Review of Against the Odds: John Saxby

Perseverance, and survival against the odds: with relevance and success?
Reviewed by John Saxby
Pambazuka - 2012-06-14, Issue
589

Review of: Mary Ndlovu, 'Against the Odds: A History of Zimbabwe Project Trust ' (Harare: Zimbabwe Project Trust and Weaver Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-77922-168-1)
Source: pambazuka.org/en/category/books/82932

 

‘Against the Odds’ is a searching tribute to an important Zimbabwean non-government organization (NGO). Mary Ndlovu writes as a sympathetic critic, and her account does justice both to a complex and eventful organizational history, and to the people who made that history.[1]

The book tells the story of the Zimbabwe Project Trust. Commonly known as ZimPro, it was founded in London in 1978, and ‘came home’ in mid-1981. Its original mandate was to provide humanitarian and educational assistance to Zimbabweans living in camps in Zambia, Mozambique and Botswana, refugees who had fled the country as the liberation war intensified. Early in 1981, after considerable internal debate – one in which external actors weighed in as well – its trustees and staff agreed that ZimPro would relocate to Zimbabwe, to assist with the pressing task of resettling and reintegrating former guerrillas[2] into their new country. The book charts ZimPro’s life over the three decades which followed. It explores the evolution of its governance and management; its programs, especially its work with ex-combatants and the co-operatives they founded; its relationships with its funders and other supporters; its continuing negotiations with Zimbabwe’s government and political parties; and the people who made this history, those within ZimPro and those outside it.

‘Against the Odds’ is an important contribution to Zimbabwe’s current history, a case study of a central actor in civil society and a story which both commands and rewards the reader’s attention. Its primary audience will obviously be Zimbabweans at home and in the diaspora, and other readers with experience and interest in the country and its people. Beyond this audience, however, the book deserves to be read by a wider public of activists and development workers in Africa and elsewhere. For these, it offers thoughtful insights on broader themes. This commentary is drawn from experience which has sometimes been painful – Zimpro’s immersion in the often problematic interplay between government and civil society, for example, and in the tricky relationships between civil society organizations (CSOs) from the North and the South.

The book is well-written, its language clear and accessible. Measured in tone, it nonetheless conveys the intense feelings and convictions and the strong personalities within and surrounding ZimPro. It is the history of an organization, obviously, but the author offers the reader a close appreciation of the personal stories tied up with the institutional account. These cover an enormous range, from the heroic to the bizarre. They include the energy and commitment which so many staff members brought to the organization; the urgent and distressing problems faced by the ex-combatants to whom Zimpro was trying to respond, and their often remarkable achievements; and the actions of an array of external intervenors, both supporters and meddlers.

It is a complicated story, with an extensive cast of actors – the list of acronyms alone covers a page and a half, and more could have been added. ZimPro has gone through a welter of organizational phases, plans, and shifts in strategy since 1981, often overlapping and sometimes divergent. Anyone lacking a fairly detailed knowledge of the organization might have difficulty keeping it all straight. The story is presented in 26 compact chapters in chronological sequence; of necessity, these occasionally overlap. Each is built around a theme or issue, and covers a short span of time, usually two or three years. This helps the reader considerably by making the story manageable. Even so, a few graphic timelines would be useful additions – perhaps including one with an overall periodization, from 1978 to 2011, and others presenting shorter phases of the story in more detail.

The author’s initial note on sources highlights the uneven documentary record. Most of the documentation from the years in London (1978-81) appears to have been lost. Key sources of aggregate data and related analyses, such as final reports from evaluations, are also often absent. In some cases, these might have been obtained via a search of donor files; but this would have been time-consuming and expensive, with no guarantee of success. In most instances, Ndlovu has been able to assemble a thoughtful commentary by augmenting a partial documentary record with personal records and interviews. This reader found, however, the absence of financial summaries made it difficult to form a clear picture of the overall scale of ZimPro’s work, and the ebb and flow of its finances. If the records are available, the book would benefit from tables in the main text or an annex with summary information on ZimPro’s overall annual revenues (including contributions from key donors) and its programming and administrative expenses.

