The Challenge for Zimbabwe: Why Institutions Matter for Development

On Thursday the 14th of March 2019 the effects of Cyclone Idai began to be felt on the eastern part of Zimbabwe and by Saturday the 16th an estimated 24 people had died, hundreds missing, school children marooned as schools and homes were destroyed in the storm trail. The gory pictures that soon flooded social media as well as mainstream foreign media (notice I deliberately state – foreign media) showed that Zimbabwe was once more on the precipice of a massive humanitarian disaster. The death toll is increasing and currently, an estimated 82 people have lost their lives while tens of thousands have been affected by the cyclone. Private Property and public infrastructure worth millions of dollars have been destroyed as the storm uprooted trees, broke dam walls and bridges mainly in the eastern part of the country. In Mozambique and Malawi, the situation is even worse with a combined total of over 1.5 million people affected and 1000 dead. It’s a catastrophe.

The first warnings of tropical cyclone Idai were issued around the 4th of March 2019 when a storm system was reported as a developing tropical disturbance. By the 11 of March, it was clear that this tropical disturbance had developed into an intense tropical cyclone with speeds of over 165km per hour. To put this into perspective by the 11th of March at least ten warnings of Cyclone Idai had been issued by various bodies using several warning systems that the storm had gained power and speeds of over 215km per hour equivalent to a category four hurricane. The point being made here is that it was known to the President of Zimbabwe and the entire government that Cyclone Idai would impact Zimbabwe at least beginning the Friday 15th of March 2019. The question is what action was taken to avert or at least ameliorate the disaster.

It is now abundantly clear to all and sundry that the Zimbabwe government took very little or no action to prepare for the oncoming tropical cyclone and its likely impact. In fact, the government went on a business as usual approach and without any shame, the President of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa charted a luxury jet for yet another trip to Abu Dhabi just as the cyclone was pounding Manicaland. As the scenes played out on social media and other foreign mainstream media the state broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Cooperation did not make any live or constant updates of the situation on the ground. As reports trickled in of deaths, people trapped in mountains and children dying in schools due to flooding the governments’ response was missing. As calls for help grew the President cut short his trip and returned to address the situation as a disjointed effort by the military and the Department of Civil Protection (CPU) attempted a rescue operation but the damage had already been done. The propaganda crusade attempted to spin the Presidents return as a show of concern and solidarity with the affected communities but no one bought the story.

What this situation has abundantly demonstrated is that Zimbabwe’s disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery have virtually collapsed under the heavy weight of mismanagement, low budgets, corruption, and a virtually incompetent state now out of its depth. Coupled with the fact the resilience of many rural communities has been heavily threatened by collapse of institutions that promote and protect sustainable livelihoods the situation the recovery will be slow. The country is led by a group of dilettantes who unfortunately have no capacity to take this country forward. Key state institutions for public service have borne the brunt of this massive incompetence. The Civil Protection Unit, a department under the Ministry of Local Government, is mandated to coordinate Zimbabwe’s disaster response in situations of this nature. The department is reeling under massive low budgetary support. In the 2019 budget year, it was allocated RTGS 2.36 million (about $1 million at the official exchange rate) which is an insult given its mandate and demands of its work. Given that the department has to run early warning systems, conduct vulnerability updates, conduct civic education, keep active provincial and district teams and purchase key equipment including vehicles to effectively conduct its work it is no wonder that it was overwhelmed and could not respond. In this budget, a paltry RTGS 100 000 was allocated for capital expenditure an amount that cannot sustain any viable department.

The state of institutional decay of the civil protection department was clearly betrayed when in a last-minute ditch effort Deputy Minister of Transport Fortune Chasi made calls on social media for a crowdfund and appeals for clothing and other materials to support the affected communities. He did not realize the irony of it all that a few days earlier his boss, the President had used thousands of United States Dollars of scarce forex to charter a plane for his now laughable begging trips to foreign nations. Did Minister Chasi not know that the Civil Protection Department should have been activated and coordinating the disaster relief efforts? Such is the level of decay and usurping of the roles of fundamental institutions. The Minister of Finance Professor Mthuli Ncube has for the last three months declared a budget surplus of over hundred million dollars from tax collections. One wonders whether any request by the Civil Protection was made to the Ministry of Finance, with what needs and response? What use are these budget surpluses if the money is not directed to key institutions of public security? What is the money being used for? In light of the continued loss of life, these questions beg answers. The Minister of Finance announced on the 18th of March 2019 that the government had allocated USD 50million towards relief efforts. This is a welcome move but a little too late.

