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The Inescapability of Informality in Zimbabwe: A Crisis in Context

By Philip Hamilton on January 8, 2017

The informal economy is everything in Zimbabwe. Earning a stable income is beyond the reach for far too many Zimbabweans, and it is estimated that 94.5% of Zimbabweans are engaged in the informal economy, leaving them vulnerable to harassment from local authorities, prone to highly variable incomes and poverty, and without a voice at the table in the policy decisions that impact their lives and work.

informal vendors selling their goods on a sidewalk in Zimbabwe

This is precisely the problem that UUSC’s Economic Justice Program partner, Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA) strives to address. Through trainings and advocacy, ZCIEA aims to organize and empower Zimbabwe’s massive informal economy and to ensure that Zimbabwe’s leaders hear the voices of the country’s informal workers.

Through this partnership, UUSC’s support to ZCIEA has centered on training informal workers in human rights, as enshrined in the UN human rights treaties, and International Labour Organization recommendations on the informal economy. The overall goal is to ensure that informal workers in Zimbabwe are aware of their rights and are able, and empowered, to engage in advocacy to ensure that their rights and their work is respected.

I was immediately struck by the importance of ZCIEA’s work during my visit to Zimbabwe this past July. Everywhere you go in Zimbabwe, you are certain to stumble upon an ad hoc marketplace or to encounter a vendor or hawker selling their wares in order to make ends meet. For many in Zimbabwe, the informal economy is inescapable. The country largely lacks industry, and due to the country’s political instability, foreign sanctions against the country’s leadership, and the country’s controversial indigenization policy, has received hardly any foreign investment, which would support stronger infrastructure.

Given the state of the country’s economy, and the massive size of the informal economy, stability and change in Zimbabwe are impossible without the inclusion of Zimbabwe’s informal workers. Unless Zimbabwe begins to recognize the importance of the informal economy, and to listen to the demands of the informal workers and their representatives, then Zimbabwe’s economy will continue to leave most workers behind, contributing to future climatic and political instability.

ZCIEA President Lorraine Sibanda with informal traders at a UUSC-funded training on human rights in Victoria Falls

Through ZCIEA, the informal economy in Zimbabwe has found a voice. Now, it is time for the government of Zimbabwe to listen, and to put the country on a path to stability.

A look at the crises facing Zimbabwe

To make matters worse, and in part as a result of the lack of a formal economy, the country has been mired in economic crisis after economic crisis. Most notably, in 2008, the country hit astronomical levels of inflation which required the government to print 100 trillion dollar notes. More recently, the country is currently being rocked by yet another bout of economic instability resulting from a crippling cash shortage. Across the country there is not enough currency to meet people’s needs. The result: ATMs that do not contain enough money, resulting in long lines outside banks as people try to withdraw their money to buy essential goods.

The cash shortage, combined with the government’s announcement of a ban on certain imports, has led many Zimbabweans to take to the streets in protest. Zimbabwe is also simultaneously caught in the in the midst of environmental and political crises, with each crisis amplifying and feeding into the next, resulting in near constant political and economic instability.

A particularly strong El Niño has hit the region, resulting in an estimated four million people who are food insecure. This is due, in no small part, to a drought impacting the country. When I visited Zimbabwe in July 2016, every river we passed as we drove around the country was bone dry.

And then there is Robert Mugabe. Mugabe is currently 92-years-old, making him the oldest leader in the world. Yet, there is an internal struggle for succession both within Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, and amongst Zimbabwe’s weakened opposition parties. However, just weeks ago, ZANU-PF decided that Mugabe would run as the party’s candidate in the 2018 elections. If Mugabe were to win the 2018 election, he would be in office until he turns 99-years-old. As a result of the political instability, the Early Warning Project at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, which identifies countries at risk of new mass atrocities, released a report in November 2016 which noted that Zimbabwe was at high risk for violence and further collapse.

While any one of the three crises would, on their own, be enough to create a situation in which human rights are at-risk, the emergence of all three, and the ways in which they are interconnected, has created a dire situation for many of the country’s citizens.

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