By Yobert K. Shamapande
It is deeply troubling that after nearly half a century of independence and five regimes, Zambia is still reeling from extreme poverty – – with 60 percent unemployment especially among the youths, 80 to 90 percent abject poverty, widespread hunger, ill health, collapsed education and healthcare services, rampant corruption and all.
A recent United Nations Human Development study told us that Zambia’s social development ranked in a dismal 150th place out of 169 countries, a score that is actually lower than the country’s level of development in 1970. Why? – Because of the huge impact of the severe conditions of poverty, mass unemployment, hunger, malnourishment, HIV/Aids, broken state of education and healthcare services, and the lack of social safety nets. These have further resulted in the dramatic reduction in the people’s life expectancy from 54 years in the mid-1980s to less than 40 at present. When will the suffering end?
The Patriotic Front (PF) election into government last year rested principally on three arguments: that it would create employment for the struggling masses in urban and rural settlements, and put “more money” into their pockets; that it would reduce poverty; and tackle corruption more vigorously than the MMD did. Obviously, some citizens thought that by PF’s ascendance to power they had turned the corner… that their lives would be better. Frankly, I had also suspended my own skepticism and given the PF government the benefit of the doubt that it would eventually be able to deliver on its election promises.
But September 2012 marked one-year milestone of PF government, and yet, the national agony persists. While development is by nature a long-term endeavour (forget the slogans of 90-day miracles!), one year is a reasonable time to take stock – to assess government performance and delivery. One thing we should never do, though, after all these years, is to keep asking Zambians to be patient indefinitely while government drifts in a developmental limbo. Zambians now know their social condition, and they have sacrificed enough.
So what have we seen in terms of PF’s policy priorities thus far? Largely symbolisms and political posturing, devoid of much policy substance.
By public policy here, I mean government clarity of purpose in its strategic intent to bring about tangible improvements in the well being of the people.
On the symbolisms – – We saw that, amid human afflictions, President Michael Sata’s first executive decision was to confer honours on Zambia’s freedom fighters for independence. He renamed the Lusaka International airport after the first Republican President as the Kenneth Kaunda international airport and thereby, it must be noted, simultaneously dethroning headman Lusaka. The President further designated Livingstone and Ndola airports to be called the Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula and Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe airports, respectively, in recognition of their gallant contributions to the independence struggle. In retrospect, I wish President Sata had also found a little something with which to honour Reuben Chitandika Kamanga, Zambia’s very first Republican Vice President, another deserving stalwart of the freedom struggle.
The other presidential and government decisions or actions dealt with the spatial restructuring of the country by calving out a tenth province – Muchinga — and streamlining of some districts; the introduction of the new minimum wage for the lowly-paid domestic and other related workers; launching of an adult male circumcision campaign intended to stem the impact of HIV/Aids disease; and government signaled a policy return to the national service programme for school leavers as one means to deal with the ever-surging youth unemployment. And sadly, government also made a highly insensitive move, through a series of statutory instruments, of hiking President Sata’s salary by 100 percent and giving hefty salary and allowance increments to cabinet ministers as well.
On the political theatrics – – And we saw plenty of them over the past one year. What was somewhat astonishing, however, was that the PF which assumed power with an abundance of goodwill from the electorate, should enter government in such a defensive stance. Government through its Minister of information has been robust in defending every action it takes without tolerating criticism whatsoever, no matter how constructive or legitimate. In that spirit, it has deployed state power, including the use of the draconian Public Order Act, a relic from the colonial antiquity, with unprecedented heavy-handedness against the opposition or other dissenting views apparently intended to silence debate, muzzle democratic dialogue, and stifle the free flow of ideas. The other actions have ranged from arrests of opposition leaders, to political witch hunts, clamping down on the holding of public meetings, poaching opposition membership and engineering defections to the ruling party, attempts to remove sitting judges from the bench without due process, to meddling in the affairs of traditional leadership. Inevitably, these actions have been mainly peripheral and inconsequential in terms of national development.
The sad thing, however, was that these actions completely missed the larger point: they failed to address the real challenges confronting the vast majority of ordinary Zambians – the deepening morass of excruciating poverty, deprivation, and lack of opportunities; the actions did nothing to promote job creation so as to expand the involvement especially of young people in country’s productive activities ; and, indeed, they failed to make the slightest impact in the lives of the main victims of grinding poverty – – the elderly, retirees, children, disabled, homeless and many others, who must look to the state for relief.
The most reprehensible decision, however, was for the President and his cabinet ministers to award themselves hefty salary and allowance increases, statutory remunerations at that, without any Parliamentary debate whatsoever. How could this be morally right given the current economic environment in Zambia? Stuffing more money into the pockets of a few leaders who already have too much is totally unjustifiable while the desperately poor ordinary Zambians still operate outside the salaried economy; some 80 to 90 percent of Zambians have no salary or income to talk about; they cannot afford a decent meal per day; they cannot afford to pay children’s school fees or buy basic school supplies including books, uniforms, not to mention shoes to cover their cold feet.
But what should the President do differently to address the real challenges facing the people?
Fundamentally two things: 1) focus on big things, drive big ideas – – venture for economic abundance and social justice while avoiding the trivialities; and 2) refocus Zambia’s energies, in this second year, to tackle the real priorities with the greatest impact on people’s lives, including: a) creation of employment opportunities, b) expansion of education and skills development, and c) attacking the structures of poverty by strengthening the social safety nets that support the most vulnerable groups in the society.
