HomeOpinion & AnalysisVicious and virtuous cycles: Development and freedom in Zim

Vicious and virtuous cycles: Development and freedom in Zim

By Research and Advocacy Unit

Does freedom lead to development?

This notion, strongly argued by Amartya Sen two decades ago, built on the idea that democracy was gaining ground across the world, an idea that seems no longer as evident as it was then.

John Gay tested Sen’s theory in 2003, and concluded that the belief in democracy was a “virtuous” cycle for those experiencing the benefits of democracy, whilst those not benefiting were more likely to be part of a “vicious” cycle, and leaning towards support for anti-democratic rule.

We tested this finding for Zimbabwe using the Afrobarometer data for 2017.

Developing an equivalent measure of Gay’s “Sen Score”, we examined whether Zimbabweans still believed in democracy and were not in favour of autocracy, but also whether they still had political trust in the state, worried about corruption, were socially and politically active, and affected by political fear.

We found some support for Gay’s thesis, but the major factor differentiating Zimbabweans is whether they are rural or urban.

Paradoxically, rural Zimbabweans are more likely to be those in the “virtuous” cycle, and this is most likely because they have been and are the major beneficiaries of government largesse.

This raises the question about how deeply democratic are rural Zimbabweans, and would removing the immense patronage of the state shift them into a “vicious” cycle?

When, in 2003, John Gay examined Sen’s notions of the condition that support democracy, he posited that the needed freedoms were as follows: (1) political freedoms, (2) economic facilities, (3) social opportunities, (4) transparency guarantees and (5) protective security.

He argued that those citizens of a country who did not experience these freedoms would be likely to support a range of non-democratic views, and supported this argument by constructing a Sen measure, tested against a range of measures of democracy contained in the Afrobarometer Round One survey.

This involved 21 531 adults from 12 countries (Botswana, Ghana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe).

Gay argued that citizens who experience a low level of political activity, poor economic status, limited social interaction, lack of access to information, and personal insecurity, largely the deprived in an African country would hold the following views:

  • Prefer a non-democratic government;
  • Prefer the former, often non-democratic, regime;
  • Look favourably on a military government;
  •  Approve a one-party state; Accept strongman presidential rule; Assess their nation as not democratic;
  • Express dissatisfaction with democracy;
  • Be unwilling to defend a threatened democracy;
  • Give poor ratings for the practice of democracy;
  • Disapprove of their leaders’ performance; Distrust public institutions;
  • Believe corruption is common

However, Africa, and Zimbabwe, is a different political terrain 17 years later on from 2003.

Zimbabwe, by 2017, was scarcely recognisable as the same country it was in 2003, and had been through world-beating hyperinflation, an excessively violent and rejected election, a government of national unity, and an election in 2013 that was deeply perplexing.

For the second time in 20 years, the Zanu PF party had been re-elected with a two-thirds majority, and this is not the usual reward for a political party overseeing the citizenry slide into penury.

Zimbabwe is a paradox for political scientists, and this small test of Gay’s thesis about the role of freedoms extends the paradox.

It is clear that the Sen scale compares with that developed by Gay: those with high Sen scores are likely to be younger, better educated and employed , and a group likely to be the “winners” in Zimbabwe.

However, testing the Sen score illuminates the strange political space that is Zimbabwe.

Firstly, Zimbabweans, irrespective of their Sen status, do not support authoritarian rule, and reject one-party, military and one-man rule in large numbers: over 80% reject these options.

Less than half of all the Sen groups are happy with Zimbabwe’s form of democracy, but there is a linear trend, supportive of Gay, for those with lower scores to be more dissatisfied with democracy.

Secondly, all groups evince low political trust, with nearly two-thirds in all groups expressing low trust in virtually every agent apart from the president, religious leaders and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

As would be expected, the same pattern emerges in respect of corruption: NGOs and religious leaders seen as the least corrupt, but approximately half of every Sen group sees the target agents as corrupt. Rank order correlations for both political trust and corruption show the pattern of responding is the same for all the groups.

Thus, distrust in public institutions and belief that corruption is common are not characteristics only of one section of the Zimbabwean citizenry.

Incidently, Gay pointed out in his 2003 study that Zimbabwe, of the 12 countries, was seen as the most corrupt country.

Thirdly, social and political participation are very low across all groups, with a trend that is supportive of the Gay thesis.

Despite the low rates of social participation, the Hi Sen group is more likely than the other groups to engage public officials, but only marginally so.

Political fear is high in all groups, and political participation is similarly low in all the groups.

Thus, Zimbabwe does not seem to fit the Gay model in 2017, except in minor ways.

This seems mostly due to one factor missing from Gay’s original analysis, and that is residence, and the great differences between rural and urban Africans.

As demonstrated, at least for Zimbabwe rural or urban residence is a greater explanatory variable than the material conditions under which citizens live.

Whilst those with high Sen scores are likely to be better educated, employed and younger, it is actually where people live that makes more difference: Sen scores are not significant between rural and urban residents in Zimbabwe.

However, it is the rural sample which has political trust, sees less corruption, is happy with Zimbabwe’s democracy, and is socially and politically participant.

This in a group that is objectively poorer, less well educated, and less likely to be in any kind of formal employment.

The only good sign is that the rural citizen does reject authoritarianism, the majority (73%) support democracy as the best form of government for Zimbabwe: urban Zimbabweans are more supportive (79%) of this idea, but both groups are not happy with the current form, even though rural Zimbabweans are more content than their urban compatriots. In conclusion, there is partial support only for Gay’s thesis about development as freedom.

Whilst in some instances those experiencing the benefits of development are supportive of democracy, in general this is unsupported in Zimbabwe.

Paradoxically, it is those at the bottom of the socio-economic system that provide the strongest views both on issues around democracy, as well as in views about the state.

The most parsimonious explanation for this is in the extensive attention given to supporters of Zanu PF in the rural areas of Zimbabwe and the continuous patronage and clientelism that has been a central component, running from being preferential beneficiaries of land reform and agricultural assistance through to the more insidious partisan assistance of drought relief.

However, it must be borne in mind that this is a reflection from 2017, and this “manufactured” social base may no longer be present in 2020.

Indeed, the system has failed in the past, as was evident in the 2008 elections.

As pointed out in this analysis of the effects of Operation Murambatsvina and the effects of the serious economic situation in 2007 and 2008, these factors resulted in an outright loss at the polls in 2008, both in the presidential and the parliamentary elections.

As for the general thesis about development as freedom, and virtuous and vicious cycles, Zimbabwe, as in so many other ways, proves to be exceptional, but understandable.

The mixture of patronage policies and coercion have created a social base for Zanu PF, but this may be, as indicated above in respect of 2008, much less secure as poverty deepens and food insecurity widens in the rural areas.

  • This is an extract from a report by the Research and Advocacy Unit titled: Vicious and virtuous cycles: Development and freedom in Zimbabwe

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