More Harm than Good
The situation in Zimbabwe highlights the tragic consequences of the U.N.'s willingness to engage despotic governments.


Brett D. Schaefer

The United Nations’s emphasis on working with and through governments can horribly undermine its efforts to alleviate suffering — especially when governments are key drivers of the suffering to begin with. A Foreign Policy article this week offers a chilling story of how this has unfolded in Zimbabwe over the last several years.

The article discusses policy disagreements between the U.N. country director for Zimbabwe, Agostinho Zacarias, and Georges Tadonki, who headed up the U.N. humanitarian office in the country. According to the article, Zacarias desired a cooperative relationship with President Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party, and to that end was willing to downplay many of the problems plaguing the country.

The resulting policy included “forcing agencies in Zimbabwe to . . . [equate the situation in Zimbabwe with that in other African countries] that the agriculture is troubling because there is no rain, that the education is failing because of a lack of resources from taxes.” These explanations deliberately excluded contributing factors such as land seizures, centrally planned prices for agricultural goods and other basic commodities, and political repression — factors for which Mugabe and his supporters were responsible.

When Mugabe failed to win the March 2008 election, it was dubiously asserted that opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai also failed to receive a majority of the votes, and a run-off election was set for June 2008. Mugabe’s supporters launched a violent campaign, resulting in many deaths. The violence eventually led Tsvangirai to withdraw out of concern for the welfare of his supporters.

According to Tadonki, “We are responsible for those deaths. If the United Nations had told Mugabe, ‘We know what you are planning,’ we wouldn’t have seen it. . . . We all sat [in Harare] and knew that in the countryside, 60 percent of Zimbabweans were being killed or raped.”

Also, the U.N. downplayed a looming cholera outbreak at the behest of Mugabe. According to the article:

In the 11 months between August 2008 and July of last year, nearly 100,000 Zimbabweans came down with cholera in the first countrywide epidemic of the disease in modern history. Previous outbreaks in Zimbabwe, which have occurred annually since 2003, had affected only pockets of the country. This time, cholera was everywhere. Corpses filled the streets and hospital beds. In some districts early in the crisis, half of those infected died. . . . 

A Nov. 19, 2008, U.N. appeal for aid, issued months after the cholera epidemic began, predicted just 2,000 cholera cases. Just two months later, the death toll alone had already reached that number. In all, more than 4,000 people died between August 2008 and July 2009, and roughly 98,600 people had caught the disease. The true figures might be even higher.