On gift horses, football and aid: Rwanda, Arsenal and British gammon-coloured outrage

As the Trojans know, gifts can be somewhat problematic. When they’re not hiding an invading army in their belly, gifts come with a whole set of obligations and expectations from the giver, the beneficiary required to use the gift in a way that the giver deems acceptable, limiting and setting boundaries around behaviour (this is why academics who work on gift economies are rarely invited to parties). That act of apparent generosity requires gratitude (expressed through appropriate behaviour of the recipient), and in doing so sets up and sustains a particular set of unequal power relations, all tied up with ribbons and pretty paper.

I was reminded of the obligations that come with gifts both as I was reminding one of my children to respond appropriately to all his birthday presents, whether he liked them or not, and also as the story about Rwanda’s decision to sponsor the Arsenal football team caused consternation and spluttering over the nation’s cornflake bowls. The usual newspapers decried the decision to spend “our aid money” on a north London football club; the usual politicians used the ‘scandal’ to once again seek to undermine UK aid budget commitments; and Radio 4 Today Programme’s John Humphries moved into full outrage-mode in his interview with CEO of the Rwandan Development Board, Clare Akamanzi (in what was a profoundly uncomfortable interview to listen to but that encapsulated perfectly the sense of British entitlement over the obligations of aid recipient governments).

I don’t know whether sponsoring a football team is a good marketing strategy or not. Nor, I expect, do many of the critics of Kagame and his government. But for me, what is more interesting is what the whole story tells us about the continuing neo-colonial and paternalistic assumptions that lie behind aid, often simmering quietly below the surface before occasionally bubbling over. Because more than the fault of a potentially frivolous expenditure, what Rwanda is clearly much more guilty of, is the sin of not behaving the way donors think it should as a recipient of their largesse.

In the 1990s and 2000s, aid relationships, and specifically the conditions attached to aid (where aid was provided in return for governments agreeing to implement a particular set of policies) were the subject of growing criticism within the donor community itself. Donors started to acknowledge the need for governments to be able to set their own priorities and be less subject to donor fiat. Conditionality was out(-ish), ‘recipient countries’ were to be re-labelled as ‘partners’, and ‘ownership’ of aid by these new partners was deemed to be central to how aid relationships should, and would in future, function. As part of the 2005 Paris Declaration donors committed to “respect partner country leadership and help strengthen their capacity to exercise it”, in order that recipient countries might “exercise effective leadership over their development policies”. The 2008 Accra Agenda for Action, building on the Paris principles, called on donors to respect priorities established by parliaments and citizens in those countries, rather than impose their own agendas (ironically, this at the height of the MDGs which possibly did even more to undermine sovereign power to set priorities than aid regimes).

But as events like Rwanda’s football team sponsorship story show us, this commitment to ownership  (slippery and problematic though that concept is), to the right of nations to set their own agendas whether they are aid recipients or not, to building up the capacity of states to make their own, independent decisions, was little more than rhetoric. The transactional nature of aid, bound by clearly defined conditions and expectations, was replaced with the gift of aid, with unstated, but fully understood and no less onerous obligations. The space in which aid recipient countries are to be allowed to spend is limited. Decisions are tolerated only as much as they fit with what donors think is acceptable. And seeking to act as a fully sovereign nation is permissible only to the extent that those boundaries are not crossed. Set up a space programme, as India did, or try to promote an economic sector with potential for huge growth in the wrong way, and you will be condemned and your aid receipts threatened. The ‘gift of aid’ (as opposed to the transactional relationship of aid) has effectively restored Victorian notions of not only responsible giving, but responsible receipt.

Of course, this paternalism is not just found in international aid relationships. It suffuses ideas around charity and giving in donor countries themselves. In the UK, we are encouraged by some charities not to give directly to the homeless, as they will make poor decisions with that money. Far better, we are told, to give to a charity which will make the right decisions for them. The ‘respectable’ and responsible poor are those who either do as expected, or are grateful for others who make decisions for them. Of course, it is completely different when the UK – a recipient of European Union funding for some of its poorer regions (Cornwall and West Wales in particular) – decides to spend around £50 billion on a very fast railway. Some countries are more able to spend on prestige projects whilst in receipt of aid than others, it appears.

