By McDonald Lewanika, Country Director of Accountability Lab Zimbabwe

COVID-19 crept into an unsuspecting world like a thief in the night at the end of 2019. It altered the world of work through deprivation and dramatic changes to ways of working. In Zimbabwe, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic was mired in authoritarian politics, which saw the alleged weaponization of lockdown regulations to curtail civic space and place democratic dissent itself in lockdown

Despite this, in April 2020, Accountability Lab pressed ahead with year-old plans to establish a translocal network lab in Zimbabwe and implement a new project, New Narratives for Accountability in Zimbabwe (NNAZ), in collaboration with Magamba Network and Kubatana.net. But, given the endemic nature of corruption in Zimbabwe and the crescendo of voices already calling it out, what difference could an additional voice make and how could it be pursued given perceptions of lethargy amongst citizens, fatigue amongst activists, reluctance amongst authorities, and institutional collapse? Below we share some of the proud moments on things we think we got right and must accentuate in the future, but also critical learning points born out of failure on which we have challenged ourselves to fix. 

What we learned about learning 

Having been born amidst a pandemic, AL Zimbabwe’s learning strategy was steeped in online data gathering and learning methods from the onset. However, the use of online surveys, social media engagement (Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram) and text services as platforms for data gathering were not without challenges. Key amongst the challenges was from whom the Lab learned given the unequal access that the platforms have to digital spaces. This challenge was acute given the internet and digital inequalities in Zimbabwe, which straddle geographic (urban-rural), class (have and have nots) and gender (differentiated access to digital platforms for men and women), and other lines. A major insight was that while digital platforms can fill a gap and are becoming more popular because of restrictions on movement and face-to-face engagement, organizations need to be wary of perpetuating various forms of marginalization and elitism in programming at the expense of the bucolic. If this is not focused on intentionally, extant programming can perpetuate marginalization and selective access, with those traditionally left behind continuing to be left behind in both learning and programming efforts. 

AL Zimbabwe learned that going digital or virtual is about becoming and using more complex and developed digital platforms and looking back to other traditional, low tech digital and analog forms of engagement to limit marginalization in the knowledge economy. In the future, the lab will add to its learning arsenal with local-level learning circles through its CivActs (Civic Action Teams) and its Community Frontline Associates (CFAs). CivActs work with basic technology like phones and hotspot modems to facilitate communities’ online access and equip communities with polling and research abilities at a local level using basic tools like KoBoToolbox. These local circles do not introduce external parties to local conversations but connect the local to national conversations on accountability through access to the internet and communication, thereby transmitting local ideas and issues to national conversations and solutions. 

What we learned about collaborative programming and partnerships

Accountability Lab’s establishment in Zimbabwe has benefited tremendously from the collaborative nature of the NNAZ project. In Zimbabwe, the collaboration between AL, Magamba, and Kubatana has the advantage of being organic and respectful. Mutual respect amongst partners regarding roles, competencies, and engagement has yielded trust. AL Zimbabwe has learned that for collaborative programming and partnerships to work, they must not be caught up in contrived ordination and subordination relationships. Equality and a genuine appreciation and valuing of the assets that each partner brings to the table despite who is “prime” or “sub” has been a key ingredient to the Lab’s ability to function thus far in Zimbabwe with trust and respect as a founding principle. Where disagreements or differences in approach emerged, the partnership is buoyed by a collaborative spirit based on respectful engagement, trust, and the ability to disagree without becoming disagreeable. 

What we learned about inclusion

AL Zimbabwe has generally adopted an intentional and deliberate approach to inclusion to diversify its stakeholders and increase the possible yield of quality ideas that stem from intersectional approaches to stakeholder engagement and programming. This has been allied to its intent to introduce new voices to the accountability conversation and unusual partners and participants. The Film Fellowship’s FDGs with historically marginalized groups like women, youths, the disabled, and the queer community before the recruitment of fellows, helped achieve a diverse cohort of fellows that included these groups. However, more work needs to be done to limit the tradeoffs, especially where gender is concerned. Zimbabwe is full of brilliant young women in all areas of societal import. Still, they need to be incentivized and encouraged to participate in ways that acknowledge their historical disadvantages and current predicaments on account of staying in a patriarchal society. 

Adapting to change and embracing the new normal

Operations in 2020 taught the Lab that organizations need to adopt higher agility levels and be comfortable with the constant change given the dynamic operating environment. This entails creating contingencies across all programming and operational activities, which will require flexible planning and constant monitoring, evaluation, and learning. Interpreting the work of Charles Darwin, Leon C Megginson said, “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the most adaptable to change.” There is no denying the wisdom of the words. Accountability Lab’s work and that of civil society, in general, is important, especially in times such as the ones the world is living through. Still, that importance is not enough to save institutions and their important work if they cannot adapt to changing times, circumstances and respond to the times’ needs.