DFID's Assistance to Zimbabwe - International Development Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 60-79)


23 FEBRUARY 2010

  Q60  Richard Burden: What kind of conditionality would be applied if funding were to be extended?

  Mr Thomas: We would want to make sure that the assistance that is offered is being used to help promote reform, is being used to help deliver pro-poor services. Those would be the key conditions, as such. "Conditions" is probably the wrong phraseology to use in that sense, in that it has a resonance of the bad old days of structural adjustment programmes. "Conditions" is not a term we would use, in that sense. Certainly, in terms of the decisions we might take about how we allocate aid in future, be it for a minister's office or for a big programme of humanitarian assistance, we would want to be convinced that it was helping to deliver a pro-poor agenda, that it was going to lead to significant reforms in the way services are delivered. Those would be, if you like, the guiding principles for the decisions we might take.

  Q61  Hugh Bayley: I want to ask a question about support for a free and independent media. I should preface my remark by saying that, if any government anywhere in the world funds the media, you need to ensure that that there is editorial independence and no control from the funder, as, for instance, with the BBC World Service. I recall in the run-up to liberation in both Namibia and South Africa there was British funding for the Namibian newspaper, possibly for The Sowetan, and it was seen as important to have some forums which were not under state control disseminating information. The print media in Zimbabwe is very strongly controlled by the state. I wonder what thought both of your Departments have given to ensure that, in the run-up between now and elections, whenever they come, there is fair and unbiased information about electoral registration, about the platforms of relative parties, the achievements of ministers and their ministries. Is that something which your Department should be funding or possibly the Foreign Office should be funding, or both?

  Mr Thomas: First, there is no doubt that we would want to see reforms in the way the media operate and are organised to allow more independent activity by different media operations of one sort of another. The return of the BBC is undoubtedly a positive step. Key to wider change in how the media sector operates is the establishment of the media commission as heralded in the GPA. Again, like the Electoral Commission, it has not yet started doing its work, and that will be a key issue for the international community to continue to watch. It is certainly a key issue set out in the GPA where progress is needed. In terms of the run-up to free and fair elections, absolutely. A substantial programme of voter education would be required, the media clearly would have an important role in that. If we were asked to be part of a multi-donor group supporting an election process, of course we would want to consider doing that. Again, where we have been asked to enable elections to take place in a free and fair way, we have provided support in other countries to election funding arrangements. As I say, we would be happy to look at that, if we were asked, when the time came.

  Q62  Hugh Bayley: Given that the barriers to the dissemination of information and the history of intimidation are probably greater in rural areas than in urban areas, I would have thought radio was a particularly important medium. Are you satisfied that there is wide access to radio giving independent and unbiased news across the country?

  Mr Thomas: It is not just radio where there is an issue; it is the media in general. There is not free and fair access to the media in any way in which any of us in the room would recognise. That is clearly one of the areas, as set out in the GPA, where substantial reform is necessary. Like others in the international community, we would want to see progress in that area, not just so that elections can take place but, also, so that the executive can be held to account regardless of their political affiliation in that sense.

  Hugh Bayley: One final question on culture. DFID does not normally make the promotion of culture a priority: you would defer, I suppose, to the British Council or others. We held a reception at the Book Café and that seemed to me to be an oasis of free expression.

  Chairman: From time to time. When it was not being disrupted.

  Q63  Hugh Bayley: Relative free expression, yes. There is a strong tradition throughout Africa of music—I think of Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba—permitting things to be said which could not be published in a manifesto. Would either of your Departments—yours through the British Council, Mr Dennis, or DFID—think about providing unusually and atypically support for freedom of expression through culture or arts?

  Mr Thomas: I do not know where the Foreign Secretary is on music. In terms of DFID, again it is about the balance and the opportunity cost of providing funding in one particular way as against others. You are right that freedom of expression is hugely important, whether it is through music, through media, through other sources of activity.

  Q64  Hugh Bayley: We were given a couple of booklets published by the British Council, which I thought was quite a courageous bit of work.

  Mr Thomas: Do not get me wrong, I think the British Council does hugely important work. We are contributing, along with others, in helping to promote freedom of expression through the constitution review process, where UNDP, with our support, have started to fund work that we hope will allow civil society to engage in thinking about the type of constitution and the type of state that Zimbabwe should have in the future. That is one of the few ways at the moment—though it is very imperfect, as you will, I am sure, have had a sense—in which civil society and Zimbabwean citizens can begin to air views and bounce ideas around about the future of their country. In that sense, it is a hugely important process. It is not just us who are funding it—it is being led, as I say, by UNDP—but it is one way in which we are beginning to see some signs of growing freedom of expression.

