The United States ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell, who irked the government last year when he blamed it for the current economic problems, yesterday said the country’s economic woes were likely to persist despite the introduction of a new economic recovery plan because there had been no policy shift by the government.
Addressing journalism students at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo to mark World Press Freedom Day, Dell said the National Economic Development Priority Programme (NEDPP) launched two weeks ago with a lot of fanfare was likely to fail because there was no evidence that there would be policy shifts that would address the fundamental problems of the economy and restore domestic and international faith in the economy.
“So far, I see structure, but no real debate. I see form, but no reform. I see committees, but no commitment to change policies that have shown they do not work,” he said.
“One can’t help recall the series of economic plans announced periodically since the country’s economic crises got underway at the beginning of this decade,” he went on. “We have the MERP- Millennium Economic Recovery Plan; the NERP- New Economic Recovery Plan; a Ten-point Plan; NERP 2, a TNF- Tripartite Negotiating Forum; and now a NERC (National Economic Recovery Council). All announced with great fanfare, unfortunately, none yielding effective policy to arrest economic decline. We certainly hope the NERC enjoys a different and happier fate, but historical experience suggests some cause for healthy scepticism.”
NEDPP was launched a fortnight ago to turn around the country’s fortunes in six to nine months. It was expected to generate US$2.5 billion in cash or investments in the first 90 days.
The American ambassador said there was a close relationship between freedom of expression and economic development. When governments attempted to control information throughout society, economic strategies tended to be top-down, prescriptive exercises that produced little because those most affected had little real input.
He said when prices were set by cumbersome bureaucracies with imperfect information and political agendas this resulted in disinvestment, shortages and the emergency of the black market.
“And with distorting artificial scarcities of knowledge, everyone cheats – from the farmer who buys scarce inputs from the black market and sells outside the unremunerative government channels to survive, to the elites who access scarce inputs at subsidised prices and exploit the black market to resell those cheap goods for a huge, quick profit.
“In short, look behind nearly every economic dysfunction and shortage in this country-unavailability of fertilizer and fuel, underutilising of land, burgeoning corruption – and you will likely find some impediment to a free flow of information or the freedom to act on that information.”
He said the region was growing faster economically because of growing freedom of the press and the advance of civil liberties. Zimbabwe was the only exception.
Mozambique grew by 5.2 percent last year, Botswana by 4.2 percent, South Africa by 4 percent and Zambia by 2.6 percent while Zimbabwe shrunk by 6.5 percent, the sixth year in a row that it has recorded negative growth.
Dell said another important lesson the country should learn from the “Looking East” policy was that statist systems with their obsession to control political and economic information did not work.
He quoted former Chinese leader, Chairman Mao, as saying by restricting information the government would be unable to collect sufficient opinion from all sides. Top levels of leadership therefore depended on one-sided information and incorrect material to decide issues.
He once again brushed off the argument that sanctions on Zimbabwe were responsible for the present crisis arguing that poor policies by the government were to blame since the sanctions were targeted at just over a 100 people.
Dell said his government was prepared to talk with the Zimbabwean government, that was why he was in Zimbabwe as the US ambassador, but the Zimbabwean government was not willing to talk to him.
“It takes two to tango,” he added.