BUSINESS associations have evolved over thousands of years into organisations that promote the collective good of their members.
The roots of these associations can be traced to ancient times, when merchants formed cooperatives in order to increase their power in the marketplace.
Modern associations still retain some of the core elements of their forerunners in that they continue to defend the interests of business and promote economic prosperity.
This has led to the emergence of business associations, which were widely considered to represent the business community. They serve as the focal point for economic growth and prosperity.
Examples of these organisations in Zimbabwe include the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) — representing mainly white commercial farmers; the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC) — representing commerce; the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) — representing the manufacturing sector; and the Chamber of Mines of Zimbabwe (CoMZ), which represents big mining houses.
The post-independence has seen the emergence of other business associations to cater for new businesses, especially those owned by blacks and not represented by the former white-run institutions. They also represent smaller players in the various sectors.
These include the Small Scale Miners Association of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU), the Indigenous Business Women Organisation (IBWO), the Indigenous Business Development Centre (IBDC) and the Affirmative Action Group, among others.
These organisations have also grown in numbers to focus on the specific needs of different groups.
In some cases, the associations have failed to position themselves to serve the greater business community, which precipitated the creation of new business organisations that focus on gender, race or geographic area.
Business associations are not highly regulated by government and have maximum flexibility to design and launch demand-driven programmes.
The market therefore dictates the success or failure of these programmes, which forces the associations to remain focused on member needs.
Many of these associations have found a niche in public policy advocacy, using a reform mentality to recruit and retain their membership base.
Associations such as ZNCC, CZI and CoMZ have remained on the scene. But others such as IBWO and IBDC have gone silent while some like ZFU are no longer as effective as they used to be during the early years of independence.
The economic situation has not helped either as these institutions largely rely on membership fees and donations.
It is, however, important to note that while leadership changes take place annually at institutions such as ZNCC or CZI, the same cannot be said for the institutions that came on board later on.
They are to some extent owned by the people who formed them and hence they remain the chairman or president, thus stifling their renewal and growth.
When the words IBWO are mentioned one just thinks of Jane Mutasa or Ben Mucheche for IBDC, the late Gary Magadzire or Silas Hungwe for ZFU, Raymond Majongwe for the Progress Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, and Wellington Takavarasha of small scale miners.
The failure to change leadership is also one of the reasons why frustrated members leave and form new associations. This creates challenges for policy-makers and weakens lobbying as well as reducing the benefits accruing to members.
If the Minister of Agriculture was to call a meeting of agricultural associations, how many would he meet and how would he reconcile their varied interests?
This is unlike Industry Minister Mike Bimha who can easily meet with CZI to deal with manufacturing sector issues. As a result the lobbying by CZI is generally effective as it is well-organised. In the case of CZI, it is much easier to deal with their differences internally and only present to government a common position.
What this may show is that the former pre-independence organisations have proper governance structures. These have sustained their continued existence and effectiveness compared to post-independence organisations.
For many leaders in the smaller lobby groups, survival hinges on their continued stay in power.
This brings into question the actual motive for the establishment of some of these associations.
It may be difficult to determine how ordinary members benefit from these organisations.
It is therefore important that members reflect on the corporate governance systems of their various associations and ensure that they are well run and effectively represents their interests.
The establishment of good governance within a business association keeps the organisation from losing direction and going astray.
In a transparent organisation, everyone from the president down to the lowest ranked member understands the governance structure and are held accountable for their actions.
Members should have a say in the running of organisation in which they make monetary contributions.
Founder members of organisations should also have the willingness to separate their own personal businesses from associations so that leadership changes hands at congresses.
It is largely the CZI, ZNCC and CoMZ who hold regular congresses.
While government cannot force mergers or determine the number of associations it can work with, it is not practical to deal with so many institutions and address their multiple needs.
In the end, it is the smaller members who suffer as their voices end up being marginalised.
Government may therefore be forced to pursue a “containment policy” whereby one association or group of associations would be allowed access to authorities, while the others remain on the fringe of the policy debate. -This article was originally published by the Financial Gazette