LIFE IN THE SPOTLIGHT, AND THE BIG ISSUES CONFRONTING A PROMINENT CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANIZATION

‘Against the Odds’ unpacks a particular Zimbabwean experience in compelling fashion but also, as suggested above, it is a case study both informed by and illuminating wider themes of contemporary civil society. Several examples[3] show something of the immediate context and content of the book, as well as its broader relevance.

Preserving organizational independence in a highly politicized setting

Within a year of its establishment in Zimbabwe, ZimPro found itself engulfed in a bitter conflict over its political independence and relations with the national government. At issue was its distance from, or alignment with, the ZANU government of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe or ZAPU, the opposition party led by Joshua Nkomo.[4] It was a highly charged time, and any organization closely involved with ex-combatants (as was ZimPro) would have found it extremely difficult to maintain a non-partisan position. Ndlovu devotes a chapter to a storm that nearly sank the organization. Members of its steering committee, a body located between the Board of Trustees and the staff, argued that Judith Todd, ZimPro’s Director, was a ZAPU sympathizer and a security risk. They sought to remove her as Director, and to reconstitute the management committee to include representatives of government ministries. The account describes behind-the-scenes conversations with government ministers, and a clutch of ministerial messages to ZimPro about Ms Todd’s position. The question was finally resolved in her favour early in 1983 by none other than Robert Mugabe himself, who confirmed that she was not a security risk.

ZimPro was able to draw on some formidable resources to see it through this crisis – Chapter Five of ‘Against the Odds’ details these – but as Ndlovu rightly notes in her conclusion to this episode, the political pressures on, and within, civil society at this time were ‘harbingers of things to come’ in the 1990s and beyond. The issue has if anything been sharpened, and the stakes heightened, and not only in Zimbabwe. CIVICUS’ recent ‘State of Civil Society 2011’ points to diminishing political space in many countries – even a state backlash against social movements and activists – in the wake of that year’s extraordinary civic protests which shook and even toppled authoritarian regimes.[5]

What does effective governance look like?

The human drama of this crisis, and its resolution at the highest levels, both exposed and – because of the profile of the actors – obscured another issue. This was the quality of governance in ZimPro. ‘Against the Odds’ explores this issue at some length, both in the chapter immediately following the 1982-83 conflict, and across the ensuing years. The book’s examination of the question addresses organizational governance at the level of the Board of Trustees, as well as its executive dimension, the management of ZimPro. Numerous sub-issues arise from its three decades of experience. A few of these serve to highlight their complexity and the risks they may pose.

Through much of the story, ZimPro’s Board of Trustees – the body legally responsible for the organization – seems to live a shadowy existence, emerging from time to time and then receding from view. ‘Getting it right’ in defining and implementing the proper roles of a Board, and its relationship with staff members, especially the Executive Director, is of paramount importance; and in the case of ZimPro, both Trustees and staff appear to have left matters unattended for too long. The presence and actions of the management committee show the problems which can arise from ill-defined or undefined roles and powers, especially at strategic levels. The role of the management committee vis-à-vis both trustees and staff appears to have been informal – advisory, but with no clear boundaries or weight. It seems incredible that members of an advisory committee should be in a position to use informal power to make critical shifts in the position and purpose of the organization and to change its Director. As it turned out, the Director’s reserves of informal power – her tenacity and her personal and political connections – trumped those of the committee members.

Informal power always exists within an organization, and it can be used to positive or destructive effect. The point here, surely, is that in the absence of an active board with a duly negotiated and clearly understood role, and a similarly clear division of responsibility with management, informal power and personal agendas are likely to prevail. When this happens, organizational transparency and accountability – as difficult to achieve as they are imperative – can be seriously compromised.

