Siobhán Smith in conversation with Geraldine Sibanda | 2022
Dr Geraldine Jacqueline Sibanda is an economic historian focusing on state finance, the development of economic thought, international institutions and politics. Geraldine completed her PhD in 2021 at the University of Free State and at present is a postdoctoral fellow there. She is working on publishing her monograph tentatively titled Zimbabwe’s Elite Pacts: Economic Planning, State Finance and Odious Debt, derived from her PhD thesis.
In 2022, Geraldine has been a visiting fellow at the University of Lausanne and with ECOINT at the European University Institute.
In this interview, Geraldine reflects on her academic and non-academic experiences in academia, including her PhD journey and the contributions she makes to historiography on African economic thought. Geraldine explains how her monograph and new research projects have taken shape over the last few months and considers future projects including her contribution to the ECOINT project.
Siobhán Smith is a PhD candidate at EUI.
Siobhán: You have recently completed your PhD at the University of Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, congratulations! Could you first tell us a little about your PhD journey, how you became motivated to do one, and your overall experience?
Geraldine: I want to put it out there, without mincing my words - the PhD was HARD!! It is a process that challenges you in every way. It particularly challenges all the things you thought you knew on a personal and intellectual level. There is a lot of rethinking, relearning, learning, and developing that happens during that period. It is also a massive test of character, if you do not possess resilience, patience and a teachable spirit, the journey will force you to develop these traits.
I was very lucky though, that I joined a very intellectually refining department – the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State. It has emerged as central in African knowledge production on the continent, particularly in the fields of history and economic history – and I am not just saying this because that is where I am from (chuckle) – my claim is independently verifiable! At the ISG I had one of the most supportive advisers, who happens to be the founder and head of department, Prof. Ian Phimister. He so graciously and patiently shared his knowledge and expertise. He also tactically challenged and put pressure on me when it was necessary. I would say it was rarely necessary, but I suspect he has a different story detailing the traumatic experience of being my supervisor (chuckle).
Overall, the PhD journey was an extremely enriching one. I emerged from it a more grounded economic historian yet also more equipped to research across disciplines. It also left me with a much deeper appreciation of African economic history on the one hand and the centrality of the transnational/continental/global plane. Finally, it allowed me to experiment with different methodological approaches while also ensuring the importance of identifying with a specific historiographical approach that brings out, enforces, refines, or challenges my arguments.
Siobhán: Could you now explain what your PhD is about and the main arguments you make? What contributions does your research seek to make?
Geraldine: This thesis, titled, ‘Finance, Economic Planning and Power in Zimbabwe, 1980-2013’, is a historical account of the Zimbabwe economy that provides a sustained examination of the nexus between economic planning, state finance and power. It contributes to historiography unpacking the nature of the postcolonial regime questioning how the economy was (re) structured to ensure its survival. The thesis adds to this debate by redefining the term ‘elite’ within Zimbabwe’s economic context. As opposed to confining the definition of elite to the political elite, the thesis expands the composition of this group to include high-ranking civil servants and international institutions. The elite controlled, at various intervals and in varying degrees, economic policy developments since Zimbabwe’s independence. This elite shaped economic planning and management, state expenditure, and debt patterns in Zimbabwe. The thesis also makes new methodological contributions and provides new information demonstrating that the postcolonial government has, since independence, channelled the bulk of state resources to its power structures comprising the military, the central intelligence organisations, and the many arms of the ruling ZANU-PF party. Following the demonstration of the elite pacts and skewed government expenditure patterns, the thesis makes a compelling case for the declaration of postcolonial odious debt.