The public response by Zimbabweans in encouraging. Several efforts were reported in the media mobilizing support for the affected fellow Zimbabweans. Freeman Chari of Freedom Fund had by Monday 18 March individually raised close to USD 30 000 on a go fund me campaign. Econet, The MDC Alliance, OneChurch, CITE Bulawayo, former government Minister David Coltart’s Law firm, popular musician Jar Prayzah, Sean Mullens, the Red Cross and several other organizations had been involved in various efforts to mobilize support. The Government of Zimbabwe declared a national disaster and also deployed the army to assist in rescue operations. The task at hand must be geared towards the humanitarian response and recovery of communities. Response and Recovery is no mean task and requires expertise and effective planning.

In February 2019 at least 24 artisanal miners lost their lives after tunnels and shafts collapsed on them. The response by government is now in the public domain and exposes just how Zimbabwe’s disaster management system and institutions have collapsed. Early in March 2019, senior doctors in state hospitals announced an intention to go on strike. This followed another month-long strike by junior doctors in December 2018 that claimed the lives of innocent citizens. The doctors are complaining about little or no medical supplies to conduct their work including paracetamols for pain management. The state of decay in state hospitals in massive and claiming lives each day. The remuneration of the countries doctors leaves a lot to be desired. What is clear is that the public health delivery system has also collapsed due to mismanagement and underfunding by the government.

Not to be outdone teachers in January 2019 went on a strike that kept learners out of school for days. While the strike may have been called off it does not need a rocket scientist to know that the education sector is also sitting under massive problems. Teachers are underpaid and thus not motivated to perform their duties. More than 38 years after independence there are still learners who have no classrooms or adequate materials for effective education.

The City of Harare has also gone public about its intentions to declare a disaster on the water situation. A public health crisis looms in the City. It has now become commonplace that people perish of cholera, a medieval disease, in Harare because of shortages of water. In 2008 UNICEF report that at least 4000 people had died of cholera and over 90 000 affected. In September 2018 an outbreak of Cholera and typhoid infected over 3500 people and killing 51 in the process. It took the government 8 days to declare a disaster and begin a visible effort to combat the situation. The cause had been unattended to sewer bursts and incessant water shortages. Any inquiry with the City of Harare and the Ministry of Health betrayed the decay with which public institutions have reached in Zimbabwe. Nothing seems to work. There is no preparedness whatsoever of the developing health crisis due to shortages of portable, clean and safe water.

One can go about the several public institutions that have collapsed and the death toll that has resulted thereof. The government of Zimbabwe and its various state institutions have virtually collapsed and are unable to guarantee public security. The situation will continue to deteriorate and manifest itself in various ways but the answer lies in rebuilding key public institutions. If the answer is with rebuilding key institutions how can this be done? This is not an easy answer given that the decay and political decomposition of state institutions have taken root over a prolonged period and that there currently is not the political will to undertake comprehensive civil service and state enterprises and institutional reform.

Nonetheless, the new Constitution of Zimbabwe provides a sufficient basis to agitate for effective institutional reform. One of these key provisions is contained in chapter 14 and provides for devolved governance. In the medium- to long-term devolution provides perhaps the strongest base for local communities and stakeholders to be involved and impact on institutional reform. As several scholars have noted, “institutions are place specific, share common features across territories but also adopt place distinctiveness which, in turn, is fed by the very institutional environment of every territory”. These institutional arrangements work better at the local level which effectively restates the case for devolution. The focus must, however, go beyond formal or hard institutions. As Michael Storper, has noted, any successful economy is molded by ‘enduring collective forces,’ which include formal institutions such as rules, laws, and organization, as well as informal or tacit institutions such as individual habits, group routines, and social norms and values. This approach and understanding of institutions make the process of institutional reform even more complicated in a society ravaged partisan politics and whose value system has progressively deteriorated.

The process of institutional reform deserves urgent attention from the national leadership but the context in Zimbabwe is complicated. There is thus a need to initiate genuine and inclusive national dialogue that addresses the hanging questions of the 2018 harmonized elections. Zimbabwe is faced with multiple challenges characterized by the foregoing discussion of institution decay, economic meltdown, rising poverty, unresolved political questions. All these challenges demand that the political must be at the center of resolving Zimbabwe’s national question.

Source: Mfundo Mlilo

Mfundo Mlilo is an activist and an Urban and Regional Studies Scholar based in Zimbabwe

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