The British government, much of its media, and many of its citizens, see ‘aid’ as a marker for generosity of spirit, rather than an obligation of rich countries, especially those which have built their economies on the back of many of those countries and world regions now in receipt of that aid. We are happy, it seems, to provide aid to the respectable poor, who use that gift responsibly and appropriately (in other words, doing things we think they should, even if we are no longer quite so direct and explicit in setting out the precise terms of what it is they should do). But if a country decides to move outside of that limited imaginary – whether on space programmes, presidential jets, or football shirts – then our (donor) gasp of outrage counts for more than any rhetorical commitment to more equal relationships.

As I said earlier, I have no idea whether Rwanda’s idea is genius or madness. Did it come from super Arsenal-fan Kagame himself, or from a team of marketing experts? If it is such a bad idea, why do companies and organisations sponsor football teams at all? A much more interesting story may have been to think about what the reaction was inside Rwanda itself. But I do wonder whether the outrage would have been quite so vociferous if Rwanda had spent a similar amount on a campaign of posters on the tube or London buses. A much more respectable way for a poor nation to demonstrate gratitude to its benefactors.

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Oxfam’s Crisis: abuse, accountability and trust

For any institution, trust is possibly one of the most important forms of capital it can possess. Trust can be one of the most enduring, strong and sticky types of capital. But that strength can mask its fragility, and it can vanish almost overnight once confidence in that institution is lost. In 2015, the Edelman Trust Barometer showed that NGOs were one of the most trusted of institutions: 63% of those surveyed trusted NGOs to do what was right, well ahead of business (57%), the media (51%) and government (just 48%). Two years later, following sustained attacks against NGOs and international development in the media and by some politicians (one of whom would go on to become the Minister for International Development), and after scandals about fundraising practices and engagement in politics, public trust had fallen dramatically. In the 2017 survey, not only had trust in NGOs fallen to 53%, but NGOs were no more trusted than the private sector.

The implications for Oxfam following the revelations about the terrible behaviour of some of its employees in Chad and Haiti are still unfolding, but it couldn’t be more serious for the charity. Penny Mordaunt, the new Minister for International Development, has suggested government money could be withdrawn, and yesterday the European Union issued a similar warning. The Charity Commission has launched a statutory inquiry into Oxfam’s response to allegations of sexual assault raised by whistle-blowers in Haiti. And surely many individual donors will be rethinking their direct debits. Whilst I think Oxfam retains enough residual strength and goodwill to survive this storm of (justified) outrage, it is far from certain. Much will depend on how open it has been, and continues to be, in the next few days and weeks. Trust in NGOs, especially as allegations about similar occurrences, and of abuses against employees and volunteers within aid agencies, spread throughout the sector, will fall again.

Falls in trust matter for NGOs, because the success of the NGO sector is largely built upon a set of assumptions that NGOs are a better form of actor: better in their global aspirations (helping the world’s most vulnerable), better in the things they actually do, and better in their impact. If we can’t trust NGOs to be better, why would we continue to support them over other types of development and humanitarian actors?

One of the pillars of that trust has been a defence of good intentions. Typically, when I and others have challenged and critiqued the idea that NGOs are inherently better in lectures or print, a standard response is that NGOs don’t mean to cause harm, they intend to do good, and criticisms are thus mean-spirited and damaging. Projects are started with good intentions, promises to deliver certain services are fully intended to be met. It’s true that many aid workers, most, do care about the wellbeing of those they are seeking to help, and agonise about the failures that occur. So how can we criticise such efforts?

