We were bemused to read the World Bank’s press release of April 28, dateline Singapore: “The winners for the 2015-2016 Competition Advocacy Contest are: Mexico and Zimbabwe for competition advocacy in fast growing and innovative markets.” Hmmm.
The Bank claims “by showcasing success stories of effective competition advocacy, the contest aims to raise awareness of the key role played by competition agencies in promoting competition.” Okay, but the implication of the announcement is that Zimbabwe is somehow a global leader in promoting competition. Really?
Elsewhere within the World Bank we discovered some countervailing evidence:
The World Development Indicators report that the average Zimbabwean is poorer today than they were in 1990.
On the World Bank’s policy scores, Zimbabwe ranks dead last globally in average rating over the past ten years since the data has been publicly released.
The World Bank’s most recent survey of private enterprises in Zimbabwe is equally grim: 44 percent of businesses were expected to give gifts to get a construction permit; businesses averaged over 70 electricity outages a year and over half required a generator; capacity utilization languished at just 45 percent.
Almost all economic activity in the country is informal; according to the national statistical agency, only 606,000 people out of a population of 14 million were employed in the formal sector.
The IMF reports that real GDP growth slowed to just 1.5 percent last year.
Meanwhile, one in four Zimbabweans may require food aid this year.
None of this paints a picture of an economy that’s competitive, fast-growing, or innovative. So what’s going on?
The weird thing is that you can’t really tell from the press release. But if you click through to the contest webpage, you see that “Zimbabwe” didn’t win anything. Rather, the World Bank and the International Competition Network are recognizing the work of three agencies (Zimbabwe’s Competition and Tariff Commission, the Telecommunications Regulator, and the Central Bank of Zimbabwe) for reducing mobile money transfer transaction costs, which according to the Bank, has helped to increase access to mobile payment systems.
Cheaper and broader access to mobile money is surely good news—especially in an economy in turmoil where many families are reliant on overseas remittances.
And it's probably useful for organizations like the World Bank to try to recognize technocrats toiling away in little-known agencies that are making modest headway, even if the rest of the economy is collapsing around them.
While one minor award and a silly press release may not be a big deal, Zimbabwe’s government has a history of using propaganda to mask its own malgovernance and a long record of allowing state efforts at “competition” to be easily captured by predatory elites. Without this context, praising Zimbabwe as a global leader in promoting competition is—like an empty stadium Worker’s Day rally—a hollow gesture.