New Internationalist

Paying the piper

December 1980

Aid without strings’ may be one of the cardinal tenets of revolutionary governments in the Third World. But as Robert Mugabe’s democratically-elected socialist government has discovered, achieving it in fact is another matter. The prolonged seven-year war of liberation, coupled with Western sanctions against the former white-supremicist regime of Ian Smith, left Zimbabwe with a multi­million dollar job of reconstruction. Since his overwhelming election victory Prime Minister Mugabe has been doing his best to build bridges with Western aid givers - assuring them of the continued need for foreign investment and immed­iate assistance for refugee resettlement, housing and agriculture.

Despite Mr. Mugabe’s placating stance the West, and particularly the US, has been agonizingly slow to respond. The main reason has been hesitation over backing a popular government whose principles are avowedly ‘Marxist’. But rhetoric aside the Zimbabwean leader seems to be pursuing a path far less radical than his followers might have hoped for. And his new ‘pragmatic’ soft approach could provide the elbow room forworried Western nations to step up aid flows. Mr. Mugabe is looking for $350 million initially and up to $750 million a year over the next five years. To date pledges from all sources total about $300 million. The tide has not turned yet but there are indications it might after Mr. Mugabe’s personal pitch to US President Jimmy Carter this past autumn.

But like most US aid any further commitment from Washington will carry its own hidden ‘quid pro quo’. More important than humanitarian concern is the State Department’s anxiety about Zimbabwe falling into the Soviet sphere of influence. Also critical is the country’s position as a major supplier of strategic minerals to US industry. According to the sanguine judgement of the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Mines and Mining which toured southern Africa last winter, the West has reason to be concerned about supply disruptions of strategic minerals because of political instability in the region. Increased foreign aid, the Subcommittee report warned, should be ‘conditional’ on a stable supply of minerals.

If there was any doubt about the moral imperatives of aid to the war-ravaged nation they were peremptorily disposed of by former secretary of state Cyrus Vance in his statement to the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa. Vance urged a $50 million supplement for this year and $100 million for each of the next two. ‘We must not lose Zimbabwe,’ he stated flatly. Added fellow diplomat Averell Harriman, ‘they need emergency assistance.’ If the US is not forthcoming ‘there is no doubt the Russians will move in.’ Former State Department official Leslie Gelb summed up the ‘real politique’ approach in the mass-circulation American magazine Business Week.

It’s like a game of roulette. If you play, at least you have a chance to estab­lish a relationship. If you don’t play, you have no chance at all.’ ‘And the cost of losing another country to Soviet influ­ence’, the magazine concluded, ‘would be far higher than any aid the US might provide.’

Prime Minister Mugabe is a shrewd, sincere and it seems pragmatic politician. If the US is looking for another client state in southern Africa they are likely to find poor hunting ground in Zimbabwe. But as long as Mr. Mugabe is scouting for foreign aid he will have to accept that potential donors have their own agendas.

This column was published in the December 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 094

New Internationalist Magazine issue 094
Issue 094

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