That pillar is looking increasingly inadequate. The desire to do good is admirable. Good intentions do matter, of course. But what happens when those good intentions (in the case of Oxfam, those of the organisation itself) result in harm? Decisions made by NGOs, and the way systems and processes work (or don’t work, or don’t exist) can and do cause harm regularly. And the scope for harm is magnified considerably in the context of a humanitarian disaster where resources are limited, and the power held by aid agencies and actors is immense in comparison. Allowing the defence of good intentions is to downplay the harm experienced by those at the sharp end, those who are already vulnerable. It is to put the interests of those with more power first.

Sometimes that harm is limited and minimal; but as the scandal over the behaviour of some of Oxfam’s aid workers in Chad and Haiti has shown, it can be extremely serious in its consequences and impact on those affected. And good intentions offer no protection. Oxfam did not mean to cause harm in Chad and Haiti, but, through the actions of its employees, it did. That questions were raised about one of those involved in Chad before they were moved to Haiti adds to the seriousness of the charges against the NGO. The harm may have been  unintentional on the part of the organisation (this becomes harder to maintain if it turns out managers were aware of the allegations but failed to act), but if it happened, can we simply shrug our shoulders and say, ‘at least they meant well’? If a for-profit company failed to meet its commitments, if it was shown to have bid for work it was unable to cope with, would we excuse it, or hold it to account? Or if employees of a for-profit company engaged committed sexual assault or abuse, would be not ask why processes were not in place to stop that in the first place? And why would we do anything differently just because the organisation is a charitable one?

Underlying the scandal that has previously hit various UN organisations, has now affected Oxfam, and may well spread to other humanitarian organisations, is a failure of accountability. There are two forms of accountability here: one upwards, to the donors, and essential for creating trust amongst an NGO’s giving community; the other is downwards, accountability to affected communities, giving them the opportunity to challenge behaviour, decisions and poor outcomes.

Much of the focus of the current set of debates in response to this crisis has been on the former: what mechanisms can be put in place to reassure governments, individuals and other donors that an NGO is undertaking its work appropriately and is able to respond to breaches in a timely and effective manner. This is important. Strong processes for reporting, monitoring and acting will reduce harm as well as rebuild trust. Critics of aid spending often argue that too much money is ‘wasted’ on needless bureaucracy, regulation and administration. What happened in Chad and Haiti is a powerful reminder of why these matter and how they can (when in place and working well) act as vital parts of protection for the most vulnerable. It was the insufficient working of such processes that allowed a culture of impunity to flourish and continue amongst a small minority of staff.

But attention should also be paid to how NGOs and other humanitarian actors can be made more directly accountable to the affected communities with whom they work. As I have long argued, there is a serious accountability deficit in this area. When harm is caused, when there are concerns about behaviour or policy, how do individuals and communities complain or challenge decisions? The changes proposed by Oxfam and others keep power and accountability within the sector. Unless and until mechanisms exist for communities and affected individuals to directly hold NGOs to account for their actions, to report on abuses (and see action), NGOs will struggle to rebuild and maintain trust amongst perhaps its most important constituency: the communities and people they say they are working with to alleviate poverty, suffering and marginalisation.

Humanitarian crises are sites of profound inequalities and imbalances in power, perfect conditions for abuses and harm to flourish. Strong sectoral mechanisms for monitoring, reporting, and acting on allegations are essential. But so too are ways of empowering affected communities to hold humanitarian actors to account for the promises they make, and the things that they (or their employees) do or don’t do.

Oxfam has responded quite well to this scandal in the past week, assuming it is now being fully open about what happened, what it knew and when. It has been transparent, self-critical, acknowledged that its previous practices were not acceptable, and proposed significant changes to processes to help limit possibilities of similar behaviours in the future. Its Deputy Chief Executive, Penny Lawrence has resigned, taking responsibility for the organisation’s actions back then. Others may follow. Nor is it likely that Oxfam is the only organisation in which such failings occurred. That does not, of course, make what happened acceptable or excusable, and our focus must remain on the harm done to those affected.

