Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai met President Obama on Friday to seek cures for the worst economic performance of any country for which comparable data exists.

While nearly every economy in the world grew over the past decade, even with the current recession, Zimbabweans’ income fell by more than two-thirds. But Zimbabweans can still save their country, given a chance.

The USA is reluctant to grant aid or financial concessions while President Robert Mugabe’s ruling clique still holds most of the power, but the good news is that there are many economic reforms that could have rapid results—unlike aid, which has shackled Africans and fuelled corruption.

Zimbabwe’s neighbours have all seen the effect of opening trade in the last decade and Zimbabwe itself was a big exporter only a few years ago.

Every simplification of tax and business regulations, every bolstering of contract law and public safety has an almost immediate impact on individuals, families and the economy.

But there’s a mountain to climb. Zimbabwe’s long-running cholera epidemic is just another symptom of obstinate and savage oppression. Since 1998, the average life expectancy for Zimbabweans has declined from 55 to 35.

More than 80 per cent of the adult population is unemployed.

Nearly half of all Zimbabweans risk malnutrition and starvation: eight million need food aid, twice as many as just a few years ago.

Zimbabwe’s children suffer the highest mortality, malnourishment and stunted growth of all sub-Saharan Africa.

Mugabe’s corrupt gang keeps power by imposing martial law, stealing land, controlling the media and banning dissent.

Opposition activists have been imprisoned and murdered while a brave judiciary is ignored. The current attempt at bi-partisan government looks like another trick by Mugabe to crush his enemies by pulling them closer.

Region’s breadbasket
Little wonder, then, that thousands flee across the borders into Botswana and South Africa, while thousands more are turned back every day: about a third of the population. lives abroad. 

Zimbabwe’s rulers blame the British former colonialists, not Mugabe’s oppression, reckless spending, taxes, business restrictions and inflation.

In the hackneyed, but apt phrase, he has turned the region’s breadbasket into a basket-case.

But Zimbabwe is not a hopeless case: it has the entrepreneurs, the miners, the farmers, the education levels and even a few remaining public servants of a functioning, prosperous country.

Its neighbours are friendly (although often too friendly to Mugabe) and it has made a huge step forward by allowing foreign currencies to replace its hyper-inflated money.

It now needs to curb government spending and restore economic freedoms to liberate every productive worker from the strangling regulations and taxes that have pushed most economic activity underground.

The International Finance Corporation estimates that it takes 96 days to start a business in Zimbabwe, 481 days to comply with licences and another 30 days to register a property.

Even the cost of hiring an employee is 14 times the average salary.

Developing countries that deliberately lowered trade barriers in the 1990s grew three times faster (five percent annually) than those whose trade policies remain unchanged. Zimbabwe curbed trade and currently ranks 7th worst on the World Bank’s Trade Restrictiveness Index.

Seizures of white-owned farms by Zanu-PF cronies dominate headlines but the sad reality is that property rights for everyone, whether for smallholdings or businesses, have been smashed.

Unable to enforce or trade property rights, the poor cannot get credit to improve their land and productivity.

The tried and proven lesson for improving trade, business formation, employment and land registration is simple: simplify, simplify, simplify.

But simplicity is not easy.

A powerful minority benefits from the mess but ZANU-PF’s dominance will eventually weaken then crumble.

Tsvangirai and other reformers must be ready with the proven policies that have worked elsewhere and can work for Zimbabwe: an Africa-wide group of think-tanks describes these lessons in The Zimbabwe Papers, published on 19 May and already seen by Tsvangirai.

Unlike North Korea or Myanmar, Zimbabwe has skilled citizens who remember how a successful country works and can put it back together again. Yes they can.

Nolutshungu is a South African on the Commission of “The Zimbabwe Papers – A Positive Agenda for Zimbabwean Renewal,” recently published by nine of Africa’s leading think-tanks.