Peter Drucker has argued, persuasively, that managing a voluntary organization is much more challenging than managing a for-profit corporation.[6] This is because a non-profit organization has multiple constituencies to which it must answer, without a widely accepted measure of successful performance (comparable to profit.) For a service organization such as ZimPro, structural ‘disconnects’ in governance are all too common. Board members may not represent or engage in any systematic way with those served by its programs. Its funders, ‘those who pay the freight’, may be physically and organizationally distant from both the organization and those served by its programs (in this case, Zimbabwe’s ex-combatants). In such circumstances, staff members’ operational power will typically determine the position, direction and profile of an organization. Organizational accountability may be unclear or incomplete in such conditions, or skewed towards one group of stakeholders (such as funders) at the expense of others. In these circumstances, personal connections and commitments may hold an organization together – ZimPro’s experience shows the real force of informal power – but it will remain vulnerable to internal and external shocks, its longer-term sustainability jeopardized. In the event, Ndlovu’s account shows that it was not until the end of the 1990’s that ZimPro’s board really assumed the power and presence appropriate to its role as principal steward of the organization. (pp. 289-95)

Complicating ZimPro’s story is the fact that these questions of organizational governance and independence overlapped with its relationships with its funders, and that these relationships in turn were embedded in the North/South power dynamics of the aid industry. As noted above, ZimPro’s management committee was at the heart of its early political crisis. A key member of that committee was the country director of a major donor, an international NGO. To this reviewer, this appears to be anomalous, even extraordinary practice – on the part of the donor and the individual, obviously, but also ZimPro. Did no-one see a potential conflict of organizational loyalty and responsibility? How and to whom can an individual in such a position be held accountable, especially in a setting where the role and membership of the committee is ill-defined?[7]

A different type of donor relationship – more common, less fraught and on the whole less conflictual, but in the final analysis also profoundly unhealthy – is woven through the book as well. From its earliest days in Zimbabwe, ZimPro counted the Dutch organization NOVIB[8] as one of its most loyal donors and supporters. For nearly two decades, NOVIB regularly contributed substantial funding to ZimPro’s core costs and its programs.[9] During the early 1990s, as the organization sought to respond to severe cost/revenue pressures by creating its own revenue-generating projects, NOVIB underwrote this risky and ultimately problematic strategy.[10] Indeed, NOVIB had both encouraged ZimPro to pursue this approach, and loaned it the substantial investment funds required. Like so many other aspects of this story, there were overwhelmingly difficult extenuating circumstances at work here (not least among them the structural adjustment programs of the International Financial Institutions of the time, which drove Zimbabwe into a deep recession.) Nevertheless, ZimPro’s investments were too often poorly conceived and managed, and were a drain on its finances, rather than a support. Ndlovu observes that the relationship with NOVIB, open-ended and fruitful for both for many years, even vital to ZimPro’s survival had by 1999 become an unhealthy dependency (pp. 285-86). By this point, NOVIB was questioning ZimPro’s decisions and directions in a way that it had not done before; ZimPro in turn resented what it saw as criticism and pressure. Ultimately, the relationship reached an impasse, and NOVIB withdrew as a donor, with several issues and claims unresolved.[11]

Two sub-issues stand out here. One is the difficulty facing any civil society organization which seeks to build an independent revenue base in a poor country – a challenge made vastly more difficult by Zimbabwe’s prolonged economic disaster. In such circumstances, secondly, a service organization such as ZimPro is likely to be substantially dependent on the tax base and gift economy of the North.[12] The task then becomes one of managing one’s place in the aid industry, its rhetoric of partnership uneasily sharing the podium with its non-negotiable logical frameworks and conditionality.[13] ‘Against the Odds’ shows that ZimPro has struggled to come to terms with this latter challenge. This is especially so in the last ten to fifteen years, as donors have made more stringent demands for planning, results and reporting, while reverting to the shorter-term funding practices of 30 and 40 years ago.