Haiti has become a benchmark for poor practice in humanitarian work, but what happened in one of Britain’s oldest, most venerable and most widely respected of NGOs has added to the catalogue of failures by humanitarian actors in responding to it, and cast a long shadow over the sector. For humanitarian actors in general, as well as for Oxfam in particular, the challenge will be to make meaningful change, enact real and substantial accountability to all stakeholders, and hope that trust can gradually be built up again. For without trust, there will be no Oxfam.

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How clean is your money? The President’s Club and just saying no (thanks)

A couple of years ago, the big controversies rocking the charitable sector in the UK centred around unethical fund-raising practices. Following the scandal of the President’s Club fundraising evening in January 2018, there is a new question for charities to engage with: when should they say no to donations?

Most of the focus in the coverage and debates about that evening centred, quite rightly, on the behaviour of the attendees towards the ‘hostesses’ hired for that evening. (One thing we have learned is how widespread the problem of myopia is amongst the philanthropically-minded great and – as it turns out, not-so – good, given how few attendees saw anything going on). Prominent amongst the voices of condemnation were the intended beneficiaries of the evening’s largesse. Reflecting the views of many of those charities who were to receive donations from the President’s Club, Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) said it would be returning all previous donations, adding “we would never knowingly accept donations raised in this way.”

One question that springs to mind is whether the charities involved should have known what was going on. After all, rumours had reached the FT of what was going on at these men-only events. Should charities accepting money have dug a little deeper into the nature of the fundraiser? Charities can’t check everything – what goes on in the charity auction evening at the Puddletown[1] Village Hall will probably stay there. But the President’s Club was a slightly different in reputation and size of donations it was able to make. What due diligence responsibilities do charities have? But even with effective due diligence procedures, the real question is how charities can decide when a donation is from an individual or organisation, or the result of a particular type of fundraising activity, that conflicts so profoundly with their ethical and moral standpoint, that they have no choice but to turn it down. How clean, in other words, does a donation have to be?

Just put the cheque back in the post?

As charities publicly indicated their intention to return previous, and refuse future donations from the President’s Club, the Charity Commission (the regulatory body for all charitable organisations), issued guidance to charities affected. In a statement issued in the days following the scandal, the Charity Commission advised charities that it was for trustees to decide whether to refuse a donation:

They must make this decision on the basis of the best interests of the charity. That will include weighing up any issues around how the funds were raised, which may include reputational concerns, against the financial impact on the charity of turning the donation down.

Charities are restricted in how and when they can refuse a donation, or return one already made (in the latter case, Charities in England and Wales must obtain approval from the Charity Commission, so just putting a cheque in the post with a polite thank-you-but-no-thanks acknowledgement isn’t going to work). Refusals or refunds can only occur where the donation (or donor) poses a threat to the reputation of best interests of the charity, or where a donation may negatively influence its work (for example, through the attachment of conditions to the donation). Regulations in England and Wales allow for this decision to take into account a moral dimension, whilst charities in Scotland are in principle not able to refuse solely on grounds of morality. Trustees, who are responsible for making such decisions, must demonstrate that refusing or returning a donation will lead to an actual ‘benefit’ accruing to the organisation; and this benefit must be a definite advantage rather than merely convenient.

Uneasiness about a particular donor based on the individual ethical standpoint of an individual trustee or member of the charity is not in itself sufficient. There must be tangible harm to the charity in keeping the money, or a tangible benefit (that outweighs the loss in income) from returning it. So GOSH must decide whether the reputational damage from accepting donations from the President’s Club is greater than the good which would come from that money. Seen in that light, the decision is a harder than it might at first appear. How do we judge damage to the charity (which has unequivocally condemned the evening and had no role in it whatsoever) against the potential benefits (in this case life-altering or saving) that could result from the donation? Whose interests should take priority in any decision: that of the charity with its ethical standpoint, or the needs of the individuals or community who are the ultimate beneficiaries? What may be poor-taste but within the bounds of acceptability for one set of trustees, might be seen as beyond the pale for another. Groping and sexual harassment are clearly unacceptable to all, but had that not occurred, would the other things that went on (the line ‘spice up your wife’, linked to an auction for plastic surgery, for example) at the men-only President’s Club fundraiser have been, if not acceptable, tolerable?

