Zimbabwe like many other African countries faces an enduring problem-the paradox of a resource rich country that is unable to address the economic welfare of its people. Although there have been several measures instituted to address economic inequality and create widely shared growth since independence, statistics (in their stubborn way) still indicate that Zimbabwe remains a country of two tales- the minority elite (mostly in politics or politically connected) lives in first world conditions whilst the middle class has mostly been wiped away and the bottom of the pyramid has grown to include even professional types. Most Zimbabweans continue to live in dire poverty and can only dream of the services and infrastructure that other regions of the world now take for granted such as reliable electricity, portable clean water, roads, public transport, education, and healthcare. Thirty-six years on poverty and underdevelopment remains essentially the general Zimbabwean reality. The failure to grow and transform the economy to serve the majority literally defines what one can call Zimbabwe’s national question.

Debates on the Development Path

The new government faced two choices with regards to adopting development strategies. The first entailed embarking on a radical strategy that would actively seek a more thoroughgoing change giving priority to redistribution of assets, transferring patterns of production and consumption and establishing a nationally integrated economy with lower levels of external dependence. Advocates of this option (Bratton, 1977, Simson, 1979), argued that the existing capitalist structure was heading towards dualism and not unification, exclusion and impoverishment of the clear majority of the African population. In the years leading to independence they identified land reform as one of the key policy programs that would end the extremely overcrowded conditions that existed in the communal areas and as the first stage towards the creation of communal rural socialism to replace the commercial farm sector with the peasant alternative.

The second option was the reformist strategy that involved building on the existing economic structures and seeking to make it more equitable. Elliot Berg, (1980), Rodger Riddell, (1977,1980), Whitsun Foundation (1978) and other proponents of this approach argued that the highly productive areas of the large-scale commercial farming sector should be retained with substantial reallocation of land to the black people. They also insisted that the economy should remain open emphasizing export led growth to generate the resources needed to provide cover for imports in the manufacturing sector. The Riddell Commission (1980) appointed by the Prime Minister to investigate incomes advised thus;

“New areas of land to be acquired [should be used] to absorb the population that is more than the safe carrying capacity of the present-day peasant sector while assuring that commercial land can continue to provide the bulk of the nation’s basic food requirements, a surplus for export and for the provision of inputs for industrial production” (1980; 95)

Growth with Equity and Investment in the Social Sector

However, it’s not as if we never tried to do better. At independence, the Government of Zimbabwe inherited an economy that was not comparable to any other newly independent African country[1] and highly unequal-characterized by the exclusion of majority blacks from vital social services in education, health and housing. The new ZANU (PF) government in typical Soviet style thinking came up with an appropriately titled ‘Growth with Equity’ strategy as an attempt to resolve the in. Growth with Equity policy statement provided a framework for overall sectoral policies and in this way constituted the basis for national policy planning (Zhou and Zvoushe, 2012). In general, it asserted government’s desire to develop the country guided by socialist and democratic principles in the allocation and distribution of resources and social benefits.

Despite the radical language the growth with equity approach was already a compromise. Of the five components of the strategy none threatened the position of white agriculture and international capital (Gordon, 1984). In fact, the first component of the strategy, ‘to maintain overall economic performance and accelerate the pace of economic growth’ (GoZ, 1981) was designed to address the concerns of capital.

It was not all gloomy. There were positive results, especially in the education and health sectors where access to public services, resource allocation and distribution was deracialized. The state transformed into a “distributive and welfarist state” (Zhou and Masunungure, 2006:16). The Growth with Equity policy gave primary emphasis to equity and meeting of welfare needs of the poor. The objectives were to redress severe inequalities in incomes and opportunities. Central to this policy was rural development in which the government sought to create a largely rural based egalitarian society. The Zimbabwean government sought the confidence of both white settlers and foreign capital to sustain the political and economic stability.

In line with the growth development framework the GoZ adopted the Education for All policy and rapidly increased spending on education from 4.4% of recurrent public expenditure in 1970-80 to 22.6% by 1980-81. By the end of the first decade of independence the number of primary schools had jumped from 2,401 to 4,504 an 86.7% increase and primary school enrolment showed a 177.5% increase from 819,586 to 2,272,178 during the same period. Secondary schools increased from a paltry 197 in 1980 to 1,502 in 1989. One of the most visible outcomes of such am aggressive policy was the achievement of high literacy rates-per the UNDP (2003) the country achieved a male literacy rate of 94.2%, a female literacy rate of 90.7%. Zimbabwe ranked first among Southern African countries in the male literacy rate, second in female literacy and first in total literacy.

