The Political Economy of Aid in Zimbabwe

Farai Chipato discusses the massive influx of donor money into Zimbabwe’s civil society in the 2000s which created ‘briefcase NGOs’, where opportunistic ‘entrepreneurs’ attempted to draw down funding for profit, and the expansion of existing NGOs, creating employment opportunities for a growing number of careerists. Before long, the NGO sector became one of the main sectors sustaining Zimbabwe’s urban middle class, which included both junior staff and a layer of management staff who accumulated significant amounts of wealth and property. Activists from the 1990s complain of this turn from activist to professional in civil society organisations, which meant that civil society is increasingly just another industry to make a career in.

By Farai Chipato

Academics and activists have been criticising the NGOisation of political protest since at least the 1990s, arguing that as social movements transform into NGOs, they become professionalised, apolitical and conservative. Whilst this phenomenon has been observed throughout the Global South and particularly in Africa, it is important to understand how its dynamics play out in different ways, interacting with specific contexts and events. This became increasingly clear to me during a research trip to Zimbabwe in 2018, where I spent six months interviewing activists and development professionals working on democracy and human rights. What follows is an account of how and why Zimbabwean civil society organisations have become more professionalised, internationalised and apolitical over the past two decades, drawing on over 100 interviews with those involved on the ground.

The Beginning of Protest in Zimbabwe

The contemporary landscape of civil society organisations, NGOs and social movements in Zimbabwe originated in an upsurge of activism in the mid to late 1990s. The country was in the midst of a series of structural adjustment programmes, implemented by the ruling ZANU-PF party, which had devastating effects on the economic and social lives of ordinary Zimbabweans. In response, church groups joined with trade unionists, student activists and other NGOs, and attempted to engage with the government to forge a new economic path for the country, but these efforts quickly stalled. In response, activists formed a movement for constitutional change, as a means to reign in the power of the president and push for reform, quickly gaining momentum due to the worsening economic situation. Whilst the constitutional reform movement was blocked by government in the late 1990s, it’s success in building support among ordinary people led to the formation of a powerful new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), in 1999.

In the early 2000s, the civil society organisations that gained a voice in the previous decade grew in confidence, forming a common cause with the MDC. Civil society in this period was largely an urban phenomenon, as rural politics was increasingly dominated by veterans of Zimbabwe’s liberation war, whose campaign for land reform resulted in the mass expropriation of farmland from the country’s white farmers during this period. However, in the cities, new NGOs were emerging around human rights, democracy and good governance, where the success of established civil society groups attracted attention and funding from international donors, like the US and the UK, which increasingly provided financial support for these groups. What had started as an organic movement for reform became an increasingly internationalised system of NGOs, heavily reliant on its funders to survive.

This period saw Zimbabwe descend into a series of interlinked crises, as the land redistribution programme, together with international isolation, sanctions and erratic government policies fuelled a severe economic downturn. As hyperinflation began to decimate the livelihoods of ordinary people, the confrontation between the opposition, backed by civil society groups, and the government, now allied to the war veterans, escalated. This culminated in a violent and contested election in 2008, which was eventually settled through international mediation and the formation of a government of national unity (GNU).

Whilst the 2009 to 2013 GNU allowed for both political and economic stabilisation, it also saw an increasing fragmentation and weakening of civil society groups. Splits within the major opposition party had already caused divisions within civil society, and the formation of a coalition government created further arguments between advocates for engagement with the government, backed by powerful international donors, and more adversarial activists. This worsened in 2013, when ZANU-PF won a landslide electoral victory, leading many in the donor community to blame civil society organisations. As a result, funding levels decreased, and donors demanded increasing levels of professionalism, bureaucratic capacity and co-operation in exchange for funding.

NGOisation and Economic crisis

The key driver of NGOisation during the past 20 years has been the massive increase in donor funding to Zimbabwe, that began with constitutional reform movement in the late 1990s. In one key example, the US development agency, USAID, increased its Zimbabwe budget from $22 million in 2001 to a $261 million in 2016.  Moreover, from the early 2000s onwards, the majority of international donors refused to fund the Zimbabwean government directly, instead choosing to use civil society as their main means to influence the country’s politics. The massive increase in funding to NGOs specifically can be seen in the Swedish development agency’s funding to civil society, which rose from $3.6 million in 2001 to $24.8 million in 2014. This influx of money has had a number of effects on Zimbabwean organisations, which will be examined below.

One of the most important factors in NGOisation has been the interaction between increased donor funding and Zimbabwe’s volatile economy during the early 2000s, which was subject to hyperinflation and mass unemployment. This created a growing pool of ambitious, educated urban Zimbabweans who were unable to gain employment in the private or public sector or create their own businesses in a hostile economic environment. The influx of donor money into civil society thus incentivised both the creation of ‘briefcase NGOs’, where opportunistic ‘entrepreneurs’ attempted to draw down funding for profit, and the expansion of existing NGOs, creating employment opportunities for a growing number of careerists. Thus, by the late 2000s, the NGO sector became one of the main industries sustaining Zimbabwe’s urban middle class, which included both junior staff and a layer of management staff who accumulated significant amounts of wealth and property. Veterans of the 1990s surge of activism complain of this turn from activist to professional in civil society organisations, suggesting that civil society is increasingly seen as just another industry to make a career in.