Finally, what does ‘Against the Odds’ say about ZimPro’s effectiveness? Answering the ‘So what?’ question also requires scrutinizing the quality and relevance of ZimPro’s programming. The short answer to our question is that there is no short answer. From the mid-1980’s, ZimPro regularly assessed its three-year plans. The book identifies eight major evaluations organized by ZimPro and its funders. These included both reviews of specific programs and more comprehensive institutional assessments. Most were initiated by ZimPro; others reflected donors’ own obligations, or their preoccupations with ZimPro’s strategic direction and financial circumstances. The documentary record here is unfortunately quite uneven, with several final reports unavailable in full.[14] Nonetheless, key elements of a picture do emerge.

A blunt summary assessment of some of ZimPro’s key programs and strategies in the 1980’s and 1990s would not be very positive:

- Its education and training programs reached thousands of ex-combatants. ZimPro’s efforts provided literacy, academic and practical education to men and women who were hungry for learning, but often had had very limited schooling. And, they did so at a time when ZimPro was often the only available source of such support. Yet it has not been possible to assess the longer-term benefits of all this activity to the individuals involved, their families and their communities. This is due to the fact that by the mid-1990s, most of those who had taken part in ZimPro’s education and training programs were no longer members of their co-operatives, or the co-operatives themselves had folded.

- By 1987, when ZimPro commissioned an evaluation of its Revolving Loan Fund (RLF) for the co-operatives, many were in dire economic straits, and those borrowing from the Fund were very much in arrears. So, the RLF was not replenishing itself, and many co-operatives were on the verge of failure; the effects of the Economic Structural Adjustment Program in the early 1990’s would mean the end for most of them. The RLF, intended to be a self-sustaining financial tool to promote self-reliance, fell short on both counts.

- ZimPro’s own revenue-generating strategy of the 1990s showed few successes. Most projects lacked effective management, and some were ill-conceived from the start. The investment portfolio as a whole was a drain on ZimPro’s resources, diverting money and energy away from its social programming. Institutional evaluations in the 1990s highlighted this serious problem, and it eventually proved to be the rock on which ZimPro’s relationship with NOVIB foundered.

Evaluators typically challenged ZimPro to respond to such assessments by focusing its programming more clearly and narrowly, being more selective and rigorous in its criteria and choices, and clearer about its objectives and expected results. These messages were not new. A US-based NGO, PACT, had highlighted such questions as early as 1983. And indeed, by the early 2000s, ZimPro had managed to set out a more limited thematic focus for its programming – working with marginalized rural and urban communities to promote food security and public health and hygiene, and integrating into all its programs a response to the continuing HIV/AIDS pandemic. At the same time, the organization had mastered the Results-Based Management (RBM) language and scripture sufficiently to satisfy both NGO and official donors.

Yet, these summary assessments and prescriptions are surely too blunt. All of this commentary – valid enough as far as it went – never seemed to pose or answer a deeper question: what would be an appropriate objective and measure of success for ZimPro? That is, what could ZimPro, an NGO, reasonably expect to achieve in a policy environment which was at best unhelpful, sometimes actively hostile (with respect to ex-combatants in the 1980s, for example); or in a nationwide recession which was triggered by ESAP and extended into the economic implosion of the 2000’s; or indeed within a global pattern where small businesses fail more often than not? What might ZimPro reasonably hope to achieve with only the limited money, people and skills of an NGO to deploy in such circumstances? ‘Doing less’, or ‘Concentrating rather than dispersing efforts and resources’, may seem like self-evidently wise counsel, but there are precious few examples of successful practice against which to compare Zimpro’s shortcomings.

