance for investments, as people seek cash on the (expensive) parallel market. Inflationary pressures are also increasing dramatically therefore, with money supply far exceeding (formal) GDP growth.

But, despite the value of this description (repeated of course in numerous assessments by the IMF, the World Bank and other economists), his diagnosis of causes was only partially on target, and his solutions missed crucial dimensions.

Causes were laid largely at the door of domestic economic policy (or lack of it) and corruption by the ruling party. This, as is well documented, is a key part of the story. From Gideon Gono’s use of the reserve bank as a political tool in the ‘casino economy’ years to the massive expropriation of diamond resources, both show how the Zimbabwean economy has been destroyed from within.

This has not been the only story. The sanctions imposed following the land reform of 2000 took their toll too. While only targeting select individuals, and withdrawing aid from government led programmes, this signalled diplomatic disapproval from the West, and it had a major impact on patterns of economic support.

Aid programmes still continued but under a humanitarian label channelled through NGOs. But much more significant was the withdrawal of international finance and credit lines. This had a devastating impact and, even if not directed by official sanction policies, were their direct consequence. Despite the easing of diplomatic tensions in the post-Mugabe era, and the charm offensive that Mnangagwa has been engaging in from Davos to New York, the situation has not fundamentally changed.

Hawkins does point to the problem of ZDERA (the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001, amended this year) in particular. This is the US law that prevents the US government supporting Zimbabwe at the IFIs, without implementing a set of political reforms. In the coming months, this will likely prevent the US rep at the IMF backing a recovery plan, making the position of others on the IMF board crucial if any changes to support Zimbabwe’s recovery are to be realised.

Reforming the economy

The new finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, knows all this, but does he have the leeway to change course? He is severely hampered by the political legacy of sanctions and other ‘restrictive measures’, and deep distrust across international actors. However, there have been some good signs. His interviews with Bloomberg and speeches around the world have mostly been impressive, and suggest that he is committed to a major economic restructuring.

Some of this will be tough, and will be highly political. A test of the new government’s commitment will be how far he is allowed to go. Already attempts at introducing taxation measures have resulted in protests. What happens when he is forced to cull the public sector, massively reducing the salary bill, or overhaul the currency system, which benefits those dealing on the black market, including powerful individuals well connected to the political system?

Clearly the stop-gap measure of a “multi-currency” environment that followed the abandonment of the Zimbabwe dollar and the adoption of the US dollar is no longer working. Local ‘bond notes’ were supposed to be backed by external hard currency finance, but are clearly no longer, and are fast losing value. Stalling the massive flow of hard currency out of Zimbabwe is vital, and this means ending the pretence of equivalence between greenbacks and bond notes. Sticking to the US dollar in a period when US protectionism is boosting its value is risky too, as it makes everything absurdly expensive. But setting up a new currency in such straitened times is not wise either, given the low levels of confidence in the economy.

What to do? Given the dire experiences of structural adjustment from 1991 – which in many ways set the scene for much of Zimbabwe’s current malaise – making the case for IMF stabilisation intervention, combined with a HIPC-style debt relief package, with all the raft of expected conditionalities does seem rash. But there really doesn’t seem to be any other option currently. The Chinese are fed up with Zimbabwe given its failure to pay back loans in the past, and the ‘socialist solidarity’ line has worn thin. Reluctantly, this may be the only route.

The centrality of the rural economy

Assuming a political route to reform can be created, it therefore matters a lot what such reforms look like, and how they are implemented (lessons from Greece and others of course). Where I fundamentally part company with Hawkins’ analysis is his disparaging rejection of the importance of the rural economy. Like so many conventional economists, he focuses on the urban, industrial sector, forgetting that this is dependent on a wider economic system that remains substantially small-scale, informal and rural. The distinctions between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ economies in Zimbabwe are irrelevant today: most of the economy is ‘informal’, and that’s where livelihoods are made.

