Zimbabwe at a critical juncture: Navigating the transition

Zimbabwe post-November 2017 finds itself in a somewhat messy political space transitioning from a murky mix of heavily personalised and discretionary patrimonial system with some semblance of competitive politics to yet to be defined and fluid space. It finds itself in a dispensation which holds the possibility of redefining both political and economic landscape towards producing inclusive political space which is undergirded by developmental, impersonal rule of law. It is also a window of opportunity to re-create and co-produce more inclusive political institutions that can form a fortification against predatory tendencies and extractive institutions thereby unlocking possibilities of broad-based national vision, economic growth and general improvement in living standards for the general populace. The most certain thing about the current dispensation is its fragility from many fronts. It is still susceptible to shocks and threats. For instance, the upcoming elections, the latent and subtle contradictions amongst the current ruling elites and a huge trust deficit that has only grown bigger over the years all serve as threats.

This is a critical juncture[1] in Zimbabwe the nation stands delicately poised and the question is are the change agents ( mostly in the CSOs but also within government itself) ready to take advantage of this space and chart out innovative new relationships that can lead to the creation of robust inclusive institutions and move from democracy as a concept to actual practice undergird by an adequately informed, knowledgeable and active citizenry. Indeed, to continue programming along the same lines we have been doing in the last 15 years will be a most certain way to lose out on the opportunity that we have at hand. The space calls for new thinking, programming and analysis that is thorough to get a clearer understanding of opportunities, impediments and avenues for entry to begin working on worthwhile reforms. A business as usual approach will not work.

This paper will raise questions to provoke reflection and critical engagement and at the same time attempts to provide some practical steps that can be taken to answer the questions raised.

Thoughts & Reflection – Being pragmatic about change in transition

The euphoria that seized the nation in November of 2017 is fast waning as expectations and hopes have been doused by reality. While the current environment has become more fluid and amorphous with each passing day, there is reason to be hopeful. The overall political space has been opened up to a degree unimaginable only a few months ago. There is some semblance within government of being more accommodative and open to other actors and voices. The ‘Zimbabwe is open for business’ mantra that the President has adopted gives credence to this. Various actors, including the international community (donors and investors), are eager to get working and to begin to build real momentum for development.

Despite the ‘positive vibes’ coming from the government a thorough and in-depth analysis of power and political dynamics in Zimbabwe will reveal that,

1) This current dispensation is fraught with contradictions which makes it wobbly. The current ruling elite has no sufficient incentives to dismantle the complex web of patronage and clientele relationship undergirded by state resources that have aided and enabled the previous regime. There are visible conflicting interests among our ‘new rulers’ and the President has his own political balancing act to do within his own party.

2) The focus of the of the current government is more of luring foreign investors through catchy sound bites without concerted efforts to redefine state-society relations and making efforts towards revitalising the public sector.

3) Whatever little space that we currently enjoy might be short-lived.  How do we put in a wedge that stops it from shutting? What do we need to do?

For this fragile transition to evolve to the next stage were the country moves from dominant personalised patrimonial state to a competitive rule-bound democratic state it is essential to reconfigure relationships between the state and the society, between the duty bearers and the rights holders. This is an opportune time for CSOs to infuse new thinking born out of critical reflection and engage in a process of coproducing/ co-devising relevant programming that really identifies feasible entry points working with the government and citizens to creatively design inclusive institutions. To aid in this thinking CSOs and donors need to reflect on a few questions,

  1. How can civil society, government and donors creatively work together forging new forms of partnering and reinforcing capabilities to plough through the complexity of this transition?
  2. How can they engage in processes of co-producing new ways of operating that are geared towards enhancing citizen participation, building inclusive institutions and improving government capability and responsiveness?

There are a number of ways that CSOs can respond without abdicating their watchdog role by re-imagine new partnership relationship with government that reinforce their role of holding government accountable for service delivery. Levy argues that CSOs can engage with both government and donors via an approach which is, “…neither locking-in to confrontational action, nor surrendering principle…”[2]. It is an approach that seeks to identify areas of convergence and shared vision for partnering and move towards collaborating without being co-opted.  Secondly, there is need to take stock of theory of change that the CSOs are working with currently and assess if the pathway for change defined in the ToC speaks to the changed reality. Thirdly it is imperative for CSO to introspect and critically evaluate if they have the kind of competencies/ capabilities required to undertake this task.

