It is true Zambia has finally got a positive growth going and one should not belittle the MMD’s commitment to a free market even though other fundamental reforms like justice, equality, freedom of expression and accountability fall well short of our 1991 commitments and even modest expectations. Frankly though, it would be hard to imagine how Zambia would fail to achieve reasonable growth under such favourable metal prices combined with continued budgetary support from the plethora of donors. It seems that once a society adopts the free market, the results are inevitable as can be seen by playing this video from gapminder.org. (tick Zambia in the right hand box).
In fact the question everyone is asking is why Africa has taken so long to arrive at high growth. Firstly the locust-like high consumer economies were focused elsewhere, mainly South America and Asia, and global investors have only just begun to take Africa seriously as a supplier of raw material. The second major factor for the delay is cultural resistance which I will come back to later.
I’m not an economist but investment is surely largely responsible for Trevor Simumba’s growth figures. As we know the extractive industry is generally fickle and faceless and cares little about governance, human rights, environment and cultural sensitivity as long as there is a quick buck to make for relatively low capital investment and risk. Is this the kind of investment that will help Zambians get rich? Not unless the workforce is prepared with the appropriate skills and government taxes and regulates these business and judiciously investing into productive renewable sectors. The opportunity doesn’t last forever: Zambia has sold about a quarter of its finite sub-soil resources already and damaged much of its natural capital in the process (soil, forest, fish and wildlife) but has precious little social investment to show for it. We are still consuming the assets; I believe economists refer to it as "asset stripping". To a layman it’s like a farmer eating his hens instead of feeding them and sharing the eggs. We have also squandered the international community’s good will and the marshal plan for Africa is quickly turning into humanitarian support which helps no-one.
Regaining indigenous control of the economy was always going to require a high degree of mutual trust and partnership between government and the people in Zambia’s post colonial condition. This covenant was damaged when communal ownership and management of land and natural resources, the indigenous economy, were centralised in the 70’s and despite overwhelming evidence from around the world that local authorities provide the best stewardship, the classic tragedy of the commons continues unabated. Instead of correcting the problem the economic disenfranchisement continues unabated with corrupt chiefs joining the sale of public assets. Fortunately the majority are resisting the temptation of quick money and many are making their own arrangements to regain at least formal custodianship in the form of trusts. With neither land tenure system providing adequate security of ownership it is no wonder average yields of maize have plummeted to less than a tonne/ hectare.
Preparing for the looming challenges like peak phosphorous, peak oil, climate change (which in Zambia’s case will almost certainly be drier) is way overdue and must begin with the ownership issue. To capitalise on the lucrative and mutually beneficial opportunity to provide eco-services to the world, Zambia will have to undergo a paradigm shift from being the second fastest deforesting society on earth to becoming a key carbon soak. The current government has overseen wholesale plunder of fish and wildlife stock, sat idle while some 70% of the national livestock herd has been decimated by disease (and continues) and ignored the pollution and degradation of the all important Kafue basin. Estimates are that Zambia loses at least the global average approximately 4 tonnes of soil per capita to erosion every year and increased fire on the ever drier and brittling habitat (probably due to decline in large mammals) is depleting organic carbon and moisture critical for plant growth and soil stability, the life support system. Ultimately, the wealth and health of our people depends on learning to manage our environment sustainably, a fact fatally ignored by many great civilisations to date.
Let me now come back to the cultural resistance I mentioned earlier. Indigenous culture is inherently incompatible with the values that drive modern economies. Societies that put community first, share common resources and promote modest consumption do not fit with “greed is good” “I want it now” and “its all about me” memes that now drive the global economy. This dilemma is a huge problem often swept under the carpet but most Zambians I know resist making this cultural leap until they become desperate. It means abandoning the fundamental values that underwrite the oldest sustainable survival strategy on earth. The state structure and legal system do not accommodate both cultures ultimately forcing people to choose. I have interviewed hundreds of charcoal burners who hate what they do to the depth of their souls but have no more options. Most rural people resort to urbanisation because it frees them of their cultural responsibilities to the environment and the community. I would argue that the growth Zambia is experiencing is in a large part due to the resistance to plunder finally breaking down as it has in western societies.
Is abandoning traditional culture the best survival strategy? Perhaps in the short term but the scientific consensus is that nature will punish us severely if we do not infuse the wise lessons learnt through history into our economies. With a more open debate, perhaps Zambia can find a reasonable compromise between science and greed and lead the world forward into a culture of sustainability!
By the way Trevor, where would MMD be without the sacrifice of the unpaid opposition who keep steering it back on track- it’s no coincidence that the majority of critics are founding members who clearly believe in the principles more than the power. If not for them we’d certainly have had Mr Chiluba for a third term, maybe forever!
The guest author is the founder of Zambia Wild
(The Zambian Economist encourages guest contributions from leading Zambian thinkers on matters relevant to national development. The purpose of these notes is to stimulate discussion and ensure logic and impartial critique plays a leading role in shaping public debate. See the guest authors page for more information).