  Q65  Mr Lancaster: Thank you, Chairman. I want to explore slightly beyond Zimbabwe's boundaries and its relationship with other countries in the region. Of course historically, before 1994, when we saw the end of apartheid, Zimbabwe was very much the centre for the region, but relationships with surrounding countries have deteriorated to a degree, particularly those with South Africa and Botswana because of the Zimbabwe diaspora. What do you think surrounding countries can do to help in assisting the development of Zimbabwe, not least when it comes to finding a permanent political solution?

  Mr Thomas: SADC, in that sense, the group of Zimbabwe's neighbours, has a key role to play and has accepted that role in terms of acting as guarantors of the Global Political Agreement. It is encouraging that there is a mediation process underway. It is a process I welcome but it is very much a process that we need to respect, as SADC leading on that process and fulfilling the role that it has. You asked me specifically about South Africa. South Africa is probably the country that has seen most migration of Zimbabweans who have fled the country or have left the country into South Africa. Zimbabwe is very much a domestic issue for President Zuma and the South African government, as it is an international or a regional issue. You are right to flag the continuing importance of the region for resolving the political tensions in Zimbabwe. It is a process that we are obviously monitoring closely, but SADC is very much in the lead in that process.

  Q66  Mr Lancaster: I agree with you wholeheartedly, and I think SADC do have a key role to play, but, given the Chairman's opening questions and the deterioration at the moment, and notwithstanding that it is right that SADC should take the lead, what more can we do in supporting SADC to try to resolve some of these situations? Or should we not do anything?

  Mr Thomas: First, we have to respect the mediation process that President Zuma has put in place. He has appointed a high-level team with significant reputations themselves to lead on that mediation process and, despite moments of high tension, which we all recognise will occur as the GPA process moves forward, we have to respect that mediation effort that President Zuma's team on behalf of SADC is leading. The other ways in which we can help are more direct, frankly, and that is through our development programme. It is important for the people of Zimbabwe that there has been economic progress, and I think the economic progress is beginning to throw the spotlight on to the lack of political progress that has taken place in Zimbabwe. Through some of the assistance to the Ministry of Finance and through our humanitarian programmes we have played a small role, but an important role, along with others in the international community, in helping the stabilisation of the economy, and in that sense allowing the issues around the political process and the lack of sufficient political reform to be further highlighted, both for SADC to continue to deal with and also for the government to continue to have to deal with.

  Q67  Mr Lancaster: Is it quite a difficult tightrope to walk really? For example, when we were there, you will be aware from all the talk in the papers that they had seized on comments that the Foreign Secretary had made in the chamber and they were being spun one way by one party and the other way by the other. Is it quite a difficult tightrope to walk, where on the one hand, everybody in this room, I am sure, wants to see development and progression within Zimbabwe in helping to secure that political process, but, as soon as we are vocal, it can sometimes be counter-productive whilst at the same time trying to support this process? Is that tricky? How do we find that balance between the two?

  Mr Thomas: That is not true just of Zimbabwe, it is true of a whole series of relationships that we have with countries. Sometimes, you are right, there is a tightrope to walk.

  Q68  Mr Lancaster: Are we getting it right, I suppose is what I am asking?

  Mr Thomas: Are we getting it right? I think we are getting the balance right. We have a rising development programme. We do continue to deliver tough messages to all members of the Zimbabwean government, regardless of their political affiliation, and we continue to look to the leadership of both South Africa and SADC more generally to provide that on-the-spot mediation work that they are doing.

  Q69  Chairman: Taking The Economist article, it describes SADC as a fairly spineless 15-member regional group. Zimbabwe has already defied their court rulings. They have just adopted another racist agenda which presumably would fall foul of the South Africans. Mr Mugabe's attitude seems to be: "I don't recognise SADC. It doesn't bother me. If it suits me, I will pray them in aid, otherwise I will ignore them." What can we do to persuade SADC to stand up for what it says it believes in?

  Mr Thomas: If SADC was not prepared to play the role that it is playing, we would not have seen President Zuma set up a high-level mediation group, and we would not have seen that mediation group engaging in the very direct way in which it has done. I do think we have to be careful not to respond to some of the bluster from particular politicians in Zimbabwe at the moment and allow the SADC mediation process to continue. On occasion, we deliver blunt messages to all the members of the Zimbabwe government when it is required, and we provide direct assistance to help the journey of reform where it is appropriate to do so. There is also this international effort through SADC, and we have to allow it to continue to do its work and not be put off, if you will forgive me for saying so, by particular articles or particular comments by particular leaders in Zimbabwe.