The volatility of the Zimbabwean currency and the febrile political environment also created unique opportunities for profit among NGOs that received donor funding. By 2008, inflation in Zimbabwe had reached over 1 million percent, with prices in Zimbabwean dollars changing incredibly rapidly. Among those with bank accounts, savings and current account balances became worthless almost overnight, impoverishing large swathes of the country. In this environment, foreign currency became exceptionally valuable, as it not only allowed Zimbabweans access to forms of exchange that retained their value but could be converted into local currency at huge profits. Local NGOs received their donor funding in foreign currency during this period, often in cash, which was sometimes smuggled across the border from neighbouring countries like Botswana and South Africa. Employees of these organisations, particularly their directors, were able to use significant profits from their foreign currency salaries to purchase property, or other assets that retained their value. In one example from my research, a former NGO director indicated that they paid themselves US$4,000 a month at the height of the crisis. To put this in context, another informant working in the private sector informed me that it cost him US$100 in total to pay 4,000 employees at a manufacturing plant at the same time. Thus, savvy NGO directors were able to accumulate significant amounts of capital during this period.

Zimbabwean NGOs and the Global Development Industry

The increasingly large NGO sector also linked the Zimbabwean middle class into the global development industry, providing opportunities for lucrative work, either in international organisations based in the country, or abroad. Whilst NGO directors were able to access significant salaries, their positions were often precarious, both politically and financially. However, a successful stint as an NGO director could lead to a more stable and financially rewarding position at an international NGO or a donor organisation based in Zimbabwe, which are now heavily reliant on local staff. Many staff at all levels have moved on to positions in international organisations, at a local, regional and global level. In two prominent regional examples, international lawyer Siphosami Malunga is the director of the Open Society Institute of Southern Africa, based in Johannesburg, whilst Arnold Tsunga, another Zimbabwean human rights lawyer, is the director of the Africa Regional Office of the International Commission of Jurists. Zimbabweans have been able to use the skills they developed in the civil society boom of the early and mid-2000s to build successful careers in the international development industry, further incentivising more junior staff to join the career ladder.

Working in Zimbabwean civil society also brings other benefits as well, which reinforce the professionalisation of activists. Success in a local NGO provides opportunities for foreign travel through a network of fellowships, conferences and workshops provided by the wider international development ecosystem. Opportunities for advanced degrees from international universities are also on offer through funding provided by embassies and other development organisations. These experiences channel activists away from more radical approaches to change, in favour of technical proficiencies, ‘best practice’ and an apolitical view of development.

Corruption and NGOs

As well as opportunities for enrichment through career progression, there has also been the prospect of illicit accumulation of wealth through donor funding, which operates on a number of levels. One of my interviewees suggested that some NGOs write reports of workshops or training events that never happened, which allow them to use funding for other purposes, including personal enrichment.  However, corruption is also rumoured to have occurred on the donor side, as employees of bilateral development agencies have been accused to providing funding in return for kickbacks. Many in both civil society and among the donor community claim that these issues have been exacerbated by the unwillingness to publicise these issues, as it plays into the ZANU-PF government’s narrative of corrupt western imperialism and venal, money-grabbing NGOs.

The issue of corruption has also been linked to the international opportunities discussed earlier, with suggestions that donors quietly remove corrupt NGO staff by sending them to universities abroad. One NGO director told me that ‘there is a joke here, that if you really want a PhD, embezzle funds… and then you come back in a few years and all is forgiven.’ The issue of corruption is a controversial one within civil society, as it has been used by donors as a blanket accusation to discipline recipients of their funding, whilst NGOs claim that the problem has been exaggerated and only applies to a few high-level offenders. Whilst there is no reliable evidence on the scale of this activity, due to its controversial nature, it is likely that the perception that people get rich through illicit practices in NGOs has fuelled entrants into the sector.

Beyond NGOisation?

All of these dynamics have had a significant impact on activism in Zimbabwe. Many Zimbabweans have lost respect for civil society activists, whilst those in the sector increasingly shy away from radical or transformative politics. Meanwhile, the marginalisation of voices of the left within civil society has contributed to the embrace of neoliberal policies by both the government and the opposition in contemporary Zimbabwe. Moreover, those employed within NGOs form an increasingly precarious workforce, as donor funding now focuses on the delivery of discreet projects, pushing junior staff from secure positions into temporary roles.

Thus, the NGOisation of Zimbabwean civil society has clearly had a detrimental effect on activism in the country over the past 20 years. However, it is important to put these issues in perspective. I do not wish to offer a moral critique of those working in NGOs, but rather to highlight the structural changes that have incentivised particular behaviours among them. In a country where only 10 percent of the population is in formal employment, it is understandable that many educated Zimbabweans will take any professional job they can find and hold on to it at all costs. Moreover, we must temper criticism of the salaries of senior NGOs staff by noting that their Western counterparts in international organisations receive salaries at the same or higher rates, without suffering from the incredible levels of stress and danger of assault, abduction, and torture than many in local organisations face.

Further, we must recognise that there are still many dedicated people working in Zimbabwean civil society, some who resist the harmful aspects of NGOisation, preferring to see themselves as activists rather than professionals. Social movements and trade unionists leading a new wave of resistance, are also supported by key NGO allies, who provide legal counsel, medical attention and other valuable aid in the face of an increasingly authoritarian government. What is important is that the NGO model does not overwhelm other, more organic forms of political mobilisation.

Farai Chipato is a PhD candidate in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. His research concerns the relationship between development donors and civil society organisations in Zimbabwe, with particular reference to democracy and human rights issues. Farai is a member of ROAPE’s Editorial Working Group.

Featured Photograph: Photograph taken in Zimbabwe on 12 December, 2012 (USAID, Zimbabwe).


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