In the rural areas this is especially so. And, as we have shown in our research over many years, this is vibrant, growing and generating employment in significant ways, particularly when linked to land reform areas that are producing surpluses and creating spin-off linkages in local economies. It is far from dead, as Hawkins suggests, but it is different to what went before. This is not backward-looking rural traditionalism, bound by archaic cultural norms, as Hawkins seems to suggest, but the new economy; one that everyone must get used to and support. For sure, it is the ZANU-PF support base, and the reason they won the parliamentary elections, but that makes it even more important that the government gets its reforms right for rural people, as well as the urban middle classes.

The small steps towards a positive dynamic of rural growth spurred on by land reform however stalls dramatically when the wider economy is in crisis. With no liquidity, investments dry up, and with a lack of credit, the financing of new operations cannot occur. If inflation kicks in, as it is now (some estimate that annual inflation is touching 50 percent already), then the value of goods is uncertain, and economic transactions are risky. The result is that the economic dynamism ceases, and livelihoods are affected up and down value chains, from agricultural producers to traders to processers to wholesalers to retailers and consumers.

This is what happened in the mid-2000s, and again is what is happening now. But rather than dismiss rural people and areas as economically backward, somehow culturally unable to engage with a modern economy, policymakers and economic advisers need to appreciate the potential of the agrarian economy, and encourage investment. Simply wishing an industrial revival without a core agrarian productive base supporting the mass of the population is foolish, especially in Zimbabwe’s context, as a small economy operating in a highly competitive global environment.

Wider stabilisation, debt write-offs and addressing inflation and currency instability is vital at the macroeconomic level and must be central to Mthuli Ncube’s agenda. But his next step must be to set up the type of investment strategy that allows a dispersed, largely informal economy to thrive, and contribute to growth and employment in multiple ways for long-term, sustained and equitable recovery.

Only then will links be made that allow the industrial and service sectors to thrive, and taxation and so government revenue raising to be applied. The post land reform economy does not look like that of the 1990s in the earlier adjustment era, or the post UDI sanctions period in 1980. Big ticket ‘modern’ investments in agriculture, tourism, maybe even some industries, will be important, but they must not undermine or take attention away from the key challenge, which is supporting the real, predominantly rural, economy where most people make their living.

It’s politics, stupid!

The on-going negotiations with the IMF and the wider diplomatic and donor community are of course not just about economic restructuring, investment and financial prudence. They are also (of course) about politics. With Nelson Chamisa and the opposition MDC still not recognising the results of the elections, their lobbying of western governments continues.

Their strategy is unclear, but it seems to be to encourage the US in particular to maintain sanctions and the ZDERA law, with the aim of extracting political concessions for the long-term. You can see the rationale, but the consequence is that the economy is nose-diving and people are suffering; if not from cholera due to lack of investment in urban infrastructure, certainly from growing economic hardships, even if this is only queuing for petrol at night. This may backfire, with the opposition seen as holding the country hostage, undermining recovery for political gains.

Calls for demilitarising the state apparatus as part of conditions are appropriately central to many demands. The latest bogey-man for the international community is of course the Vice President General Chiwenga. But, with ZANU-PF, despite the new, PR-branded version that President Mnangagwa is projecting, a securitised state is likely to persist, even after the army has returned to the barracks or swapped uniforms for suits. A technocratic-military state is a feature of the current dispensation, and by some seen as a positive route to implementing a state-led (aka ‘command’) developmentalist policy, in the mode of Kagame in Rwanda or previously Meles in Ethiopia.

Where next?

There are divisions amongst the western diplomatic community on how to move forward. Some take a pragmatic stance and argue that a stabilisation bailout will create stability, and allow the economy to function, arguing that conditions for future elections and a deeper embedding of (western-style, liberal) democracy will emerge only when the country is not in crisis mode. Others make the case that a crisis of legitimacy following the elections means that this is the moment to exert pressure on Mnangagwa and exact the maximum concessions in favour of the opposition’s stance. Economic crisis is a price worth paying if political reform emerges, goes the argument. Within ZANU-PF and the MDC, as well as commentators not linked to any party, all shades of opinion exist.