The Charity Commission recognised that in responding to the President’s Club scandal, the decision as to whether a charity could accept donations would differ from one organisation to another, and expressed the view that there was no single ‘legitimate’ response. The balance between harm and benefit is not always clear, and the ethical dilemma is about the good to which the money could be used, against the taint of its source. Should an environmental charity accept money from an oil company implicated in major environmental damage? Or a human rights charity (or university) accept a donation from a foundation run by a close relative of a dictator known for torturing those opposing the regime? Would a legacy from a convicted rapist be acceptable to a charity working with survivors of sexual violence? Perhaps if during their life the individual had accepted responsibility and indicated remorse, but what if not?

How clean does a donation have to be?

Charities are having to decide how clean donated money has to be, and where they draw the line between clean and dirty (clean here being used in a moral sense, not in relation to laundered proceeds of crime). One might take a utilitarian position, and say it is not the source of money that matters, but the good that is done through its use. But as GOSH and the other charities have found, the provenance of money does matter.

In deciding how clean money is, charities must decide where to draw the line. Not liking the politics of an individual or organisation is probably not sufficient grounds. In the unlikely event that Katie Hopkins made a large donation to a refugee charity, they should probably take that money without any qualms. But charities should certainly say no when a donation could influence behaviour through explicit attached conditions or an internalised fear of missing out on future funding (as may have been the case with Save the Children, who were accused of spiking critical stories about two corporate donors at a time when they were receiving funding from them). It is the murky in-between areas that are more difficult to judge, where the moral lens will lead to different judgements between organisations. And where different outcomes result, does this mean some charities are more unethical than others, or just that the benefit / cost analysis looks different across organisations?

Making the issue yet more complex is the question of how many washes it takes for money to become clean? Few would have qualms now about applying for and accepting a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation or the Mellon Foundation, despite the business ethics of their founders. At what point did we become to so easily distinguish the source of the wealth of these foundations, from the work those foundations have done since? And what of the modern-day Rockefellers? How long will it take for their money to become clean?

If money can become clean over time, it can also be easily tainted. To what extent should charities be expected to consider returning a donation, accepted in good faith, when the donor proves to have been less than they originally appeared? What is the statute of limitations for donations, beyond which they no longer carry the taint of their donor? This has been an issue for universities as well as charities. As the UK Higher Education sector increasingly looks to alumni and philanthropic donors for its endeavours, it is coming up against the realities of how to know what money to say yes to, and what to decline. In 2011, Howard Davies quit as Director of the LSE after the extent of donations from the Gaddafi family and contracts for work in Libya was revealed. The LSE was criticised for failing in due diligence and lack of proper oversight in Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf’s official report. But there will have been many institutions holding their breath fearing their own past and current relationships with particular governments, ruling families and other significant international figures might be next to appear under the public gaze.

A few weeks on, and only one of those charities has formally applied for permission from the Charities Commission to do so: the Royal Academy of Music , which received £10,000 from the President’s Club at the end of 2017. Others are still in dialogue with the Charity Commission, or discussing what to do with their Boards of Trustees. It will be interesting to see whether the decisions of trustees match the early public statements of the charities once the bright gaze of public scrutiny has moved on.

Before the President’s Club can be formally closed, its assets must be put to charitable purposes. So presumably some charity or charities are going to benefit from the money raised by this organisation. Handily, the Charity Commission tends to make such dispersals discretely. It was surely right for all affected charities to say they would no longer accept future donations from the President’s Club. And the decision to return donations made from this organisation was probably wise too, despite the impact the loss of that money will have. But charities are increasingly finding themselves having to draw their lines in the sand in a much more public way than previously over the question of what counts as clean-enough. And one thing about sand, it tends to shift around quite a lot. The work of the due-diligence manager has become an awful lot more public in 2018.