Let me explain.
Zambia has a monumental job to do – – and the country cannot continue in the current state of stagnation and paralysis. We need to rebuild the infrastructure, reindustrialize the economy, and develop the human capital in order to move towards realizing a first rate economy for the twenty-first century.
Employment creation: Unemployment, I believe, is at the moment, the single, biggest obstacle to Zambia’s social progress. And politically, it is a potentially destabilizing time bomb. The magnitudes are staggering – – with 60 percent to 70 percent joblessness, it means from 1.5 million to more than two million Zambians would actually be idling, without access to any productive work at any given time. This has grave implications for human survival and poverty in our society.
Therefore, to mitigate this crisis, President Sata should launch an audacious, massive employment programme to expand access to jobs and income-generating activities especially for the youths, unskilled and semi-skilled workers including the school leavers who currently roam the streets. Such a programme should initially entail public works and economic renewal activities, through forging public-private partnerships, to build and repair Zambia’s undeveloped, underdeveloped and broken infrastructure in towns and rural areas, including roads, bridges, hospitals, clinics, schools and others.
In a sense, government has already started that process through its “clean Zambia” initiatives as well as by the proposed “Link Zambia” 8000 road network. But these rather isolated, piecemeal and feebly executed projects are not enough. What is required is a big, massive and comprehensive public works effort dealing with the “urban restoration and revitalization,” and targeting the larger environment to develop urban parks and green spaces, repair streets and broken sidewalks, rehabilitate and paint deteriorating buildings, structures and so on – a real demonstration that we love our country.
The same efforts should be extended to the rural areas, to be combined with poverty reduction strategies that focus on providing agricultural support to small and peasant farmers; and investing in the basic needs infrastructure such as elementary education, primary healthcare, nutrition, clean water, housing and sanitation services as well as in social protections for the poor.
It is, moreover, imperative for Zambia to take additional measures that help to alleviate the suffering of the victims unemployment. To that end, government should encourage the establishment of unemployment insurance, funds or other related schemes capable of providing short term relief to cushion the pain of those who, through no fault of their own, might fall on hard times.
Expansion of education: President Sata should lead in the critical areas of expanding education and skills development. Globally, basic education is a fundamental human right, while at this stage in Zambia’s development, education must be one of the best weapons in the sustained fight against poverty. Nowhere in the world have the best-educated people been found to be among the poorest; so here, then, is one true solution to defeating poverty! But to achieve that, we need a paradigm shift in the educational reform emphasis. As a starting point, government should declare primary and secondary education in the country to be universal and compulsory for every school-age child until grade twelve or form five. This would provoke the necessary massive mobilization of resources – both public and private – to address the huge education challenge. There should be no more street children in Zambia or children serving as guides for the blind during school days. I also argue for education for all until grade twelve because, I believe, that should be the minimum acceptable level for every Zambian child in order to develop some marketable, and economically survival skills. At the moment, it seems, only children with a grade twelve are, at least, able to engage in some productive activities in the economy, while those without grade twelve tend to automatically drift into abject poverty as adults.
The expansion of access to education should also be accompanied by a shift in emphasis on early skills development. While primary education must continue to retain its focus on the core mission of providing elementary schooling and general literacy — reading, writing and arithmetic — secondary schools, on the other hand, should begin to integrate strong components of skills development so as to equip young people with some employable skills. Among some of the basic skill emphasis should be in the artisan areas like carpentry, brickwork, plumbing, electrical, maintenance etc, much along the activities pursued at David Kaunda Secondary School in Lusaka. .
To absorb the pressures resulting from an expanded education, government along with its civil society partners, should embark on the rapid expansion of the required infrastructure, including the building of additional schools as well as the training and retraining of teachers to meet the new challenges.
Finally, a frontal attack on poverty: President Sata should move expeditiously to develop new measures and strengthen existing social protection schemes that sustain the poor. This must entails, as a first step, governmental action to ensure that every Zambian who worked in formal employment and contributed to a retirement plan within the NAPSA family, is protected, and never left to live or die as a popper. At the moment, far too many pensioners or retirees have fallen victim to abject poverty or outright destitution as a result of unresponsive pension institutions. One way to remedy this, would be to ensure that, at a minimum, pensioners are able to collect decent benefits adjusted to current inflation
Beyond the pensioners, however, there is the plight of the desperately poor and indigent groups who lack any means to help themselves to avert destitution – – among them are the elderly, disabled, infirm, children, orphans, and many others in towns and rural areas. These groups should receive direct welfare assistance in the forms of income grants, nutritional services, guaranteed access to healthcare, especially for under-age children, pregnant women and nursing mothers.
If President Sata and the PF government can actually deliver on some of the challenges I have outlined here, they would not need any propaganda machine to inform the people about their good works. Government’s good deeds speak for themselves.
Ultimately, however, it is the leadership that counts. In 2011, the Zambian people presented Mr. Sata with a unique opportunity, once given to only four other men before him, to provide the moral leadership intended to uplift the lives and fulfill the aspirations of so many of our fellow citizens. Last October 24, Zambia observed forty-eight years of national independence. Unfortunately, the underlying promise of independence, in my view, still eludes us – – the promise of a social compact to build a society free from poverty and its manifestations of hunger, disease, ignorance, deprivation and corruption. That must constitute the true meaning of our freedom.
The author, Dr. Shamapande, retired from the United Nations and was a candidate for President of Zambia in 2001; he is currently in development consultancy.