Using new sources obtained from the archives of the Bank for International Settlements, United Nations Geneva, Historical Archives of the European Union, and the British National Archives, I am converting the thesis into a monograph, tentatively titled Zimbabwe’s Elite Pacts: Economic Planning, State Finance and Odious Debt. Apart from making use of the new sources the monograph will add to the thesis in three ways. Firstly, it will engage more with the literature on elite theory whose provenance is traced back to Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto (1935). Engaging more with Pareto and other classical elite theorists, it will align more with C. Wright Mills (1956)’s institutional approach to elite theory, which gives credence to the institutions, state or non-state, as sources of elitism and by extension – power. Secondly, to foreground its argument that adds international institutions to the elite wielding power to determine economic developments in Zimbabwe, the monograph will contain an intricate examination of international institutions influencing developments in Africa. It will examine internal policy shifts, attitudes, and roles of international institutions and how these had direct bearing on the development or lack thereof, of Zimbabwe’s economy. As opposed to pitting the political elite against international institutions where during the structural adjustment era (1990-1997) the protagonists are international institutions and post -2000s the protagonists are the political elite, the monograph suggests that the relationship between the government and international institutions has been that of collaboration more than hostility, with this collaboration taking different forms throughout the postcolonial period. Finally, based on the elite pacts determining economic developments, the monograph will more boldly make a case for the application of the odious debt doctrine regarding debt accrued in postcolonial Zimbabwe thereby expanding the odious debt doctrine conceptualised by Jeff King (2016).
Siobhán: Beyond your academic experience, you have also consulted for the World Bank in Zimbabwe, the government of Zimbabwe during the Government of National Unity, as well as for the UNDP and Save the Children. More broadly, what ways have these experiences shaped how you understand your ongoing projects and academia?
Geraldine: I took a break from academia following the completion of my Honours degree at the height of Zimbabwe’s hyperinflationary crisis in 2008. In many ways this break was forced by my reality – that of extreme poverty in an urban area with zero prospects of employment. So, like many others from the relatively marginalised part of Zimbabwe that I come from – Matabeleland, and beyond, I migrated to South Africa. Here I did various odd jobs – I hope to tell this story one day – but later decided to return home where I joined the non-governmental organisations sector: the human rights sub-sector. It made sense to me to actively participate in changing the fortunes of the country. My perception then was to push for inclusion of all Zimbabweans in informing their economic fortunes, hence the human rights sub-sector. I then served in various roles during the government of national unity, representing the pro-democracy movement and later the Movement for Democratic Change, led by then President Morgan Richard Tsvangirayi (MHSRP). I stayed in the sector for five years before returning to academia to teach at the University of Zimbabwe and complete a Masters programme before going on to complete my PhD in 2021. So, to refer to the question you ask, I need to add that apart from being an academic, a practitioner in the NGO sector, I was also an activist – and I suspect I carry some traits of activism to this day.
I had the opportunity to consult, for short periods, in-between my break from academia for the team that crafted the Zimbabwe Child Rights Policy supported by the UNICEF and Save the Children. In the first year of my PhD, I also had the opportunity to be part of the Citizen Engagement Research team of the World Bank. Combined, these opportunities were instrumental in giving me the practical side of the fluid state - non-state relations – and yes, all these experiences have in many ways informed the topics I write about and the arguments I make.
Much as these experiences can, at face value, be viewed as outside of my training as an economic historian, in my view they are all lessons in history. More than anything, it is during that time that I obtained a deeper appreciation of the relevance of history, in shaping today’s developments, its importance in finding solutions to today’s challenges and its ability to contribute to improving the future. I agree, therefore, with the cliché that the relevance of history in all its sub-categories, is not only the preservation of knowledge and past events but also to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. I will add to it by stating that the purpose of history is also to ensure that the present learns from the past, that past mistakes are rectified, and that similar mistakes are avoided. Secondly, the experiences have also taught me that history was/is not a linear process; many processes take place at the same time and on various fronts. The existence of one historical event/process does not negate the existence of another, sometimes diametrically opposite process, or event.
Admittedly the quest for every academic is objectivity – it is also my quest. And in many ways what academia has done, is teach me that the more you know, the less you know and that one must always be willing to diligently research and change their perspectives/viewpoints when new information emerges.