It is also fair to say, however, that ZimPro itself seems not to have really asked and answered these questions. It developed a strong practical and cultural reflex of responding to incessant demand and unpromising circumstances with ‘all hands to the pumps’, rather than by proposing and negotiating clear, modest and achievable ends with its constituencies. Thus, the 1987 evaluation of the RLF observed that the co-ops saw ZimPro as a welfare organization, and that the organization saw itself in that light as well. That said, it is always easy for a consultant or a donor representative or a book reviewer to say, in effect, that ZimPro simply had to learn to say ‘No’ – certainly easier than it is for the staff of the organization to do so. In the event, other forces made the critical decision: Ndlovu points out (pp. 250-252) that ‘focusing and narrowing’ ZimPro’s programs became a much easier task in 1997. In that year, its historic constituency, the ex-combatants of the liberation war, suddenly was no longer ZimPro’s primary responsibility but rather the responsibility of the national government.

Ndlovu’s last chapter ends the book on a note of measured hopefulness: against the odds, ZimPro has survived, mainly because enough people within Zimbabwe have had the necessary commitment and smarts, and friends outside the country as well, to ensure its survival. For them, Mary Ndlovu’s book will be invaluable. More than a tribute, it is a reservoir of lessons learned and to be learned. If we know who we are and where we’ve come from, that knowledge can only help us on the road ahead.

* John Saxby (Ottawa, Canada) can be contacted through This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

REFERENCES:

[1] Disclosure by the reviewer: I have known Mary Ndlovu and her family since the 1970s. During the 1980s I worked and lived in Zimbabwe, as country and regional program director of a Canadian NGO, CUSO. As part of its program of development co-operation with Zimbabweans between 1980 and 1995, CUSO provided financial and technical assistance to ZimPro and to co-operatives formed by ex-combatants.
[2] Also known at the time as “ex-combatants”, “freedom fighters” and “comrades”.
[3] The choice of these reflects the reviewer’s interests—the book offers plenty of material for other conversations.
[4] Early in 1982, the ZANU-ZAPU coalition which had governed Zimbabwe since Independence in April 1980, broke apart in dramatic fashion. Government announced the discovery of arms caches on farms owned by ZAPU, and senior leaders of ZAPU charged with treason.
[5] CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Johannesburg, South Africa, April 2012, p. 10.
[6] Drucker, Managing the Non-Profit Organization, New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
[7] The fact that this arrangement predates by twenty-plus years the current practice of General Budget Support, whereby donors play an explicit part in national policymaking in countries dependent on aid, makes neither practice defensible. The accountability problems inherent in such a set-up have been clear for years. See, for example, Mark Schacter, “Sector-Wide Approaches, Accountability, and CIDA: Issues and Recommendations.” Paper prepared for Policy Branch, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Ottawa: Institute on Governance, 2001.
[8] Now OXFAM-NOVIB, a member of the OXFAM International confederation.
[9] Sums which this reviewer was unable to establish. This is an example of the data problem noted earlier.
[10] The cost/revenue squeeze was a product of declining donor grants, reduced loan repayments to ZimPro by stressed or failing co-operatives, and escalating demands for its services. ZimPro had adopted the revenue-generating strategy as part of a far-reaching reflection and re-imagining in October 1989, the “October Revolution”, as it was known. (Chapter 13, pp. 161-72)
[11] The author notes at several points in the book, that organizational records are often incomplete, and that budget limits prevented her from visiting organizations and people to unearth more detail. The NOVIB/ ZimPro story is one major example.
[12] To borrow Alan Fowler’s phrasing. See Fowler, Striking a Balance (London: Earthscan, 1997), especially Chapter 6, “Mobilising financial Resources,” pp. 129-60.
[13] Detailed by Tina Wallace, with Lisa Bornstein and Jennifer Chapman, in The Aid Chain: Coercion and Commitment in Development NGOs (Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing, 2007).
[14] ZimPro’s own initiative to set up a Research and Evaluation Department, taken in 1985 in the wake of its review of its education and training work with ex-combatants, was stillborn when its director was seriously injured by a car bomb in 1987. Had the Department survived, it is reasonable to think it would have preserved a full archive of reviews and evaluations.