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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

6. Agents of change

A wide range of actual or potential agents for pro-poor change in Zambia were identified during this study and grouped into four categories:

  • drivers from within: entrepreneurs and the private sector (with a focus on farming and tourism); the media; the policy research community; and professional associations;

  • drivers from below: civil society organisations; churches; and trade unions;

  • drivers from above: Parliament and reform-minded elements of political parties; traditional leaders; the civil service; the Electoral Commission; and the anti-Corruption Commission;

  • drivers from outside: international agencies; expatriate Zambians; and regional actors.
6.1 Internal drivers

Entrepreneurs and the private sector. The private sector, understood as including a wide range of formal and informal enterprises, plays multiple roles in pro-poor strategies, including promoting economic growth; and pressuring government to provide key public goods that are necessary for the private sector to thrive --- including infrastructure, a supportive policy environment, equitable and efficient regulation, the control of animal disease, and so on.

However, the private sector has long been in decline and is subject to a severe set of constraints, many of them centring on the relationship with government. The position of different parts of the private sector in Zambia varies considerably in terms of the ways in which they can contribute to pro-poor strategies and the constraints to which they are subject. Some larger-scale enterprises should be well placed individually and collectively to apply pressure on government to ensure that public goods are provided. However, the reality appears to fall well short of the potential, for several reasons: it is difficult to apply effective pressure from a position of financial weakness and, despite privatisation, much of the private sector remains small and fragile; some of the formal private sector entities have been able to get access to required (formerly public) services privately and have therefore little interest in pressing for improved performance on the part of government; ownership of many enterprises is apparently concentrated in ethnic minority groups; there remains an atmosphere of mutual mistrust between government and private enterprises; in the case of some substantial subsectors (such as emeralds) private players and some interests within government have combined to create an industry serving the private interests of a few, but without substantial wider benefits; and some private sector players are perceived as part of systems of corruption and patronage and have learned to operate within the existing system. The overall effect of these weaknesses is that the private sector individually and through its chambers of commerce seems to lack effective bargaining power to influence government policies in its favour.

Small and medium enterprises are in a different situation, but they too offer some scope for applying pressure on government for addressing some of the constraints under which they operate. The constraints essentially centre on the absence of basic public goods (such as infrastructural weaknesses, and the need to pay bribes to obtain permits), and of key services, including financial services. By necessity, smaller enterprises need to combine if they are to be able to lobby effectively, but collective efforts can be costly and time-consuming.

The prospects for private sector growth, and the roles it might play in pro-poor change are examined in the paper in relation to agriculture and tourism. The majority of Zambia’s poor and very poor people live in rural areas and are at least nominally engaged in small-scale agriculture. Yet the constraints remain severe, including around land, infrastructure away from the line of rail, veterinary services, and ambiguity in the mind of government as to the division of roles between itself and the private sector. As agents of change, commercial farmers have much to offer, including through their engagement with government in developing farming policy and in their linkages with small-scale farmers.

Tourism offers scope for poverty reduction, though it is still a relatively small industry and there are considerable infrastructural and other constraints on the rate at which this potential can be realised. It can create not only jobs in remote places, but also markets for food and crafts. Tourism is the one industry which has the potential to transform the remoteness and inaccessibility of much of Zambia from a handicap into an asset. There is room for debate about the kind of tourism that is best suited to Zambian conditions, but there is a useful literature on approaches to tourism that optimise pro-poor impacts. Further, an active tourism industry could act as a pressure group for improvement to some of the needed infrastructure improvements, with potentially wider benefits.

The media. Independent and critical media, and freedom of information, are essential for the building and preservation of democracy, for enabling people to hold government to account, for preventing corruption, and for promoting pro-poor change. The major developments over the past decade have been the increase in the independent printed media and the opening of a number of independent radio stations. Despite the evident public thirst for information, however, both the publicly and privately owned media labour under serious commercial difficulties. NGOs are not generally able to subsidise the media directly, but some appear to do so indirectly through advertising, and a Media Trust Fund supports training and upgrading of technical capacities.

The press still encounters problems in obtaining information on the activities of the public sector, and a tradition of investigative journalism has still some way to go. The problem appears to be more related to financial limitations than to the quality of the journalists, and some official harassment of journalists also occurs.

Radio, and especially the growing community radio stations, has considerably wider reach than the printed media, including in rural areas, and using local languages. Licences have, however, to be approved by the Minister for Information rather than by an independent authority, a situation considered by some to jeopardise the independence of the media.

