International aid and its impact on sovereignty and legitimacy in Zimbabwe

Terri Beswick, June 2010


  • state sovereignty
  • international aid
  • Zimbabwe


the article is the outcome of an assignment of the online course on Post-conflict politics: state and society relations

This article looks at the way in which donor aid is used as a political tool in Zimbabwe and in what way it impacts the sovereignty of the state as well as the legitimacy of the government. It concludes that while the withholding of international aid to Mugabés government negatively impacts the country’s sovereignty, it positively impacts his legitimacy as the defender of the nation against western imperialism

When Mugabe came to power in the British-supervised elections in 1980, it also brought with it internationally-recognised state sovereignty for Zimbabwe. The government of Robert Mugabe enjoyed both internal and external legitimacy and authority, based on his role in the liberation movement and general international goodwill towards Mugabe as a ‘promising’ leader for post-colonial Zimbabwe. The legitimacy and associated authority conferred on the government in Zimbabwe coincided with independence, which conferred state sovereignty for the first time.

The sovereignty of states forms the legal basis for all international relations grants the governments of those states the sole legal authority and responsibility for external and internal affairs. However, the element of sovereignty that bestows sole authority for internal affairs also allows it to be (mis)used by autocratic or dictatorial governments to prevent international intervention by invoking the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. President Mugabe has made good use of this element and the rhetoric of the ZANU-PF regime has relied heavily on the colonial history and the liberation movement to label any international interference as ‘imperialism’ and an attempt to violate Zimbabwe’s hard-won sovereignty. However, increasing globalism and interdependence between states has blurred the line between internal and external affairs, making isolation a less viable option for the Zimbabwe.

International aid in Zimbabwe

Non-state actors, such as NGOs were largely responsible for delivering aid in Zimbabwe prior to the formation of the current government of national unity (GNU), whilst governments had restricted or withheld direct aid, fearing misappropriation by Mugabe’s government and ZANU-PF elites. The flow of aid was also subject to disturbances from the Zimbabwean government itself, for example when President Mugabe’s refused food aid for a period in 2004.

Aid to Zimbabwe from other states was not entirely cut off, as states continued to provide some funding for aid that circumvented Mugabe’s government. Nonetheless, the reliance on aid from solely from nongovernmental organisations was neither sufficient nor sustainable as a solution for the conditions of poverty in the country.

In June 2008, in the run up to the presidential ‘run-off’ elections, the Zimbabwean government banned international aid agencies from the country, accusing aid workers of campaigning for opposition parties during the presidential elections in March. This ban remained in place throughout the power-sharing negotiations despite international aid agencies urging all parties to prioritise aid in order to stem the tide of the humanitarian crisis gripping the country. This again highlights the instability of the aid situation. Aid has become a tool for both sides; with President Mugabe presenting international withdrawal of aid as an ‘imperialist’ attempt to destabilise an independent and legitimate Zimbabwe, while donor countries continue with their policy of limited and decentralised aid.

As recently as May 2010, many donor countries (America, Britain, Japan, Germany, France, Sweden, Holland, Norway, Canada and Australia) were still deliberating on whether to send aid to Zimbabwe, and the Australian government even stated that, despite the unity government, they would not consider aid until Mugabe was out of power. As it stands, the lack of tangible progress towards democratic reforms that were expected by the international community following the formation of the unity government means that the Zimbabwe GNU does not have the resources or means to take more control of the economic sovereignty of the country.

Economic sanctions and the humanitarian crisis

Economic management has traditionally been an important practical manifestation of state sovereignty. However, the same globalisation that has challenged the exclusive authority of states over policies that have external implications has also reduced the ability of national governments to influence and control internal economic conditions. More than a decade of economic sanctions by states and intergovernmental organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund, have squeezed the finances of President Mugabe’s government. Whilst the sanctions may not be directly responsible for the humanitarian crisis, such wide international condemnation has the effect of discouraging other sources of income such as, foreign direct investment. This is further evidence that international action in an age of economic interdependence can be used to try to effect changes in internal affairs. It demonstrates that economic sovereignty can be, and has been, challenged in Zimbabwe.

The economic strain on Mugabe’s government, together with the contested March 2008 election results, may have contributed to the willingness of ZANU-PF to start negotiations towards a unity government.

Poverty and worsening conditions for Zimbabweans

In 2002, a state of disaster was declared due to food shortages and famine across the country. The crisis of food shortages coincided with the period of economic sanctions, irregular supplies of international aid, and the subsequent outbreak of cholera to plunge an already weakened country into real disaster, which to a certain extent came to a head during the 2008 election period.

The consequences of the crisis in Zimbabwe were extremely public and impossible to downplay by either the Zimbabwean government or international donor countries. Consequently, the public debate became about winning the ‘war or words’ over who was responsible for the extreme poverty, unemployment, poor health conditions. Again, the ZANU-PF government made use of their traditional ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’ rhetoric to rally internal support. However, since the GNU was established, donor countries are also coming under criticism for maintaining such a firm stance on withholding aid.

The negative impact of aid in post-conflict Zimbabwe

Aid was used as a bargaining tool, both by the previous ZANU-PF regime, and by international donor states. The traditional role between donor countries and those states that receive foreign aid is already fraught because top-down international programmes may not map effectively onto local contexts, and often donors are the driving force behind the design of aid programmes. In the case of Zimbabwe, there are additional factors that further complicate the relationship between the main international donor countries. The difficult relations between Zimbabwe and the UK, as the former colonial power, adds credence to President Mugabe’s accusations of attempts to destabilise independent Zimbabwe. This could de-legitimise British efforts to support Zimbabwe in the future, thereby rejecting a potentially-significant source of aid and foreign direct investment.

The positive impact of aid in post-conflict Zimbabwe

Though the general consensus for international aid amongst donor countries has been to employ it as a tool for influencing internal policy, it can still be said that aid, as a concept should be placed above politics in the sense that it should reach those in the Zimbabwean population who most need it. This aligns with the idea of ‘soft power’ and could do much to counter the rhetoric of ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’ that is still espoused by President Mugabe and the ZANU-PF elite. Thus, there remains a window of opportunity. International aid could play a role in providing both tangible and political support to the democratic movement in Zimbabwe and the MDC political parties that have traditionally been in opposition.

The impact of international aid on Zimbabwe’s sovereignty

The impact of foreign aid on the legitimacy of Zimbabwe’s unity government is not straight forward, because the internal rhetoric about international donor countries may lead Zimbabweans to perceive Mugabe’s unwillingness to compromise on aid as an act of authority and integrity by President Mugabe. However, strictly in terms of de facto sovereignty, it is clear that international aid does have some ability to subvert the sovereign ability of the Zimbabwean government to exclusively direct and control the internal future of the country.