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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

5. The social, political and economic environment

The factors discussed here are not necessarily exhaustive, but they are those which the team and interviewees identified as being influential in Zambia. Those covered are: markets for labour, produce and services; falling living standards; ethnicity, race and class; education and health; rural-urban dynamics; and (with reservations) cultural factors.

Markets. The reduction of poverty requires an increase in production and productivity on the part of Zambia’s people, who need to be more closely linked to well-functioning markets (for instance of labour, finance, land and products) and the formal economy. Unfortunately, the underdeveloped state of the markets for labour, finance, land and produce is a major cause of poverty. Systemic weaknesses in markets reflect problems with the wider enabling environment, with the persistence of multiple market failures, with exclusion, and with weak market linkages. The latter shows itself across urban and rural, and formal and informal dimensions, and has worsened over the last thirty years.

However, despite the continuing weaknesses with markets, some progress has been made, for example in respect of agricultural and rural markets where there are some recent apparently successful attempts to re-commercialise some sectors. Within the last few years, for instance, Zambeef has begun buying large quantities of cattle in the Western Province; and the improvement of living standards for some people in rural areas in the second half of the 1990s is apparently linked to the liberalisation of maize marketing and to the growth and sale in suitable areas of crops with comparative advantage such as cotton, tobacco and beans. In relation to the labour market, at present less than 10% of the adult population is in formal sector employment, and it is more likely that employment in this sector will continue to decline than that it will increase. Nearly half of formal sector employment is now in government service, and progress with the reform of the civil service will result in further redundancies. The only significant increase in formal sector employment and production in recent years has been in commercial agriculture through the development of export markets for vegetables and flowers. Finance markets are crucial for poor people in Zambia to be able to mobilise financial assets, and the availability of credit are widely perceived to be necessary for formal and informal trade and production in both rural and urban areas, but the constraints are severe. The record of government-sponsored credit schemes has been generally poor, and micro-finance schemes run by NGOs are reaching some people, but the demand still appears to be greater than the supply. High interest rates, competition between the government and the private sector for scarce funds, the government’s large and growing internal debt, and the preference of the banks for the relative safety of treasury bills, combine to make the availability of credit a major issue at all levels.

Levels of living. Zambia has high levels of human deprivation that have worsened since the 1970s. Life expectancy at birth has dropped and most measures of mortality remain among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. The effects of falling living standards on this scale on the prospects for pro-poor change are multiple and almost all negative.

  • Growth is affected, as falling effective demand from domestic consumers, industry and government contributes through linkages to depressing service sectors and industry. Supply-side capacities also fall as the poor living standards have forced a number of qualified professionals to leave the country to seek better opportunities in other countries

  • Social and political empowerment and the quality of institutions are also harmed. Two effects may be noted. First, falling living standards may make the poor more focused on short-term horizons and more receptive to particularist ‘rewards’ in exchange for their political support. Second, the take-home pay of public workers is so low that it has seriously affected morale and productivity, strengthening incentives for rent-seeking behaviour and graft.

  • The access of the poor majority of the population to assets, markets and services is adversely affected as they are less able to purchase privately-provided services, and the quality of state-funded services falls. This especially affects rural areas which typically involve higher unit costs in service provision.

  • Individual security is affected as assets are run down to meet consumption needs, and the publicly-provided safety nets which used to form part of the ultimately unaffordable welfare state decayed or disappeared.
While positive aspects may be hard to find, falling living standards have presented incentives for people to find alternative means of survival, and in the view of some have spurred the growth of an entrepreneurial culture that may have created new energies to be harnessed for future growth.

Race, ethnicity and class. Race has not been a major issue in Zambia since independence. The white settler community is small, but important in the business and commercial farming sectors. In the view of some, their high-profile role may have weakened the effectiveness of representative business and farming organisations as lobby groups. While race has not been central, there are nevertheless sensitivities that need to be taken into account in policy for future recovery, for instance in relation to the opening of new commercial farming blocks.

African ‘aliens’ are frequently blamed for crime, and an amendment to the constitution in 1996 excluded not only President Kaunda, but also hundreds of thousands of other Zambians of ‘foreign’ ancestry, from running for high office.

Ethnicity is clearly an important factor in Zambian politics, but the country has been blessed by the diversity of its largely mythical ‘73 Tribes’, and the more real nine language clusters. While political parties in Zambia tend to be identified by the perceived ethnicity of their leaders, no party can hope to gain power without presenting itself as national, and running candidates in most districts. However, the disputed results of the 2001 election created a situation where, for the first time since 1964, the party in government was unable to draw on support from the majority of the provinces.

Some commentators have pointed to the absence of class-based political organisations in Zambia, and have suggested that class-based parties might be ‘pro-poor’ and provide an alternative to patronage and clientelism. The problem with this suggestion is that class-based political parties would be as incapable of winning power in Zambia as ethnically based parties. Classes are insufficiently developed to provide a basis for political action on a national scale.