In health delivery-the colonially established health care system was very urban in orientation. The initial post-independence policy on health entitled ‘Equity in Health’ sought to address the imbalances of the past by providing integrated health services. A new hierarchical referral health system was introduced with four tiers or levels of care; primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary. The intention behind the primary health care policy was to ensure equity and better quality of service by making the service more affordable, accessible and appropriate to the needs of the majority. Approximately 168 new health centres were built to complement the already existing 450 health centres.  Between independence and the mid-1990s Zimbabwe developed potentially one of the most robust health systems in Southern Africa. The GoZ gradually increased allocation to health from Z$83.7million to Z$352.9million in 1989 (an increase of 321% within 10 years).

In housing the GoZ also operated with the inclusive mantra of ‘housing for all by year 2000’ and in 1983 came up with the Transitional National Development Plan which stated that housing was a basic need and an effective tool for wealth distribution. Approximately 82% of the housing stock that was delivered in the first five years was for low-income groups.

End of the Golden ‘Equity’ Period and Good Morning Neoliberalism

In the latter part of the first decade of independence the GoZ was already allocation 40% of the budget towards the social sector. This was highly unsustainable given the fact that the social policy reforms were not complemented by an increase in government revenues but instead were dependent on government (domestic and international) borrowing. The positive trends in health, education and housing (discussed above) were soon to disappear.

As part of economic restructuring and attempts at accessing new funds from the World Bank and the IMF the Government of Zimbabwe (GoZ) in July 1990 embarked on a structural adjustment programme.  The government released an economic policy statement, Zimbabwe-A Framework for Economic Reform (1991-1995), in which it announced a major policy shift from state-led economic development towards a market based approach. The five year programme was premised on orthodox reform packages prescribed by the IMF, including public sector reform, trade liberalisation, deficit reduction and creation of a ‘favorable climate’ for economic growth, the target of which was 5% per annum (Sachikonye, 2003).

During the period of adjustment, the state was mostly in retreat from the social policy arena and was engaged in facilitating economic liberalisation while neglecting the protection of the socio-economic rights of citizens. The performance of the economy under ESAP was largely unimpressive-within two years of implementation, the economy experienced significant decline in real incomes and per capita levels of social expenditure (education, health and social welfare). Real economic growth fell from an average annual rate of 4% registered between 1985 and 1990 to 1.4%.

In education, the adoption of structural adjustment required government to cut expenditure in social services including education. Beginning in 1991 the GoZ introduced cost recovery policies within the education sector and many of the subsidies such as free education was removed and those who could show proof of their incapacity to pay fees were to be supported through the Social Development Fund. The Education Act of 1987 was amended in 1991 to introduce school fees at primary and secondary school levels but rural primary education remained free except for school specific levies that had to be paid for by parents. The budget cuts were so deep that that of the allocated amount 94% was used for salaries and the remainder was allocated towards development projects. The building of school’s program that had begun on a high note in the 1980s was halted. Whilst in the 1980s the GoZ allocated an average of 15.6% of its total budget towards education the portion was cut by approximately 50% to an average of 7.02% in the 1990s. The changes negatively affected education delivery.  It led to a shortage of textbooks and other teaching materials due to low funding to the ministry. Consequently, these declines also contributed towards poor students’ performance.  Drop-out rates that had been consistently below 21% in the 1980s increased to an average of 33% in the 1990s due mostly to the introduction of school fees coupled with the high levels of retrenchments that were associated with economic adjustment which effectively limited the capacity of parents to pay school fees. The number of teacher emigrants had been consistently very low from 1980 up until the mid-1990s, in 1998 165 teachers migrated and in the following year 210 also left the country-the trend was set to worsen in the following decade.

The health sector was also negatively affected by the introduction of structural adjustment- conditions of work deteriorated significantly. The GoZ for the first time was losing the plot with regards to the retention of critical skills. Medical professionals, despite the Hippocratic oath to serve under any circumstances, went on strike- a walk-out by nurses at Chinhoyi hospital on 19 August 1996 triggered a nationwide strike of medical professionals over poor remuneration and working conditions. A motivational survey found that 47% of health workers considered their salaries as very poor compared to 47% who thought so before the reforms (Mutizwa-Mangiza 1998:12).

