Bring Zimbabwe in From the Cold

After years of rightly criticizing President Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian rule in Zimbabwe, Western countries now face a different, and difficult, set of decisions.

Since February, Zimbabwe has operated under a unity government led by Mr. Mugabe with the opposition’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, as prime minister. Had last year’s elections been free and fair, Mr. Tsvangirai would have been elected president, but instead of continuing to contest the results he eventually agreed to serve as prime minister. The transition has not been smooth; cabinet posts have been divided up awkwardly, while many people inside and outside the country have criticized Mr. Tsvangirai for seemingly being co-opted by Mr. Mugabe.

As a result, Western governments have been standoffish even though the unity government has taken important steps, notably lowering Zimbabwe’s 231 million percent inflation by abandoning the Zimbabwean dollar in favor of the American dollar and other foreign currencies. Last week, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States wasn’t ready to resume aid to Zimbabwe and urged the ouster of Mr. Mugabe, while other Western donors have said they will not provide significant development assistance until there is firm evidence that the power-sharing agreement is working. Human Rights Watch has gone further by arguing that development aid should not be released until there are “irreversible changes on human rights, the rule of law and accountability.”

The reluctance of Western governments and human rights groups to embrace the current Zimbabwean government is understandable. There is, in particular, no real reason to believe that Mr. Mugabe, after decades of dictatorial rule and abuse, has suddenly embraced multiparty democracy. If he had, after all, he would not be president now.

But Zimbabwe may well be a case where the best is the enemy of the good. Mr. Tsvangirai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change, went into the unity government with its eyes open. “We had won the election but we did not have the support of the military,” Mr. Tsvangirai told us this month in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. “We did not want to be the authors of chaos. Instead we need to soft-land the crisis, stabilize the situation through peace and stability and democratic consolidation.” Accordingly, he views Mr. Mugabe as “both part of the problem and part of the solution: we cannot untangle the tentacles of the state without him.”

Mr. Tsvangirai has set himself the difficult task of trying to dislodge Mr. Mugabe’s ousted party from the state apparatus that it has controlled for more than a quarter-century. In many countries that process would require extensive violence against the regime. The “soft landing” that the Movement for Democratic Change has chosen is a difficult path but one which it has firm strategic reasons to opt for, reasons that deserve more careful consideration from international donors.

And Mr. Tsvangirai and Zimbabwe need help desperately. Per capita income is half what it was in 1997. Once the largest economy in the region after South Africa, Zimbabwe is now the smallest, after tiny Swaziland and Lesotho.

The United Nations calculates that just 6 percent of the work force is formally employed. More than 65 percent of the population urgently needs food assistance. Nearly 100,000 people have been struck by cholera in the last six months. While it used to be called the breadbasket of southern Africa, Zimbabwe now produces only about one-third of the grain it needs; tobacco, once its main export crop, has fallen to around one-sixth of the 2000 peak, the effect of the seizure of white-owned farms begun in earnest this decade.

Revealing as they are, these figures do not tell the full story. Take the University of Zimbabwe. Once a prestigious southern African institution, today it is without functioning sewers or running water. Many of its 12,000 students have left, its two teaching hospitals close intermittently, and departments like geology and surveying are shuttered. Lacking chemicals and equipment, the chemistry department stopped all experiments in 2007.

To consolidate progress, donors should end their ambivalence about the unity government and begin to support Mr. Tsvangirai’s aims. Development assistance can be allocated directly. Replenishing the hospitals and re-equipping schools are measurable and defined projects. More generally, Western governments and nongovernmental organizations should become more publicly enthusiastic about the unity government, especially because they haven’t been able to offer a better option.

The Movement for Democratic Change has also recognized that the only way to deal with the tsunami of advisers and aid agencies that will eventually come is to establish a single entry point into the government for donors, likely in the prime minister’s office, instead of allowing aid to go directly to ministries that may be run by Mugabe partisans. Donors should support this effort as a way to strengthen Mr. Tsvangirai.

There will be setbacks in Zimbabwe, but they can be overcome. As Mr. Tsvangirai told us, “Ask any Zimbabwean in the street — no one wants to reverse the process.” Instead of standing back and waiting, donors should do their part to help bring Zimbabwe back from the brink.

Greg Mills, the director of the Brenthurst Foundation, a research organization in Johannesburg that promotes economic growth in Africa and Jeffrey Herbst, the provost of Miami University of Ohio and the author of States and Power in Africa.