The right and wrong fix: Afghan lessons for Zimbabwe

Ashraf Ghani Clare Lockhart
27 June 2008

Zimbabwe might be entering into an "open moment". After what has turned out to be a presidential election with just one candidate, the situation could swiftly move from the coronation of the incumbent, Robert Mugabe, to a transition beyond him. The accumulating criticism of the unaccountable power and brutality of the regime he leads, particularly (as Roger Southall outlines in openDemocracy) from Zimbabwe's neighbours and Mugabe's erstwhile allies, is creating momentum for a post-Mugabe order: one where Zimbabweans are offered the opportunity of genuine citizenship, where they will become bearers of rights and obligations specified in a stable regime of laws.

To achieve this outcome will be an immense challenge that requires attention both to Zimbabwe's particular circumstances and to lessons from the experience - including the mistakes - of such transitions elsewhere in the world since 1989.

Clare Lockhart is co-founder and CEO of the Institute for State Effectiveness

Ashraf Ghani is chairman of the Institute for State Effectiveness. He was finance minister of Afghanistan from July 2002 - December 2004.

Clare Lockhart and Ashraf Ghani are co-authors of Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World (Oxford University Press, 2008)

The guiding principle of the change that Zimbabwe needs to undergo, in our view, is that stable political systems rest on the consent of the people - and that this consent is generated through performance of core state functions on behalf of citizens (we develop this argument at length in our book Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World [Oxford University Press, 2008]). The challenges of building states that can perform these core functions in a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe will be immense.

In particular, a state that works in Zimbabwe requires the creation of a national leadership and an efficient aid system. The departure of Robert Mugabe - however and whenever that occurs - will still leave the country to face the negative legacy of his three decades of bad governance. To overcome this legacy, his successors will need to combine dedication to the common good with imaginative leadership and management skills, underpinned by an ethic of collective team service.

This would entail a refreshing departure from the stifling effects of the cult of personality, and from entrapment by ties of kinship, friendship, patronage and the perks of office. These can be alluring on first sight, and perhaps regarded as part of the spoils of victory in the aftermath of a change of regime. But to give in to such temptations would also perpetuate Mugabe's divisive legacy. A rupture with it that moves the country to a new path needs to combine technical and human expertise with moral commitment in forming a recognisable polity and economy (for an elaboration of these ideas, see the work of the Institute for State Effectiveness).

It is urgent that preparations are made for this, Zimbabwe's open moment. There are as yet few coherent plans or programmes in place that can be initiated when - during the all-too-brief "CNN window"' of world attention after the Mugabe regime does fall - the international community makes available large amounts of financial aid. Here, experience from other "failed states" is relevant.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe:

Bev Clark,
"Mass evictions in Zimbabwe"
(13 June 2005)

Netsai Mushonga,
"Two nights in Harare's police cells"
(5 December 2005)

Andrew Meldrum,
"Zimbabwe between past and future"
(23 June 2006)

Conor O'Loughlin,
"Zimbabwean travails"
(13 September 2006)

Stephen Chan,
"Farewell, Robert Mugabe"
(20 March 2007)

Michael Holman,
"Dizzy worms in Zimbabwe"
(13 September 2007)

The Zimbabwean,
"Zimbabwe votes - and waits"
(31 March 2008)

Wilf Mbanga,
"Zimbabwe's unfolding drama"
(7 April 2008)

Roger Southall,
"South Africa and Zimbabwe: the end of ‘quiet diplomacy'?"
(29 April 2008)

"Zimbabwe's elections: an African appeal"
(20 June 2008)

Jabu Shoko,
"Zimbabwe: a tale of two leaders"
(23 June 2008)

Roger Southall,
"The politics of pressure: the world and Zimbabwe"
(26 June 2008)

No time to think

The precedents of Haiti (1994), Kosovo (1999), East Timor (1999), Afghanistan (2001) and other states suggest that as donors respond to the immediate emergencies of a "failed state" in transition, an array of aid and relief organisations rushes to the scene and in rapid-fire fashion assembles a rat-tat-tat of project-proposals for delivery by Monday week.

