I first arrived in Zimbabwe in the mid 1990s as a young, naive university student, curious and open to all that the world had to offer. And at that time, Zimbabwe as a nation offered quite a lot - a strong economy based on formidable exports, a literacy rate unmatched by other nations on the African continent, and proud people who were creating dreams for themselves and their families.
The last ten years have changed this. During this time, Zimbabwe has been plagued by shortages – shortages of life’s basics like fuel, food, water, electricity and cash. More importantly, however, has been the shortage of trust in the formerly strong institutions and leaders that governed Zimbabwe after independence in 1980. With the International Crisis Group’s recent report illustrating the country’s intensified political violence, this shortage is the hardest to comprehend.
The last ten years in Zimbabwe also contain an untold story. The country’s one-time well-developed civil society, though bruised, remains strong and present. What is vital about local organisations’ work in Zimbabwe at this time is their role in transforming the shortage of trust.
The suffering of people in Zimbabwe is undeniable. But what is equally true is that many local, indigenous organisations have continued to respond to this suffering. Their efforts are often under-recognised, and are definitely under-supported.
I have worked with over 300 grassroots organisations in east and southern Africa over the past decade, many in Zimbabwe. I’ve seen groups in Zimbabwe struggling tremendously over these past years with shortages, hyperinflation, significant damages to the health and education sectors, and government scrutiny. Through 2002’s Public Order and Security Act, each one of their activities and meetings are subject to government approval and surveillance.
Yet many grassroots and community-based organisations, often linked to local churches, schools, or clinics, are organised around one purpose—to fill the gap for people and families who are not being helped otherwise. Despite all of the challenges in working in Zimbabwe over the past decade, this is what sustains local leaders’ commitment and groups’ persistence. Their ability to keep their doors open highlights their remarkable resourcefulness, commitment and coping skills. One such organisation is Shingirirai Trust, whose staff have often gone without salaries over the years in order to maintain their programmes for early childhood learning.
I have written elsewhere about how the capacities of community-based organisations are too often overlooked and how more aid resources can and should be invested in local groups. It is the permanent presence of effective and committed local organisations within a community, their consistency and willingness to go the last mile to create an environment of care and mutual support, that is vital to reversing Zimbabwe’s political and economic regression. Through the intimacy that is built by personal contact, through one-on-one interaction and shared commitments, Zimbabweans can uphold their responsibilities to each other. No type of organisation is better placed to maintain and create this intimacy than a local, indigenous organisation operating at the grassroots level.
Justice for Children Trust is currently leading the charge to include children’s rights as the constitution reform process unfolds. This is a perfect example of a local organisation working to fulfill its role in human and communal development. Through its work, Justice for Children attempts to support policymakers and children alike to see the best possible outcomes, through eyes filled with hope and compassion.
I recently heard the US civil rights veteran Vincent Harding speak about how people need signposts that help them see the possibilities in themselves, to encourage them to build, to create again. This requires people who are willing to stand in the darkness with them. I believe this is the best of what local organisations can do and are doing in Zimbabwe. Through the care they show for the people in their midst, they shine a light.
Certainly not all community-based organisations are created alike, but they have been under-valued and less understood as a mechanism for strengthening social change. In spite of the difficult operating environment, civil society organisations in Zimbabwe are not only providing vital services, they are also well positioned to rebuild trust, both before and after an eventual regime change. It’s time for more aid and philanthropic dollars to support this societal transformation in Zimbabwe at the local level.
In a time when it has been hard to find hope, civil society organisations in Zimbabwe remain. Let’s do justice to local, indigenous organisations’ vast and vital efforts in Zimbabwe - and the rest of the developing world - by recognising our responsibility to support nascent and promising organisations that are grown from the inside and fuelled by the dedication, vision and priorities of the very people who they serve.