Playing politics with the poor in Zimbabwe

Mar 05, 12 Playing politics with the poor in Zimbabwe

At the end of last year, the UN World Food Programme began warning that up to 1 million people in Zimbabwe would face hunger and malnutrition after poor rains last year. Many poor families have also struggled to fill the gap left after remittances from family members working in South Africa ceased with the resumption of deportation of Zimbabweans.

In this context of insecurity, hunger and desperation, the Governor of the arid Masvingo Provinces has banned 29 NGOs from working in the province. This is likely to bring hardship and undermine the livelihoods of many, especially given the government’s previously demonstrated inability to meet the demand for assistance. The governor said that the ban is because NGOs were secretly campaigning for Mugabe’s opponents. It is unclear whether this claim is true, but it does raise the question of the role of NGOs in politics in Zimbabwe.

Many commentators have written with unease about the possibility that NGOs, with money from outside the country, could interfere with the democratic process. If a foreign group came into a country and told local people what was good for them, while at the same time handing out cars and televisions, there would be an outcry, especially if that group was telling people that a particular political leader was bad. That sort of outside interference wouldn’t be acceptable. So, the logic runs, why should it be okay for an NGO to come into a country and hand out food, medicine and sewing machines and do the same thing? International NGOs are widely accused of throwing elections and imposing Western ideals, although admittedly most often by dictators and corrupt officials.

In this case, the NGOs that were banned could not be accused of being foreign, neo-colonial Western agent; they were local Zimbabwean NGOs. Should that make them exempt from the accusation of playing politics with the poor? Unfortunately, no. While local NGOs are traditionally far less likely to take up a political agenda under cover of humanitarian work, international NGOs – recognising that they were perceived as neo-colonialists – have in recent years begun to work through local organisations. This means that local NGOs get their money from international NGOs, which in turn means that they must take particular positions and preach a particular message if they want their funding to continue. Other local NGOs have jumped on the band-wagon and it seems now to be the norm, in many countries, for NGOs to have some sort of (often hidden or subtle) political agenda.

Some might argue that the money flowing into the country’s politics through the NGO system in Zimbabwe is a necessary counter-balance to the state money that will probably be used to woo voters in the upcoming election. The problem is that the people who get hurt in this equation are the poor families. With the economy still in ruins, widespread disease, unpredictable food and fuel costs, poor rains and no safety nets, many families still depend on assistance. These families don’t care whether that assistance comes from the government or the NGOs, or what political message either group is preaching, just as long as they don’t starve.

Wouldn’t it be nice, this election, if the government and the NGOs found a way to keep their political squabbles out of poor Zimbabwean’s struggle to survive?

Image by nite_owl