Unjustified Poverty in Africa: The Case of Zambia

Published on 9th November 2012

Zambian farmers harvesting corn   P.Courtesy
Poverty in Zambia is unwarranted, and even unexplained. Zambia subscribes to two economical conundrums: the fact that all the factors that make nations wealthy are present; and the fact that all the conditions that make nations poor are fairly non-existent. In spite of that, the nation is still poor and struggling.

Good Institutions but Still Poor

The brightest of economists’ minds in the world have failed to explain why the major factors attributive in Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson are not applicable to Zambia, and yet the nation is still one of the poorest in the world. Zambia has good political and democratic institutions. The nation conducts free and fair elections every five years, is rich in mineral wealth, has a favourable climate and relatively credible infrastructure that exploit its resources. Most economic commentators identify good laws and practices that motivate people to work hard as conveyor-belts for economic productivity. These, they assert, help to enrich both citizens and nations alike. Zambia is rich in both.

A sincere disservice that most economic theories postulate is that, for Africa in general, and for countries like Zambia in particular, the people have not had enough time to absorb or otherwise unlearn their long history of tribal organization. In short, tribal organization is construed as a recipe for poverty in years to come. The assumption is that long lines of tribal chiefs have not empowered their subjects towards independent rational thinking as well as towards true economic freedom. Those who advance this thesis actually argue strongly, ironically, that Britain, for example, has benefited from its monarchial establishment, while those from chiefdom-type establishments have not.

This posture does not explain why Zambia is poor, either. In fact, the pre-colonial Zambian regimes worked to encourage tribal governance rather to decimate it. Through Indirect Rule, African chiefs were given mandate, albeit salaciously, to continue to rule the locals on pre-imperial patterns. By October 1964, Zambia was already being governed from Lusaka, evidence that a strong central government was deeply entrenched into the Zambian political proclivity.

Reversal of Fortunes

Africa has experienced what is termed as “the reversal of fortune.” This is mostly attributed to European Imperialism, especially at the end of the 19th Century. At some time in the past, Peru, Indonesia, and India were very wealthy nations. European imperialists, however, introduced corrupt “extractive” economic institutions, such as forced labor and confiscation of produce, to drain wealth and labor from the natives. In other words, the governing elites extracted incomes and wealth from the masses in order to enrich themselves. As uncouth and unpalatable politically as this postulation may seem, it still does not explain why a country like Zambia is poor.

A quick visit to one of the Zambian shanty compounds will reveal that people live in conditions too despicable for human habitation. They sleep in conditions too drastic to be described. They eat once per day and carry on their day-to-day affairs in situations too inglorious to be explained. Yet, even the most human of the Zambian politicians just maintain the status quo when they get in power. The national infrastructure is in deplorable conditions. Some bridges are as old as Zambia itself; some prisons are as small as when the population of the country was only 3.5 million and still catering for a population of 13 million! Hospital spaces, medical equipment and medicines, are in critical supply. Schools, and even the University of Zambia, are in unspeakable conditions – students and pupils alike barely survive, jeopardising both the quality and delivery of education. The Lusaka (Kenneth Kaunda) International Airport built over 30 years ago remains the same size and is in deplorable conditions. City centres and towns are harbingers of disease and dirt; roads are in serious state of disrepair, with lethal potholes; and people die just when they reach their most productive ages. Once in a while, a new building or sets of buildings or malls or hotels pop out in some place, and there is great jubilation and celebration. And yet, such so-called developments have been long overdue. By the time certain ills and conditions of society are addressed, people have contracted diseases and even passed on.

There is no sense of urgency on the part of the rulers; and there is no sense of spirit for protest on the part of the ruled. It’s as if the governors and the governed have come to accept their conditions as fate. And worse still, credible institutions of the Bretton Woods keep satiating the economic image of Zambia with pontificated appraisals, such as the recent statement issued by the IMF mission that, “Zambia’s economy prospects of 2013 look good with real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth expected to be at 8 per cent while inflation is expected to at 6 percent.” Who is benefiting?

Election debates are fuelled by politics of personality while issues that affect the majority are bypassed. Major media outlets either report on what excites them and otherwise promote their philosophy and whims or are politically news based. There is generally a parochial worship of foreign-driven development, which for the most part, is only a conduit of neo-colonial punditry. A sense of the now blurs the efforts to invest for the future. An acceptance of politically-defined progress limits the nation`s capacity to stretch itself further and explore new ideas, new ventures and new ways of approaching development.

The Curse of Mineral Resources

The so-called “curse of natural resources” has been depicted in statements like, “Zambia's economy has experienced strong growth in recent years, with real GDP growth in 2005-11 of more than 6% per year. Privatization of government-owned copper mines in the 1990s relieved the government from covering mammoth losses generated by the industry and greatly increased copper mining output and profitability to spur economic growth. Copper output has increased steadily since 2004, due to higher copper prices and foreign investment.” Just when you think this salutation is sustainable, and then you read, “Poverty remains a significant problem in Zambia, despite a stronger economy.”

A conundrum so devastating to national ethos, a statement so damaging to national conscious; an appraisal so demeaning to the national intellect; and an elegy to the nation`s productive future – this salutation remains a Zambian curse. To add insult to injury, between 2005 and 2006, Zambia qualified for debt relief under the Highly Indebted Poor Country Initiative. About US$6 billion was forgiven in debt relief. One would have thought that the politicians` foremost excuse for poverty in the country was dealt with, alas; poverty has remained a significant problem in Zambia. And other excuses have been advanced.

