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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Intellectual Poverty in Zambia

By Chola Mukanga

Real poverty is intellectual. Poverty is not an absence of resources or money; rather, it results from an absence of knowledge. History has shown that empires that have dominated for some time have usually gone into decline or failed to tap into potential for lack of generation of new ideas. Economic historians have for some time been puzzled on why Portugal, so prosperous in the 15th century began to decline from thereafter. A lot of reasons can be put forward, but one common and unmistakable reason was the decline in the trade of ideas. In Francis Parry's 1670 observations, "the people are so little curious that no man knows more than what is merely necessary for him". A view echoed by the 18th Century visitor to Portugal, Mary Brearley, "the bulk of the people were disinclined to independence of thought and, in all but few instances, too much averse for intellectual activity to question what they have learned". China a maritime power prior to the 1500s, pretty much failed to take advantage of its dominance and spark an industrial revolution because it began to look inward and was not open to new ideas.

Ideas and new ways of thinking are critical for Zambia to develop. In my view we need as much ideas generation as possible. The pursuit of knowledge and new ways of thinking must drive a modern Zambian state.

Despite gaining independence nearly five decades ago, Zambia lacks a distinctly Zambian philosophy of development. There’s a poverty of what development means to Zambia which has reinforced itself with the erosion of cultural values and absence of a people driven constitutional framework. There’s no agreed national dialogue on what development means to our people or the need to understand the form of education that would help move our people towards that goal. There has been no discussion on what politicians ought to aim for in terms of the nature of local and national development. Economic growth has been discussed, but not development! Unfortunately failure to address that has meant that we have not addressed the second most important issue - the mechanisms and structures that our people need to deliver that development.

There’s a clear absence of credible thinkers in Zambia. No development or economic renewal has ever occurred without home grown thinkers. Zambia is lagging behind because the classrooms are lagging behind! Children are not pushing the frontiers of knowledge. We have seen that where knowledge thrives, unique developments emerge. The person who started micro credit schemes that continue to empower women around the world was Mohammed Yunus from Bangladesh. Yunus saw a problem for his people and realised that giving small loans to very poor people on credit could make a difference. Contrary to conventional wisdom at the time he realised that poor people had an untapped demand for credit and that traditional local culture ensured that they would pay back because of social stigma. Today Grameen Bank is legendary. Yunus saw something unique about his culture and invented a solution consistent with it that has reaped benefits to others beyond Bangladesh. Zambia too, if her children can agree on a Zambian philosophy of development, provide the right institutions to support that development and ensure a Zambian centred education, it would most certainly come up with unique solutions to improve her plight.

An intellectually thriving society delivers genuine freedom. The idea that you can enjoy political and economic prosperity without genuine intellectual prosperity is an illusion. Genuine prosperity emerges from intellectual freedom. The reason for this is that 'political power' is derived from being able to determine your own choices and living according to how you want. To do that requires a national ability to determine is own direction in conformity with the direction of the people. It requires the generation of new ideas and then translating those ideas into purposeful action. Clearly if your policies are all imported from abroad and then all the donors and multinationals proceed to put food on your plate, all your development enterprise is foreign owned and managed.

The pan-African writings of the past and present also continue to show us that the source of ideas is critical - although Zambia has plenty of ideas much of the ideas that drive government policy are imported from abroad with no originality. Very few policies are genuinely developed by Zambians. Most of the reforms are drafted by World Bank, EU and IMF officials who then pass them onto Zambian policy makers. Much of the economic policy is generated that way. It drives one to tears that we have legislation which many of our people hardly read but has been drafted for MPs by people "parachuted" into Zambia by foreign governments / NGOs to "help Zambians think through issues". Nothing wrong with learning from others (especially country successes). But the way things are done currently borders of intellectual colonialism.

Intellectual drive is important in development because true development is knowledge transformation. Ha-Joon Chang has argued in recent times that the current approach to "development" pioneered by the UN, World Bank and the western donor community is unable to promote development, and is probably anti-developmental, because it ignores a critical component of development - transformational of productive capacities. Chang argues “that it is not what one has but how one has got it that determines whether a country is developed or not”. In short, there's no short cut to development. The "process" of how one gets there is important.

This naturally calls for a pro-active involvement by the State in channelling the energies of private actors to foster the transformational exercise. Markets alone won’t get you there. What little developmentalism that there is in the currently dominant vision of development is ersatz developmentalism – the belief that, if you give them foreign education and make them healthier and give them security of property rights, rational self-seeking individuals will exercise their natural tendency to ‘truck and barter’ and somehow create a prosperous economy. However, this vision is fundamentally at odds with the reality of development. In Chang’s language “development requires a lot of collective and systematic efforts at acquiring and accumulating better productive knowledge through the construction of better organizations, the cross-fertilization of ideas within it, and the channeling of individual entrepreneurial energy into collective entrepreneurship”. In short true development brings a renewal of new ideas.

The question to my fellow Zambian is simple : when will this renewal start? And are you willing to lead it?

Chola Mukanga is an economist and founder of the Zambian Economist which provides independent economic perspectives on Zambia's progress towards meaningful development for her people

Copyright: Zambian Economist, 2013

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