When Cyclone Idai pummelled the east of Zimbabwe in March 2019, gobbling up more than 500 people, the people of the country rose to the occasion and raised US$100 000. This is Zimbabwe’s biggest citizen-led humanitarian aid round-up. And it was done from 8 000 miles away, in Ohio, USA.
These are the new Zimbabweans, fired up by the connectivity of the Internet and reaching for their wallets to provide comfort whenever a humanitarian disaster strikes their homeland, rather than placing their hope in traditional aid donors like the UN, EU or governments.
Freeman Chasi typifies this type of new Zimbabwean. Looking back, Chasi, despite his gigantic effort to marshall US$100 000 for Cyclone Idai in just weeks, insists that he is not a hero at all. Rather, he says, “I feel more hopeful of Zimbabwe’s future. The collective empathy shows that we are one people.”
It does not matter that he is stationed in Ohio, oceans away; his mind still traverses Zimbabwe. “Zimbabwe is my country. It is a no-brainer that when we have such a tragedy, it means all hands on deck,” he says. The Internet and the new social media has democratised humanitarian aid. Power and initiative is being seized away from the bureaucracy of traditional multinational aid agencies, he says. “We interact online as Zimbabwean citizens. We can leverage (those relationships) to (donate) and respond collectively to disasters.”
A global community of Zimbabweans
Within hours of Cyclone Idai making landfall in the east of Zimbabwe in March, Chasi got onto his smartphone. Idai was no ordinary thunderstorm. It was the gravest weather disaster ever to hit the southern hemisphere. Chasi’s first online aid goal was $US10 000. He was astonished by the response. “$US10 000 would have been a major achievement for us,” he says. When the money started streaming in from Zimbabweans based across the globe and the figure rapidly climbed, he was in awe. “I did not anticipate the response. I was surprised but overjoyed at the same time.”
Yes, Chasi raised aid online from tens of thousands of Zimbabweans scattered all over the world, but when it comes to logistics he prefers to work with small teams. “I believe in lean teams – fewer people focused on high impact; small teams, with the ability to coordinate and outsource donations,” he says.
His goodwill soon met opposition. World Remit, one of the world´s leading money transfer agencies, declined to suspend transfer fees as a goodwill gesture and allow him to send disaster aid money to Zimbabwe without expenses levied. A weather catastrophe had struck Zimbabwe, and many online supporters felt global money transfer corporations that do business in Zimbabwe should step up to the plate. Scores of furious online Zimbabweans in Europe, South Africa, Asia and the Americas were red with fury, vowing to boycott World Remit.
“I think with World Remit it was a case of poor customer care,” says Chasi. “The response I got was abrasive. It did not sound right. It is an opportunity for them to learn. Customers want to be treated as humans too.”
Ensuring that money donated to crises like Cyclone Idai does in fact reach victims without being pilfered or embezzled is a major sticking point. To ensure honesty, Chasi works by once again exploiting the advantages of the Internet. He posts verified receipts on Twitter of how the money is distributed. “People want their money to make an impact,” he says. “Zimbabwe is a country riddled with corruption. Via barcoded Twitter receipts, we try to make the aid money traceable so that whoever so wishes can follow the trail. This helps build trust. Many people then feel comfortable giving.”
Chasi has first-hand experience of dishonesty. In April, he complained publicly on the Internet that some suppliers in Zimbabwe attempted to deceive him on the true costs of purchases and receipts.
“There is rampant corruption and everyone seeks to bite off a chunk where they can,” reveals Chasi. “Some try to make simple processes complex so that we must pay them; other just try to milk us outright. These are symptoms of a broken economy. We must resist, even if it means ruffling some feathers.”
Chasi has not only raised money for weather disasters. He has ventured into sensitive humanitarian help when, in January 2019, he raised donations of up to US$3 000 online for the scores of people who had been hammered when Zimbabwean security forces swept through townships to overturn fuel price protests. Zimbabwe authorities were furious and labelled him a political opponent.
“I just do what I can; it doesn’t matter what the state thinks,” he says. “We cannot afford to fear.”
Normally, aid efforts during a humanitarian crisis are carried out by the state. In Zimbabwe, it would appear, the infrastructure of social welfare has all but collapsed. “The country is reeling. The priorities are all wrong. We can’t have two Zimbabwes – one for the rich and another for the poor,” Chasi says.
When he rounded up money online for Cyclone Idai, it was obviously donated in stable currencies like US dollar, euro and pound. However, Zimbabwe has a confusing basketful of currencies. Did he find distributing aid money in Zimbabwe a challenge because of the confusion of currencies, black markets and a woeful banking system? “Oh yes,” Chasi gasps. “Everything gets complicated. For example, due to the shortage of fuel there are petrol stations that sell in US dollars and others that sell in RTGS (local Zimbabwe dollars.) Time is wasted in queues too.”
Many assume that donations to his online humanitarian appeals were made mainly by well-off Zimbabweans in the diaspora, living, say, in Cape Town, Singapore or Berlin. This does not mean Zimbabweans living inside the country have no heart to make financial contributions too, he says. “The challenge is that GoFundMe uses credit cards, and most of Zimbabwe’s credit cards are not accepted outside of the country, due to the state of the economy. So, most of the donors were out of the country.”
Chasi also praised the unique spirit of non-Zimbabweans. “More than 30% of donations came from people who are not Zimbabwean but who felt moved to help.”