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Saturday, 15 January 2011

Angela's Wisdom

 Manda Hill in Lusaka 
No one who has recently travelled the length and breadth of the country will deny one obvious fact : there 's emerging in Zambia, not a cohesive whole, but two Zambias. There's a Zambia for the rich (around Lusaka with its booming construction), along with Kitwe and other thriving towns. Then we have the rest of our destitute and forgotten people who occupy 70% or so of the periphery where very little, if any tangible development is taking place. They don't watch television because they have no electricity. Their children walk huge distances just to get to school. I am never deluded that they read this blog, how can they, when they barely have electricity? Internet access is not even something that occupy their priorities. They live to survive the next day. They are the voiceless masses, usually under the thumb of a chief who acts as a party cadre for the government of the day. Many of these areas are literally isolated from civilisation and frankly it is difficult to see how development will ever be brought to them under current pro-rich policies.  I believe it is this reality that Luanshya resident Angela Mwaba is reflecting when she says :
Unequal income distribution is one of the major causes of high poverty levels in our nation. The ratio between the rich and the poor is abnormal. The economy could be
hailed by IMF, World Bank and the international community for having performed well, but one may ask just how even the revenue generated from such highly praised favourable economic activities is distributed. To be honest, there is a big problem in as far as this issue is concerned. The majority know. Even when the much talked about windfall tax is introduced, will the income be evenly distributed? I doubt! This matter has got very little public attention and discussion, and yet it is critical in as far as social-economic development is concerned.

No wonder we still hear people and socially focused institutions coming out strongly on the high poverty levels in most communities in our country. These are not mere fabrications; these sentiments are very true. Our economy has been commended for making positive economic strides. But for who? Mind you, all economic activities are supposed to be people-focused. So when there is a general outcry from the masses, it is just prudent to listen and strike a balance. If there are any conflicting economic goals, better forgo others in order to achieve urgent ones by trade-off method. This could be short, medium or long term. Such measures should benefit the majority especially the poor.

Consensus is cardinal in this respect for priority will be given on merit. We should not be on the rails like all that is being done is good for this country. Regulating an economy is a very complicated issue and you can never be certain if what you are doing is right. Because you don't have perfect foresight and you don't have complete control over all economic problems. Hence, the need to listen and cultivate political will to better the livelihood of the majority Zambians.
Under construction
the new Ndola National Stadium
Angela is not an economist, and so in some areas her language is unrefined, but she deserves all of our attention because through her  ordinary words she conveys much economic wisdom. Consider the statement "Unequal income distribution is one of the major causes of high poverty levels in our nation".  Angela is saying income inequality causes poverty. That is a profound statement because she is talking about poverty not underdevelopment or sluggish growth. Just poverty. The question is "what is poverty"? I put to you that under the widely accepted measure of poverty,  "relative poverty",  Angela is merely stating the obvious.  She is saying income inequality is poverty because as the income gap widens, relative poverty worsens! What is even more interesting is that latest data we have on this appears to show that income inequality remains very high in Zambia, and by definition so is relative poverty.

The reality for many people
Now at this point one may quickly jump and say, oh but who cares about "relative poverty", we only care about absolute poverty e.g. the people living under $2 a day ?  But that is where her second point comes in - "Mind you, all economic activities are supposed to be people-focused. So when there is a general outcry from the masses, it is just prudent to listen and strike a balance".  The point here is that it is relative poverty not absolute poverty levels that cause outcry from the masses. As bad as absolute poverty is, it is the relative dimension of seeing others better off than you are, and the gap appears to be increasing (as it seems in Angela's eyes) that is problematic. This view has huge ramification for how we design pro-poor policies. 

For one thing there's a clear economic lesson that economic growth could be unsustainable in the long term without policies that reduce the income divide between members of society or at-least prevents a widening of the divide. It is therefore necessary to ensure that pro-growth policies go hand in hand with social and income equality goals - in Angela's words, "If there are any conflicting economic goals, better forgo others in order to achieve urgent ones by trade-off method". These policy linkages are important because income inequality has important implications for social cohesion (i.e. whether we as a society feel more as one nation with common interests). Social cohesion is important because a more united nation would be able to have internal peace and its citizens would lead happier lives. In our case a more socially cohesive Zambia would prevent people saying “we want Western province independent". 

This is why responsible governments generally pursue policies that encourage civic engagement through initiatives such as devolved decision making and greater voter participation. Unless we as a society are more cohesive, the problems of  crime, calls for secession and general disorder would not be easily eliminated. When people see others more richer than them and large international corporation taking away their land, while they wallow in poverty,  they will crave those things and at times resort to disorder. 

No one has described the the linkage between greater inequality and a less cohesive society better than James K. Galbraith. In his book Created Unequal : The Crisis in American Pay , Galbraith argues that when citizens have diverging access to services (due to income and social inequality) the result can be social and political fracturing. Inequality may endager society’s ability to think of itself as a single entity or nation. In his words :
“With high inequality, it becomes easy to know whether one is likely in the long run to be a net gainer, or a net loser, from public programs of family assistance, pension security, and health care. High inequality therefore weakness the willingness to share at the sane time that it concentrates resources in the hands least inclined to be willing. In this way inequality threatens the ability of society to provide for the weak, the ill, and the old”.
Perhaps now is the time we paid attention to Angela's wisdom. 


  1. Very true. Similar to something I posted on my blog a few months ago.

  2. Chipo,

    I read it, very fascinating.

    Thee additional observations as a result :

    First, the cause of justice must drive our pursuit of poverty reduction. I agree with Wolterstorff that poverty is caused by man's injustice on another. There's enough to go round but we do not value fellow man through God's eyes so we let them suffer. WE not just govt! Infact it is OUR govt so whatever it does is our problem. However, in framing our critique we should also emphasise to the rich that a cohesive society is in their interest.

    Which brings me to the second point - I don't think the problem is entirely lack of authentic Christian. Yes the church in Zambia is not perfect, but there many authentiv Christians. My view is that the Christian leadership is failing our country. We have no clear lead on HOW individual Christians outght to engage themselves in transforming Zambia.

    The third point follows from the second - the pursuit of poverty reduction is deliberate. A conscious and active effort must be made to fight it. But I don't think Zambians actually have a plan that is understood by everyone. What is the government VISION for reducing POVERTY? No one knows!


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