To illustrate the foregoing points on the importance of my experience in demonstrating the relevance of history and the quest for academic objectivity I will use two controversial examples. The first is Zimbabwe’s controversial Fast Track Land Reform Programme of 1999 – 2008 (there are some sporadic incidents of its occurrence to this day). It has become historical fact that the process was racial and violent. Yet it is also historical fact that many landless Zimbabweans that were neither involved in the violent altercations or are politically connected to ZANU-PF benefitted from the process and are reaping tangible economic results therefrom. Of course, the extent on either side of the spectrum remains academically debatable (as has been done by Ian Scoones et.al, Mahmoud Mamdani, Toendepi Shonhe, and others), but lessons can be drawn, and future catastrophes avoided, in Zimbabwe and beyond, by looking at both historical processes. The non-academic me refused to see this seemingly obvious fact.
A second illustration more linked to my work and subject of my academic writings are the infamous Quasi-Fiscal Activities (QFAs) implemented by then former governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Gideon Gono between 2003 and 2008. It is accepted that the QFAs were illegal as they were beyond the scope of the RBZ obligations; were implemented without the peoples’, Parliament, or in some instances Cabinet sanction; were also the major cause of the hyperinflationary crisis between 2006 and 2008; were riddled in corruption and were a major looting scheme for the political elite and politically exposed persons. I so passionately, and perhaps radically, argue the foregoing in my MA dissertation; and I am in good company in making these arguments - Sonia Munoz, (2006) David Mupamhanzi (2016), Thandinkosi Ndlela and Tara McIndoe (2021) are examples of the company I keep. Alex Magaisa (MHSRIP) popularized these arguments through his widely read and believed blog The Big Saturday Read. However, I have since obtained new knowledge and now view the processes differently thus my arguments in the PhD thesis are further refined. While I maintain the initial arguments, I find evidence that alongside all the deficiencies of QFAs mentioned, there was an intricate link between government policies as shown in the national policy documents and budget statements, and the QFAs that were implemented/financed by the RBZ. Secondly, there was an ideological bearing pushing the implementation of QFAs, in my upcoming monograph this will be captured as the ‘Rebellious Second Attempt at Economic-Self Reliance’. While this ideological bearing may be dismissed in various spaces as a defence mechanism by ZANU-PF and ZANU-PF apologists, especially considering the Gono defence of ‘extraordinary measures for extraordinary circumstances’ - Gideon Gono (2008). But there is in my view, room for an investigation into what forms or should form the basis of economic management on the African continent, especially in Zimbabwe, whose economic developments, I maintain have never been witnessed before thereby providing grounds for understanding and challenging perspectives of what an economy is. So, I ask what was/is the real or supposed role of central banking in the African context? Is central bank independence plausible or attainable? Can they or should they (central banks) play a developmental role? What are the appropriate checks and balances that should be put in place for effective central banking? How does the structure of the global economic system manifest itself in the Zimbabwean context and is there a chance that it may serve the country well? Some of these questions have been asked before, but I suspect not so seriously and in-depth in the Zimbabwean context. Economic policy makers and economic thinkers (real or imagined) across the political divide, are fixated with following economic orthodoxy which is yet to prove useful in transforming the postcolonial economies in the global South, let alone Zimbabwe.
Siobhán: How did you get to know Prof Glenda Sluga and collaborate with ECOINT?
Geraldine: This enriching collaboration ironically emerged from rejection. I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship with the project. I was interviewed for the post but unfortunately, I did not get the position. However, Glenda and Pierre offered me alternative forms of collaboration with the project where I would be a visiting fellow based at the University of Lausanne. We applied for the Swiss National Foundation Visiting fellowship and here we are. I think this is a learning moment for young academics who are getting into a field where they will have to endure so much rejection. Rejection is not always a testament to ability – most times it is about fit and timing. As painful as rejection is, this episode is also a lesson on not throwing away the baby and the bath water. Also, a lesson on knowing or accepting that opportunities emerge in various forms and often not in the ways we desire or can immediately point to. This has been a truly enriching experience and I am grateful to both Glenda and Pierre for it.
Siobhán: For the last few months, you have been based in Switzerland alongside Pierre Eichenberger at the University of Lausanne. Could you tell us what you have been working on and how this experience has helped your current research?
