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If a degenerate gambler who abused his children lived on your street, there are many things the community might do to try to help: call the police, confront the bully, give comfort to the victims, maybe even quietly pass them money. One of the last things the neighbors would do is lend money to the abuser. Such is the dilemma for the international community and Zimbabwe. So, how can countries with a strong history and connection to that beleaguered country help its people while not entrenching its kleptocratic leadership?

First, some facts. The country is reeling from the increasingly abusive government of Robert Mugabe who has been in power since independence 36 years ago. Political repression is on the rise as incidents of assault, abduction, and torture by the security services have spiked. The average citizen is poorer today than in 1980, while the economy suffers from parasitic corruption and the deliberate destruction of the rule of law. Nearly one in three Zimbabweans are food insecure this year. Some 2-3 million, including much of the educated middle class, have fled the country. The government is now nearly $11 billion in debt, much of which is unpaid arrears to international financial institutions.

The current rebound strategy on the table, as represented by the Government of Zimbabwe’s Lima Plan, is to clear the country’s unpaid debts and restart borrowing. This is the favored approach of the finance minister Patrick Chinamasa and central bank governor John Mangudya—who are, in practice, the front men for Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his particular faction of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. Lima entails others paying to clear the country’s arrears at the African Development Bank and the Government borrowing another roughly $1 billion from unidentified creditors to clear its tab at the World Bank. These steps would then allow Zimbabwe to borrow even more from these same institutions, including to repay the mystery lender.

Debt relief and new financing, with a nod to conditions for better behavior, is central to a British government-funded proposal from Chatham House. The hope of this strategy is that, with an injection of cash and some positive reinforcement, the reformers within the government (presumably, Mnangagwa, Chinamasa, and Mangudya) will win the day and put the country back on a path to prosperity and good governance. Even if this approach seems highly unlikely to succeed, the report claims the current approach of international isolation is destined to fail. At a minimum, supporters of active re-engagement hope to avert a meltdown and worsening humanitarian conditions.

The United States has made clear its opposition to debt relief and premature lending, arguing that any assistance must wait until there is actual evidence of meaningful economic, governance, and human rights reforms. Absent those steps, the consensus in Washington is that any new help to the Government of Zimbabwe would only further entrench the cabal around Mugabe and likely wind up financing further political repression. Moreover, US officials remain deeply skeptical of the so-called reformers and are highly doubtful that the current regime—the very same people responsible for gross human rights abuses and the collapse of the economy—can now lead the country toward a robust and democratic recovery. They know that Mnangagwa was the architect of the Matabeleland Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s and that Chinamasa was the justice minister who implemented the notorious Public Order and Security Act and all but destroyed the judiciary in 2001 by driving independent judges from the Supreme Court through threats and intimidation and replacing them with party loyalists.

Between the “lend and hope” strategy and the “isolate and wait” approach, what could the international community do to prevent unnecessary suffering without aiding the oppressors? What can be done to help Zimbabweans without helping ZANU-PF? Here’s an agenda:

  1. Provide even more humanitarian support outside government channels. Any assistance to the people of Zimbabwe must be done either through non-governmental organizations or directly to the population. In Fiscal Year 16, the US government spent $232 million on development programs in Zimbabwe, the majority covering health care and emergency food relief. None of this aid is run through the Government of Zimbabwe. The UK has budgeted $136 million for Zimbabwe this year. Donors could expand this support through such channels, especially in non-health sectors.
     
  2. Where possible, give people direct cash. The UK has already funded a promising pilot to provide $5 per month to vulnerable households. This approach—paying poor and vulnerable families directly through their mobile phones—could be scaled up.
     
  3. Double-down on monitoring and responding to abuses. Credible grassroots Zimbabwean organizations that do the hard work of documenting abuses and providing victim services are grossly under-resourced. This is a high-impact area especially ripe for private philanthropy.
     
  4. Don’t apologize for supporting democratic forces—in fact, do much more. Support for democracy and governance comprises only a small fraction of total US assistance. Worthy civil society groups both inside the country and in the diaspora could bolster the democratic environment.
     
  5. Hurry up to prevent (and potentially react to) mass violence. The risks of renewed mass atrocities in Zimbabwe are high and rising. A recent report from the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the Holocaust Memorial Museum calls for increased international attention on Zimbabwe and urgent international steps to prevent mass atrocities. While South Africa has largely buried its head in the sand on Zimbabwe, the US, UK, EU, and others should aggressively move to prevent mass violence and revive dormant planning efforts for potential intervention.

Overall, the international community should be wary of engaging with a disingenuous Government if the politics aren’t yet aligned.  In the meantime, the international community should concentrate on supporting the people of Zimbabwe, not the Government of Zimbabwe. More engagement is not always a good thing. A World Bank strategy document leaked here reveals the downside of trying too hard to engage. The organization, which pledged to increase its attention to human rights, is instead bending over backwards to justify engagement with a regime held together through patronage and violent repression. Cognitive dissonance is the only way to explain how the World Bank could, in all seriousness, propose as an indicator of success that human rights violations merely “level off” (page 29).

There are often strong political dynamics or a bureaucratic logic to want to engage in a bad situation. Diplomats are trained and incentivized to build relationships. Bankers are trained and incentivized to push loans. But sometimes engagement is a euphemism for appeasement. Sometimes the desire to help can make matters worse. Like lending money to an abusive neighbor—or lending money to an abusive regime.