  Chairman: Nigel Evans.

  Q70  Mr Evans: Thank you, Chairman. President Zuma is in London next week for a State Visit. Do I assume that yourself and the Foreign Secretary will be meeting with him and, if so, that you will raise the mediation process?

  Mr Thomas: It would be pretty odd if he came to the UK and there were not conversations with the Foreign Secretary and the Development Secretary. I am sure there will be a whole series of conversations about affairs in southern Africa, and Zimbabwe will inevitably be one of those areas that gets discussed, but there is a broad agenda for the State Visit, so it is not the only issue that will come up by any means.

  Q71  Mr Evans: No, I assume that other things will be spoken about as well, but clearly his important role in Zimbabwe is fully recognised by the world community.

  Mr Thomas: Absolutely. We recognise that he is playing a key role and we respect that. The decision that he took to set up a three-member mediation team and to include in that team some people who are extremely well-respected in southern African politics was a sign of the seriousness with which he views the situation in Zimbabwe, but those were decisions that he took and we have to respect his leadership, given the importance of South Africa to SADC. Obviously, as I say, we will talk inevitably about Zimbabwe. It is one of the issues that will be on the agenda, but there will be a whole series of other issues that we have to talk through as well.

  Q72  Mr Evans: I want to touch on land reform, but before I do that the Chairman referred to The Economist piece about businesses having a 51% stake by black Zimbabweans. Does the Government see that as a racist policy?

  Mr Thomas: With all decisions in Zimbabwe, the key test is avoiding explosive language. The concern we would have is more about the impact of particular policies on the economy and on the people of Zimbabwe, so if it makes investment in Zimbabwe less likely, if it reduces the chance of jobs being made available, then of course it has to be a considerable concern. One of the issues, as the Committee will recognise, as to why so many people have left Zimbabwe is the lack of job opportunities, so anything that prevents the private sector from beginning to develop, anything that further discourages private sector investment, is clearly going to be a major concern, but in the end this has to be a decision that Zimbabwe takes for itself.

  Q73  Mr Evans: But clearly it is a racist policy. If you say that there are a lot of white Zimbabweans living there and people who are not black Zimbabweans living there, surely they should have an opportunity to be able to be a major partner in whatever businesses exist within a country. If any other country did this sort of thing, we would be banging the table and saying, "This is racist."

  Mr Thomas: We want everybody in Zimbabwe to have equal economic opportunities in that sense, quite clearly, but sometimes there is a way of recognising that a whole series of reforms are required. I appreciate, Mr Evans, that you might want me to use particular phrases to describe a particular set of policies but, with respect, I am not going to do that. The broad message is that there has been progress in terms of the economy. We do not want that progress put at risk. We want the economy to stabilise still further. That is going to require a whole series of political reforms now to take place to create the conditions for longer-term private sector investment to take place.

  Q74  Mr Evans: That leads me on to land reform, which is part of the reforms that clearly are essential to get some sort of progress and stability within Zimbabwe. Have you seen the documentary Mugabe and the White African?

  Mr Thomas: I have not, no.

  Q75  Mr Evans: I would heartily recommend it because our Committee has had an opportunity to see it. It is quite startling exactly what pressures clearly are on white farmers who exist within Zimbabwe. It is an incredible and very moving documentary. Clearly a number of people have had their lands grabbed, basically in a way that is not helping Zimbabwe. One can understand the reason for reform—we talked to the Commercial Farmers Union when we were in Zimbabwe and they can understand the sense for reform too—but something that is not orderly, something that is not structured, and something that leads to so much farmland being taken out of production and, indeed, then handed over to the cronies of politicians or friends within Zimbabwe, clearly is not doing Zimbabwe any favours.

  Mr Thomas: I would agree with that. I would go further and say that not only do we condemn the huge number of farm invasions that have taken place, but we have seen terrible human rights abuses committed as part of those invasions which are completely unacceptable, both on an individual basis, the individual rights of the people affected, but also, as you quite rightly describe it, in terms of the devastating impact it has had particularly on the rural agricultural economy. Frankly, "economic madness" would be an appropriate phrase to use to describe that. I hope that that situation will desist. We will continue to make that clear in our comments to the politicians in Zimbabwe. It is clear that we do need to see a land policy that is fair, that is pro-poor, that is transparent, because that will, as you say, help to revive the economy, particularly in rural areas. It would help to revive the agriculture sector. We are a long way from that point at the moment, but we would stand ready, as part of a wider donor group, to help in that process if the political conditions were right. I suspect, frankly, the first step would be for some sort of land audit to take place, if the Inclusive Government were so minded, but, at the moment, we are not seeing signs that there is a willingness by all the parties to the Inclusive Government for a fairer land policy to take place.

