Last month the Ministry of Macro-Economic Planning and Investment Promotion officially launched the National Diaspora Directorate, a unit responsible for implementing the Diaspora Policy. Much work went into crafting the Diaspora Policy. Its success, however, depends on what government does in the next few months. If the Diaspora Policy is to succeed, government must first understand one fundamental issue: that government’s relationship with the Diaspora is broken. And both the government and Diaspora must work to address the massive trust deficit between them.
By Dominic Muntanga
The relationship between government and the Diaspora is fraught with suspicions, accusations and sometimes fear. There are those in government who see the Diaspora as a homogenous group of ungrateful, unpatriotic citizens who not only deserted the country that gave them independence and an education, but are also now mostly appendages of opposition political parties and colonial powers bent on reversing the gains of the liberation struggle. And any Diaspora calls for the government to protect the basic human rights of citizens at home only serves to perpetuate this storyline of mistrust. For its part, the Diaspora does not have much reason to trust the government either.
There is a mass of disaffected people who claim to have left Zimbabwe because they had no other choice or feared for their lives. They claim that government violated their basic rights and that in some cases government continues to violate the rights of their relatives. There is a sense that many in government, bar a few exceptions, are corrupt, insincere, and only interested in enriching themselves. That the Diaspora is often described as “an asset” only in discussions related to remittances, but as “British bottom cleaners” when they insist on certain rights, has not helped build trust either. On the contrary, it has helped to cement the view that government officials are only interested in Diaspora remittances to perpetuate their hold on power.
It is hard to accurately pinpoint the true cause of the mistrust, in part because distinguishing between causation, correlation, coincidence, fact and fiction is no easy task. But, whatever their reasons, both government and the Diaspora are frustrated with their inability to influence the other party. And this is why conversations between government and the Diaspora have mostly been through press statements and placards, bullhorns and protests on the streets of London and New York. But, Zimbabwe cannot afford such a broken relationship largely because it has a negative impact on our national brand, which collectively affects all citizens.
Zimbabwe faces daunting social, economic and political challenges that have to be addressed urgently by government in partnership with all citizens. That the diaspora has made and can make tremendous contributions toward Zimbabwe’s development — through providing human capital, social capital and remittances — is indisputable. But to expect the Diaspora to heed government calls for them to simply pack up their bags to return home and develop Zimbabwe seems unreasonable. If the government wants to effectively work with the Diaspora in the best interest of Zimbabwe, they must first recognise that whatever the reasons, the trust-deficit must be tackled head on, not dismissed or ignored. Both parties must accept that it will take work and time to rebuild the broken relationship and trust. And here is how to restore the trust and mend the relationship:
First, government must move away from the remittances only mantra to a more holistic development paradigm that sees the Diaspora, first as citizens, and their remittances as secondary. This means that the government must promote and protect citizens’ rights simply by virtue of them being citizens, no matter their place of residence. The right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state, which is protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Constitution of Zimbabwe, is one such right. Respecting this right places a burden on government officials to stop the paternalistic practice of calling people traitors for simply exercising this right. Naturally, guaranteeing and exercising the right to vote, wherever citizens are, should be seen as a collective responsibility of both government and citizens. To its credit, government’s recognition of dual citizenship and political rights in the new Constitution adopted in 2013 represents a good starting point for building trust. The problem, however, is that, while dual citizenship is legally recognised, the Registrar-General’s department continues to apply old rules. Similarly, the right to vote, which already exists in the Constitution, is yet to be implemented. Yet, political participation is critical for development!
Thinking beyond remittances also means understanding that remittances are not the only value the Diaspora can contribute to Zimbabwe. For instance, if harnessed effectively, the intellectual capital of an international trade lawyer who is willing to help government to safeguard our national interests; a professor who can conduct research in our area of need using the resources of their wealthy institution abroad or the social networks of a geriatric nurse who is looking after the ageing mother of the CEO of a multinational we want to lure to Zimbabwe may be worth more to Zimbabwe’s development than their $50 000 remittance to build a mansion in their village. In fact, government must move toward engaging experts in the Diaspora to augment our ailing national capacity in areas that need specialised knowledge.
Second, government must understand that the Diaspora is not homogenous. Its legal and economic status as well as political views are diverse and cannot be painted with the same brush. In terms of legal status, there are those who are permanently legal citizens with permanent residence or foreign citizenship in their host countries and those that are temporarily legal with visas such as work permits or student visas that have fixed terms. There are also those who are in their host countries illegally, either because their legal status expired or that they entered their host countries illegally. While some Zimbabweans abroad are even wealthier than most citizens in their host countries, others cannot even afford the fare to return home. Their political views are also as diverse as those of citizens in Zimbabwe. If government is serious about Diaspora development support, it must tailor-make Diaspora engagement strategies to suit all citizens — no matter their social, economic status or political views.
If government wants to engage the Diaspora effectively and build trust, it must build the capacity of local institutions and institute accountability mechanisms both to protect citizens abroad and the Zimbabwe brand. By extension, this means that government itself has to be seen to be accountable in word and deed. Many a times, the diaspora responds to government calls for partnerships on development initiatives, only to find that local institutions are ill-prepared at best. Sometimes, citizens donate goods and services to local institutions, only to find that they have been misplaced, abused or not used at all. The impediments arising from bureaucracy and tax burdens do not help the Diaspora in their efforts to donate goods to their communities either.
Communication is also critical in building trust. Government must also allay concerns that the government only deals with Diaspora groups that are aligned to the ruling party by ensuring that its institutions are politically impartial in its engagement with the Diaspora. The perception of partiality — whether real or perceived — does not encourage participation or help build trust. Similarly, government must also understand the importance of being consistent with their words and actions so that what is pronounced as policy in March can be relied upon to make decisions in December. Stories of the losses occasioned by past programmes, such as Homelink in which some people who made contributions felt let down by the RBZ when terms and conditions seemed to change at the insistence of government, have left the Diaspora sceptical about whether they can work with government, especially where money is involved. Consistency also means that the Diaspora cannot be the subject of insults and scorn during bumper harvests, only to be called the hope for Zimbabwe’s future in drought seasons and when the country is broke.
The inception of the Diaspora Policy provides a unique opportunity for addressing the relationship between the government and the Diaspora. Both the government and the Diaspora must fix their relationship. A stronger government-Diaspora relationship can play an important role in the country’s efforts to re-engage and once again become part of the community of nations. But, if the opportunities to engage the Diaspora and discuss issues around dinner tables and meetings with the diaspora are not explored fully, communication will continue to be through placards and bullhorns in protests. This has the potential to undermine government efforts to reengage with the international community, which affects all Zimbabweans at large.
Dominic Muntanga is the founder of the Council for Zimbabwe, a United States 501 (c)(3), a non-profit organisation established to harness the skills, resources and social capital of the Zimbabwean Diaspora, other global citizens, and institutions in order to serve the humanitarian and development needs of Zimbabwe.