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Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Cultivating a positive image of Zambia

I was reading this fascinating new paper on “punishment – and beyond which discusses the role of punishment and some of the limitations it has in reducing crime. Most of the discussion I have heard before but what struck me was this paragraph from a section on “projecting a lawful society”, which I believe holds broader lessons for the benefits of projecting a better Zambia :
Consider the case of taxation. If the government constantly keeps informing the public that there are individuals cheating on their taxes, people start to believe that cheating on your taxes is an important issue and that a large share of the population is involved. According to the broken windows theory, this induces honest taxpayers to try to cheat on their taxes. This may start a downward spiral of ever-increasing tax evasion. However, in actuality, only about 5 percent of taxpayers are cheaters...If, on the other hand, the government projects the image that most people are honest taxpayers, individuals become aware that they live in a law abiding society. This environment provides them with the motivation to follow the others and to pay their taxes honestly.

The possibility of framing the state of the society by the government as a law abiding society depends a lot on the media. Following the early insights of Lippmann that what people know about the world around them is mostly the result of secondhand knowledge provided by the media (in his time, it was newspapers and radio). Thus, people “often respond not to events or social trends but to reported events”. More recently, the views of the public are strongly influenced by what appears during the evening news on television.

Experimental evidence also suggests that “people who were shown network broadcasts edited to draw attention to a particular problem assigned greater importance to that problem—greater importance than they themselves did before the experiment began, and greater importance than did people assigned to control conditions that emphasize different problems”…While the news media have considerable influence over what and how they report, public affairs news nevertheless is significantly affected by governmental agencies. Indeed, it has been argued, “in most matters of public policy, the news agenda itself is set by those in power” …While the government cannot simply project an image of a society obviously at odds with what people experience, framing the state of a society as law abiding rather than lawless is likely to systematically affect the behaviour of individuals.
I couldn’t agree more with the author, and the article holds positive lesson here for those of us who are keen to see Zambia develop. The power of “projections” is clearly important and in the internet age, a negative thing we say about nation or some article we inadvertently promote could have broader repercussions for investment, especially tourism. Although the article focuses on the role of Government in cultivating images, I think for a nation such as Zambia, where institutions are fairly weak, citizen "projections" take an even more important role. I accept that the incentives for citizens to assume this role are fairly weak, but I do hold out hope for the possibility that the more patriotic among Zambians would see the broader picture and fill in where government lets us down.

In this vein, this is probably a good opportunity to express my utter shock of how some Zambians have promoted this bogus article which has been circulating round the internet and our mail boxes. When the article was first brought to our attention for it to be published, we refused for two fundamental reasons :

First, such articles should never be promoted as they do great damage to the projection of Zambia and its people , with associated economic costs [we are sharing it here mainly because the damage has already been done already and it allows us to make a broader point]. I see no benefit to Zambians from the author's arrogant conclusion that we are a backward and prideless nation whose existence is unwarranted and is better annexed by some outsiders. Even if these conclusions were true, which clearly I disagree with, I cannot understand how patriotic Zambians could encourage public promotion of negative stereotypes. If projecting a positive image is important as suggested in the quote above, then we are not helping our nation in any way by promoting these sort of ignorant articles.

I am particularly appalled (and ashamed) that Zambians in the Diaspora, who are meant to be more educated on average than Zambians at home, have been at the forefront of distributing and defending this useless piece of writing. It is now discussed at every opportunity and in forums where non Zambians listen to. Such discussions do irreparable damage to our great nation.

We need to change and begin to see things in new light. It's okay to discuss it among ourselves but not in newspapers online, blogs or radio shows. We are meant to be ambassadors for our country not detractors!!!! I put this behavior down to the fact that many Zambian commentators usually fail to differentiate between the State of Zambia and the Government of Zambia. In this respect they have fallen foul of the Government owned press stately confusions, albeit for different reasons. I have to admit that at times I have felt like letting rip and just have a tirade at our people who have failled to hold our leaders to account for pillaging our institutions and running down our treasures. But from the beginning, I have always said that if blogging or debate was going to denigrate Zambia, then it is not worth it. The moment I reach a point where I promote such attitudes, I'll quit blogging. Zambia must always be lifted high even as we hold our government to account.

Secondly, perhaps what makes this even more shameful is that some Zambians have jumped on an article whose authorship is clearly in doubt. I have to admit that I find it difficult to afford intellectual space to an article that is patently bogus. It is hard to de-link the veracity of it's critique from it's authenticity. Much of the empirical force it carries rests on it being a genuine historic account of the author’s supposed experience in Zambia. If it was written as a basic assessment it would clearly not command debate because many of the issues it raises have been heard before. From Zambians being viewed as backward to the goodness of forgiving national plunderers. What is really new in that article based on substance alone? It strikes me that often would-be Zambians commentators abroad are ever so willing to lower the intellectual bar for articles that are negative and but never willing to engage in serious positive dialogue. This surely must stop, if Zambians abroad are to gain the respect of those at home.

I write this not as a general rebuke and but as a positive encouragement for all of us to develop a correct balance that cultivates a positive image of Zambia, even as we rightly hold the government of the day to account. I am not saying don't criticize Zambia, I am simply saying if you do, have some responsibility to do it without damaging the country in the process. And by all means call a spade a spade as far as our leaders are concern. I have to say "hand on heart", this is something that regular contributors / guest bloggers on the Zambian Economist continue to do, and long may it continue!

1 comment:

  1. My first thought was this article was embarrassing for the foreigners who work and live in Zambia not just because this "American" is clearly ignorant and bigoted but that much of his character can actually be observed in many of the muzungus living in Zed.

    When I heard from you on Twitter that this was probably written by a Zambian--and on second read that certainly seems to be the case--I thought, good, this is a pretty decent piece of satire that hits at many of the uncomfortable issues surrounding aid workers and the like. That said, for it to work as satire it needs to be presented as satire and not as truth.


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