What all agree is that a return to 2007-08 is not desirable, and that action to avert this needs to happen soon. And I would add: a focus on supporting the informal sector and the agrarian economy – and the linkages beyond – is vital to any way forward.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and this version first appeared on Zimbabweland.

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What if Greece was in Africa?

I ended last week’s blog with a call for the rejection of the economics of the mainstream. Last week the Greek people voted resoundingly against the conditions of austerity imposed by creditors. Democracy spoke loudly with the ‘no’ vote in the referendum, and it was the younger generation who came in behind Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Yet in a rollercoaster week the Syriza government reversed its principled rejection of the measures, and proposed a draconian if pragmatic alternative. This in turn was rejected by hardliners in Europe, isolating Greece and forcing a ‘deal’ (see #Thisisacoup). Some have asked what can Africa learn from Greece?; in this blog I argue that Greece (and others) can learn a lot from African experience.

Debt is on the rise again not just in Greece, but across the world. A decline in commodity prices with a strengthening of the US dollar makes debt unsustainable in many economies, with rising proportions of government revenues being spent on debt servicing and debt accounting for higher and higher proportions of total GDP. The extremes of Greece are rare, whose debt had risen to some 178 per cent of GDP, probably more now as its economy has crashed, but the signs are ominous. Zimbabwe has a massive external debt, amounting to 40 per cent of GDP, while other countries in the region, such as Mozambique and Tanzania, are racking up debt to fuel growth. But, as a timely new report from the Jubilee debt campaign shows, such growth masks growing inequalities, huge liabilities linked to ‘public private partnership’ deals, and a debt servicing requirement that will squeeze public expenditure for years.

Is this a return to the 1980s and 1990s, when many countries across Africa – like Greece today – were saddled with unsustainable debt and forced by their creditors to take the unpalatable medicine of austerity packages imposed by the International Finance Institutions? Can lessons for Greece and debt vulnerable nations in Africa be learned from this period and its aftermath? I think so. The new Greek finance minister, Euclid Tsakalotos, knows a thing or two about this. An MPhil graduate of the IDS at Sussex in the 1980s (before my time), he later published a paper in the Journal of Development Studies in 1994 on ‘the scope and limits of financial liberalisation in developing countries’, and a paper in the Cambridge Journal of Economics arguing for a commitment to values in economics. He comes from a different branch of economics to the mainstream, and like his predecessor has run up against the hawkish positions of the German government, the IMF and others.

In Africa of course, IMF/World Bank austerity measures were not put to a popular vote in the 1980s and 1990s. Like in Greece, they would I am sure have been roundly rejected. Governments of all political persuasions were instead bullied into compliance with drastic structural adjustment measures. Zimbabwe abandoned its measured ‘growth with equity’ strategy in 1991 in favour of the notorious ESAP policy (known locally as ‘Economic Suffering for African Peoples’, alongside many other versions of the acronym). We know the consequences of this disastrous period, both economically and politically, as I have commented before.

But what if structural adjustment (aka austerity) across Africa had been replaced by a more balanced debt restructuring, encouraging investment alongside reform, while protecting basic services and the vulnerable? What if the enforced liberalisation of markets had been more managed, and the predatory capitalism that often took over more restrained? What if there had been more accountability in such liberalisation processes, would there have been less venal corruption taking over? What if governments across Africa had not lost core capacities due to structural adjustment measures, would there have been more extension services, clinics and schools, with benefits for agriculture, health and education, and so less poverty and inequality? What if debts had been released, so that investments in development could take place, rather than channelling revenues into debt servicing?

These are lots of big ‘what ifs?’, but the damage imposed has been long-lasting: not only on economies and the lost decades of low growth, but also directly on people; on those who missed out on an education, and with the decimation of health services, the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic unfolding across the continent at the same time was much, much worse. Of course lessons have been learned and in some quarters the ‘Washington Consensus’ of those years has been rejected. In the 2000s, the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt release deals were linked to a focus on poverty reduction, and for some countries in Africa it had a positive effect – even if this was only temporary.

