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Country analysis > Zambia Last update: 2020-11-27  

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Zambia Drivers of pro-poor change: an overview - Summary version

3. The Zambian state: characteristics and development impact

Much of the drive for pro-poor change will come from non-state actors – from individuals improving their livelihoods and from the private sector mobilising human and financial capital. Yet many of the constraints to which they are subject require actions by the state, either to remove obstacles, or more actively to provide necessary public goods. This paper suggests that those with power and influence in Zambia cannot be counted on to bring about the necessary changes. Effective pressure is likely to be needed, principally exercised by citizens through (among others) Parliament, the media, or civil society organisations. Donor agencies --- which Zambia’s aid-dependence has made highly influential in the political and economic spheres and in civil society --- also have a role.

The incentives and restraints that explain behaviour, especially that of the elite, in the political sphere, the civil service, or the private sector, but also extending to civil society and the donor agencies, exercise a strong influence on development performance and prospects in Zambia. Three interlinked ideas have explanatory power in understanding these incentives and restraints: patrimonialism; autonomy and factionalism; and the availability and allocation of surpluses --- which in Zambia have essentially come from two sources, from the mining sector and in the form of foreign aid. These characteristics of the state have had several effects on development performance and prospects, of which a few may be noted.

  • The patrimonial nature of politics on the positive side may have contributed to political stability, but it has contributed also to wastage and inefficiency in the use of public resources as these were used to placate or buy the support of key groups. Patrimonialism in Zambia has not been conducive to a political culture oriented towards the promotion of economic growth.

  • A growth of factionalism has caused the leadership (especially during the present crisis of legitimacy of the President) to focus on short-term considerations at the expense of measures with longer-term pay-offs.

  • The surplus from the mining sector arguably reinforced patrimonial tendencies among the elite as it provided substantial resources, used variously for the ultimately unaffordable welfare state, for an expansion of the state sector, and a concentration of power in the Presidency.
Four other factors have emerged over the past two decades that both affect and are affected by the political development of the state, and that bear on development prospects:

  • First, the decline in performance of the civil service has emerged over years as an increasingly significant political factor; it now hinders pursuit of a coherent development agenda and the provision of quality services to the bulk of the population. Capacity limitations are especially marked in some of the more isolated rural areas in which government has virtually ceased to exist, but where there is extensive poverty.

  • Second, a historically strong urban bias has been offset in recent years by a slowdown and possibly a reversal of rural-to-urban migration, reflecting drastic falls in urban incomes and urban-to-rural remittances. The isolation of the rural population has increased, with the destruction and limited re-creation of private rural trading networks, the disappearance of the cooperative movement, and the limited abilities of local government.

  • Third, the contraction of the middle class is striking and has adverse long-term political as well as poverty effects. Many professionals, especially civil servants, doctors in public service, nurses, lecturers and teachers, have seen their incomes decline to the point where they are unable to feed and clothe their families adequately. Citizens thus impoverished are less able to live as empowered tax-paying citizens able and willing to apply pressure for improved governance. This has left a wide gulf between the mass of the population and the elite, from which political leadership is largely drawn, comprising a very small number of people who, in many cases because of previous access to state resources, have been able to consolidate sufficiently to engage in politics.

  • And fourth, both the 1996 and 2001 elections have seen extensive use of state resources to fund the ruling party, further undermining both the integrity of public financial management and the legitimacy of the subsequent government. Yet given the absence of many alternative sources of campaign finance, it is hard to see an end to such practices.
The characteristics of the state over this period have had a substantial and continuing impact on the prospects for poverty reduction goals. In respect of economic performance, during the earlier period of President Kaunda’s rule, Zambia showed many of the characteristics of a ‘staple trap’ economy in which substantial natural resources (notably minerals) are associated, for both political and economic reasons, with poor economic growth, stagnating or declining incomes, and lack of economic diversification. A second set of effects has been on empowerment. Here the picture is complex. The advent of multi-party democracy has created the possibility of more accountable institutions, and to some extent this is happening in reality. Yet growing factionalism has created a set of incentives facing the elite that have led to the dominance of short-term perspectives, and to decisions in the interests of small groups. In such a ‘negotiable’ system, important parts of the population, notably rural people and the urban unemployed or underemployed, remain marginalised.

One of the paradoxes which afflicts Zambia’s prospects for economic reform and recovery is that the state is patrimonial, yet key reforms including liberalisation and privatisation threaten the patrimonial power of the state. The reforms that have made least progress are those that most threaten the ability of the elite to maintain patron:client relationships. For instance, the privatisation of the mines during the second Chiluba term was severely delayed; and over recent years, the slow progress of civil service reform has been another example.

The existence of patrimonial politics creates real dilemmas for those who would bring about change. On the positive side, Zambia’s success in maintaining relative peace and stability over 40 years is in part due to patron:client relationships having provided some of the glue that has held the society together. The negative aspects, which can all be linked to the nature of the state, are very clear, however: economic performance has been dismal, theft of public resources is widespread and has so far gone largely unpunished; aid dependency has persisted; and some parts of the reform agenda are being weakly addressed.

It is not clear (a) whether alternative paradigms (for instance one based on a separation of powers, a professional bureaucracy, a clearly-defined public sphere, a greater use of market forces, and a more limited role for the state) can be sustained in Zambia and can maintain political and social cohesion, and (b) that a transition from the present paradigm can be made in an orderly way.

Looking to the future, an extremely difficult dilemma therefore faces the international community. If donors act (for instance through drastically reducing aid) in such a way that the bonds between state and citizen are further weakened (and inter alia the patrimonial state is dismantled with no alternative being put in place), will the state disintegrate as has occurred elsewhere?

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