Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Contradictions in Article about Zimbabwean Poverty

When Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman made "Born into Brothels," a film about poor children in Calcutta slums, critics said the filmmakers "exploited" the children, or used the shocking images of the children's poverty to increase their own fame.

Journalists suffer the same setbacks as artists. In an article about Zimbabwe, New York Times writer Celia Dugger points out the rising levels of starvation in a country that once had a self-sufficient agricultural sector.

She writes, "American-financed charities and the World Food Program have been feeding millions of Zimbabweans since late 2002, at a cost of $1.25 billion over the years." But later on, when Dugger interviews rural farmers, they suggest a different problem: "Even when food aid has come, only those in the ruling party hierarchy have gotten any, the farmers said."

It would not be the first time in history that military juntas diverted humanitarian aid. The same situation occurred in Indonesia (during the Suharto years) and presently, in Myanmar (after the cyclone). International sources (World Bank, IMF) agree that almost all international aid shipments suffer some "leakage"—a euphemism that usually means "theft."

Later on, she writes, "[The dictator] took his vengeance, unleashing veterans of Zimbabwe’s liberation war and gangs of youth to invade and occupy highly mechanized, white-owned commercial farms that were then the country’s largest employer and an engine of export earnings. In time, thousands of farms were taken over. Farm workers and their families — about 1 million people altogether — lost their jobs and homes, according to a 2008 study by Zimbabwean economists for the United Nations Development Program."

Dictatorship does not automatically result in low economic growth, but neither does it immediately translate to widespread prosperity. Other dictators before Mugabe (notably Castro) have nationalized white-owned commercial farms with greater levels of success. In fact, nationalization of foreign-owned businesses was a major focus of independence movements in many Latin American countries. Dugger does not say whether the farms paid the workers a decent wage, or whether (in other hands) the nationalization might have enriched the Zimbabwean people.

But it's not her job to speculate on what might have been. Yes, Mugabe put millions of people out of work when he nationalized the white-owned farms. But white-owned farms were an exploitative system to begin with, one that took the profits of a country's natural resources away from its residents.

This last point is one that the article does not bother to explore in detail. Instead, Dugger paints a somewhat boring and predictable picture of Zimbabwe: on the brink due to Mugabe's policies, and despite the Herculean efforts of the "First World."

This article also seems exploitative, if only because it doesn't bother to address its own contradictions. Zimbabwe faces real and very deep problems: hyperinflation due to seignorage run amok, inefficient nationalization of industry, uneven distribution of land (wealth), etc. These problems litter history, they are not unique. But Dugger's treatment is superficial, and it relies on assumptions that work against each other (food aid is effective, the junta is corrupt) (white-owned farms were big employers, profit from white-owned farms did not go into Zimbabwe's GDP). As a result, it seems as if the author is just gawking at poor people.

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