It may seem obvious that people with more opportunity are happier people. But without the right tools to take advantage of opportunity, hope funnels down to despair far too often.
Case in point, Zimbabwe. In the midst of more elections, a country that has battled itself for far too long will again go to the polls to elect a President that will promise change he’s not likely to deliver. Quite possibly, that person will remain Robert Mugabe, the man who spent the last decade promising equality and opportunity while warping his country to the brink of failed statehood. If, by some miracle, Morgan Tsvangirai is allowed to win, the bleak looks a little brighter. But it is still dim. Most would agree that the unity government created after the 2008 elections has moved the nation a long way. Hope is back, no question, but without the right infrastructure, laws, training, and leaders at all levels, translating that hope into lasting change will be elusive. And Mr. Tsvangirai, despite being a Meridian alum, will have much to prove if he is given the reigns – from personal failings to questionable judgments, his first term was not the glimmering model the world was hoping for.
However things turn out and whoever leads Zimbabwe over the next term, they must take responsibility for the promises they make and the hope they inspire. As the economy improves, they must reinvest those gains into their schools for their next generation, and training programs for their lost generations. They must root out corruption in a real way – nothing deflates hope faster than a stacked deck. They must focus on brining in new people and ideas into government – and then allow them to develop the skills needed to be effective leaders. They must work transparently to update archaic laws and standards so that international investment will continue to flow. They must do many more things too, of course – but these are key. When aspirations are matched with skill, investment, government support, and transparent systems, amazing things are possible. We have witnessed too many times what happens when aspirations are left to fend for themselves.
And Zimbabwe certainly does not stand alone in wrestling with these fundamental issues. Looking at the latest Egypt examples (and ignoring the debate of coup verses popular change), we see the consequences of running on promises yet governing on ideology. It is largely accepted that the Brotherhood won despite religion, not because of it, and had they simply made real attempts to institutionalize their promises of jobs, education, healthcare, and safety – the things that gave them popularity on micro levels during Mubarak’s reign – they would have been able to move their ideological agenda forward. But, once again, hope turned to despair and the consequences were swift. Usually these situations don’t result in a do-over, but this prolonged and flawed transition to democracy still has a chance to work (as long as we ignore the fact that whatever new government comes in will do so under these circumstances). As this transition happens, we hope the next roster of candidates will learn from and improve upon their predecessors failures.
Numerous countries between these two examples will become case studies over the next decade. Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, Liberia, just to name a few, are darlings at various stages of their development. All have shown positive steps toward growth and prosperity, but all have done so with a few (some more than a few) warning flags around their (r)evolutions. More than ever, it is imperative that we engage with them in ways which positively reinforce the fundamental tenants to sustainable growth and prosperity. This may seem obvious too, but far too often we settle for less – and instead reinforce the interests of the leaders over the people. History is littered with examples of this strategy, and few end well.
Places like Meridian are focused on these tenants – and we see the long-term impact our development, training, and awareness programs have in building strong, stable societies. That creates trust, builds relationships, and develops markets – not a bad investment of our diplomatic dollars.
For us, Africa is as exciting as it gets. There is so much change happening on the continent, so many people coming to power who have the chance to make millions of lives better. There are so many young entrepreneurs, scientists, community and volunteer leaders, artists – you name it – who want to contribute in their own ways. These are the building blocks to make this hope thing work. By giving them the resources they need to do their work, they will make the lasting change we all hope for.
We have years to go before we will know how these chapters will end. There will be some successes, and certainly some failures. But what is clear is that there is unprecedented hope throughout the continent. Those who can make a difference today must not stand idle and let that wither yet again. Zimbabwe, we’re looking at you.