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June 26, 2008

Can Zimbabwe Be Saved?

Ray Fisman
Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise
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The front page of the New York Times this morning has a devastating image from Zimbabwe that, in my mind, is the iconic photo that embodies that country’s tragic recent history.

This got me thinking about the helplessness that I and many others feel about the situation there. We desperately wish that Thabo Mbeki would do something to topple Robert Mugabe, the anticolonial crusader turned brutal warlord. But that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. And if local politicians are going to let this happen, what’s to be done?

In recent years at CBS, I’ve grown accustomed to hearing many around me proclaim the potential of business to solve the world’s problems. And I actually believe it myself, to a large degree.

But if this is the case, what (if any) is business’s responsibility in humanitarian disasters such as the one we’re witnessing in Zimbabwe? (or Darfur or Chad or Myanmar?) At a minimum, it surely includes holding off on shipping arms to Zimbabwe to keep Mugabe’s reign of terror alive. But is there a more proactive approach that the business community should be playing in South Africa? And what about here at home?

Comments

by wo | June 27, 2008 at 8:44 AM

Absolutely...Zimbabwe could have been save ONLY and IF ONLY they had Oil...

by z. aid | June 27, 2008 at 1:38 AM

On the African continent, overtly it seems that more extreme and greater pressure from business is the last best option to push for an end to Mugabe's horrific regime. With official aid groups being cut off by Mugabe, business should THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX and seriously consider funding underground heroism. Taking the long view, can you imagine the clout a company would have, the heroic mantle that would be placed on its shoulders, if it could've gone down in history as the proud sponsor of Anne Frank and her family? A proud sponsor of the underground railroad?! Talk about attaining a loyal fan base. Obviously, businesses could not have been overt about their support of such causes at the time - but the basic selling point of both, as in the current situation in Zimbabwe, and in other humanitarian disasters, is that on a fundamental, ethical level all us human beings can agree with and get pissed off about what is right and what is wrong, what are horrific, intolerable regimes that need to be overthrown, or people who live under such regimes, victimized, that need to be saved. So you fund a humanitarian cause now, and in a year or 5 or 10, when said regime is kaput and everyone's trumpeting about how great it is that the wicked regime is dead, your company comes out as a sponsor of say, theoretically, safe houses for children of MDC supporters in Zimbabwe. You've basically bought yourself a completely novel, ingenious, and LONG-TERM strategy for business success. On a purely pragmatic level it is absolutely sound and ground-breaking marketing strategy. OK, so, you say, not every humanitarian disaster hits us in the solar plexus of injustice as strongly as, say, the underground railroad does, or Anne Frank's story. My answer to this is that as with any business - you fund a bunch of products and see what hits. You throw a bunch of ---- at the wall and you see what sticks. You fund covert projects in 4 or 5 different countries, and you see which regime gets the largest sigh of collective righteousness from the world as a whole after it topples,and then you come out, quietly, as a - possibly THE - sponsor of those covert projects. With people's trust in Government (with a capital G) as a whole at an all time low, a Big Business (with a capital BB) can I believe be transformed in the near future into an ethical shepherd of the people, sort of a collective entity that plays the role ethically of Malcolm X or a Jesus Christ. You can back it, by God!

by Joseph | June 27, 2008 at 11:02 AM

Wow that is outside the box for sure. But look at what Schlindler did...

by Kenzo | June 27, 2008 at 12:36 PM

I like your style, z. aid - lots of noteworthy ideas. However, I have some fundamental issues about whether business has a major role in tackling the current scenario in Zimbabwe. They mainly centre on the risk involved. While Robert Mugabe has proven himself to be a devastatingly disastrous leader, and Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC were the only serious challenge to Zanu-PF, it is not outside the realms of possibility that the MDC may be viewed with similar disdain 20 years from now. Who knows how history will judge the challenger? Of course, Zanu-PF needs a challenger, but putting your eggs in the MDC's basket may be a dangerous game for a corporate to play. The history of unstable countries is riddled with successive tyrants - few thought ill of Mugabe when he came to power, for example. How would you feel if you were a shareholder in a business that covertly siphoned off funds to support 'worthy' causes? The quotation marks are not there to question the MDC, but to ask where the line should be drawn. For example, should corporates support the Israeli cause? Or the Palestinian? I agree that there is something business can do. Business can refrain from trading - arms and otherwise - with Zimbabwe. This is already happening in many cases, and has had little impact other than bringing the once prosperous country to its knees. There is even a moral question mark over the legitimacy of these actions, particularly as they serve to magnify the plight of ordinary Zimbabweans in many instances. I consider them to be just, in this instance. For me, the key to solving this lies in the arena of international diplomacy. The most extreme sanctions should be taken against Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe - and, crucially, key members of his administration - should be tried in the International Criminal Court. The international community needs to support change: there is no question that the untested leadership of the MDC is preferable to the lurid status quo of Mugabe and Zanu-PF. But, business should be cautious about its involvement.

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