What do Zimbabweans Want?
There is a raging debate on social media platforms surrounding Winky D and Holy Ten’s song ‘Ibotso’. In the song the musician raises issues to do with social injustices that perpetuate inequality, where the taller(strong) ones forcibly grab resources from the short (weak) ones. It’s a song that can be played in almost any country and it would resonate with the plight of the downtrodden. The conditions of poverty and growing inequality aptly described in the song are not a figment of the musicians’ imagination.
Evidence from field surveys carried out over a period of three years demonstrates that socio-economic conditions have worsened in the past three years or so due to several factors such as COVID-19 related lock down measures, droughts, contraction of the economy (also partly due to COVID-19). Findings from our nationwide surveys carried out in 2018, 2019 and 2021 indicate that there has been gradual decrease in average incomes and a consequent increase in the number of those who are employed in the informal sector.
The trends described above paint a picture of growing conditions of poverty. Yet officeholders in government make claims of progress. Some of the claims cannot be contested. Indeed, the government under President Mnangagwa has pushed an infrastructure led approach to transformation. The infrastructure projects include dams (one in every province), refurbishments of major roads (near completion of the Beitbridge to Harare highway), building houses, resuscitation of irrigation schemes and driving modernization of agriculture. The government revised downwards its target of 1million houses to 250,000 and as of August 2022 the Minister of National Housing and Social Amenities outlines that significant progress has been made on 140 housing units and 8 blocks of flats (Post Cabinet Press Briefing – August 2022). Despite all these notable achievements there is still a strong feeling that government has not delivered on its electoral promises of rapid and inclusive economic recovery. The general conditions of poverty, acute food insecurity, lack of employment, increasing cost of living remain the order of the day. There is general despondency about livelihoods in the country. Assumptions within government were that the benefits from the infrastructure driven development model would ‘trickle down’ to benefit the majority. However, evidence from other regions has already demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the ‘trickle down’ theory. Rather the infrastructure led approach has contributed towards growing inequality through the emergence of a new state linked business class. It is this business class that has benefitted the most from government’s spending on infrastructure and explains how young businesses such as Fossil are able to successfully bid for a large company such as the cement maker Lafarge.
In the process government has neglected spending on social service delivery, despite growing evidence that increased allocations for the social sector (especially education, health, and housing) contribute towards equitable development. Education still provides the most reliable pathway out of poverty in other stable environments. Conditions of employment in the health and education sector continue to worsen. Hospitals are understaffed with an acute shortage of essential drugs and functioning equipment. Teachers, like their counterparts in the health sector, are poorly remunerated. There is a real fear that the country will experience an exodus of teachers to the United Kingdom (UK). Recently the UK announced that it will be recruiting teachers from Ghana and Zimbabwe to deal with its own shortages. There are no incentives to keep teachers in the country.
However, if the government had bothered to listen to citizens (electorate)-they could have done things better. Since 2018 we (www.sivioinstitute.org), have been conducting surveys across the country asking citizens to identify issues that they expect their government to prioritize. We found in 2021 that on average citizens are mostly concerned about; creation of employment (44%), effective resolution of the problem of corruption (40%), resuscitating industry (33%) and stable prices (32%). Outside of these major concerns citizens expect government to focus also on improved local government service provision (11%), improved provision of education (11%) and affordable housing (9%). In other words, the electorate expects government to be seized with devising economic strategies that ensure equitable development and deal with other vices such as corruption. The table below provides a list of issues, in order of priority, that citizens expect government to focus on. There is no doubt that the modernisation of infrastructure is important, but it does not rank highly amongst citizens. In 2018 and 2021 it ranked 8th whilst in 2019 it ranked 9th.
Table 1: Citizens Top 3 Expectations of Central Government
Source: Citizens Expectations and Perceptions Survey SIVIO Institute
Furthermore, the citizens have an idea of factors that are impeding progress or achievement of a better socio-economic order. These include corruption (61%), ineffective leadership (42%), incompetence (37%). These were the top three factors limiting government performance identified by citizens across all the 3 surveys. Sanctions do feature on the list of factors constraining government performance but are ranked 6th.
While 22% do consider limited financial resources to be a constraint to government performance, the majority (67%) of the respondents in 2021 (figure 3) also think that government has sufficient resources to affect a more equitable framework for development.
Finally, success for citizens means the re-opening of industries (55%), functional clinics and hospitals (48%), arresting of those engaged in corruption (46%), well-paying jobs (28%), re-engagement with the international community (18%), food security (11%). Perhaps the question to be asked is the extent to which the government has fared in terms of achieving the above listed milestones of progress. For many there is little that has changed. Could it be that government has become its own worst enemy. At the beginning of his term the current President assured citizens that he will be a listening president. The divergence between policy and citizen expectations suggests otherwise.
Government is operating as a silo without a feedback loop. Unfortunately, the era of top-down and expert led policy making without widespread consultations is over. There is need to consider new approaches to governance which include co-creation and co-production. Government’s approach has been to ‘surprise’ people with important policies starting with the transitional stabilisation programme of 2018. At the time of its launch there was no record of any consultations with important stakeholders including business. In many instances policies are rejected not necessarily because they are bad but most often it is because they are being imposed on the people. Government needs to embrace co-creation of policies and strategies as a value.
Furthermore, it is widely recognized that government does not have the wherewithal to fix every public problem withing the country. Practice elsewhere suggests the need to view citizens not only as voters but as co-producers of public goods. Citizens, in their individual and corporate capacities, have amply demonstrated their capacities to contribute to national development through multiple strategies that entail providing for or supporting government’s efforts in service provision. However, currently bureaucratic red tape has only served to frustrate citizens’ collective agency. Is it not ironic that a country struggling to provide adequate healthcare and other social goods is actively pursuing efforts of limiting citizens agency through various measures including passing a draconian law on private voluntary organisations. NGOs, Unions, Associations, community-based organisations have made immense contributions towards creating social safety nets for the vulnerable. Yet today their future is uncertain. There are very few instances where a ‘government alone’ approach has ever adequately contributed towards inclusive and equitable development. Government needs other partners to make a dent on growing poverty and growing inequality.
The forthcoming battle for office will largely be about livelihoods. It is our hope that would-be officeholders will spend more time trying to understand what citizens want. The response to Winky D and Holy Ten’s song demonstrates the contestations that exist between on the one hand the small band of those benefitting from the status quo and are seeking to defend their privilege and on the other hand those who are genuinely feel left behind and excluded the state led neo-liberal model currently at play in the country. The musicians have only captured the mood in society. People are concerned about abuse of power, increasing levels of corruption, improved access, ineffectiveness of the preferred development model and declining quality of social goods. These are part of everyday discussions. Let’s remember Queen Marie Antoinette in 1789 who in the face of bread riots asked if the rioters cannot be given cake instead. It is our hope that in 2023 our leaders are not so distant from the social and economic realities of Zimbabwe not to recognize the major crisis that we are dealing with. Ibotso!
NB: This article was originally published in The Zimbabwe Independent 20 Jan 2023. (https://www.newsday.co.zw/theindependent/opinion/article/200006369/what-do-zimbabweans-want)