By Takura Zhangazha*
The European Union Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Mr Dell' Ariccia was recently reported to have made some unfavourable remarks on how some Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have been conducting themselves where it came to interacting with government. His comments were obviously a delight to those that believe in a straitjacketed approach of how civil society organizations must interact with government on policy issues.
To be fair to the EU Ambassador, he has made these sort of controversial public remarks before. Particularly in the aftermath of last year's harmonised elections. I am sure this is obviously in keeping with his ambassadorial role of maintaining not only the interests of but also making new friends for the European Union in Zimbabwe. And not necessarily out of any assumed frustration, which I am sure our government would have by now noticed with the intention of exploiting.
So his new-founded blunt public diplomacy is intended on demonstrating to the current government that the EU not only accepts the reality of the latter's tenure until 2018 but also has no intentions of doing business in the manner of old. And in pushing this agenda, Mr Dell'Ariccia must be applauded. In less than 11 months after last year's elections, the EU has moved from being state 'enemy' number 3 (after the Americans and the British) to a position in which it can gather a whole cabinet subcommittee to sign a preparatory document for a bilateral aid agreement.
One would hazard to call the EU’s approach a pragmatic one. Or if one were in the ruling party, a sort of capitulation of the ‘imperialists’, as it's apparatchiks are wont to say.
Judging by the remarks made by the EU envoy about Zimbabwean civil society or NGOs and their conduct, I am sure he is persuaded that everyone else must function in similar fashion to what the EU is now grudgingly doing with the Zimbabwean government. Even if without the influence and money that the former has to lure any serious government official to a negotiating table.
In different and less dire economic circumstances, even those in government or generally supportive civil society would have found such public statements either condescending or diplomatically dishonest. Not least because the EU’s relationship with the then inclusive government was evidently one sided and therefore any current attempts at a public demonstration of ‘diplomatic pragmatism’ must be taken with a pinch of salt. Add to this, the general assumption that a foreign ambassador who respects the people of the country in which he is serving his country/region's political interests would prefer to state such opinions in private or with a bit less self righteousness.
However, given the fact that Mr. Dell'Arricia has the right to express an opinion on behalf of the EU (and even himself), it is also necessary to place a few issues concerning his reported public criticism of civil society or ngos into contextual perspective.
The first being that Zimbabwean civil society/NGOs function broadly on the basis of democratic principles of freedom of association and assembly, even if the government of the day differs with their opinions. Indeed where government disagrees with a governance or humanitarian aid NGO, that fault may not be because the latter is being 'senselessly oppositional' to the former. Neither is opposing of a government policy a declaration of an intention to topple a government, a fact that the EU conveniently evades.
Secondly, the EU in its aid and donor related frameworks is known, like other donors, to be focused on giving assistance on the basis of the certainty of results. Hence the EU Envoy's intention to not only be conveniently 'pragmatic' but also to insist that others follow suit, even if without local context. This would also explain why government’s economic blueprint Zim-Asset is safely nuanced in donor-speak/language. The only catch is that even with results based matrices, diplomatic interests and the central characters that push them can be here today, and gone tomorrow.
It is the citizens of a country that have to grasp the difference between materialistic opportunism and functioning continually on the basis of posterity and principle. That Zimbabwe (government, citizens and NGOs) is reliant on donor assistance from the people of the EU to undertake humanitarian work and expand its democratic culture does not mean a complete vulnerability to the opinions of their representatives here. Especially where these diplomatic opinions are expressed specifically in relation to diplomatic opportunism without evident democratic principle.
Finally, it is probable that Mr Dell'Ariccia intends to redefine Zimbabwean civil society. Or at least make sure he plays a significant role in how it is perceived henceforth. This would be fair enough where it not dishonest. Zimbabwean civil society has had variegated approaches to large policy issues of the day. And if anything, in the era of the inclusive government, civil society and NGOs worked very well and quite closely with the government. Even now, in the aftermath of the new constitution’s promulgation I know very few organizations that are on a real or imagined 'warpath' with government.
To make such broad but shallow statements as Mr Dell'Ariccia did, together with the sectional applause he got from those that would have previously been most shrill in opposing his every word, is the stuff of diplomatic opportunism. It is unfortunate that in his case, it would appear to be patently dishonest.
*Takura Zhangazha writes in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)