[1] Not even in the top 10 of Dorset villages with funny names

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World AIDS Day 2017: the success and the struggle

World AIDS Day 2017 (blog vsn)

‘Change is possible and … human beings, correctly mobilised, can be stronger than the inertia of the governments and other institutions that they have created’

Thomas Weiss and Anthony Jennings (1983)


There are two narratives in the history of HIV and AIDS. One is a story of success. In the mid- to late-1970s, medical doctors in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire), North America and Europe began to note the emergence of patterns of symptoms unusual in the demographic profile of those affected, symptoms and conditions which led, inexorably, to death. By the early 1980s, these symptoms were recognised as having a common, as yet undiscovered, cause and were given the name acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. What led to death – the breakdown of the immune system – was known, but not why the system was breaking down in people who should otherwise be healthy. The answer to that question came within a few years, when the virus was discovered, allowing for testing to be developed to identify those who had been infected, and which blood products contained the virus. At the same time, prevention strategies were being devised, funded and rolled out, focusing on prevention (education programmes on how to protect against transmission through sex; needle-exchange and disposal, and safe-injection programmes to protect against transmission through intravenous drug use; and changes in medical practice and development of new equipment to protect against transmission through health interventions such as blood transfusion, operations and injections). For around two decades, a diagnosis of HIV infection was a death sentence. But from the late 1990s, anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs were developed and continued to be developed, that offered a lifeline to those living with HIV: the possibility of long (normal, even) life-expectancy through managing the condition.

The story of success is real. Within the space of around four decades, a highly complex virus, capable of rapid mutation and spread, has been identified; and a disease that killed without exception transformed into a chronic condition that can be managed with appropriate treatment. That treatment, so expensive just over a decade and a half ago, has fallen in price and the number of people with access has risen from 7.7 million in 2010, to around 21 million today. There is no vaccine, but new ways of using anti-retroviral drugs through practices such as PrEP have created a vaccine-like approach to protection and prevention. AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 48% since 2005. New infections are also falling, by aound 11% since 2010. In 1996, total funding for HIV and AIDS stood at around $292 million: in 2016, some $19.1 billion was made available.

The other story is one of stumbling, slow and conflicted progress; of poor decisions by governments, or governments refusing to acknowledge the scale of the challenge until it was too late; of stigma that led to exclusion, rejection, suffering, violence and even murder; of organisations and institutions who sought to blame individuals, casting their serostatus as evidence of sin as well as infection. It is a story of institutions and scientists competing for power and prestige rather than focusing on the needs of those most affected, of donors resisting recognition of the scale of the problem and slow to respond with the investments needed. The achievements, such as they are, have been built on the back of repeated failures, obstacles, and resistance to action by institutions and the powerful.

The advances that have allowed a fatal disease to be turned into a chronic and manageable condition are wonderful, but when only 53% of the global population living with HIV are still without access, almost all in some of the poorest countries of the world and themselves comprised of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people, we cannot call the roll out of ART a success. And whilst funding has increased exponentially over the past two decades, it is still not at the levels required to respond effectively to the epidemics. Donors have consistently failed to meet targets. Despite investments, despite best practice models, despite the number of organisations engaged in this area of activity, still 1.8 million people were newly infected with HIV in 2016, still 1 million people died from AIDS-related illnesses, and still around 17 million people do not have access to ARVs. Some countries continue to restrict or limit entry of those living with HIV. Stigmatisation has been reduced, but not eliminated. And still some groups and individuals fear violence as a result of their HIV status.

These narratives are not contradictory, or in conflict with each other. They reflect the realities of HIV and AIDS (and beyond that, the realities of all efforts to improve peoples lives and make meaningful, positive change) which is that progress has not come about because of the good will of governments, international organisations, research institutions and other formal actors: but has been the result of the pressure put upon those actors by civil society organisations, by affected communities, and by the strength of will of those living with HIV who have pushed and fought for their needs, wants and rights, and the needs, wants and rights of loved ones, to be recognised and responded to.

