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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Repairing the civil service

A fascinating Op'ed in the Times of Zambia takes aim at the civil service, suggesting that in  its present state it represents a seriously huge millstone around the necks of poor Zambians :

Professional standards in all Technical fields are lacking in Zambia. Recently, after coming from London to work in Zambia as an Architect, I became convinced that sooner or later the rest of the world would re-colonise Africa, because it could not afford to do otherwise. The world would require that the resources and potential of Africa’s production be more efficiently exploited.

In other words, Africans have not used their land, their people, their resources or their potential wisely. Progress and technology are accelerating fast almost everywhere except in Africa, leaving this continent far behind, incapable of competing, and perhaps not even being able to survive.

When UNIP came to power it had the financial resources to wisely invest in empowering their own people. We had good medical facilities, places of learning and jobs available. Infrastructure was all in good condition. And, when the money ran out, UNIP decided to nationalise all the best businesses in a bid to keep solvent and keep the momentum going.

There were several reasons why the strategy failed, but major ones were, poor management, politicisation and corruption, which led to bankruptcy. Forty six years after independence, we must admit that we have a few very rich people, many with middle incomes and a mass of people suffering misery and poverty.
Something has gone terribly wrong. With good management this would never have happened.

There are two major issues that I would like to highlight that are destroying this nation.

We now have a civil service that is corrupted from top to bottom, running private business whenever possible, abusing their offices, competing with the private sector and biting the hands that feed them (ie the taxpayer). Central and local government civil service in Zambia can justly be described as a parasite, sucking the lifeblood out of the nation. Despite all the good intentions and hard work of some elected and nominated leaders, the civil service intends to remain self- serving and will protect its own interests. Certainly for the past 25 years in Ndola, the city council has behaved and acted like a family run business, where it takes care of family members and little else.

The civil service in its present state is a stumbling block to the nation, founded firmly on and protected by the legislation of Retirement and terminal Benefits, which have never been affordable (since the 1970’s) and have tied a huge millstone around the necks of the poor Zambian people. Millions of poor Zambians suffer death, disease and grinding poverty for the sake of 400,000 civil servants, who remain the beneficiaries of Terminal benefits, and who mostly do little more each day (working for the Government) than look after their own personal interests. The corruption of the past regimes is peanuts compared with the price being paid by Zambians to maintain a largely useless, expensive and highly bloated civil service.

Clearly, poor Zambia cannot afford and does not need such a Government. Ninety-five per cent of all so called Government institutions, big in name, but empty of substance, bleed this country dry each month on the political pretence that some real service is being provided.

It is all a make believe and a dangerous charade. Anyone from a well organised country, visiting Zambia’s Government hospitals, schools, universities, colleges, research centres, police and prison services (Government housing), the judiciary system (and its slow delivery) will politely turn away wondering how any Government can allow such chaos.

It is not that there is no money to improve the situation, but there has been no vision, passion or desire to bring about change for the better. Of course politicians talk about these things sometimes, but nothing gets done, because nobody really cares or perhaps they think they cannot do anything about it.

Since 1965 when I came to Zambia, my concern and love for Zambia (and Zambians of course) has only reinforced a growing conviction, that if Africa, south of the Sahara, had never been interfered with or visited by other peoples and cultures, Africans would still be living happily the way they were a 1000 years ago.
If that is true, I’m not saying that I personally (if I were a Zambian) would have disdained such a life, or enjoyed life any less than I have.

A young Zambian lady relative, 16 years old, who has lived in Ndola for the past two years cannot wait to go back to her father’s remote village and join him fishing on the Luapula River every day. She does not feel she needs schooling, and who are we to say that she is wrong?

So, if you want to improve things - get rid of this largely useless civil service, and stop civil servants from abusing their offices and running private businesses.

When I questioned my friend Dr Julius Sakala the other day, he assured me that Government regulations prohibit civil servants from running private business.

Secondly, you can do something that will not cost any money but help a great deal; and that is, to introduce the highest levels of qualification possible for anyone wanting to enter politics, from councillor up to Member of Parliament.

At the moment, we know that the weakness of democracy is that it guarantees mediocrity and corruption, especially where the majority of the electorate are un-educated and easily swayed by lies and promises. We must fight this. Zambia needs a system of electing and appointing leaders from among the best available. We need well qualified people doing hard work, inspiring the nation, as a good example to all. No-one should be appointed to high office as a reward for supporting a political party.

I don’t care if that is the way the US or UK do things – it is corrupt practice, and no good for the country. It only encourages the corrupt and the criminals to pour money into political parties as a way of buying protection and favours.

Mr President, I hope my letter is not already in the waste paper basket. Since the MMD came to power, there has been marked progress in important areas such as freeing up Government controls on currency, stabilising the Kwacha value, shedding off Government businesses, finding investors in some areas (too few) but poverty has deepened together with unemployment.

There is so much more that obviously needs to be done to help Zambia move forward, which is neither difficult nor expensive, but requires vision, determination and hard work. We are now looking to PF to deliver us from corruption (in particular).

A few people can make a great difference, provided they are backed up by people who value their reputations for expertise, hard work and honesty. There are a few of these people available who will truly back up the President on critical issues that will often not be popular or easy to deal with.

I have thought and written much over the years on various related topics, which I have shared with Government and newspapers, but so far little has been achieved.

The most important element is leadership. If the one at the top of any organisation is hardworking, accountable and efficient, the rest of the organisation will follow; but, if the one at the top is lazy and corrupt, those below will follow that example.

Weeding out failed appointees quickly provides a good example to others to pull up their socks. Where necessary, punishment must follow where there has been abuse of the trust placed in them by the people of Zambia.

