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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


Zambia has done well to avoid the civil conflict or severe repression that have characterised most of its neighbours over the past two to three decades. Yet, outside of disintegrated states, it has been one of the worst performers in the world over the past generation as measured by the growth of poverty, declines in some of the key indicators of human well-being, and falling per capita incomes. Reversing these trends can be done: Zambia is rich in agricultural and mineral resources and has many educated and skilled people; and other countries of the region (notably Uganda and Mozambique) demonstrate that progress can be made in turning around decades of decline.

The lead in economic recovery in Zambia will have to come about in large part through the energies of individuals acting singly or collectively, and of the private sector. Yet much of the potential they represent is neutralised by wider constraints, many of which centre on the performance of government. This paper suggests that those with power and influence in Zambia cannot be counted on to do enough to meet the challenges of pro-poor change --- enhancing broad-based economic growth, improving access to markets, services and assets, empowering citizens, and strengthening safety-nets.

Patrimonial politics in Zambia has arguably helped to hold a complex society together, but it has had a heavy cost in terms both of missed opportunities in the past, and of current economic and political problems. Economic growth has stagnated as available financial capital has been used inefficiently, savings and investment have lagged, and the economy has barely diversified; safety nets have lapsed; publicly-provided health services have deteriorated and are unable to respond adequately to severe challenges such as HIV/AIDS; widespread corruption has pernicious political and economic effects; there are structural problems in public finances (principally related to the civil service wage bill) which, through government borrowing, result in real interest rates that are crippling business; and a crisis of legitimacy currently faces the government as a result of alleged fraud in the 2001 election.

Development and poverty reduction will be more effectively achieved to the extent that changes can be brought about in the incentives and restraints that govern the behaviour of those with power and influence. This paper suggests that the necessary changes will come about only if effective pressure can be applied, principally by citizens through (among others) Parliament, the media, or civil society organisations. Zambia’s aid-dependence means that the donor agencies are highly influential in the political and economic spheres and in civil society.

However, the prospects for such pressure being applied and sustained are problematic. On the positive side, civil society (although still limited, and uneven) has grown in reach and effectiveness over the past 15 years; the multi-party Parliament is showing signs of vigour; as compared with the one-party state period there is more open public debate; the anti-corruption campaign has a degree of popular support; some of the state-owned enterprises that served as instruments of patronage have been privatised; there is a larger (if fragile) independent press and radio; and the Supreme Court has the opportunity to set precedents for future accountability, having recently determined not to overturn Parliament’s decision remove immunity for the former President, and as it considers whether to nullify the 2001 Presidential election on the grounds of fraud.

Yet, negatively, some potential drivers of change are notably weak, and in important respects are getting weaker. Patrimonialism continues to dominate politics, and many citizens, civil servants, and private companies have little choice other than to be co-opted; the formal private sector (especially manufacturing) has contracted, weakening any role it might play as a source of pressure on government for improved provision of public goods; the middle class has shrunk; HIV/AIDS and poverty are contributing to the despair of many individuals, arguably reducing their ability to engage in wider issues, and promoting short-termism; and much of the rural population away from the line of rail is disempowered by weak urban and industrial links, and by an institutional vacuum that has resulted from the virtual disappearance during the late 1960s and 1970s of trading networks, the closure during the early 1990s of most of the cooperatives, and the limitations of local government.

Looking to the future, despite the evident problems and the uncertainty about outcomes, many entry points do exist for strengthening the forces that can support pro-poor change in Zambia. They fall into two broad groups: first, there are measures to strengthen the social, political and economic context, for instance through supporting education and literacy, improving the functioning of markets so that they are more inclusive and less constrained, enhancing the health status of the population, and reversing the decline in living standards. Second, there are measures to support particular agents of change, including the media, civil society, reform-minded elements of the political system and of the civil service, associations of professionals and of large and small businesses, the churches, and perhaps traditional leaders. Not all members of such groups are of course favourable to pro-poor change, and careful judgements are needed about how to work with them.

Some of these measures are likely to have a longer-term impact, over say 10 to 20 years, especially those affecting the wider environment for change; others, principally those affecting agents for change, can have an impact in a much shorter period.

The donor agencies are particularly potent drivers of change, influencing as they do Zambia’s political system, economy, and civil society. Aid programmes provide substantial resources that inevitably form part of patronage systems in Zambia, creating both possibilities and responsibilities for the agencies. At a minimum, the agencies need to recognise the full range of political as well as social and economic impacts of their actions. Further, the development effectiveness of the programmes they support will be enhanced if they develop a better understanding of the incentives that affect the behaviour of public officials with whom they engage. To the extent that aid management is moving from discrete projects towards sector programmes and budget support that are at the centre of the functioning of government, such an understanding will be essential to raising the effectiveness, and minimising the abuse, of aid resources.

The existence of patrimonial politics creates real dilemmas for those who would bring about change. The case is made in this paper that Zambia’s success in maintaining relative peace and stability over forty years is in part due to patron:client relationships having provided some of the glue that has held the society together, but that there have been costs in terms of economic growth and the functioning of key public and private institutions. Paradigms other than the patrimonial one exist for how states can operate, notably one based on a separation of powers, a professional bureaucracy that is autonomous within defined rules, a clearly-defined public sphere, market forces determining most allocative decisions, and the role of the state being defined in terms of the provision of public goods and safety nets. It is, however, an act of faith for which little evidence is available one way or the other to suggest (a) that such a paradigm can be sustained in Zambia and that it can maintain political and social cohesion, and (b) that a transition from present circumstances can be made in an orderly way.

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