Many doctors left the country in search of greener pastures but also some were concerned about the fact that they could not carry out their duties professionally due to shortages of equipment and drugs. For instance, when Zimbabwe closed its heart programme in 1990, many heart surgeons left the country (Mutizwa-Mangiza 1998:14). Zimbabwe has a physician density of 0.16, a nurse density of 0.72 and an overall density of 1.23 health staff per 1 000 population. Per the World Health Organization (WHO), Zimbabwe should achieve a health worker density of at least 2.5 per 1 000 population, i.e. a health worker density of at least 250 doctors, nurses and midwives per 100 000 population (GOZ, 2009).

The combination of an ideological shift towards a market driven economy, poor macro-economic management, policy or supply and demand side constraints negatively affected housing delivery especially amongst the low-income groups. The IMF discouraged the GoZ from directly funding housing as part of the economic structural adjustment programme (ESAP). That shift further worsened the availability of funds for low income housing to local authorities. Local financial services providers (especially CABS) were mobilised to provide mortgage finance for building homes. In 1995 the GoZ introduced the Start-Paying-For-Your-House Scheme (better known as the Pay Scheme). However, despite noble intentions this marked a shift towards the provision or prioritisation of the middle to upper income groups.


The immediate social outcomes from the ESAP period were a decline in levels of access to social services partly due to the introduction of user fees at health centers and school fees in an environment of declining employment. Formal employment, which had grown at a rate of 2.4% during the pre-ESAP period decelerated to an annual average of 0.8% far below the 3% annual rate of growth of the labour force. Retrenchment also meant the loss of previously existing jobs, by 1995, 20 000 workers had lost public sector jobs and 25 000 had lost jobs in the private sector (Murisa, 2004:23). The impact of adjustment on welfare is critical; by 1998, 60 % of the population was earning less than US$1 a day, and 80 % of these lived in the rural areas (UNDP, HDR, 1999). The same 1999 report ranked Zimbabwe 130th out of 170 on the Human Development Index.[2] The burden of adjustment was borne by the ordinary working people based in the cities and countryside. In fact, Zimbabwe is among 16 sub-Saharan African countries that experienced reversals in human development since 1990 (Economist Intelligence Unit, 3rd quarter 1999). A number of factors further exacerbated the hardships faced by the poor: drought in the late 1980s and early 1990s; the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which by 1999 was killing about 1,500 Zimbabweans a week (Osika et al, 2010); a drop in remittances to the rural areas from urban relatives owing to retrenchment of the civil service and the deteriorating political and economic climate. In summary, after a decade of tinkering with economic liberalisation Zimbabwe faced problems of high unemployment, collapse of low income housing delivery systems, stagnation and decline in education and health.



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  1. Bratton, M., 1977, ‘Structural transformation in Zimbabwe: Comparative notes from the neo-colonisation of Kenya’, Journal of Modern African Studies, XV, 611.
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  2. Government of Zimbabwe, 1981, Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Incomes, Prices and Conditions of Service [Chairman: R.C Riddell], Harare
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  1. Mutizwa-Mangiza D. 1998. The Impact of Health Sector Reform on Public Sector Health.
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  1. Riddell, R. (1980), “Zimbabwe’s Land Problem: The Central Issue”, in Morris-Jones, W.H. (ed.), From Rhodesia to Zimbabwe: Behind and Beyond Lancaster House, London: Frank Cass.
  1. Sachikonye, L 2003. ‘“From Growth with Equity” to “Fast Track” Reform: Zimbabwe’s Land Question’, Review of African Political Economy, vol. 30, no. 96, pp. 227-240.
  1. Simson, H., 1979, Zimbabwe: A Country Study, Uppsala, Scandinavian Institute of African Studies
  1. UNDP 1999. Zimbabwe Human Development Report, UNDP, Harare.
  1. Zhou, G., and Masunungure, E., An Analysis of the Objectives and Effects of Privatization on the Public Sector and the Role of the State in Zimbabwe, Harare: SAPSN, ZIMCODD and AIDC, 2006.

[1] For the record Southern Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) was one of the fastest growing economies in the world from 1945 to 1975 and this resulted in the creation of an economic structure virtually unique in Africa except for South Africa (Gordon 1984, Herbst 1990)

[2] The Human Development Index measures quality of life using GDP per head, adult literacy rate and life expectancy.