  Q76  Mr Evans: They seem to be dragging their feet on doing anything about a land audit, but clearly that looks like being a necessary forerunner to making some real progress in that area. You have just mentioned the international community doing its bit, along with the United Kingdom, in trying to bring some sort of commonsense solution to this issue. What do you think the international community and Britain specifically can do in this area?

  Mr Thomas: As I have said, we do stand ready to provide assistance, as part of a wider donor group, if we are asked to. As I have said, the first thing would be to conduct an audit of land. Frankly, we would only see a merit in such an audit taking place if we had confidence that the information that such an audit gleaned would be used to promote the type of pro-poor, sensible, transparent land reform policy that most people independent of some of those in Zimbabwe recognise as being necessary to revive the rural economy there. We stand ready to help as part of a wider international effort if the conditions are right. They are not right at the moment.

  Q77  Mr Evans: Even with the hyperinflation that the country has gone through, a lot of white farmers have gone to neighbouring African countries, as I understand it, and set up businesses there and are doing rather well. I suspect that Zimbabwe is importing some of the produce now of the former white Zimbabwean farmers—which is clearly insane. Do you think we are getting any closer to the political reality within Zimbabwe that a solution should be found? Or do you think that the mentality is still: no, we wish to right the wrongs of many generations and we do not care about economic or humane consequences of what the policy is that we are now doing in Zimbabwe?

  Mr Thomas: Unfortunately, land is one of those issues around which the political power continues to be very heavily contested. As I described in my comments earlier, whilst we have seen some progress in terms of the stabilisation of the economy in Zimbabwe, we have not yet seen the major political changes which the GPA has set out as being necessary. One of the areas where we are continuing to see (to use a diplomatic phrase) "unfortunate activity" is around land. I hope, as the economy has begun to stabilise, that there will be recognition in all parts of the Inclusive Government of a series of further steps that need to be taken to help that economic progress. If those political realities kick in, then perhaps we will get closer to the situation that you describe.

  Q78  Hugh Bayley: Do you not think it would be helpful if the British Government were to acknowledge that the terms on which white settlers, many from this country, obtained land at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was not fair and did not follow the rule of law, and that the consequence for many indigenous people was that they were forced on to marginal land and suffered enormously? If we were to say that, then perhaps we would be in a better position to oppose the wrongs of fast-track land reform and to move the debate on to a position you were talking about, of pro-poor, rural development—which is what Zimbabwe clearly needs—rather than a return to settler plantations.

  Mr Thomas: With respect, Mr Bayley, I am not sure it would be helpful. I think I should take responsibility for what we as a party have done since we took power in terms of our aid programmes and our foreign policy since 1997. I am not sure we should try to reach back all the time into history to look at what happened a very long time ago. We need to deal—forgive me for saying so—with the realities on the ground at the moment. In that sense, the report that your all-party group produced was very helpful in trying to put to bed some of the misnomers that have existed around what happened in 1980, but, despite the importance of that report, we should rather think ahead. We should recognise, as Mr Evans has described, the continuing adverse implications of the land policy which particular elements in the government are pursuing from time to time and recognise that there needs to be a comprehensive change in terms of land policy at some time which needs to be led by the government in Zimbabwe, but which, if the conditions were right, we would stand ready to support.

  Q79  Hugh Bayley: I think you are right to want to see a land audit, but if British money alongside money from other donors is to go towards establishing land title for poor landless Zimbabweans, how would you see that process unfolding? In other words, how would you select the landless poor? Who would get land? Who would you compensate?

  Mr Thomas: Mr Bayley, with respect, I am not going to go down that particular route. That is a process that the government of Zimbabwe has to lead, and I hope it is a government that would be elected in free and fair elections so that it had a clear mandate. I have said that we would be ready to help as part of a series of donors with such an audit if we could be convinced that the information from that audit was going to be used properly. We do not have those conditions at the moment. We do stand ready to help, as I say, but we are not going to put money on the table when, frankly, we know that there is a series of other priorities where we can have a sense that our money were to achieve good outcomes for the poor in Zimbabwe more immediately. But we recognise the importance of the land issue and staff and ministers will be ready to respond if the political conditions changed.

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