Bankrupted by the World Bank

Issue section: 

Review of 'Zimbabwe's Plunge', Patrick Bond and Masimba Manyanya, Merlin Books £14.95

The economic crisis in Zimbabwe--with unemployment now at over 60 percent, inflation hitting 114 percent and 76 percent of the population below the poverty line--is in urgent need of analysis.

Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, and inherited debts of nearly $700 million from the white minority regime. The authors of this book argue that Mugabe's Zanu government had the option of repudiating this debt. Had this happened, the government would have had much more flexibility to implement its social policies and address the land question.

Nonetheless, during the first decade of independence the Zanu government did follow what Bond and Manyanya describe as an 'exemplary social policy'. This reduced infant mortality from 86 to 49 per 1,000 live births, doubled primary school enrolment, and raised life expectancy from 56 to 62 years. But at the same time the Zimbabwean government maintained repayments on its foreign loans, and the land question was not fundamentally changed. Some 70 percent of the best land in Zimbabwe is still owned by around 4,000 white farmers, although this picture has changed massively with the recent land seizures.

With the formal adoption of the World Bank's Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) from 1991 to 1997, working class living standards fell significantly. The Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) 'reported in 1996 that their average member was 38 percent poorer than in 1990, and 40 percent poorer than in 1980'. In addition, the social wage fell sharply 'thanks largely to new cost recovery policies for health, education and many other social services'.

Despite this Zimbabwe was often described as the World Bank's African success story in the early 1990s. Even as late as May 1999, the World Bank 'Project Completion Report' for Esap gave the country the best possible final grade of 'highly satisfactory'. Yet Esap 'pushed foreign debt as a percentage of GDP from 8.4 percent to 21.8 percent'. By 1998 Zimbabwe, with debts of nearly $5 billion, spent 38 percent of its export earnings on servicing foreign loans, exceeded in that year only by Brazil and Burundi.

This book outlines the effects of these crippling debt repayments and the economic and political constraints that encouraged the adoption of neoliberalism. However, the speeches of politicians are given far more prominence than the power of ordinary people who spearheaded resistance to the policies of the World Bank and the IMF. For example, the authors dismiss the mass public sector strikes of 1996 and the resistance that followed in a couple of paragraphs. In contrast, three pages of the book are devoted to a single speech by the economic spokesperson for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The concluding chapter argues that an 'NGO-swarm' at home and the 'world-scale social change' since Seattle could form the basis of a government implementing alternative policies to both Mugabe and the neoliberalism of the MDC. The support for such a government would be composed of 'a variety of civil society groups--church agencies, a resurgent movement of residents' associations, community health workers, and the more progressive currents within the ZCTU'.

The policies of this hypothetical government would include a total repudiation of the foreign debt and the deflation of domestic debt. The government would also regulate foreign exchange while ensuring that any 'resulting distortions...are mitigated through a strong but slim, efficient and benevolent state'.

This book provides a comprehensive summary of the recent economic and political developments in Zimbabwe, and as an example of the effects of globalisation and Third World debt it has a wider relevance. The alternatives it outlines to the policies of the World Bank and the IMF could have practical significance if adopted by anti-capitalist movements, but only when they are based on the power of an organised mass movement.