Education. Measured by adult literacy rates, Zambia has made progress since the early 1970s. However, like other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, it has, since the mid-1970s, experienced a chronic crisis in its education system, and in particular in public education. The source of the crisis has been principally reduced funding levels in the midst of population growth and increased demand for education. Policy responses have included the promotion of cost-sharing and the establishment and ownership of educational institutions by communities, NGOs, churches, private companies and individuals. The resulting demand for, and extreme scarcity of, secondary school places has encouraged entrepreneurs to invest in the education sector. However, the scale is still limited and the standard of education provided in private schools varies enormously.

Education is an important tool for several of the pro-poor strategies set out above. Perhaps in the long term the most important issue is the relationship between education and political and social empowerment. A well-educated citizenry is more able to participate effectively in the political and development process, to make informed decisions and choices, and to hold government to account. Education, through its role in building human capital, is also central to the prospects for economic diversification and sustained growth, while those who have had an education are most likely to utilize available opportunities created by the market and liberalization to improve their well-being. Conversely, the less educated are more likely to be fatalistic and to remain in poverty.

Health. The links between poverty and health are clearly circular. Poverty leads to ill-health and ill-health leads to poverty. There has been a decline in the health of Zambia’s population, and in the quality and availability of health services since the late 1980s. Life expectation has fallen from over 50 to somewhere between 37 and 41 today, with the beginning of the decline in the late 1980s. Although HIV/AIDS is the major contributor to the reduction in the expectation of life (the adult HIV prevalence figure is given as 21.5% in 2001), there are also other factors at work, including drug-resistant strains of malaria and TB, and the increased incidence of malnutrition resulting from poverty.

The political, social and economic consequences of the deterioration of standards of health are numerous and complex. While prophecies of total political and social breakdown may be exaggerated, the premature loss of many educated men and women has a similar impact on the life of the country to that of involvement in a major and lengthy war. HIV/AIDS, through raising insecurity may encourage short-termism and the pursuit of narrow interests among the elite; and in rural areas its disproportionate impact on women, who carry the greater part of the burden of cultivation, compounds the problem of periodic famine. The loss of essential labour power affects the ability of families to support themselves. Increasing numbers of children without parents, and of elderly parents without children, place a strain on extended family networks.

It would be wrong to suggest that any real benefit can flow from a health disaster such as HIV/AIDS. There is, however, no doubt that it has stimulated a great deal of research, as well as debate and discussion at all levels of society on issues such as sex, gender, women’s rights, education and empowerment, as well as the role of the churches and of traditional healers. It has attracted large flows of donor funds and has stimulated the formation of a host of community-based associations, many of them involving women and girls, and it provides opportunities for intensified public education.

The urban/rural dynamic. The proportion of the population living in towns has remained more or less stable at 40% throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as the movement of people to towns stalled as a result of the onset of depression, falling copper prices, and rising oil prices. The withdrawal of mealie meal subsidies, and the decline of formal employment have resulted in an increase in the proportion of poor people living in towns. While the poorest provinces continue to be rural, the largest concentration of poor people now lives in the Copperbelt Province.

Population movements are highly complex, and only partially understood. For many people ‘going back to the land’ has not involved a return to a distant ancestral village, but an attempt to generate agricultural incomes while continuing to retain an urban base and, as far as possible, an urban life-style. It is probable that more people are now engaged in ‘rural to rural’ migration than in either ‘rural to urban’ or ‘urban to rural’ migration.

The need to move and to diversify livelihoods highlights the issue of land tenure, whether for farming or for housing. There is evidence that, in the Copperbelt at least, land tenure problems have created an artificial shortage of land, and that the system of land allocation, often involving patronage rather than market forces, disadvantages the poorest people.

There is now less justification than before for talk of ‘urban bias’ in Zambia. There is, on the contrary, a need to combat prejudice against the towns and to see urbanized people as an economic asset, as people with higher than average levels of literacy, political awareness, and useful skills.

Cultural factors. In its discussions, the team found a number of interviewees who took the view that some cultural or attitudinal features of Zambia could affect, positively or negatively, the prospects for pro-poor change. Team members take the view that there are a number of problems with such approaches, not least that identifying and measuring cultural factors or attitudes is extremely problematic, and that such attitudes can and do change rapidly. Despite these reservations, two aspects may, however, be worth mentioning, principally because they are widely believed:

  • Willingness among Zambians to associate with others. A widely-held view is that many Zambians are favourably disposed towards associating on a voluntary basis with others for the purpose of collective endeavour in urban as well as in rural areas. The most common form of organization to which the majority of Zambians belong is the church. In addition, the growing number of community-based organisations and NGOs that undertake advocacy and/or service-providing functions, in part as an alternative to state-provided services, suggest that real needs are being unmet, and that collective action can go some way to making up these deficits. Associations of civil society provide an organizational framework of mobilizing the citizens to participate in both politics and development, and go some way to filling the institutional vacuum, especially in rural areas

  • Deference towards leaders. A further common view is that an understanding of the problems of governance in Zambia may partly be explained by a tradition of deference to elders and traditional rulers that has implications for the relationship between the rulers and the led. This deference, it is suggested, has been transferred to the modern political leadership. However, this view can be overstated, as evidenced by the fact that people in towns took to the streets with dramatic political consequences in 1986 and 1990.
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