Many governments resisted rolling out treatment programmes fully, and only did so when taken to court by civil society organisations and activists. Others had to be pressured by direct action and protests, shamed into responding. Denialism of all kinds was resisted and challenged by national activists and global solidarity movements. Laws stigmatising (intentionally or not) those living with HIV were only changed or dropped when challenged by those affected. The drop in prices for those vital drugs came because international protests showed the scale of the crisis and the moral strength of their demands, and could no longer be resisted (though there is much still to be done here). For millions of those who have been affected, care and support has not come from the state, or international NGOs, but from within the community: the communities that were the sites of stigmatisation and discrimination were also the sites of tremendous bravery, fortitude and resilience.

So whilst we can rightly celebrate the huge seismic shifts in the landscape of HIV and AIDS since the 1980s, and recognise the enormous strides the global community has made over the successive decades, we need to remember that these successes came because of the action and will of people determined to bring about change, to shake a global community out of complacency. Whilst we can celebrate, rightly, progress made on World AIDS Day, we must use that day to push institutions and governments to ever further action.

HIV and AIDS remains a major health problem for many parts of the world. It is becoming a chronic, manageable condition for those lucky enough to have been born into parts of the world where that support has been put in place. But it remains the biggest killer in sub-Saharan Africa. As ever, efforts to roll out treatment, to provide the necessary care and support, to ensure scientists keep researching on vaccine development and new drugs, will rest not on the goodwill of governments, but on protest, resistance, direct action and solidarity of the people. The struggle is the reason for the success, and on this day we should think of those who gave their all in forwarding and advancing that struggle. Any success we can talk about in relation to HIV and AIDS is their legacy.

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Zimbabwe’s non-coup coup

As with many of my colleagues, I’ve been reflecting on Zimbabwe over the past week since the military took control of the state broadcaster to announce that whatever people may hear or see, this was emphatically “not a military takeover of government”. The non-coup coup saw tanks taking to the streets, President Robert Mugabe placed under house arrest under military guard, and a concerted push by the military and parliament to ease the old man out of his throne, before an eventual letter of resignation read out to cheers in parliament. Much has been written and said about this, by people far more expert in Zimbabwean politics than I. But having spoken a bit about this quite a lot on various media outlets, and discussed with a number of colleagues, now seemed as good a time as any to try and make sense in my own mind of the past 10 days.


It’s all about the Mugabes.

It is very tempting when trying to work out what has happened in a political crisis to focus on an individual or a group of individuals, as the cause of that crisis, and build the narrative of events around them. So it is no surprise that much of the analysis in the UK and North American media has focused on the role of Robert Mugabe and the ill-fated ambitions of his wife, Grace. Indeed, the story fits perfectly into the Macbeth-narrative of politics, wherein an ambitious and ruthless ruler, driven by a sense of his destiny, is pushed ever further in those dreams by the even more ruthless and ambitious wife. And that is certainly the spin that many commentators have put on this. After all, with monikers such as ‘Gucci Grace’ and ‘the Crocodile’ in play, alongside the pantomime villain that Robert Mugabe has become in much of Europe and North America, the pressure to push the understanding of what has been going on down this path must have been irresistible.

 But whilst this may sound like a strange point to make given the focus on Mugabe and his wife, this really isn’t about Mugabe (either of them). The sacking of Emmerson Mnangagwa was the catalyst, not the cause; and the purpose was not so much about destroying Grace’s bid for the succession. It was about ZANU-PF and its determination to stay in power.

The events of the past ten days were inevitable. Perhaps not in the particular form it took, but in terms of the instability of the succession, and the willingness of a central cohort of ZANU-PF leaders in alliance with the military to secure control over the state. Mugabe wasn’t ejected because he was an awful president who had destroyed the economy and stamped hard and brutally down on any voices of opposition that dared speak out. He wasn’t ejected because of jealousy over Grace. He was forced to resign because he no longer had the authority to maintain the power of ZANU-PF and the senior officials who benefit from control over the state. Had Grace Mugabe been seen as the one to have such power, had she been seen as someone who could ensure the same members of the elite continued to exercise authority and control (over economic as well as political spheres), the bitter factional struggle may have looked very different. And if it hadn’t been Grace, at some point in the near future, there would have been someone else challenging the old guard for power.

