A brief history of development, and why it matters

USAID, the World Bank, DFID and Australian Aid (to name a few) have helped communities affected by Cyclone Idai, assisted in the provision and distribution of antiretroviral drugs and supported healthcare infrastructure.

By Makomborero Muzenda

Development is a concept that can be frustratingly abstract and yet so powerful — so powerful it’s split the world into two categories.

On one side is the “developed” world: think America, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia.

And then there are the so-called developing economies, the countries that can’t quite seem to arrive at the destination of being fully “developed”.

Zimbabwe is in this category. So are Brazil, Mexico and India.

This partition is so controversial that in 2015 the World Bank declared that it would stop the use of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ worlds, as the terms were no longer relevant.

These days the go-to phrases are emerging vs established markets, or the Global North vs the Global South (both terms are definitely a step up from the First World/Third World Division of the Cold War era).

Still, no matter how you cut it, a cake is a cake. And even if the terminology changes, development is still the topic of conversation.

For such an important part of international relations and cooperation, development can be tricky.

Maybe it’s because there isn’t a universally agreed upon definition (trust me, I looked).

Or maybe because it’s an umbrella term that covers so many aspects of daily life: social, political, economic, human and cultural development are both connected and separate from each other.

Or maybe because development doesn’t have the best history, especially in the post-World War II world order.

Think of the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s.

Negotiated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the SAPs were billed as a way to finance African development through conditional lending.

The condition was that governments would alter economic policies and frameworks, reducing state intervention in the economy and public spending, promoting foreign private investment and liberalising the economy.

The results were the opposite of what was meant to happen: countries such as Zambia ended up with crippling debt, higher rates of poverty and inflation they struggled to control.

And then there’s development aid.

Well-meaning donors — whether it be governments, organisations and foundations or private individuals — fund projects and initiatives in the Global South.

To be fair, some of this funding does translate into a positive impact in target communities.

Let’s look at Zimbabwe.

USAID, the World Bank, DFID and Australian Aid (to name a few) have helped communities affected by Cyclone Idai, assisted in the provision and distribution of antiretroviral drugs and supported healthcare infrastructure.

Even the vaccine shipments that we received from both China and the Covax Facility are arguably a form of development aid.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and development aid has.

In her book Dead Aid, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo outlines how over five decades of aid programmes has not translated into improved living conditions for Africans.

Once again, the opposite has happened: countries that have received this kind of aid have experienced higher poverty and inequality rates and lower rates of economic growth.

At best, countries can become overly reliant on donors and support at the expense of full economic control and the ability to build capacity and resilience.

At worst, there is a connection between aid funds and money miraculously appearing in offshore accounts (as highlighted by a 2020 World Bank report), or the aid support projects that local communities didn’t ask for and don’t benefit from (such as Kenya’s Lake Turkana fish processing plant).

What does it mean to be a developed country? And the most important and difficult question, how does a country go about developing?

The latter is especially relevant for Zimbabwe.

Since independence successive governments have drawn up frameworks and plans aimed at guiding the country towards economic prosperity and stability.

There was the 1981 policy paper “Growth with Equity”, which outlined the government’s plan to focus more on citizen participation and investment in the country’s economy.

While it included the intention to work with foreign enterprises and donors, the paper firmly stated that the Zimbabwe government was in the driving seat of owning and running the economy.

They reversed course in 1991 with the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP), which shifted focus to the production of goods for export.

Then came the land reform programme, specifically the 1998 Land Reform and Resettlement Programme Phase II, which kickstarted the fast-track land reform programme of the early 2000s.

The latest chapter is Vision 2030, whose aim is transforming Zimbabwe into an upper middle income country by 2030 (such a country has a Gross National Income per capita between USD$4,096 and $12,695).

Zimbabwe is also part of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) Vision 2050 and the 2020–2030 Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (RISDP).

Policies and frameworks are an integral component to improving the standard of living, increasing economic output and promoting social cohesion.

After all, you need a map to stay on course. However, these plans have had varying rates for success.

It’s too early to tell if Vision 2030 is on the right track, and it should be noted that the Covid-19 pandemic did have a negative impact on plans and targets.

What would be useful is to look back at previous development frameworks, to see where they succeeded and where they failed and if there are any patterns in governmental behaviour.

The 1981 paper succeeded in setting out strong intentions for a new government and a new country, intentions reflected in the education policies of the decade that saw the scrapping of fees for primary school.

This investment in free basic education paid off. It led to an increase in education infrastructure, teacher training and near universal primary education that made the Zimbabwean education system the envy of the region, if not the continent.

However, the 1981 paper was too vague and failed to outline solid targets and expectations. A small economic crisis in the late 1980s forced the government’s hand.

They agreed to implement Esap, loosening the government’s regulation of the economy.

Some of Esap’s terms included the removal of price and wage controls, the reduction of government spending and devaluing the Zimbabwean dollar by 40%.

In some ways it did.

It reduced inequality rates between rural and urban areas, and exports increased.

However, poverty rates started to climb, economic growth rates contracted and wages stagnated.

The government at the time couldn’t reduce its deficit, and combined with a brewing culture of corruption and the suspension of aid due to our involvement in the Congo Civil War, the 90s signalled the start of the slide to the chaos of the 2000s.

So what is development?

Perhaps the better question is, who gets to decide what path to take in order to be called ‘developed’?

Each successive government since 1980 has had its own definition and set of priorities.

They have launched development action plans, often influenced by the dominant development theory and ideology of the era.

Vision 2030, inspired by Agenda 2063 and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, is no exception.

Development is a complex concept process that’s all too often treated as a to-do list or a once-off achievement.

In Zimbabwe the focus on development is heavily on the economy, with good reason.

However, economic growth and stability has to be in tandem with social equity and transparent and trustworthy political systems in order to be sustainable and benefit citizens across the country.

Will this new development framework finally get us the development goals we’ve been chasing for decades? We have eight years until we find out.

  • Makomborero Muzenda is a writer and analyst
  •  *These weekly articles are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge an independent  consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe. Email: [email protected] and mobile No. +263 772 382 852.

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