Please do what you can about the two issues I have mentioned ie. standards of services rendered in GRZ institutions, and the corrupt civil service we are suffering from, which are two sides of the same coin.
I would love to correspond with you further if I can be of any use, or with anyone else who is working to help Zambia recover the lost years of poor governance.


  1. Re-organize the Civil Service- A response
    Most public policy related debates generally have two sides to them, a) problem identification and b) what to do about the problem. Over the years, I have had many interactions with Westerners/non Zambians who often raise very scathing and brutal attacks (or to be fair, observations) about life in Zambia. This is rather easy to do since a non-Zambian or someone originating from another country will probably have a better point of comparison with life in Zambia. For many westerners the current level of service delivery in Zambia definitely leaves much to be desired. As someone who spent time in the USA for graduate studies, I can confidently say that the moment I arrived back in Zambia, I too was able to very adequately identify what was wrong with our country. I missed being able to cash a cheque immediately I go to the bank. When I was opening a bank account at the university, I received my ATM card immediately (as opposed to the 2-4 week wait back home). Every time I needed university administration to sort out something for me, I could count on finding people in their offices (and not just their jacket hanging on their chair).
    Zambia has many obvious flaws, with regards to service delivery and especially with service delivery that has to do with the public sector. This is even true of the aspects of the public service that are more commercial, such as ZESCO. Ask anyone who has tried to obtain a new electricity connection or is applying for a meter upgrade. One would expect that entities that receive what one can assume to be an economic rate from members of the public should make serious attempts to provide a relatively decent level of service. The problems get worse when you go down to the social sectors such as health care delivery or education which are supposedly free. A visit to the main hospital in Lusaka is a humbling experience.
    Problem identification, however, is only one aspect of public policy. What to do about it is equally important. And this is where I think many people get it wrong. A few years ago, a classmate from my days in graduate school in America visited Zambia to participate in a research project I was part of. It was his first time in Africa and I worked with him for 6 weeks in rural western Zambia. Every time we encountered a hurdle, he complained bitterly about how wrong things were in this country. During the middle of our fieldwork we took a day off and went to Livingstone from Sesheke by bus for a night. He complained about how slow the bus was and wondered why it had to stop AND wait every few kilometres to pick up passengers on the way. Why didn’t the bus stick to a timetable like buses in America? That way, people would be at a specific point at a specific time to wait for the bus. Or why was the service at the guesthouse where we were staying so mediocre. I found most of his observations to be valid. Another western colleague complained about why we have so many speed humps on the road. Is there no better way to enforce speed limits? We all, Zambian and non-Zambian alike, find driving on the speed humps along the Great North Road in the Chibombo area very irritating. So I must say it is hard to disagree with some of the concerns raised. However, having a genuine grievance and coming up with relevant policy advice that fits in with the socio-economic context of Zambia are two different things.


  2. Professional standards in all Technical fields are lacking in Zambia. Recently, after coming from London to work in Zambia as an Architect, I became convinced that sooner or later the rest of the world would re-colonise Africa, because it could not afford to do otherwise. The world would require that the resources and potential of Africa’s production be more efficiently exploited.

    Talk about a 'race' of thiefs. You can't trust the Brits, because they always have an eye on your stuff.

    Did he mention collection of taxes from the mines, so that civil servants can be paid a living wage? No.

    Did he mention the separation of powers, including professionalisation of the civil service by making appointments not dependent on the President or any other politicians? No.

    He went straight for the recolonisation of Africa, which of course is the illegal invasion of sovereign nations, and the destruction of democracy.

    No, his reasoning is: we need the stuff, so we are going to take it.

    I say, ban these people from the continent, forever.

  3. Neville has raised some very interesting points. I fail to disagree with him on any of his complaints. I also find that Annoymous Dband has experienced almost the same thoughts and conflicted emotions that arise in me when observing our country. Every-time I come back home I marvel at how we are still failing to get the basics right. These conflicted emotions get worse when foreigners criticize our very obvious failings. But what is there to do- How is it possible to defend the indefensible??.

    I am not going to try and diagonise what ails our civil service. But I will share a personal perspective. I have friends in the Zambian Civil Service. People I went with to school ( Secondary and Tertiary). Some are extremely bright and principled guys!. They are languishing in mid stream and their careers seem to be going nowhere. Some are not as principled and these are the ones that are 'doing very well'!. Almost to a person, everyone of them- the bright and unbright, principled and unprincipled know exactly what the problems are with the civil service.

    From what I have heard the most significant is funding! or the lack of it. Ministries and departments submit budgets and parliament goes through the motions and approves these budgets. But what gets released has no resemblance to the budget! Typically 30% of what is approved is released. This is just sufficient to keep people in their offices abut not enough for them to go out and do what they are mandated to do. Engineers are funded enough to stay in their offices in Lusaka , but not enough for them to attend to the problems in the field!. So in essence the Zambian taxpayer pays exorbitantly for a civil service that is does nothing.From what i hear the last time in 20 years that departments were funded close to budget was in the latter days of the Mwanawasa admin. It is still early days for the PF govt - (but it will be interesting if ZE could take up monitoring the budgeted vs actual disbursement metric )

    Another significant problems is of course the leadership problem. Political appointments in the civil service are not helpful.The British system of government that we inherited places great responsibilities on the civil service. The civil service is the body that keeps the country running and humming. You need experience and expertise to fully comprehend why and how procedures were developed. you need greater experience and expertise to reform the system to be relevant to modern Zambia. That experience and expertise is developed and resides within the ministries. There is a reason the head of a ministry is called a PERMANENT secretary. Political parties come and go. The other 'Secretary'(otherwise known as a Minister') is a political one and comes and goes with the vicissitudes inherent in party politics. But please let the Permanent Secretary be Permanent!


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