African countries, including Zimbabwe are confronted with a human crisis of immeasurable proportions. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a health emergency, leading to a multi-layered economic and financial crisis, rooted in patterns of financialization and globalization that have over-time worsened structural inequalities within and amongst states. The privatisation of public services provision which is the transfer of once government obligations to private actors has been on a rising trend in Zimbabwe. Its origins can be traced back to the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) era of the early 1990s when the neoliberal policy approach of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund was and still is influencing the direction of national development policies, frameworks and projects. These institutions continue to influence reforms focussed on market-based approaches in the country and the implications are varying though dire to the livelihoods of the ordinary Zimbabwean, worse still, given the ravaging impacts on the COVID-19 pandemic
Privatisation of Social Services Pre-COVID-19 and the Crisis Period
Before the dawn of COVID-19, the government of Zimbabwe through the Transitional Stabilisation Program (TSP) was rolling out public sector reform which entailed partially privatising state own enterprises, some of which are directly linked to the provision of social services and these are within the education, health, labour and national productivity sectors. Some of the entities that were earmarked or still earmarked for full or partial privatisation include Zimbabwe Electricity Development Transmission Company, Industrial Development Corporation of Zimbabwe and the Infrastructure Development Bank of Zimbabwe. Whilst these institutions may be commercial entities included under the TSP, Section 13 of the country’s constitution and legislation including the ZIDA Act have tenets for private sector activity across sectors and this has been a challenge in the social sectors as the profit motive of business in the provision of services such as education, health, water and sanitation has been making inroads albeit the widely documented negative implications of privatisation and public private partnerships. These implications include disenfranchisement from access to public services resultant from high user fees, financial and material underfunding for public institutions, deprofessionalisation of human resources in public social services i.e. teachers, health workers and the erosion of confidence in public institutions.
Additional concerns with private sector activity in social services emanate from the regulatory aspect of things were government has limited capacity to enforce regulation of private sector activities leading to the abuse of loopholes and weaknesses in social services systems in the country. COVID-19 has ravaged the country’s socio-economic and political status quo.
The pandemic has exposed the depth of the inequalities within and amongst communities in the country and the consequences of decades of austerity policies and de-regulation, undermining public systems and progress towards universal social protection. Given the country’s health as well as its economic system were in dire state before COVID-19, the crisis has put the country in peculiar situation as health-care workers are concerned about their risk, many have been infected, and there were unclear pathways for how to manage those who had been infected. In addition, the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) has been and still is insufficient in public institutions whilst the same cannot be said about private facilities were both adequate human and material resources are available for treatment but at a cost beyond the reach of many. schools have been closed though an exception was made for examination classes.
Business activity and livelihoods were affected broadly given that the country has a highly informalized economy, unemployment has been high and COVID-19 led to increased lay-offs across various sectors including transport, tourism and the small manufacturing enclave. This had an intrinsic impact on household food security in an already drought ridden country where profiteering by private producers and retailers made food, especially grain, unaffordable for many who had to look upon the government’s elusive food handouts and COVID-recovery protection schemes. Given that in Zimbabwe, over 31% of the population are classified as multidimensionally poor with evidence showing that access to public services is worsened when the economy is on its knees and public services such as education and health are privatised, COVID-19 exposed the negative implications on lower enrollment to education via online classes and utilisation of private reproductive health services by mainly women who cannot afford them. Resultantly, some women were forced to give birth without professional medical assistance, increasing the risks of maternal and child mortality. Moreso, to sustain a living, some out of school and work youth regress to harmful and irresponsible activities such as crime and prostitution. This interplay of developmental issues does not only present a dilemma of opportunity costs, but grave human rights, gender and sustainable development concerns faced during this COVID era.
Conclusion and Way Forward
The Zimbabwean state has an obligation to provide social services to its citizens amidst or without a crisis and these obligations and rights to the people cannot be retracted. They are part of the socio-economic rights enshrined in international human rights instruments and frameworks that include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which SADC countries subscribe to as part of the Bill of Rights, the African Charter on the Right and Welfare of the Child, were particular mentions in Article 11 and Article 17 note that every child has a right to education. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) goals number 1 dedicated to addressing poverty, 2 eradicating hunger, 3 provision of universal good health and well-being and SDG 4 on quality education entail the need for inclusive and equitable opportunities and services provision. Irrespective of these instruments, privatisation continues to soar and concerns regarding accessibility, affordability and quality of services across sectors have become topical as all draw down to the financial position of the consumers hence widening the social stratification gap of the citizens as those who can afford obtain quality services within the COVID-19 crisis.
Resultantly, the Zimbabwe we want during and in the post COVID era should ensure that
- Social services, social protection and labour programs are adequately resourced in tandem with regional and internationally agreed principles
- Government reclaims its obligations to public services provision namely education, health, water and sanitation
- Government assesses best financing mechanisms, including examining the public borrowing option, on the basis of an analysis of the true costs and benefits of privatisation taking into account the full fiscal implications over the long-term and the risk comparison of each option;
- There is effective regulation of private sector in areas where efficiency and profit can deliver sustainable outcomes for citizens and government i.e. transport
- The human rights entitlements of the people of Zimbabwe are observed and respected
- There is clear rationale to engage private players in social services. Governments should not negate their role to provide social services as what is currently transpiring in Zimbabwe
Adrian Chikowore is a Policy Analyst focussing on the International Public Finance in the Africa region. His work streams include Aid and Development Effectiveness, International Financial Institutions and Poverty Reduction and Public Private Partnerships in which he provides policy intelligence through policy research, advocacy and campaigns.
 ZIMBABWE INVESTMENT AND DEVELOPMENT AGENCY ACT [CHAPTER 14:37], https://www.tralac.org/documents/resources/by-country/zimbabwe/3168-zimbabwe-investment-development-agency-act-2019/file.html