The policy research community. Consistent and sustainable policy that commands general support and is not perceived to be externally-imposed has to be based in large part on locally-conducted research and analysis. Unfortunately, the policy research community in Zambia often lacks vibrancy, depth and completeness. While the implementation of major policy decisions is often preceded by debate in public fora, there is a general lack of information on the issues, and the participants in these debates do not always engage in critical analysis.

A detailed review of capacities, and of the reasons for shortcomings, was not undertaken as part of this study but some observations may be made. Funding problems within the two universities mean that the energies of staff are largely taken up with donor-funded consultancies, which are rarely published, and little academic research is taking place. Some of the advocacy NGOs and the churches conduct policy-relevant research and analysis, some of it of excellent quality and highly relevant to poverty, but the wider picture remains one of unevenness and weakness.

Addressing this dismal situation will be important for the long-term health of the public policy process in Zambia, but credible entry points are not easy to define. A starting point must be to find ways of strengthening the effective demand for quality policy analysis. Reform-minded elements of government and of Parliament may facilitate the cultivation of an environment that is conducive to debate and policy analysis, but if senior levels of government are not supportive there are limits to what can be achieved by this means. In respect of specific mechanisms for addressing the supply-side limitations on policy research, the establishment of a council for funding innovative research could be a worthwhile undertaking, perhaps organised jointly with the private sector.

Professional groupings. Professional associations have considerable potential, partly realised in Zambia, to act as agents for social, economic and political change, both through maintaining professional standards of competence and integrity, and through taking a lead role in advocacy on wider issues. In a situation of widespread corruption and patronage politics these roles represent a constant challenge. Lawyers have been one of the most articulate and consistent of professional associations in exerting pressure on government to respect the rule of law and human rights. The Zambia Institute of Certified Accountants, apart from maintaining professional standards within the accountancy profession in Zambia, have also voiced their concerns at the rise in corporate closures due to poor financial management and graft.

In a patrimonial political context, professional associations face problems if the leadership is susceptible to political manipulation and co-option, as has sometimes occurred. However, as a profession lawyers are still held in high esteem in the country, and they could play a big advocacy role on matters of governance.

6.2 Agents from below

Churches. The churches have always played an important social and even political role in Zambia, but it is probable that this has increased in recent years, perhaps as the result of the apparent withering away of the grass-roots bases of political parties, and of the decline of the industrial trade unions. It is unwise to generalize about the role of churches in relation to the poor. The Catholic Church, for instance, is well organized at the level of base communities and continues to enjoy funding and staffing from overseas. Its personnel vary enormously in terms of political attitudes, and the church as a whole may be progressive on some issues and conservative on others. There is, however, no doubt that important work on poverty is being done by elements within the church. A number of churches continue to run mission hospitals in various parts of the country which tend to be better staffed and to have better access to drugs than government hospitals.

It is thought that at least two thirds of Zambians have an affiliation with a church. The churches are almost unique as institutions that bring together people of very different social, racial and ethnic backgrounds. It may be difficult to generalize about them as drivers of pro-poor change, but there is no doubt that most of them are in touch with poor people, and have the ability to communicate with, and to mobilize them. They also play an important role in the provision of safety nets for the most vulnerable people.

Civil society organisations. A feature of the 1990s was the relative decline in the political influence of the trade unions, and the rise of a great diversity of civic associations and NGOs, both as service providers and as advocates of democracy, human rights, and pro-women and pro-poor change. There are several reasons for their rise: the need for alternatives to state services as these declined; their role as channels for citizens’ pressure for change to the political system from the late 1980s; the more open political culture since 1991; and the growing insistence of the international community on civil society participation in policy processes.

As with the churches, it is difficult to generalise about NGOs. Some have both international links, whether church or secular, but have put down local roots, and have a tradition of involvement with issues of poverty. Other international players lack long-term local roots, but have a strong orientation towards pro-poor change. A number of national NGOs have been established to deal with the promotion of human rights in general, and women’s rights in particular. Some of these are led by strong local personalities, but are heavily dependent on international donor funding which in the view of many affects the extent of real local ownership. NGOs, along with churches, have played decisive roles in the recent political development of the country, as evidenced by the Oasis Forum, which reveals, however, both the strengths and some weaknesses of civil society, principally related to their dependence on donor funding which was arguably as central to the success of the campaign as was civil society pressure.

While it has been fashionable to see NGOs as an alternative to government as a channel for donor funds, they are not without their critics, and good information on the details of the quality of NGO governance and in some cases of party alignment is essential. Among the thousands of registered NGOs there are probably only a relatively small number of good ones.

