Doors Remain Open in Zimbabwe

At its peak, Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation rate was estimated at 231 million percent, according to Zimbabwe’s Central Statistical Office. One would think that small organizations would collapse.

“We didn’t shut our doors, not even once.” That was the proud testimony of the staff of Chiedza Community-two boys laughing while sitting at a school tableBased Orphan Welfare Organization who managed to maintain support and services to children in the community they serve. This small organization working in the remote areas of the eastern part of Zimbabwe has an annual budget of about US$50,000, four paid staff and a strong network of volunteers.

What is impressive is not just that Chiedza survived a crumbling economy, but that they continued to provide support and services in a context marred by a diminished resource base, failing health and education systems, and the “politicization” of everyday life.

While some donors stopped funding in Zimbabwe and international NGOs moved to neighboring South Africa, all 25 of our Zimbabwe grantee partners kept going.

A strong personal commitment to children and a passion for ensuring children’s well-being kept grassroots organizations like Chiedza Community-Based Orphan Welfare Organization motivated. They found creative ways to overcome the challenges. “At times we worked for months without pay. But we knew that if we did not keep our program of support going, children would suffer.”

But they couldn’t just rely on their personal commitment; they had to become savvy to survive. For example, when they received their grant funds they immediately converted the Zimbabwe dollars into material goods in order to hold their value, by purchasing a valuable commodity like maize. Then, as they needed to secure food or school uniforms, they used barter and trade to procure the materials and support that they really needed.

A crowd gathered outsideTransportation was a major issue for most organizations. Both the cost and availability of fuel made it difficult to get around. And for most organizations, this posed as a challenge for reaching children in remote communities. Chiedza Community-Based Orphan Welfare Organization used two strategies to overcome the limitation.

Instead of frequent visits to provide counseling to traumatized children, staff would find the cheapest means to get to remote areas and stayed there for a couple of weeks. That was only possible because local community members would host staff in their homes, providing both food and shelter. Community contributions didn’t end there, community members also made material contributions, providing food to make sure the most vulnerable children had a regular meal, and clothing to help children stay warm and maintain their dignity.

Like other organizations they also did the unexpected.

They developed working relationships with government departments, which served both the organization and the government. For example, Chiedza Community-Based Orphan Welfare Organization would barter and trade for fuel while the government department of social services provided the vehicle. This helped both parties to achieve their goals and overcome the particular limitation they faced, reaching the most in need.

While it would seem easier to close their doors, this was not an option for most Zimbabwe organizations given their essential role in this near collapsed state.

Firelight staff were impressed by the strength and resilience of our partners in the face of such extreme hardship. So in 2010 our program officer for Zimbabwe, Aili Langseth, set out to understand the main attributes that helped these grassroots organizations survive and the strategies they drew upon.

What she learned has deepened our understanding about community organizations and their ability to creatively manage adversity. This learning process and communicating our findings is one of our priorities as a funder to grassroots organizations.  Look out for that report, which will be available in the spring.