So we need to think about what this tells us about ZANU-PF, and its ability to hold onto power through alliance with economic and military elites. Mugabe was old, his policies were failing, but it was the fate of ZANU-PF rather than Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans that led to action. And this is relevant for understanding politics and the function of political parties far beyond the borders of Zimbabwe, especially perhaps, but not solely, for liberation parties who have clung to power through the evolutionary process of changing leaders and leader generations.


The Crocodile’s dilemma

This creates difficulties for the assumed successor to Mugabe, his former right-hand man Emmerson Mnangagwa. This was not a revolution sweeping away the old guard, allowing a new generation to take control of the party and in doing so transform ZANU-PF into something new. This was the old guard securing its control of the party and state, against would-be challengers from a different generation.

But two things have happened. Firstly, the authority and power of the military to determine who serves the best interest of ZANU-PF has been brutally exposed. At 75, Mnangagwa does not have long before questions start to be asked about who his successor will be, and he cannot rely on possessing a similar extraordinary longevity to Mugabe to see off other contenders. He will know that as soon as he can no longer be relied upon to protect ZANU-PF against challengers from inside and outside the party, he too will be under pressure to go. And that point may come sooner rather than later.

Secondly, the genie of popular protest has been let out of the bottle, and getting it back in, and stopping up the bottle, may prove harder than anticipated. By calling on people to support the non-coup coup to put pressure on Mugabe to go, will people fuelled by anger and promises made, and in possession of new tools for mobilising action (remember, this is a country where around 3 in every 5 people is under the age of 25) be willing to have that power taken away? Brutal oppression might work, afterall the hopes of the Arab Spring were quickly dashed in many countries. But the risk for ZANU-PF is that it might not. And what happens then?

Mnangagwa will talk up his democratic credentials and aspirations. If he is sensible, he will engage with the opposition (if only to co-opt it as happened in the last unity government). Western donors and neighbouring governments will have a pragmatic interest in accepting at face values commitments to an open political and economic system. But an unstable new element has been added to the mix, and if promised changes don’t come, or don’t come quickly enough, we may see the power of the street presenting a bigger challenge than the ZANU-PF bigwigs anticipate. The stage is set, at some point, for a clash, especially if, as some commentators are saying, Mnangagwa fears he would not win a free and fair election.


When is a coup not a coup

And finally, was this a coup or not? The government may not have been overthrown in the classic sense, but the president was forced from office; and even if we give some credence to the impact of the threat of impeachment, that was only possible through the intervention of the men in military fatigues. That impeachment, and the repeated assertions it was for Mugabe to resign rather than being pushed, don’t really take away from the fact that pushed he was.

So this was a coup. But it was nevertheless a strange kind of coup: bloodless, no military junta taking over the reins of power with promises of a future transition, and broad continuity in government. This reflects the growing importance of democratic transitions and elections as a source of legitimacy across sub-Saharan Africa, where old style dictators who simply hold onto power have given way to autocrats who manipulate constitutions and rig elections to provide themselves a fig leaf of democratic legitimacy.

No longer is it possible to simply bundle the unfortunate deposed leader into a car, for them to disappear into exile or worse. The African Union, as well as international donors, frown upon cold-war style military coups, and punish those who take power through them. It isn’t just about international legitimacy: legitimacy of the street also increasingly matters. The military leadership in Zimbabwe may have misjudged Mugabe’s stubbornness and unwillingness to concede he had lost his authority, but they understood the need to gain popular support for what they were doing, and to pretend that this wasn’t what it looked like. Could this be repeated elsewhere? Elderly leaders with ambitious colleagues with links to the military might be sleeping a little less easy in their beds tonight. 

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