Perseverance and survival against the odds

‘Against the Odds’ is a tribute to an important Zimbabwean non-government organisation. Mary Ndlovu writes as a sympathetic critic, and her account does justice both to a complex and eventful organisational history, and to the people who made that history.

The book tells the story of the Zimbabwe Project Trust. Commonly known as ZimPro, it was founded in London in 1978, and ‘came home’ in mid-1981. Its original mandate was to provide humanitarian and educational assistance to Zimbabweans living in camps in Zambia, Mozambique and Botswana, refugees who had fled the country as the liberation war intensified. Early in 1981, after considerable internal debate – one in which external actors weighed in as well – its trustees and staff agreed that ZimPro would relocate to Zimbabwe, to assist with the pressing task of resettling and reintegrating former guerrillas into their new country.

ZimPro’s life

The book charts ZimPro’s life over the three decades which followed. It explores the evolution of its governance and management; its programmes, especially its work with ex-combatants and the co-operatives they founded; its relationships with its funders and other supporters; its continuing negotiations with Zimbabwe’s government and political parties; and the people who made this history, those within ZimPro and those outside it.

‘Against the Odds’ is an important contribution to Zimbabwe’s current history, a case study of a central actor in civil society and a story that both commands and rewards the reader’s attention. It is well written, its language clear and accessible. Measured in tone, it nonetheless conveys the intense feelings and convictions and the strong personalities within and surrounding Zim-Pro.

It is a complicated story, with an extensive cast of actors – the list of acronyms alone covers a page and a half, and more could have been added. ZimPro has gone through a welter of organisational phases, plans, and shifts in strategy since 1981, often overlapping and sometimes divergent. The story is presented in 26 compact chapters in chronological sequence; of necessity, these occasionally overlap. Each is built around a theme or issue, and covers a short span of time, usually two or three years.

Bitter conflict

Within a year of its establishment in Zimbabwe, ZimPro found itself engulfed in a bitter conflict over its political independence and relations with the national government. At issue was its distance from, or alignment with, the ZANU government of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe or ZAPU, the opposition party led by Joshua Nkomo. It was a highly charged time, and any organization closely involved with ex-combatants (as was ZimPro) would have found it extremely difficult to maintain a non-partisan position. Ndlovu devotes a chapter to a storm that nearly sank the organisation. Members of its steering committee, a body located between the Board of Trustees and the staff, argued that Judith Todd, ZimPro’s Director, was a ZAPU sympathizer and a security risk. They sought to remove her as Director, and to reconstitute the management committee to include representatives of government ministries. The question was finally resolved in her favour early in 1983 by none other than Robert Mugabe himself, who confirmed that she was not a security risk.

Through much of the story, ZimPro’s Board of Trustees – the body legally responsible for the organisation – seems to live a shadowy existence. The presence and actions of the management committee show the problems which can arise from ill-defined or undefined roles and powers, especially at strategic levels. – Pambazuka News

Informal power

Informal power always exists within an organisation, and it can be used to positive or destructive effect. The point here, surely, is that in the absence of an active board with a duly negotiated and clearly understood role, and a similarly clear division of responsibility with management, informal power and personal agendas are likely to prevail. When this happens, organizational transparency and accountability – as difficult to achieve as they are imperative – can be seriously compromised.

Ndlovu’s account shows that it was not until the end of the 1990’s that ZimPro’s board really assumed the power and presence appropriate to its role as principal steward of the organization.

Complicating ZimPro’s story is the fact that these questions of organisational governance and independence overlapped with its relationships with its funders, and that these relationships in turn were embedded in the North/South power dynamics of the aid industry.

From its earliest days in Zimbabwe, ZimPro counted the Dutch organization NOVIB as one of its most loyal donors and supporters. For nearly two decades, NOVIB regularly contributed substantial funding to ZimPro’s core costs and its programmes. During the early 1990s, as the organization sought to respond to severe cost/revenue pressures by creating its own revenue-generating projects, NOVIB under-wrote this risky and ultimately problematic strategy. Nevertheless, ZimPro’s investments were too often poorly conceived and managed, and were a drain on its finances, rather than a support. Ndlovu observes that the relationship with NOVIB, open-ended and fruitful for both for many years, even vital to ZimPro’s survival – had by 1999 become an unhealthy dependency Ultimately, the relationship reached an impasse, and NOVIB withdrew as a donor, with several is-sues and claims unresolved.

Eight evaluations

Finally, what does ‘Against the Odds’ say about ZimPro’s effectiveness? From the mid-1980’s, ZimPro regularly assessed its three-year plans. The book identifies eight major evaluations organized by ZimPro and its funders. These included both reviews of specific programmes and more comprehensive institutional assessments. The documentary record here is unfortunately quite uneven, with several final reports unavailable in full. Nonetheless, key elements of a picture do emerge.

All of this commentary -valid enough as far as it went – never seemed to pose or answer a deeper question: what would be an appropriate objective and measure of success for ZimPro? That is, what could ZimPro, an NGO, reasonably expect to achieve in a policy environment which was at best unhelpful, sometimes ac-tively hostile? What might ZimPro reasonably hope to achieve with only the limited money, people and skills of an NGO to deploy in such circumstances? ‘Doing less’, or ‘Concentrating rather than dispersing efforts and resources’, may seem like self-evidently wise counsel, but there are precious few examples of successful practice against which to compare Zimpro’s shortcomings.

It is also fair to say, however, that ZimPro itself seems not to have really asked and answered these questions. It developed a strong practical and cultural reflex of responding to incessant demand and unpromising circumstances with ‘all hands to the pumps’, rather than by proposing and negotiating clear, modest and achievable ends with its constituencies. Thus, the 1987 evaluation of the RLF observed that the co-ops saw ZimPro as a welfare organisation, and that the organisation saw itself in that light as well.

Ndlovu’s last chapter ends the book on a note of measured hopefulness: against the odds, ZimPro has survived, mainly because enough people within Zimbabwe have had the necessary commitment to ensure its survival. For them, Mary Ndlovu’s book will be invaluable. More than a tribute, it is a reservoir of lessons learned and to be learned. If we know who we are and where we’ve come from, that knowledge can only help us on the road ahead.

Post published in: Arts

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