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Monday, 23 February 2009

Why is Zambia's development too slow?

Chrispin Ntungo reckons the absence of decentralisation is the dominant reason :

Why Zambia’s Economic Development Pace is Too Slow, Chrispin Ntungo, UK Zambians, Commentary :

Just after independence in 1964 the Zambian government inherited an economy with a powerful source of revenue - copper. The country was a major copper exporter and copper was highly priced. As a result, the country’s revenue flow was high, stable and assured. The government of the day made a wise decision to invest much of that revenue in building schools, colleges, a university and hospitals.

However, about a decade after independence, copper prices dramatically declined. Consequently, the country’s revenue flows also started to gradually dry up. Since then declining copper prices have been the main reason and the excuse politicians have given for Zambia’s slow pace of economic development and poverty. Every discerning mind interested in finding root causes of poverty and solutions to Zambia’s economic ills should ask at least two questions: Is this reason and excuse advanced by the government still valid today? Is there anything the country should have done different in the beginning to avoid the adverse impact of declining copper

The motivation for this article is to argue that declining copper prices should not be given as an excuse for Zambia’s slow pace of economic development. The article underscores that the main reason for Zambia’s slow economic development is the government’s inability to structure itself in such a way as to focus on pursuing development at grassroots level touching lives in places where people live. This implies the government failed to enact laws and establish policies that would have empowered local authorities at provincial and municipal level to make development decisions, raise revenue and work to develop their constituencies at grassroots level.

It was during the time of economic prosperity using copper revenues that the country opted to be under one party rule. One party rule of the country compromised much of economic development. Very few people if any see this. First, instead of people working to make economic development decisions, they worked to secure their positions within the ranks of the party and its government. Every position in the party, government and state owned enterprise was an appointed position. Hence, most of the revenues from copper were used for advancing the party’s interests. For example, each province was headed by a Member of the Central Committee and each district by a District Governor. Unfortunately, MCCs as well as District Governors were not empowered to make economic development decisions. As long as they demonstrated that they were loyal to the party and the president, they were perceived to be doing their job. There performance was not tied to local economic development by any possible measure.

Secondly, because the government had so much revenue it was able to build institutions that were party and/or state controlled. Most of these institutions were consumers of government revenues. Some of the institutions were justified given the political conditions of the day especially as related to fights for political independence in surrounding countries. One such establishment was the Zambia National Service. But others like the paramilitary police were a sheer waste of resources and were in place to advance colonial tendencies of squashing any political opposition.

Unfortunately, when Zambia re-introduced multiparty democracy in 1991, the same old structure of centralized government remained in place. To this day, the country has a government represented by ministers and permanent secretaries at provincial level and by district commissioners at district level. This structure looks great from only one perspective – that of a State House interested in power more than economic development. Reputable as these positions and titles sound, they are like white elephants or empty eggshells because permanent secretaries and district commissioners are not empowered to make decisions affecting local economic development. This author believes strongly that this is the number one reason why the pace of Zambia’s economic development is too slow, and not that copper prices are too low.

For a State House and Parliament interested in economic development, this author is strongly supportive of any efforts, strongly suggesting and proposing, to have the government establish itself at three levels – federal, provincial and municipal. Then the State House and Parliament should empower the provincial and municipal governments to locally plan economic development, implement their plans, including budgeting, raising revenues, and accounting for their achievements to people at grassroots level and to the federal government. If the government were organized like this from the beginning, provincial economies would have worked to strengthen themselves by focusing on areas where they have competitive advantages without relying so much on copper revenues. And when copper prices declined, other than the Copperbelt Province, most provinces would have been able to weather the storm of declining copper prices.

Did you catch the key words “provincial economies”? That is what Zambia must be emphasizing through out its agenda of economic development. Look at Zambia as a country with nine provincial economies. Empower provinces to develop their provincial economies. Some provinces like Northern Province will work to develop beans production, fishery and tourism as the main stay of the provincial economy. Other provinces like Southern Province will work to develop tourism, cattle, and maize production as the main stay of the provincial economy. Provinces like the Copperbelt and Lusaka would focus on mining and manufacturing as the main stay of their provincial economies. Together, all the nine provincial economies would make a strong Zambian economy.

