Last week, Zimbabwe's government asked international donors and nongovernmental organizations to step in and assist the hundreds of thousands of families it has made homeless since May 19, when it began a controversial "clean-up campaign." Using bulldozers, the Zimbabwean army has destroyed the makeshift houses and flea markets that were the homes and businesses of Harare's urban poor.
On the surface, such a request might appear to be an embarrassing U-turn by President Robert Mugabe's government, which initially insisted it could re-house the urban poor it was making destitute. Indeed, for the first three weeks of the campaign, aid organizations were forcibly prevented from assisting those left to live in the open at the onset of winter, without food, their belongings piled up on the roadside beside them.
But it would be naive in the extreme to believe the ZANU-PF-led regime has miraculously woken up to its self-made humanitarian disaster, and, overwhelmed by guilt or compassion, is now asking for help. ZANU-PF has masterminded the theft of three elections—two general and one presidential—over the past five years; retention of power at all costs is its sole modus operandi.
To ensure the party's political superiority, it must keep the opposition weak. The Movement for Democratic Change, the leading opposition party, has its support base in poor urban neighborhoods, so diluting their numbers by moving people to rural areas makes it more difficult for the MDC to organize.
The economic policies that have been implemented since Mugabe began to forcibly dispossess white farmers of their land as part of his controversial land redistribution campaign six years ago have left the country on the verge of collapse. And one of the main consequences of the economic meltdown has been Zimbabwe's growing reliance on the food and financial aid provided by donors.
Currently, most international and local NGOs attempting to alleviate the people's suffering must do so under the watchful eye of the government's Provincial Social Services Committee, which approves all aid programs. Effectively, this allows the government to control a significant amount of the aid. In the run-up to the recent general election, ZANU-PF was accused of withholding food from rural residents unless they voted for the ruling party. Even today, food, blankets, and other essential items meant for distribution in many of the Harare constituencies affected by Mugabe's latest campaign are being withheld from people who supported, or are even suspected of supporting, the opposition party in the March 31 general election.
Many despots who have wreaked havoc across Africa over the past few decades have sought to control who receives aid. Donations have repeatedly been stolen and used to support armed conflict in Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Using international donations as a political weapon to retain power is a blatant abuse of donors' resources. While no one wants to see hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans starve, in this situation, it may be more ethical for NGOs to withhold aid if they know it is being used to further the goals of the ruling regime. Allowing food and shelter to be distributed selectively only prolongs the tyranny under which all Zimbabweans live.
The situation will worsen once the government's NGO Bill becomes law. The bill, which has been passed by parliament and awaits only President Mugabe's signature to take affect, will give the Zimbabwean government absolute authority over how NGOs operate in the country, will subject groups to political loyalty tests, and will eventually be used to ban organizations who do not demonstrate their political allegiance to ZANU-PF.
The proposed law also prevents international organizations from working explicitly on human rights and makes it a crime for the directors of local organizations to accept foreign funding for work on human rights. In an economy that has been contracting continuously in recent years, there is no possibility for human rights organizations to raise funds locally. The bill effectively bans any human rights work in Zimbabwe.
So, should international NGOs remain in Zimbabwe if they are being used as pawns and if people are being allowed to starve despite their donations? In the short term, a refusal to provide aid could well lead to starvation and even death for many thousands of Zimbabwe's poor, but in the long term, it could force Zimbabweans to stand up for themselves. A recent two-day general strike failed miserably, according to the organizers, because many Zimbabweans were unwilling to lose what little they had left.
Popular uprisings, like Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" of December 2004, require a strong opposition and a desperate population. Zimbabweans are not yet desperate enough it seems, and largely because of Mugabe's foul play, the opposition MDC is weak.
It is the African Union and South African President Thabo Mbeki, in particular, who are in the best position to compel Mugabe to either step down or truly embrace the principles of a free and fair democracy. While increasing pressure from the G8 might force African leaders to take a harder stance against one of their own, ZANU-PF has thus far ignored international condemnation.
Without action against Mugabe, Zimbabweans will receive no debt relief or financial aid from G8 member states, which are currently focusing on the continent as never before. And it should be noted that, without assistance, hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans will die from AIDS rather than starvation. The United Nations estimates that one in four Zimbabweans is HIV-positive and few of them receive medical treatment.
Change for Zimbabweans must be wrought from within, either by an opposition group or by disgruntled members of the ruling party. If international aid is denied to the masses, leaders with the courage to instigate such a change have a much better chance of success if they can rally citizens that have absolutely nothing to lose except the starvation and poverty forced upon them by their own government.