I am just back from a few days visiting Mercy Corps programs in Zimbabwe and it was fascinating. Zim ranks fourth on Foreign Policy Magazine’s annual “Failed States Index,” and having traveled to many of the top “failed states” — Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, Sudan — I was expecting a pretty grim scene.
What I found in Zimbabwe was surprising. The physical infrastructure was better than anyplace I’ve been in Africa other than Kenya. The population is highly literate and people speak great English. The landscape is stunning and there are great tourist attractions like Victoria Falls. The land and climate are perfect for large-scale agricultural production and, indeed, Zimbabwe used to be the breadbasket of southern Africa.
The newly-dollarized economy has stabilized after a hyperinflationary period that choked off economic progress. It’s got one of the most dynamic economies in Africa right next door in South Africa. Given these conditions, Zimbabwe has tons of promise.
But there are still some serious obstacles to Zimbabwe realizing its potential. The power-sharing agreement between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is gridlocked, and it’s unclear whether the constitution-in-progress and subsequent elections will set the stage for sustained growth and a real improvement in the quality of life for most Zimbabweans.
Beyond that, Zimbabwe has a serious HIV problem. Roughly one in five adults are HIV positive, and there is a whole generation of young Zimbabweans growing up as AIDS orphans. That loss of life is sad itself, but when you look at the ripple effect of those deaths — kids growing up without their parents, grandparents caring for orphaned grandkids well beyond their own working years — the situation is truly tragic.
All in, I thought there was reason for optimism in Zimbabwe, tough as things are. Unlike many of the so-called failed states, Zim has much of what it needs to get off of that list.