Escaping debilitating debt while promoting both growth and social justice is possible, however. This was the deal struck following the end of the Second World War in Europe. Greece indeed was one of the parties that signed the agreement to cancel German debt, and allow it to grow successfully after its decimation by war. The London Conference of 1953 was a key moment for Europe, sadly not being repeated in Brussels this past weekend. Germany is a nation that has come to terms with its history, but clearly not this particular detail. The aggressive rejection of Greece’s plight, runs against these wider lessons. Structural debt, imposed through a range of forces, never wholly the fault of the countries concerned, requires radical solutions, and not just an imposition of austerity and suffering. Yet, as with Africa a few decades ago, Greece’s creditors continue to reject a long-term solution, and seem intent on humiliation, teaching a wayward country a lesson. The rhetoric of those involved is shocking. A few weeks back, the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, called for dialogue ‘with adults in the room’. African negotiators will recall the way the international institutions humiliated, demeaned and infantalised, rejecting pleas for a more balanced way forward. They will have much sympathy with the Greeks today.

On resigning his post, Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, argued, “yes to a proper resolution – to an agreement that involves debt restructuring, less austerity, redistribution in favour of the needy, and real reforms”. Despite the arguments of many economists from around the world, this path has it seems been rejected, and Greece, and Europe, will suffer. But what of Africa? Africa is now beyond the structural adjustment period, the Washington consensus has been diluted, and there are new players, and new ideas, on the scene. Unlike Greece, African countries are not so behoven to a dominating power such as Germany, and less tied to a particular regional economic and political ‘project’. This is a good thing. Today, across Africa new perspectives are on the table, and not just the tired, old, failed medicine from the IMF and others. Most notably new ideas, and finance, are coming from China, Brazil, India, Malaysia and South Korea, among others. A new state-led developmentalism is the flavour of the day. In Rwanda or Ethiopia a new African formulation of a ‘developmental state’ is being forged. Others too are interested, including maybe Zimbabwe. Like Paul Kagame and the late Meles Zenawi, Emmerson Mnangagwa draws insights and experience from the ‘emerging nations’, and notably China.

Later this week, government representatives from across the world assemble in in Addis to discuss a financing for development, in advance of the signing of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in September. The conference document is full of high-sounding words, but the debates are framed in a very different way to those of the 1980s and 1990s. Sustainable finance, patient capital, long-term investment, balancing productivity with social protection are the watchwords. Much more Keynes than Friedman, and a focus on long-term sustainable development, not short, sharp shock treatment according to ideological disciplining and subjugation. The UN discussions in Addis of course only touch on a small element of the wider picture. Financing from the BRICS are barely mentioned in the documents, yet the BRICS bank, the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank and the Chinese or Brazilian state investment banks are increasingly important players, as well as of course huge private investment flows, as global capital restructures with Africa firmly in its sights. Balancing these investments, offsetting risks and avoiding unsustainable debt will be a tricky balancing act for all African governments in the coming years, as commodity-led growth tails off. Greece, as well as many countries in Africa, have suffered the long-term consequences of a combination of structural underdevelopment, oligarchic corruption and patrimonialism and poor economic governance. Finding a way out of the bind without succumbing to more pain and suffering will be tough, requiring new ideas and new allies.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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Greece and Africa: learning the lessons of structural adjustment

For nearly two decades, from the World Bank’s Berg report of 1981 onwards, Africa suffered the consequences of structural adjustment – or more kindly economic reform – at the behest of the international finance institutions. The consequences were devastating for employment, livelihoods and state capacity. But the neoliberal medicine did not work. There was a period in the 1990s when there were all sorts of arcane debates on why. Was it the imbalance of economic measures, was it the timing and sequencing, was it the lack of political will to implement properly? But in the end most agree that it was a disastrous period, the consequences of which are still being felt.

These consequences include the massive undermining of state capacity, including health services, agricultural research and extension and more, along with the loss of a generation of potential. The recent shocking impacts of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa can be in part related to these long-term effects of systematic underdevelopment – what some call ‘structural violence’.