Andrew Boraine of the Economic Development Partnership posits that ‘Structured partnerships (as opposed to symbolic encounters) are necessary to create sustainable platforms for dialogue, trust building and joint action’[3]. The partnership thinking is undergird by an understanding that navigating complexity requires re-configuring relationships and utilising collective skills, creative capacities, resources and commitment to a shared vision. Such an approach would be most useful at the current juncture for key actors to co-create new relationships that are geared towards collectively addressing impediments to building inclusive institutions. The process must be steered intelligently, identifying non-threating entry points and building around issues of common interest and incrementally working towards transforming institutions.

Building CSO capability to adapt

The non-state actors for the longest time (save in selected sectors[4] and even selected geographies) have not learnt the language of partnering with government nor the political complexity of reform in a manner that makes them critical thinking partners in reform processes who can provide well thought-through arguments informed by robust research and critical analysis that would be useful to policymakers giving fresh perspective and original  ideas. Chowdhury et al (2006) observes that “Just as governments need to listen to and work with CSOs, so CSOs need to listen to governments and realise when they are asking too much – whether in reality, a particular policy is practical,…”[5]  Unfortunately, the environment in Zimbabwe has been antagonistic and polarised to the extent that both the state and non-state actors do not know how to dialogue with each other. CSOs especially need skills for working with government, understanding how government works in Zimbabwe and the messy space that most civil servants are caught up in the transition from a bureaucracy to new public management thinking as well as trying to negotiate the wider complex political environment in which they operate.

Also, for the longest time we have had excellent projects managers and professionals who can implement projects but very few critical thinkers who can design a narrative and chart a development path outside re-hashing so-called best practices. The juncture at which the country finds itself goes beyond implementing projects. It requires process thinking with a transformational approach, understanding the nuances of institutional building and participating intelligently in policy processes. It calls for strategic thinkers who are able to build coalitions and networks and facilitate the forging of partnerships that are guided by long term vision but starting at low key entry points.

Here we are talking about engaging in intensive processes that might not easily lend themselves to quarterly reports or a rigid logframe but are essential to thaw the ground. This calls for revisiting the programming model currently in use to adopting more radical approaches of iteration, adaptation, reflection and learning. Emphasis should be more on reflection and learning. Instead of a project reporting which emphasis on what was achieved and quantifiable milestone only we move to reporting which is focused on lessons learnt, quality of reflections and strategic adaptation to incorporate the lessons learnt.

Role of Donors

Donors need to move into a space of critical analysis at two levels i) Is our logic for change addressing the actual problems? ii) Is our model flexible enough to allow fresh perspectives derived from critical reflection? ii) Are there sufficient capabilities within ourselves and our partners to unlock the necessary levers of performance that can yield the desired results? iv) What creative and emerging role can we play?

Donors are conscious that the phase we are in as a country is an opportunity, however, the response to the opportunity has been somewhat insufficient so far.  The current dispensation requires that funding partners quickly review and realign strategy and budgets to maximise on the opportunity, be more flexible and create space conducive for their implementing partners to experiment and try out new ideas. In my view, this can be done through a). Helping the CSOs revisit their whole theory of change and implementation logic, b) creating adaptive capacities mediated by iteration, learning and reflection as a core practice c) focusing current and new programs could focus more on new possibilities of collaboration partnering and space creation between CSOs and state institutions through an analytical and intelligent process of identifying key change agents and bureaucratic entrepreneurs, looking at accessible entry points and working adaptively and incrementally. The donors as guests have a unique advantage of having direct access to both government and CSOs. The onus is upon them to be more creative and leverage the relationship they have with both parties to encourage and facilitate spaces for dialogue and engagement.


[1] Acemoglu and Robinson in their book Why Nations Fail define critical juncture as “A major event or confluence of factors disrupting the existing economic or political balance in society”

[2] Levy B, 2015, “Bill Easterly and the Denial of Inconvenient Truths” https://workingwiththegrain.com/2015/06/02/bill-easterly-and-the-denial-of-inconvenient-truths/

[3] Andrew Boraine is the CEO of the Cape Town based Economic Development Partnership

[4] Organisations working in the health sector and to some extent education have worked in collaboration with government and some have developed skills necessary to communicate and develop relations with government

[5] Chowdhury et al (2006)  ‘CSO Capacity for Policy Engagement: Lessons Learned from the CSPP Consultations in Africa, Asia and Latin America’ Working Paper 272. Overseas Development Institute

Source: Ringisai Chikohomero

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