I studied in Zim for a few months in the fall of ’99, when things were still pretty good, and the country was a model for African independence and success. That spring was the election that really changed all of that – it was clear the vote was stolen and that Democracy in Zimbabwe was over. Since then the situation has deteriorated – land seizures, voter intimidation, cronyism, outrageous spending on personal luxuries while the population starves… it gets worse. Our prof from my time there has kept us posted over the years with inside accounts of what’s happening on the ground. It’s heart breaking.
Hyperinflation has been out of control for years – current stats are around 150,000% or something ridiculous, with unemployment at 80%. Clearly, the situation is unsustainable.
Recently, a colleague mentioned that we need to deepen the dialogue around sustainability – to address questions like ‘is it possible to have a sustainable dictatorship?’ For me, the question illustrates how approaching sustainability without a concrete working definition can create confusion. And, as confusion can stifle action, or lead to misguided action, this can be dangerous in the face of the urgent threat of unsustainability.
Using the 4 Sustainability Principles as our definition of a sustainable society, we know it’s not possible to have a sustainable dictatorship. The 4th principle states that in a sustainable society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their basic needs. The situation in Zimbabwe is clearly causing circumstances that make it impossible for people to meet their basic need for subsistence – to simply stay alive – some are being killed, more are starving. This is not a sustainable society –something needs to give, and something will.
More generally speaking, the circumstances resulting from dictatorships are not always so dire. But, by definition, a dictatorship systematically undermines people’s capacity to meet their need for Participation – another basic need that we all have. It systematically undermines people’s capacity to meet their need for Freedom, as well. So by definition, it’s not possible to have a sustainable dictatorship. That’s not to say they can’t last for a long time. We know we can exhibit unsustainable behavior for long periods of time. But we also know at some point there will be undesirable consequences for people and other life. There are basic, underlying design flaws. Dictatorships are a dramatic illustration as to how abuses of power create unsustainable situations and negative impacts. They’re also a good example of how sustainability is not just about the environment. It’s about people live fulfilling lives on planet earth.
That’s a tough thing to do in Zimbabwe right now. And the situation has no easy answers – the country’s entrenched in downward spiral, created and influenced by a complex blend of historical context, cultural realities, international pressures, forces of the global economy, and so much more. Of course a return to democracy, a transfer of power, and a win for the opposition would be a huge step, and one I pray will come soon. There have been many calls but little action from the international community, no oil, of course - although China's been showing interest, presumably due to the food export potential. But as we know, we're all in this together, and while this may seem like an unfortunate, but isolated and irrelevant situation from our lives, it's not. For the people of Zimbabwe; Stay going.