A number of people have started pointing at the number of Zambians in the Diaspora and say it is another reason why Zambia’s economic development is too slow. Maybe not exactly that way. But the implication is if all the Zambians in the Diaspora were in Zambia, Zambia’s pace of economic development would be faster. First, the author wishes to remind all country folks that a decision to leave Zambia and find employment or establish a business in the Diaspora is a decision to run away from poverty. Poverty kills. And hence, it is a decision to survive. While some people may say our children will not forgive us for not remaining in Zambia during economic hardships. Other people will say our children will thank us for finding a better place for them to go to school and access health care.

Second, the brain drain may be a contributor to Zambia’s slow pace of economic development, but the contribution is minimal. This author begs to differ and argue that the brain drain cannot be blamed for Zambia’s slow pace of economic development. Just look at the list of the current permanent secretaries in Zambia. Majority of them have Ph.D.s. But even with such an impressive list of permanent secretaries Zambia’s economic development is still too slow. This means even if the current crop of Zambians were back home, most of them would be sidelined just by the way the system is structured. Few would have access to the decision-making table, let alone chance to influence policy, work at it and produce the desired results.

This author believes that accommodation of Zambia’s brains can only be effectively made if Zambia introduced autonomous provincial and municipal governments. Zambia’s brainy professionals would find positions on decision-making tables at provincial and municipal government levels. They would feel they are making significant contributions to Zambia’s economic development because they would have the power to observe problems, recommend solutions, make plans, raise revenue, implement plans, and see the results of their work at provincial and municipal levels. Cumulatively such efforts from all the nine Zambian provinces would result in nine developed parts of Zambia that would make every Zambian proud.

What this implies, therefore, is that Zambia needs an effective economic development system that includes the right government structure to be achieved through complete decentralization. A government structure that will empower provincial and municipal government authorities to be the drivers of economic development. The current structure of concentrating all the decision-making powers in the central government and from Lusaka is anti-economic development. This structure makes every district and town in Zambia number 53 and a 53rd priority. That means if Mwinilunga, for example, looks to Lusaka to make a decision to come repair a pothole, or build a school or pave a road, that request is a 53rd request, because there are 52 other towns ahead of Mwinulunga. And if you are a decision maker in Lusaka, such a request is not just a priority. But surely it is an important priority for people in Mwinilunga. If they were given the opportunity to repair the same pothole, or build a school or pave a road, they would do it as soon as they need it.

The central government, of course, will have its role to play. The roles will be in matters related to defense, immigration, monetary policy, employment policy, the environment, justice and foreign affairs. But matters related to education, health, transportation, water and sanitation, tourism should be left to empowered provincial and municipal authorities.

From the article, “Will decentralization solve ailing councils’ problems?” by Frederick Kaluba, one can sense that Zambians are not yet sure why Zambia is not developed today. The answer is simple. Zambia’s current governance structure is anti-development. And the solution lies in having a system that empowers citizens at both provincial and municipal level to develop their local areas. To say it again, this solution will be found in complete decentralization. Without decentralization, another 44 years will pass and the country will still be spinning its wheels. Be of good cheer, anyway!

There's much I agree with in the above article but I fear on the substansive question it suffers from the same problems I highlighted here. But may be this article has even deeper problems. To be sure we must avoid reductionism. There's no single reason why Zambia's development is slow, though institutional constraints are clearly part of the puzzle. Perhaps more disappointing is that this article ignores the issue of traditional authorities. Any solution to restructure must have a clear development framework and should consider how best to eliminate the current parallel institutions that exists at the local level. We have discussed the challenges of this many times and I hope to return to this on House of Chiefs blog.


  1. The stewardship of Zambia by a highly centralized Government and its donor cohorts operating under an imposed foreign political and economic regime, is a failure, with no prospect in site for improvement in the short to medium term. Zambia must rather look to its own cultural and religious traditions if its genius is to emerge. Indirect Rule, for all its faults, established a network of chiefdoms in 94% of the country, many of them starting to function along with the Native Authorities. The decision recently of the House of Chiefs to accept an holistic culturally-based conservation and development proposition for customary land and adjoining protected areas (based on the Landsafe Chiefdom Trust model), whereby investor partners may lease land under customary law, but without alienation, and directed by a customary community’s own landuse plans, is the first step in the process of chiefs, headmen and their people regaining ownership of the customary commons under a mozaic of semi-devolved cantons. Central Government will then, should patrimonialism and clientelism be defeated, become a small regulatory body. And Zambia, having re-discovered its roots, will then regain its integrity.

  2. Interesting United Nations report - poverty reduction needs selective manufacturing:


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