Geraldine: My time at the University of Lausanne has been a quest at understanding another facet/branch of international institutions i.e., the non-universal or non-official development institutions in the form of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). Thomas David, Pierre Eichenberger, and I are working on a paper that examines the role of the ICC in South Africa, questioning if it rose to the occasion of being the mouthpiece of black African business during the apartheid era. There is seemingly a contradiction in investigating black business within an economy with oppression of the blacks at the core of its economic policy. But this again is an example of the non-linear nature of history I alluded to earlier. In this paper therefore, we question the equally seemingly bizarre scenario that those black entrepreneurs we have identified were avid supporters of capitalism at a time most Africans in various spaces were predominantly socialist inclined and recognised the limitations of capitalism in turning around the fortunes of the black population. What we have also found to be a deviation to the norm where apartheid history is concerned, is the lobbying by apartheid supporters and apologists within the international business platform, as opposed to literature that has emphasized the lobbying by oppressed nationalist movements. The paper will feed into the broader project by David and Eichenberger on the history of the ICC. The project has been particularly enriching because it took me out of my comfort zone of studying Zimbabwe and universal international institutions. If anything, it has contributed immensely to my understanding of the international economic system – the different players that contribute to its sustenance and the role of the various players.
Siobhán: You had the opportunity to be based at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Could you tell us about your time as a visiting fellow here and particularly what you hope to contribute to the ECOINT project?
Geraldine: Yet another enriching experience that has no doubt shaped my academic development! Apart from the obvious highlight of presenting my work and receiving valuable feedback from colleagues, particularly, Elizabeth Banks and Johanna Gautier who acted as discussants during my presentation, I have two other important career defining episodes. The first is that I got to access archival material that I would not have ordinarily accessed were I in South Africa or any other university. Firstly, I got the opportunity to conduct research in the Historical Archives of the European Union. Here I obtained information that will be instrumental in adding the dimension of the role of international institutions in Africa to be emphasized in my monograph. To be used immediately are files I accessed on the Pearson Commission which occupies a significant space of the paper I presented on the Zimbabwe Conference on Reconstruction and Development (ZIMCORD) of 1981. Secondly, the EUI history department subscribed to the Adam Matthew Explorer (AM Explorer) platform, which I accessed by my virtue of being a Visiting Fellow there. I obtained a wide array of informative files from this collection that will contribute immensely to writing my monograph and other publications. The second highlight was getting to exchange ideas with colleagues working in the same area as my own. The Business and International Order Conference was an enriching experience. Getting to meet and have a discussion with Jamie Martin about his new book, The Meddlers: Sovereignty, Empire, and the Birth of Global Economic Governance, and other issues, was the cherry on top as he speaks even more directly to my area of interest. I was especially thrilled to listen to and hopefully provide helpful feedback to you, Siobhan, on your PhD thesis as I continue to say that a topic on the United Nations in Southern Rhodesia is unquestionably a huge contribution to knowledge – I am truly looking forward to reading it!
Going forward I am excited about continued collaboration and involvement in the ECOINT project which I think will make an immense contribution to the understanding of international civil servants, their role and more broadly the changing faces of globalization. The resurrection of women in these spaces which forms an integral part of the ECOINT project is also a crucial and timely academic intervention. I look forward to being instrumental in profiling key members of international institutions active in defining economic thinking and economic policy on the African continent. The selection of these practitioners is across institutions informed by among other things, the strategic economic interventions of the institutions they represented, such as the different arms of the United Nations and the World Bank, their roles in those institutions, most were in these institutions for over a decade wherein they were in different offices that shaped economic policy developments on the continent. These will include Zimbabwean Bernard Chidzero, first at UNECA then the UNDP, and ending as Deputy Secretary General at UNCTAD. Cameroonian Michel Doo-Kingue, who was first at UNESCO as Head of the Africa Department, then became first Director of the UNDP in Africa, and ended his career as Assistant Secretary General at UNITAR. American Hollis Chenery was a ‘Marshall Plan’ economist, President Robert McNamara’s adviser, Executive Director of the USAID, and for over a decade was the Vice President in charge of Development Policy. Apart from those employed directly by international institutions I look forward to writing about academics, instrumental in the establishment of economic planning offices in Africa following the end of colonial rule. Top of my list is the forgotten Reginald Herold Green who spent seven years as economic adviser to President Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, he consulted and wrote extensively on UNCTAD, UNECA and SADC. It is my hope that creating these separate profiles will enrich the project’s understanding of international institutions in Africa and their contribution to economic thinking and globalization on the continent.