This "aid rush", in both process and outcome, carries the same kind of dangers as any adrenalin-fuelled activism. It can become not a catalyst for the creation of institutional capacity but an instrument of division, resentment and corruption. The United Nations and its agencies may try to ensure equality, but the apparent randomness of allocations often feeds a sense of unfairness among citizens and jealousies between the country's regions and groups. The cascade of distributive schemes spreads a sense of entitlement without legal foundation, as it is not rooted in legal and policy frameworks. The unintended consequences can include severe inefficiencies, arising for example from staffing hundreds of project-units where redundant or duplicate layers of management are paid exorbitantly to oversee costly and/or misdirected projects.

The result is that both government and citizens are bypassed, and the government loses the capability to respond to its citizens' complaints. The aid agencies managing the projects are based in capitals far away, beyond the reach of domestic citizens and with no direct legal responsibilities to recipients. There is a double loss of accountability, as citizens in the newly liberated countries have no official recourse and those in the aid agencies' own countries are too remote from the facts on the ground to hold those agencies answerable.

The Kabul rush

Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001 is a classic case. In Kabul that December, exhausted UN officials prepared more than 400 projects over a ten-day period - a rush impelled by the UN agencies' desire to ensure that they (and not the World Bank-administered trust fund) garnered the bulk of the resources about to be pledged by donors at the Tokyo conference of 21-22 January 2002. The UN bodies routinely find themselves in a financial crisis that means every emergency appeal is also seen as an opportunity to meet their headquarters' overheads. These efforts to raise finances are understandable, but not necessarily productive for the countries that the agencies set out to help.

The brochures describing the projects in Afghanistan were written in engaging language that employed all of the currently fashionable development vocabulary. In fact, however, the glue holding them together was nothing more than a random collection of initiatives put together in response to the available $1.8 billion that the aid system had allocated to the United Nations. The money - not any precise understanding of needs, thorough assessment of priorities or extensive cost-benefit analysis - came first, and shaped the result. This has contributed to a situation today where popular resentment with the apparent waste and ineffectiveness of UN agencies and NGOs runs very deep and provides a platform for demagogic politicians to demand draconian measures against the international presence.

The new government in Afghanistan was in 2002 acutely aware of the need for a peace dividend. It was also the sole body with the requisite legitimacy and breadth of vision to develop a comprehensive strategic framework. Some of the early aid programmes indeed provided visible results across the country and displayed signs of partnership between government and people that could enhance popular trust in government. Yet the national programmes devised by Kabul were actively impeded and subverted by those who lacked both legitimacy and the necessary vision to determine sound policy. The mistakes of this early period have been costly; more than six years afterwards, Afghanistan is beset by deep problems of which armed conflict is only the most visible (see Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan in an amorphous war", 19 June 2008).

The new model

What happened in Afghanistan has parallels with other many other post-conflict zones. Its lessons are multiple and relate alike to donors and recipients, external agencies and internal authorities, global citizens and local actors (understanding that in "failed state" situations, these categories are often intermingled). For the "internationals", Afghanistan teaches that parallel organisations do not result in creation of functioning states; that technical assistance is often wasteful; and that coordination among donors remains elusive.

In short, aid can become as much part of the problem as of the solution. It can work, as many examples show - the United States's Marshall Plan in Europe (established in July 1948), the assistance provided by the European Union to Ireland and Spain, the World Bank-administered trust fund's support for Japan, Korea, China and Singapore. There are a range of positive lessons from internationalresponses to recovery, ranging from rapid settlement of debts, toestablishment of multi-donor trust funds with strict rules fordisbursement, and establishment of licensing and tendering controlmechanisms to ensure careful stewardship of the country's assets.But to overcome its current dysfunctionalities, the international aid system must have the vision and the courage to create a new model animated by a spirit of partnership and working through larger, more integrated programmes.

Afghanistan is a long way from Zimbabwe, and both are a long way from Burma and North Korea. But in reality the problems and the remedies surrounding all these states are closer than it might appear. It is important then both to pay attention to the unique circumstances and inheritance of each individual "failed state" in order to craft policies that meet its needs, and to creatively apply learning that can be transferred. Robert Mugabe may not have long to rule Zimbabwe, but those who come after would do well to take account of all that has gone before if they want to make good use of the open moment.

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