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No handouts, please
Beacon Mbiba
May 03, 2007

The promise of aid is a carrot used by Western nations to bring feuding groups to the negotiating table.

Americans and the British, among others, dangled the carrot of aid for land reform and reconstruction to secure agreement from Zimbabwe's liberation war leaders to the new Constitution brokered in 1979 at Lancaster House in London.

More recently, "development initiatives" such as Tony Blair's Commission for Africa have recommended doubling aid to sub-Saharan Africa to $25-billion a year.

Britain has indicated it could significantly step up the aid it provides to Zimbabwe, if a "pragmatic faction" can get rid of Robert Mugabe. In return, donors want a government to stabilise the economy, restore the rule of law, stop the use of violence as state policy and hold free, competitive elections.

Whether Africans, or in this case Zimbabweans, need aid at all is a question rarely discussed. My view is that we do not need the promise of aid for these things to happen. A strong economy, freedom, peace and prosperity are ambitions shared by all hard-working Zimbabweans -- they are their own incentives.

Aid can be damaging to a developing nation. It distorts priorities and policies -- as has been seen, in Zimbabwe, with the land issue. Transparent, pro-poor and sustainable land reform can be done without assistance from Britain.

We need to reflect and learn from our own experience of the past 26 years. Before new promises are made, we should agree on whether we need aid. From who, for what purposes and for how long?

The next question is how to use aid in a way that will lower our dependence on outside help in future.

Donors give moral reasons for aid, but the United Nations Millennium Project report of 2005 issued a damning verdict on aid. Donors are often highly unpredictable (as we saw with British aid for land reform in Zimbabwe). Their funds tend to be targeted at technical assistance (where the bulk of the money goes back to the donor country), or tied to contractors from donor countries.

Donors' priorities reflect their own objectives. Aid becomes an extension of the geopolitical agendas of the donors, when it should offer coordinated support to the national plans of the recipient country. Most of all, aid is poorly administered.

Even so, we may need to accept some donations in the short term to kick-start Zimbabwe's recovery. This is where serious national debate needs to start. Aid promises may never materialise. If they do, will they distort our national processes and entrench aid dependency?

Zimbabwe has mineral, agricultural, human, cultural and natural resources. Without corruption and misallocation of resources, tourism and agricultural production can be brought back to their peak levels of the Eighties.

As many as four million Zimbabweans are living and working in other countries. They include scientists, administrators, professionals and entrepreneurs whose skills should be mobilised wisely. Whether at home or abroad, Zimbabweans want to work and to be productive; they don't want charity or handouts.

If we do accept aid and loans for reconstruction and development, this must be with a view to empower households and local producers. In agriculture, we need to empower smallholder farmers -- to produce for the market, but also for their own food security. This will require investment in rural infrastructure.

A new emphasis is needed on reconstructing rundown rural roads and dams, restoring the viability of key crops and protecting livestock by restocking and containing diseases.

Major changes to the macro-economy have taken place since the mid-Nineties.

There have been some positive, as well as negative, outcomes for development. Land reform policies have altered the demographic structure of Zimbabwe.

We must start from an assessment of these changes and chart a future anchored to the resources we find within ourselves. Aid should be our last resort.

*Dr Beacon Mbiba is a Zimbabwean who teaches urban planning and development policy at the London School of Economics. He worked as policy research analyst for the Secretariat to the Commission for Africa (CFA), established in 2004 by United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair

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