I happened to have listened to Chimamanda‘s The Danger of a Single Story earlier in the week and was so moved by it that I could not wait to listen to Dr Cornelias Ncube give a presentation on Zimbabwe. Chimamanda’s argument is that a people’s story defines what they are and that the power structures of the world make it such that a story is dependent largely on how they are told, who tells them, when they’re told and how many stories are told. Citing the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti she points out that the simplest way to dispossess a people, is to start the telling of their story with, “secondly.” I automatically saw why if we start the story with the failure of Zimbabwe and the crisis following the Mugabe land reforms, and not with the 19th Century fraudulent collection of the Lands by the Europeans and the colonial creation of the Zimbabwean State, we have two versions of a people’s story. The story that starts with ‘secondly’ will surely not tell us that Mugabe is/was an honoured knight of the British Queen’s court… maybe because one would question what he did to achieve such a rare honour.
The ‘single story’ is a tragedy I have had to deal enormously with throughout my study life. From primary school, everything I learned in History, was told from the ‘others’ perspective. The literature I studied was English literature and when I got even to High School, my most important Economics textbook was Stanlake (in which all examples were about foreign economies with nothing related to what I was experiencing). With philosophy I thought it was going to be different but that was before I encountered Hegel (one of the greatest minds the world has produced) who boldly wrote that
At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit… Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History (Hegel, Philosophy of History, p. 99)
Haven read these and many such utterances from Hume, Hegel, Levy Bruhl and many more like them, I was about getting into a stage of perpetual scepticism. Was there any room for objectivity in the world? Was there any such thing as knowledge anymore? How did one know whether an account was correct when the same sources one should rely on are questionable? But could Hegel have by any chance been right? Many of the African leaders today are working hard to prove him right – not least of which is Mugabe.
It was really a glee then to have had Ncube give another version of the story of Zimbabwe – a longer version. I will not go into an analysis of the objectivity or lack of in the presentation because for all I know, Ncube could have been also telling his own ‘single story’ as was evidenced in the reaction of the other Zimbabwean in the lecture room. Citing Locke a couple of weeks back I made the point that irrespective of our ideas about reality, the truth cannot be changed. Hence despite the different versions of the Zimbabwe – Mugabe story we have got, the thing that stands certain is, a majority of the people of Zimbabwe are really suffering and that there are serious socio-economic issues in the country. Looking at the situation, I have been able to arrive at some conclusions:
First: I can now fully appreciate the view that ‘the central and dominant variable determining…developmental success or failure’ is politics. If there is any reason there is widespread poverty in Zimbabwe today, it is the poverty of its politics. This means that the solution cannot come from the same failed politics but from a “…more explicit… integrated theory of political and economic development” which will take into account the different nuances that make up the complex and unique political entity called Zimbabwe. This can only be achieved with studies carried out within the society and not from a distance – else we risk producing another volume full of rhetoric and sophistry.
Secondly, going from the above, it leaves little room for debate that the dominant variable in Development is politics. And clearly emphasise DFID’s position that ‘politics determines how resources are used and policies are made. And politics determines who benefits. In short, good governance is about good politics (2006). The failure of governance in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is primarily as a result of their lack of political astuteness.
Thirdly, while I may have had some doubts before, I am firmly convinced now that there is no such thing as ‘pro-poor’ politics.While I do not dispute that there was need for land reforms in Zimbabwe, I can bet my last penny that the reforms was not motivated by a desire to better the lot of the poor. Some may have benefited from it as it is argued but the majority are worse off. If it was really about the poor, then what I see as Mugabe’s egoistic fight would not have ensued for so long for he would have realised that when ‘two elephants fight, the grass suffer more’. With the 2008 elections that ended in a power sharing agreement, one sees again politicians who are all interested in getting hold of a share of power at all cost – especially the wellbeing of the poor. What would one expect when a government is created out of a marriage of strange bedfellows. How can the poor benefit when two protagonists are at the helm of affairs.If Tsvangirai himself was not simply power-hungry but truly cared for the wellbeing of the Zimbabweans then he would not have agreed to such a frivolous agreement.
Fourthly, it is without much hesitation that I now can say that the African elites live in a world separate from the poor and though the poor may benefit from anything it is only by chance but they are the ones who will bear the full brunt of any failed experiments with political and development theories. When we talk of hyperinflation and shortages of money, Food crisis, fuel shortages, Decaying health system: cholera and HIV/AIDS, we are not talking of a situations affecting the whole country but simply the poor and it is the off-shoot of their so-called reforms and democratic processes. This minister captures it “…We have among the citizens, individuals benefiting from the abuse of public resources and thereby contributing to unnecessary public expenditures and economic hardships’, (Finance Minister Mumbengegwi’s 2007 address to Parliament) and my stomach churns when I hear people like this “The inclusive government has bought peace and there is food in the shops,” while Julius, a 35-year-old teacher concurs that “Anytime you get a dollar, you can rest assured that you will find something to buy.” But the million pounds question is… how do people like Julius get a dollar when they are not paid their salaries and are often on strike demanding to “know why their country is so rich and yet so poor”
And finally, I make a submission I was a bit reserved in making last week… Aid has had nothing but a negative impact on Zimbabwe… I just discovered that since between 1952 – 1994, Zimbabwe received Aid worth Billions of US dollars from the World Bank alone and in 1994 the aggregate was 104,574,898.79 USD. What on earth has been happening to this money? Collier’s analysis drives to the conclusion that it is because of lack of checks and balances because “Democracies make even more of a mess of these… than autocracies… it turns out that democracy is a little bit more complicated… Because there are two distinct aspects of democracy. There’s electoral competition, which determines how you acquire power, and there are checks and balances, which determine how you use power. It turns out that electoral competition is the thing that’s doing the damage with democracy… And so, what the countries of the bottom billion need is very strong checks and balances. They haven’t got them. They got instant democracy in the 1990s: elections without checks and balances.’ And when these same structures begin to collapse, the first action is usually to impose saunctions which do not so much as deprive the failed politicians of a day’s meal… the poor suffer.
And many of these come as forms of conditionalities for Aid from most major donors. It all boils down to what the donor thinks is best for a country and not what is actually workable for that country. And since the politicians and policy makers need the money from Aid, they have ready-made proposals to present to donors which fall in line with with the demands of the donors and not with the needs of the country… hence the uselessness of the aid. The bottom line is that “…until we have a critical mass of informed citizens in our own societies, politicians will get away with gestures. That unless we have an informed society, what politicians do, especially in relation to Africa, is gestures: things that look good, but don’t work.” Hence if there is need for aid, it should begin by focusing attention solely on the business of building an informed citizenry through widespread quality education and only after then can we begin to consider aid as being in a position of having positive impacts in other aspects of African life.