There are very many community-based organizations (CBOs) in Zambia. Many of these are intended to put pressure on government for the improvement or maintenance of services. Many have been established at the local level with donor support to raise awareness, especially among women, girls, and school pupils, of HIV/AIDS. It is clearly difficult to generalize about such organizations as drivers of pro-poor change, as they vary in effectiveness enormously from place to place according to the quality of the people who lead them. It is always open to question how representative of the poor organizations of this kind are, as there is a tendency for them to be dominated by the relatively well educated and well off. On the other hand it is probably only through community-based organizations that the voices of the poor stand any chance of being heard.

There is no doubt that NGOs and CBOs can play an important role in the promotion of pro-poor change. It is, however, unrealistic to think of them as an alternative to government as a means of bringing about some of the changes Zambia requires. Donors can best continue to identify and to promote responsible NGOs, and to encourage links between them and grassroots organizations.

Trade unions. Trade unions in Zambia represent a small and shrinking proportion of the economically active population and there is confusion over their roles in poverty reduction. While some union members, and many former members, have fallen into poverty, others are not among the poorest groups in society. The trade union movement has tried, though largely unsuccessfully, to fight for workers’ interests. They have had to adjust to economic decline, especially of mining, and to the reforms adopted by the Chiluba government in the early 1990s.

In addition to their focus on work-related issues, unions have also engaged in wider issues of public policy such as privatisation, corruption, and what they consider to be the excessive size and cost of the cabinet. They have also demonstrated that they can still pressurise government on national issues, for example over the appointment of District Administrators and over privatisation.

6.3 From above

Parliament and reform-minded elements of political parties. There is wide agreement that the policies of economic liberalization and reform which have been pursued by successive Zambian governments since the return to multi-party democracy in 1991 have not been accompanied by equivalent political reform. Constitutional changes which were enacted in 1991 did little more than remove the ban on the formation of political parties. Many people in Zambia make the case that greater accountability on the part of government can only be achieved as a result of constitutional changes which reduce the powers of the president and increase the powers of the legislature.

A number of reform-minded members of parliament have been making a determined effort in recent years to make the government more accountable. It appears, for instance, that the legislature does not have the authority to insist that the government spends budgeted funds on the votes which parliament has approved.

There are few if any discernible ideological differences between the parties represented in parliament, and their structures tend to be personalistic. Nevertheless, all include some reform-minded members. These make up, however, a minority who suffer from a number of handicaps in addition to their lack of constitutional power, including a lack of information with which to challenge government, and in some cases a lack of the education and/or independence of mind that are necessary to ensure proper scrutiny. Other problems with parliament include the lack of accountability on the part of its members to their constituents. There is a need for constitutional change, and a general transformation in political culture, before parliament can be seen as an effective driver of pro-poor change.

The Electoral Commission. The abuses that characterised the past two national elections, and that have generated much public anger and disillusion with democratic politics, highlight the need for sharp improvements in the performance of the Electoral Commission and other agencies of restraint. This is not a technical problem, but requires rather that citizen outrage at electoral abuse, expressed through the media and through civil society organisations and the churches, should be sustained; that the individuals responsible should show sufficient independence of spirit; and that all means of ensuring transparency of electoral processes should be strengthened.

Chiefs and traditional leaders. A number of people suggested to the team that chiefs and other traditional authorities are effective drivers for pro-poor change. It is difficult to make generalisations about the usefulness of chiefs in this respect in Zambia, in good part because they vary enormously in legitimacy and authority throughout the country. The chiefs as a whole have exercised remarkably little political power on the national scale since independence. Attempts over the years to organise `traditionalist’ parties in the Western Province, usually seen as the most conservative part of the country, have met with very little electoral success.

While some chiefs do have local legitimacy, in view of the essentially undemocratic way in which chiefs are chosen from among a small group of possible candidates, there are evident dangers in any moves to enhance their powers. Their main contemporary source of power lies in their role, usually exercised through councils, in the allocation of land, a process that varies considerably from province to province.

Overall, there are serious problems with land law in Zambia. The Land Act of 1995 is a dead letter, and land distribution is being carried out in an arbitrary manner in terms of regulations framed in 1985 in the context of earlier legislation. The obscurity of the legal position clearly creates a situation in which ambitious, and unscrupulous, chiefs and councillors may be able to profit at the expense of their people.

If the best use is to be made of chiefly institutions it is clear that there is a need for further education of traditional leaders, and for a clearer definition of their role in relation to local government, the administration of customary law, which includes much of family law, and land distribution, and a greater recognition of their cultural role and of its importance in relation to such issues as gender relations, marital customs, and the support of children.

