Many experienced Zimbabwe's independence as a victory for freedom and democracy in southern Africa. The country has increasingly become associated with authoritarian government and a long, drawn-out financial crisis.

Facts about Zimbabwe

The flag for Zimbabwe
Life expectancy
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GNI pr capita
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Percentage poor people (below 1.25$)
The flag for Zimbabwe
The flag for Zimbabwe

Bilateral assistance million kroner

Bilateral assistance million kroner

Bilateral assistance million kroner

The state of Zimbabwe was originally a British colony called Southern Rhodesia. In 1965 the colony declared itself independent of the British Commonwealth and changed its name to Rhodesia. The country was based on white minority rule and headed by Prime Minister Ian Smith of the Rhodesian Front party. Rhodesia did not achieve international recognition, and economic sanctions were imposed on it by the UN Security Council.

The liberation organisations ZAPU (established in 1961) and ZANU (established in 1963) used both political and military means to fight for independence and majority government. In the 1970s, both engaged in guerrilla warfare against the regime in Rhodesia from bases in the neighbouring countries of Zambia and Mozambique. In 1976, the two organisations entered into a collaboration under the name of Patriotic Front (PF). In 1979 the Rhodesian authorities were forced into negotiations in London, and signed an agreement that laid the foundation for a ceasefire and free elections. Guarantees were given for the rights of the white minority population.

Zimbabwe was internationally recognised as an independent state in 1980, and Robert Mugabe became the country's first prime minister. Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) won a majority at elections the same year. The government also included the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), and its leader, Joshua Nkomo.

Two years after independence, in 1982, Nkomo and ZAPU were thrown out of the government. The army was brought in to suppress revolt in several parts of the country, and was accused of killing thousands of civilians. The conflict was buried in 1987, when ZANU and ZAPU merged to form the ZANU-PF party. Mugabe became president under a new Constitution, with Nkomo as vice-president. Mugabe won the presidential election in 1990, and was re-elected in subsequent elections.

International criticism and economic crisis

Towards the end of the 1990s, Zimbabwe was increasingly criticised for breaches of human rights. It was maintained that the country was on its way to becoming a one-party state. There was particularly strong criticism when property belonging to white farmers was occupied and confiscated, and international aid was withdrawn. Relations with the UK, the USA and other Western countries grew steadily worse.

The Zimbabwean elections of 2000 were characterised by turbulence and claims of manipulation and rigging. In the elections for a new national assembly in 2008, the opposition gained a majority. In 2009, an agreement was made for a coalition government with the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Morgan Tsvangerai, leader of the MDC, became prime minister. The coalition governed until 2013. That year Tsvangerai lost the presidential election against Mugabe, and ZANU-PF gained a majority in the national assembly. The opposition did not accept the result of the election.

Zimbabwe, which had been regarded as a low-income country since 1991, experienced a fall in standard of living through several decades. Hyperinflation arose in 2008–2009, and the country's currency was suspended and replaced by foreign currency. According to figures from 2011, 72 per cent of the population lived below the country's own poverty line. In 2016, Zimbabwe was ranked number 154 of 188 countries on the UN Human Development Index.

In the 1980s and 1990s the country was hard hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in southern Africa. HIV-related deaths brought about a dramatic fall in life expectancy. The authorities received extensive help from international organisations to contain the disease. The number of HIV-related deaths fell from 100 000 in 2005 to less than a third of that figure in 2016, and in 2016 the percentage of those infected who were receiving treatment with anti-retroviral medicines was higher than in most other African countries.

Partner country

Zimbabwe received Norwegian development aid from 1980. Norway supported the struggle against white minority governments in southern Africa, and several of Zimbabwe's neighbours were already important partners for Norwegian development cooperation. In 1981, a Norwegian embassy was established in the capital, Harare.

Norway wanted to contribute to social and economic development. The aid was also intended to contribute to reducing Zimbabwe's economic dependence on the neighbouring country of South Africa, which still had an apartheid government. One of the most highly prioritised areas of Norwegian aid to Zimbabwe was the development of a water supply in rural areas. Norway also provided considerable aid in the form of payment in kind for goods imported by Zimbabwe. In particular, Norway supplied raw materials such as paper pulp, chemical products and aluminium. As part of aid in the form of goods, Norway also donated several hundred milk tanks manufactured in Norway to Zimbabwean farmers.

Norwegian aid to Zimbabwe was stepped up throughout the 1980s, and then reduced after 1990.

Aid for democracy and women’s rights

Norwegian bilateral aid was halted in August 2001 as a result of the authoritarian trend and the increasing demands relating to human rights. Zimbabwe also lost its status as a preferred partner for Norwegian development cooperation. Aid to Zimbabwe was channelled mainly through the UN, development banks and Norwegian non-governmental organisations.
UNICEF and Save the Children conducted Norwegian-funded maternal and child health projects and basic schooling. Norwegian aid to a multi-donor fund administered by the African Development Bank resulted in upgrading of the water supply and sanitary facilities in the biggest towns. In 2013, Norfund made its first investments in Zimbabwe, in aquaculture and the banking sector.

Support for better governance was an important aspect of Norwegian aid for Zimbabwe. In 2013, for example, Norway provided funding for independent media and for conflict prevention. Norwegian aid also contributed to the completion of a new Constitution and the holding of a referendum the same year. In 2014, Norway contributed to strengthening the country’s electoral commission, and it provided substantial funding for a number of years to organisations working for human rights and democracy in Zimbabwe.

The development of an academic community in women’s rights was a long-term project over several decades. There was a substantial need for expertise in this field throughout the region, and not least for experts who could analyse the relationship between universal human rights, gender equality and local culture and custom. The point of departure was collaboration between the University of Oslo and the University of Zimbabwe, in Harare. The result of the collaboration was the establishment in 1993 of a regional master’s programme in women’s law for students from East Africa and southern Africa at the University of Zimbabwe. Norwegian development aid contributed to the funding.

In 2000, a Women’s Law Centre was established at the University of Zimbabwe, also with Norwegian support. In 2009 a doctoral programme was also launched. Between 1993 and 2012, 195 students completed the master's programme. Employees at the centre and graduates contributed to writing Zimbabwe's Act relating to violence against women, and to amending the Act relating to inheritance rights, which gave women equal rights. Graduates also helped to establish courses in women’s law at universities in Kenya and Zambia.

Published 28.08.2014
Last updated 20.02.2019