If Zambia's dependency on copper makes it vulnerable to depressed commodity prices as has been postulated, the period between 2005 and 2012 has refuted that claim. For in that period, the nation has recorded high copper prices in addition to a bumper maize crop between 2010 and 2012. Moreover, Zambia, in economic terms, was barely affected by the 2008 world economic crunch. Yet, countries that were affected by the credit melt-down of 2008 have recovered and are still richer; Zambia still remains poor and one of the poorest in the world.

The HIV/AIDS Excuse

Zambia has a high birth rate, of approximately 43.51 births/1,000 population in 2012. Zambia`s death rate stands at 12.42 deaths/1,000 population in July 2012. The implications are huge. It is this dynamic that is material to the poverty debate rather than the HIV/AIDS excuse. While on one hand, there has been emphasis on fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which some see as a menace to the productive age of the Zambian demographic, there has been, on the other, a denial that considering the number of births apropos to deaths in Zambia, the biggest problem, as far as poverty is concerned, has been in controlling the population spurts. The reason often advanced is that a relatively high HIV/AIDS burden and market distorting agricultural policies have meant that Zambia's economic growth has not dramatically decreased the stubbornly high poverty rates. This, too, does not explain why there is poverty in Zambia.

No Political Instability but Still Poor

By purchasing power party (PPP), the ten poorest countries in Africa, namely Congo DR ($400), Liberia ($500), Zimbabwe ($500), Burundi ($600), Somalia ($600), Eritrea ($700), Central African Republic ($800), Niger ($800), and with the exception of Madagascar ($900), and Malawi ($900), have all been dogged by civil wars or critical political conditions. Zambia has not. On the contrary, Zambia boasts of inclusive economic and political institutions that distribute power broadly in society and which are subject to constraints. In Zambia, power is not vested in a single individual or a narrow group; there is a thriving caucus of opposition political parties, and a truly remarkable and well-groomed civil society. And yet, and despite all the liberal democratic pluses, Zambia is still poor.

Disease Does Not Cause Poverty

Diseases cannot be blamed for poverty, because even as Acemoglu and Robinson have argued, “Disease is largely a consequence of poverty and of governments being unable or unwilling to undertake the public health measures necessary to eradicate them.” Although tropical diseases like malaria kill a lot of children in Zambia, UNICEF has vouched that malaria has been under control, for “Zambia has made strides in malaria prevention and control in the last five years.” The numbers of deaths arising from malaria in Zambia per year is 8000. This is not worse in comparison to Canada where about 75,700 people will die from cancer alone in 2012. Similarly, some analysts` arguments that, “Europe has glaciated fertile soils, reliable summer rainfall, and few tropical diseases; tropical Africa has unglaciated and extensively infertile soils, less reliable rainfall, and many tropical diseases,” only partly explains why certain countries like Zambia are still poor. Agricultural productivity has little to do with soil quality. The case of the Nile Delta is germane to this debate. It has nothing to do with the “ownership structure of the land and the incentives that are created for farmers by the governments and institutions under which they live,” either. Zambia has one of the most liberal policies in the world in as far as land is concerned. And Zambians are among the most hard-working peoples on the global.

Zambian Culture Does Not Promote Poverty

Some blame the work culture in Zambia. Critical analysis does not support that premise, either. The Zambian work situation will reveal that it is more of the work policies and not a work culture. Zambian work culture and philosophies generally support hard work, industry and diligence. A microscopic evaluation of the Zambian village lends credence to this assertion. There, people till their land from morning till evening. There, people have traditionally been self-sufficient for centuries. There, laziness is not only undesirable, but is spurned upon as a societal ill.

Real Action is Required

So, then, why is Zambia still poor? This has been the preoccupation of social scientists for the past forty years, and no tangible results have been achieved for the majority poor Zambians so far. Knowledge that Europe has had up to four thousand years’ experience of government, complex institutions, and growing national identities, compared to a few centuries or less for all of sub-Saharan Africa, is inconsequential to the current poverty debate. Historical tale-tales of who colonised who and what adverse impact this has hard on the African economies, while being cogent, do not help poor Zambians become rich, either. Co-relating the presence or prevalence of war or famine in some countries; the role of effective central governments; the deleterious effect of corruption and corrupt government officials; and the over-used platitude of “resource-rich but lack capital needed to create infrastructures,” mantras are all only bywords.

What is required is this government, in concert with the people themselves, to frown upon poverty, treat it like a deadly disease, for so it is, and move heaven and earth to remove it, permanently. What is required is doing; not talking. What is required is creating many opportunities; not proposing alternatives. What is required is using the profit from copper sells to create jobs for the unemployed, improve dilapidated schools and hospitals, resuscitate national infrastructure and erase shanty-compounds and create modern housing in their place. What is required is an ambitious program to rid the town-centres of squalors, street vendors and in their place create clean and responsible and taxable ventures. What is required is a policy on sanitation that penalizes anyone vandalising public property or throwing garbage elsewhere other than in designated bins or urinating in open places rather than in well-maintained public washrooms, among others. What is required under President Michael Sata is: ignore conventionalism of educate and empower the people who will in turn change their situation. That has not worked for over 40 years. Simply do it; create, act and end poverty!

By Charles Mwewa
Author: Zambia – Struggles of My People

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