The civil service. Many of the interviews undertaken by the team came to focus on aspects of the performance of the civil service. Some interviewees expressed the view that civil service capacity has fallen to levels at which, even if there were genuine political commitment at the highest levels to certain programmes, the bureaucracy might now be too weak an instrument to put them into effect.

There are strengths to the civil service, despite all its problems. Systems are still in place for many of the basic functions. Yet there is a wide gap between actual performance, and what is required if the poverty reduction agenda is to be achieved. Some aspects may be noted: perhaps most fundamental, the civil service has become a central element of patronage systems that have led to a decline of professionalism, over-manning, poorly-judged appointments, and incentives that do not reward performance; the inability to control the public wage bill is at the root of government’s fiscal deficit and the resulting domestic borrowing that is currently crowding out the private sector and depressing economic growth; such systemic problems in the civil service have reduced the provision of public goods (such as infrastructure) and the quality of key social services such as health and education; petty corruption has long been a way of life, and has increasingly been overshadowed by grand corruption that has required the complicity if not the active participation of some civil servants; and capacity limitations in some critical areas such as policy analysis and budget management have emerged in recent years as the civil service has found it difficult to attract and retain quality staff.

The prospects for reversing this decline go to the heart of Zambia’s political system. Until such time as the political leadership develops the real incentives to demand better civil service performance, little change can be expected. This will, in turn, depend on effective pressure being brought to bear, and sustained, from all sides, from citizens acting individually or collectively through parliament and civil society, from the private sector, and from the media.

The Anti-Corruption Commission. The ACC is widely perceived to be performing well, in good measure because of active support from the President, combined with wide support from citizens, parliamentarians, civil society organisations and the media, and with some donor assistance. Yet the future holds significant risks. Continued political support from the Presidency and other senior political leaders is essential, not least because the ACC does not have a separate constitutionally-defined existence. This active support, backed by the allocation of sufficient funds, cannot be taken for granted in the event that people close to the President come to be implicated in current allegations around the conduct of the 2001 election.

6.4 External agents for change

Aid and international agencies as agents of change . The high levels of aid flows to Zambia have political as well as economic implications. With the decline of mining revenues, aid is the principal source of economic surplus in the economy. International agencies are highly influential in determining which organisations in the public sector and in civil society will survive and function.

This situation creates considerable dilemmas, some of which may be noted:

  • Aid could reinforce patrimonialism, directly through funding the public sector or indirectly through providing a parallel chain of resources and services (for instance via preferred actors from civil society).

  • Political accountability is made more complex. In relation to the PRSP, there is an awareness that Zambia has undertaken this exercise largely at the behest of, and financed by, the international community, and the terms in which it is cast are those adopted by the international community.

  • Financial accountability is also problematic. While aid was primarily delivered through projects, this was often handled pragmatically through adopting the donors’ procedures. To the extent that sector-wide approaches, and now increasingly direct budget support, expand as the principal disbursement mechanisms for at least some donors, the challenge becomes how to make use of flawed government systems while satisfying the accountability requirements of the donor.

  • External involvement in political processes can be very powerful. An informed observer suggested that the Oasis Forum would not have succeeded but for donor support.

  • Creating local ownership of civil society is not straightforward. Given Zambia’s poverty, virtually all NGOs are wholly or largely funded from abroad, and many are off-shoots of international NGOs. The extent to which they have local identity and ownership is inevitably affected.
Yet, while the development agencies are highly influential, a sense of perspective on the limits to their power is needed. In particular, as has been learned in Zambia, they are often unable to push through sustained policy or institutional changes if these are opposed by strong domestic interests: the main development agencies are for instance profoundly frustrated at the slow pace of the Public Sector Reform Programme; and recently problems around privatisation show signs of creating difficulties in the relationship.

Expatriate Zambians. The large-scale and apparently continuing emigration of qualified Zambians represents a serious loss to the country, but the presence of Zambians abroad does create a new potential source of ideas and a means of access to international norms, and perhaps ultimately a channel for inward investment. These links may, however, have to be actively nurtured if Zambians abroad are not to cut themselves off completely from the country.

Regional players. Zambia’s development has since Independence been strongly influenced by the regional context, which has often been difficult. For the future, some of the main regional players that will influence pro-poor outcomes in Zambia include: SADC and its ability, inter alia, to contribute to settling regional disputes, and to rationalise regional investments, for instance in transport and power; COMSA as a means of promoting trade; private investors, notably from South Africa; and agricultural producers in the region, and the impact they may have on Zambia’s agricultural prospects.

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