‘Where are the SADC and UN when we need them?’

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Maureen Sigauke

2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

I woke up, and discovered that for the second time in the space of a week, the price of fuel had risen.  As has become the norm in Zimbabwe since the government increased fuel prices by a staggering 150% in January, the rise has led to a commensurate hike in all goods and services, sending them to levels far beyond the reach of most ordinary citizens like me. I boarded a kombi (one of Zimbabwe’s privately run minibuses) on my way to a job. It was no surprise that for the entire twenty-minute ride, the conversation was about the state of our economy and its impact on Zimbabweans. Countless expressions of anger, hope, despondence and anxiety were shared (and shouted) during that ride, but one statement in particular – it was more a question and a cry of despair, really –  stayed with me.

“So where are the SADC, African Union and United Nations as we suffer like this? They’re all letting us down!” exclaimed one young man, his voice full of frustration.

I replied to my fellow kombi passenger that these institutions of regional and global integration are constrained by national sovereignty and cannot directly interfere with issues afflicting a sovereign state. However, as I went on with my day, I could not help but reflect further on this issue of regional and global integration and governance, and especially as it relates to crises such as the one that we Zimbabweans are currently living through. My reflections gave rise to more curiosity and yet more questions.

Are global and regional integration a farce? If the principles and institutions of global and regional integration are not strong enough to take on national crises such as ours, what hope is there that they can address global challenges, and especially inequalities of all kinds? Is it possible that these institutions are actually perpetuating inequalities between and within nations? Globalisation is real and inevitable – so what needs be done to ensure that these institutions live up to the principles of peace, solidarity, fairness and justice?

Tracking back into the rationales behind regional and global integration, I thought about the fact that global governance was conceived as a long-term project of global integration, aimed at political cooperation among transnational actors, and at negotiating responses to problems that affect more than one state or region. This approach is necessary – and increasingly so – because humanity faces both problems and opportunities that are global in scale. Transnational challenges such as climate change, violence and pandemics routinely reach across borders, affecting everyone. At the same time, our increasingly integrated global system has also laid the necessary foundations for peace and spectacular prosperity to reach across borders, too.

Global governance, if it were truly effective, could allow the world to take on global or regional challenges while leveraging integration to achieve levels of progress that would guarantee sustainable development for all nations, including ailing small and developing countries such as Zimbabwe. But despite the good intentions of global and regional governance, how come so little has changed? Why do poor countries remain poor, as world powers further entrench their super- (and supra-) power positions? Why have international instruments and conventions failed to adequately redress inequalities between and within countries?

As I mused on these issues, I took some comfort in the fact that integration and governance at regional and global levels had actually contributed towards the redressing of some of common global challenges. The UN, African Union and other regional economic groupings, for instance, through various subsidiary bodies, have achieved commendable gains in decolonisation, conflict resolution, fostering human rights, economic development and ensuring fair trade. In the areas of health and education, even countries such as Zimbabwe have seen benefits. In September 2018, after the Zimbabwean government declared a state of emergency over a cholera outbreak in the capital of Harare, humanitarian and medical aid by global and regional institutions such as the World Health Organization and SADC played a pivotal role in controlling the outbreak. Similar success stories can be seen the areas of education and children’s rights. Reflecting on these important milestones got me thinking that perhaps the notion of integration is not the problem. Instead, maybe it is the mechanisms that need to be redefined and reformed to ensure that the central goals of integration and multilateralism are reached.

As I reflected on our systems and mechanisms of global and regional integration, I had to agree with Arthur Dahl, president of the International Environment Forum, when he observed that our existing mechanisms to tackle global issues are woefully inadequate. As a result, inequalities of all kinds and challenges persist between and within countries. Just as poor countries such as Zimbabwe must fight to get their concerns on the global table alongside those of rich nations, there are parallel disparities in power and access between poor countries’ leaders and ordinary citizens like those of us sitting in a kombi voicing our despair. So what needs to be done?

To map the way forward, it is essential to properly diagnose the problems with the current systems and mechanisms. I would argue that the gaps and limits in the global and regional governance architecture that need reforming include:

1.      The notion of sovereignty: i.e., sometimes the UN cannot intervene.

2.      Differential, divergent national interests among super-powers that result in the contestation and politicisation of most institutions. Because of power imbalances, all too often the imposition of powerful nations’ values and ideologies –  e.g. Western-centricismoccurs.

3.      Bureaucracy and lethargy: the responses of most institutions of multilateralism can be slow and cumbersome, and inadequate to the crisis at hand.

4.      À la carte approach to globalism: states and non-state actors are constantly choosing which global or regional norms to commit to and which ones to leave behind. This not only highlights a lack of global consensus, but frequently it has resulted in citizens losing trust in the global and regional systems themselves.

5.      Opportunist multilateralism: can be seen in the rise of “clubs of countries” that circumvent formal global institutions, i.e., “coalitions of the willing”.

6.      Overlapping of institutions: global and regional arrangements often overlap and can at times compete.

7.      Ideological shifts and politics of intolerance, including the rise of populism in both the global North and the global South, e.g., Trump, Brexit, Modi, defence of the Kremlin, etc.

It is obvious that the restructuring of institutions of regional and global integration is urgently needed to make our world a fair, peaceful and just one. If these reforms were to come about, maybe one day I’ll find myself sharing a ride with people who are full of hope, not despair, about these institutions. Maybe one day, people around the world will have a clear picture of what these institutions really can and cannot achieve, and with that knowledge, we will all be better able to know what both organisations and citizens can do to halt and reverse the rise of inequalities of all kinds.


Maureen Sigauke is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics. She tweets at @Maureenashleigh

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image: John Culley, ‘Waiting for a kombi’, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0