Global companies can stand firm and help Zimbabwe recover

As Ethical Corporation went to press, a power-sharing deal to resolve the political crisis in Zimbabwe had so far eluded president Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, although it looked within reach.

Should Tsvangirai be made an executive prime minister and Mugabe stay on as Zimbabwe’s titular head, it is to be hoped that the 84-year-old tyrant will only remain as a figurehead for the country he has destroyed for another 12-18 months, before stepping down entirely. Yet few dare to dream for even that much.

Even if its leaders manage to carve up executive power between them, Zimbabwe’s problems will remain. Zimbabwe is a broken nation. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change is not only split, but also lacks any experience of government; the army and security forces remain fiercely loyal to Mugabe; the economy is crushed and inflation out of control; many of the most skilled have left the country, and are in no hurry to return; and all have yet to come to terms with the violence that hit a grisly peak in June ahead of the uncontested presidential election runoff.

Green shoots

So, where does this leave foreign business in Zimbabwe? As tough operating environments go, only Afghanistan and Iraq would seem to pose more risks to enterprise. Except there are grounds for hope: it may take patience and resilience, but business can play an important role in helping Zimbabwe out of its current crisis.

To do so, foreign companies already in Zimbabwe should make sure they stay there. Firms that have long histories in the country, especially, should not walk away. Zimbabwe needs stability, continuity and peace. Businesses in Zimbabwe must act as islands of sanity; they must keep their heads when all about are losing theirs. Business as usual, as far as is possible, should be every firm’s priority. This demonstrates commitment to local staff, their families and communities, and to local business partners. It shows that companies can be trusted; that they will not cut and run at the first flicker of trouble.

To their credit, most foreign companies in Zimbabwe withstood calls from campaigners over the summer for them to flee the country. Supermarket giant Tesco was the only UK firm to bow to pressure, announcing in June that it would stop sourcing from Zimbabwe. Thankfully, companies with more sizeable operations in the country such as Anglo American have ridden through the worst of the media storm and are in a position to help start rebuilding Zimbabwe once a political deal is in place.

Without a power-sharing deal, of course, there is little companies can do to tackle the problems facing Zimbabwe. Those problems run deep and are too big for a single private actor to solve. But once a deal is done companies can, first, resume normal operations – with all the benefits that that will slowly bring to the economy. Then, companies can begin the capacity-building work that must be done with corporate, government and NGO partners to develop new markets.

Inspiration for companies wanting to make a positive contribution to development in Zimbabwe can be found in the example of Kenya. Like Zimbabwe, Kenya erupted into violence after a disputed election, in December 2007. A power-sharing deal between political rivals – president Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, now prime minister – just about averted civil war. The country is far from back to normal, but company efforts to foster development have continued, despite the violence.

The Business Alliance for Action Against Chronic Hunger, which was launched at the World Economic Forum in 2006 in Davos, began its first pilot project in Kenya last year. Founding alliance partners include Unilever, Sealed Air, Nike, General Mills, Kraft, Tetra Pak and Technoserve. The aim is to increase food production in poor areas that have the potential to develop into major suppliers of food to national and international markets. Companies work with local farmers and suppliers to show them how to make their businesses more sustainable. Brands help according to their core competences, so in Kenya, Monsanto helps farmers apply crop protection products and Unilever gives sales and marketing training to food businesses.

The challenge is making these kinds of initiatives work on the ground, in tough conditions. Efforts are starting slowly: most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Zimbabwe, have business coalitions for HIV/Aids to share best practice for managing the virus. Foreign members of the Zimbabwe Business Council on Aids include Unilever, Standard Chartered Bank, BAT, Anglo American and others. The challenge for responsible companies is to make sure that, once members are signed up, advocacy and action do not stop.

The politics of troubled parts of the world may be beyond their control, but by boosting trade and helping to expand markets, companies show that they can be forces for peace. When Zimbabwe’s leaders finally come to their senses, let’s hope that they can see this.

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