Siobhán: You recently presented a paper at the EUI called 'Economic Self-Reliance’ That Never Was: the Zimbabwe Conference on Reconstruction and Development (ZIMCORD), Aid and the Genesis of Zimbabwe’s Debt Problem, 1979-1985, which explores the interdependence between Zimbabwe and international institutions. Are you able to say more about the arguments you put forward in the paper and the implications of your findings on the Zimbabwean economy in the present day?
Geraldine: The paper uses the seldom emphasized ZIMCORD to examine the relations between the new government and multilateral and bilateral institutions in Zimbabwe; while also casting light into how these relations impacted economic planning, state expenditure and debt levels between 1979 and 1985. It is, therefore, an academic inquiry into the episode before Zimbabwe’s post-2000s international isolation characterised by US and EU sanctions, revocation of Commonwealth membership and widespread lack of access to international - private and official - finance. The paper’s second intervention is an examination of the changing policies of international institutions, especially the United Nations and the World Bank, during the first and second development decades and how these played out on the African continent. To demonstrate the changes within the United Nations system, the paper focuses on the UN Economic Commission for Africa, particularly joining the rallying call for ‘economic self-reliance’ sweeping across the continent on the eve of the second development decade, making the interesting observation that at that point economic thinking at UNECA resonated more with that of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and not, for example, the UN Economic Commission for Europe or the global North. During the same period, the World Bank was also revising its approaches in developing countries under the Presidency of Robert McNamara. McNamara is remembered more for having signed off on the disastrous Structural Adjustment Programs in 1981, yet the age before that McNamara pushed for the expansion of development aid and what he called ‘the social dimensions of economic change’. The paper engages with these forgotten McNamara ideals through the lens of the Pearson Commission and its findings captured in the Partners in Development report of 1969. It then provides the intricacies of the ZIMCORD conference proceedings, policy proposals and outcomes as shaped by these other developments on the continent. It concludes that while Zimbabwe, like other African countries was a member of NAM, the country was in-fact the darling of the global North as the latter and international institutions boasted of being part of the ‘creation’ of Zimbabwe and not the ‘independence’ of Zimbabwe, in what they referred to as the ‘Zimbabwe experiment’. The benefits awarded to the darling of the global North was aid – in the form of both grants and loans. By 1983 Zimbabwe’s borrowing had more than tripled and by 1985, the government had accrued in excess of ZWD1.5 billion, five times the debt of the 1979/80 financial year. The paper is another example of the colluding referred to earlier and it concludes that ZIMCORD’s unfettered lending and borrowing spree in many ways ushered in Zimbabwe’s debt problem that persists to this day. The intention is to publish the paper with an internationally reputable journal like the Journal of African Economic History or Development and Change.
Siobhán: In December you will go back to Bloemfontein to complete your post-doctoral fellowship. Looking ahead, what you might hope to work on in the future?
Geraldine: Apart from the collaborations with ECOINT already mentioned, on the top of my priority list is the monograph. I will also spend the next year writing about central banking in Africa using the case of the transitionary period from the Southern Rhodesia Central Bank to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, with Tinashe Nyamunda. Solo projects on the same sub-theme will be on the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’s QFAs and the BIS in Africa through examining its relations with the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) from the 1940s to 1990s. I should talk to you again this time next year to see what I have actually done (chuckle)!
Siobhán: Thank you for the conversation, Geraldine, I will certainly, catch-up with you next year. Best wishes in your future endeavours.