In Zimbabwe, the Mugabe government abandoned its post-Independence ‘growth with equity’ strategy for one modelled on the designs of the World Bank and the IMF in 1991. The Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP – also known as ‘economic suffering for African peoples’, and many other plays on the same) was rolled out through the 1990s. It presaged the unrest that provoked the labour movement and war veteran mobilisations in the latter part of the decade, and was of course the backdrop for the land reform from 2000.

Of course some benefit from such neoliberal economic reforms. Despite the high-flown rhetoric, the Mugabe government did not push for land reform or other redistributions in the 1990s. Instead elites accumulated, corruption extended and a new politics emerged. In this period large-scale, mostly white-owned (but also now incorporating some of the new black elite) farming and other businesses profited. In agriculture, high value farming operations boomed, seeking profits in export markets as part of the new, competitive neoliberal order. In some ways, it was a great success. But in many ways a troublesome anomaly, as the benefits were not widely shared, and the festering discontents around land distribution, unresolved from the colonial period, continued unaddressed.

So what has this all to do with Greece? A week ago a new party, Syriza, dramatically came to power in Greece committed to ending the structural reforms imposed by the European Union, and Germany in particular, but also committing to tackle the deep corruption and oligarchic elitism that had come to characterise Greek political economy. The rise of Syriza has sent shockwaves through Europe with its rejection of the status quo, and the deep inequities of the ‘austerity packages’ imposed, what have been described by the new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, as “fiscal waterboarding” that had turned Greece into a “debt colony” (see excerpts from his book via this link).

A former colleague of mine, Diana Conyers, who lived in Zimbabwe during the ESAP period, and now lives in Greece wrote a thought-provoking blog for the IDS website recently. It drew the parallels between Greece and Africa in interesting ways. On the day of the Greek election, the UK Sunday broadsheet, The Observer, had an extended editorial on the Greek situation. If you replaced ‘Greece’ with ‘Africa’ (or any particular African country) in the piece – as I do below – the parallels that Diana drew attention to are striking:

Africans have been subjected to what many feel is a sustained, brutal and unnecessarily destructive attack on their basic living standards, way of life and national independence. If a country is invaded and occupied by hostile forces, it might expect to lose its freedom and its voice. But the subjugation of Africa, in the name of fiscal responsibility, debt reduction and structural reform, was undertaken by so-called friendly powers, principally, [western donors, the World Bank and the IMF[…[A]usterity is not working, either, as a group of leading economists noted… “The historical evidence demonstrates the futility and dangers of imposing unsustainable debt and repayment conditions on debtor countries [and] the negative impact of austerity policies on weakening economies… Debt should be cancelled”.

In the 1990s the global policy elite and the international commentariat, let alone ‘leading economists’, did not offer such a perspective on Africa. Partly Africa was far away and had less influence on the West than even Greece, but also the ‘historical evidence’ – mostly resulting from the failed experiments in Africa, post-Soviet Russia and elsewhere – had not been learned. And of course in Africa, where emergent democracies were being controlled through the same route as their economies via programmes of ‘good governance’, the prospects for an insurgent, popular, progressive, alternative politics, as has emerged in Greece (and maybe Spain too), was not feasible.

Through the 1990s, in Zimbabwe and elsewhere, political and business elites were quite happy to build their wealth and power on the back of austerity and ‘reform’, with inequality and deepening structural poverty growing with this. The Greek Syrzia moment perhaps has some parallels with Zimbabwe in 2000. The challenges will be similar: the prospects of diplomatic isolation, capital withdrawal, external pressure to conform and political tensions regionally, but equally the need to compromise, manage change and seek an alternative, while offsetting corruption, political division and social conflict that threaten a more humane, redistributive growth path.

In the past 15 years, Zimbabwe has sought an alternative political-economic trajectory, breaking some of the shackles of the past; but it has also failed dramatically to address other challenges, with the consequence that the economy continues to languish, corruption has extended even further, growth has failed to take off and the benefits of redistributive policy remain to be realised. Let’s hope the Syriza coalition fares better. Perhaps in the future Athens, rather than Washington, will be able to send economic advisers to Africa.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland

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