Zimbabwe Needs Help, But Must First Help Itself

(The Bloomberg View) -- Zimbabwe's hopes for an election free of violence and manipulation have been dashed, and President-elect Emmerson Mnangagwa is preparing to take office under a cloud. Zimbabwe's friends and neighbors shouldn't look away. They still have a chance to help the country's long-suffering people.

In the euphoria surrounding last year's unseating of Robert Mugabe, the autocrat who crushed Zimbabwe's economy, peaceful change at the ballot box was a beguiling prospect. But the idea that Mnangagwa (Mugabe's vice president and one of his fiercest enforcers) and his ruling Zanu-PF party would let themselves be voted out was always a long shot. U.S., European and local monitors faulted the electoral process on numerous fronts. And the opposition coalition had problems of its own.

Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe's output has halved since 2000. Its once-prosperous private farms were expropriated, then ruined. Unemployment swelled to 90 percent. Hyperinflation came and went, leaving a wrecked financial system with too much debt and almost no foreign investment. The government cannot go to multilateral institutions for help until it clears $1.7 billion in arrears and adopts a program of structural reform. U.S. sanctions are still in place.

Help with all this requires Mnangagwa to make the first move. For starters, he should heed calls to let legal challenges arising from the election play out and hold accountable those responsible for violence.

Beyond that, he needs to deepen and accelerate economic reform. Zimbabwe has more than 100 dysfunctional state companies that should be privatized or shut down. Government payrolls are stuffed with patronage jobs whose wages eat up almost all the national budget. Strict fiscal discipline is needed. The government should try harder to lure back more of Zimbabwe's skilled expatriates – including those who've taken foreign citizenship. Stronger property rights would spur investment in agriculture.

Efforts like that could draw in the sustained external support needed to fix the bizarre currency regime that underlies so many of Zimbabwe's economic problems. They would also serve a larger purpose, by loosening the ruling party's grip over the economy.

Mugabe's exit provides, even now, a real opportunity. For all its defects, this election was a significant improvement over previous contests. Over the long run, giving Zimbabweans a greater stake in their economic future will raise their expectations, increase their power at the ballot box, and improve their chances for a future as rich as the land they inhabit.

Outsiders can help, but they should tell Mnangagwa to lead the way.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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