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Thursday, 14 February 2013

Poverty and Power in Zambia

By Chola Mukanga

Poverty is first and foremost a deficiency of power, in particular political power. The reason for this is that economic and political controls are interlinked. Where people have little political power they will also be economically poor. Where people are poor economically, they will also usually have little political power. In Zambia the poverty of power manifests itself nationally and individually.

Nationally, Zambia has very little power. Although the country gained “independence” long ago our future is still shaped by large external powerful forces. These hold ultimate power and dictate the affairs of the nation – they rule us from the dark shadows. It is easy to see the poverty in power across the donor table. It is easy to see it when we beg for investment. The large external forces that control Zambia’s power range from business interests; NGOs; foreign governments – and of course in recent times China has increased its influence in the affairs of our country. This poverty of power is not theoretical. It is directly linked to the poverty of individuals because collectively as a country we have placed ourselves in a situation where we rely on others to shape our future.

At the individual level, the power deficiency manifests itself in the imbalance of power between the rich and the poor. Although many of the people in leadership undoubtedly enjoy individual freedoms, they have done this at the expense of the poor. Our poorest members of society continue to suffer great social injustice. We see this injustice at many levels.

Despite its Christian heritage has more than two thirds of her people chained in poverty. Barely able to survive on a hard earned $2 a day. Every part of social infrastructure is broken (from hospitals to prisons). The voices of the weak continues to be suppressed. The young barely make it into old age thanks to the scourge of HIV and many other diseases ravaging our rural areas. The freedoms of the poor are continuously being eroded. Over the last two decades those in leadership have continued to persecute those who disagree with them. Where is a poor old woman going to run for justice, when the police forces only respond to bribes? Who will publicly dare report oppression when newspapers papers are used as mouth pieces to spread the propaganda of those in leadership?

This social injustice has been led by an elite of politicians that continue to hold onto power without sharing it with the poor. They can afford to ignore and abuse the poor politically because they know the poor have no money to fend for themselves. They thrive on the destitution of on people. How else do we explain why they reward themselves with large salaries, cars and expensive foreign trips? How else do we justify why government after government has been bloated? The list is endless.

Even the elections are run in such a way that the poor are kept in destitution. They know the poor need money for food, so they simply buy the votes. During campaigns they suddenly appear like Santa Claus, generous and loving. They not only mock the poor, they mock all our collective intelligence with their empty shallow promises to tackle poverty, if only the poor could vote for them. They promise an end to corruption, creation of jobs, lower taxes, a better return on our mineral wealth, and quality social services to all. But when the crunch comes they do not deliver!

When our politicians are challenged, they respond with phrases like “lack of patriotism”, “Zambians are lazy”, “you just criticise” and “it’s in the public interest”. Some of political master have even previously accused the poor of not engaging enough with important national affairs that could change their future. If only the poor tried harder! The deputy former chair of the financially wasteful National Constitution Conference Faustina Sinyangwe once complained, “Members of the public [in Lusaka] are…not interested in following the proceedings of the debates even when it is open to the public, imagine those in rural areas who cannot get to Lusaka. How do they push their views...?”. The answer surely is that the poor cannot sensibly be expected to attend such forum or waste time debating with Ms Sinyangwe and other politicians. They have no luxury to sit down for a whole day and "debate" like Ms Sinyangwe and her fellow parliamentarians who at the time were getting paid $350 a day just for talking and reading.

More importantly because the poor are unable to take part due to their poverty, the institutional framework that governs their affairs is also unable to reflect their interests. This is the fundamental problem with our current political system. It is a system of the rich for rich. The current constitution and the one being drafted will never provide necessary political institutions that will alter the balance of power from few rich urbanite folks who have held Zambia in a grip since independence towards the poor and the voiceless. The reason is that it is not drafted by the poor!

To many Zambians, the hard truth is that Zambia moved from a One Party State towards a multi-party system that has effectively remained a de-facto One Party state. Yes, Zambia's political system on paper is “multi-party" but the distribution of power within our nation remains very much a one party state. To make matters worse, we are still recycling the same leaders from the past that have often failed us. We have elite group of Zambians that continue to shape our destiny for better or for worse. A cartel of “anti-Zambian” interests continue to hold power and wilfully subjugate our people in poverty. They rotate power among themselves, award themselves large wealth, reward foreign backers, maintained by an aid system of richer countries, and continue to keep themselves in power. When one party loses power, the losers quickly switch sides and continue the eating!

When one listens attentively to Zambian politicians it is clear they do not speaking for the poor. In nearly every discussion there’s a tendency to treat poverty at the proximate level rather than at the fundamental level. They wilfully never ask why our people continue to wallow in poverty. They have chosen to ignore that our current poverty is located in historical and political forces, which has led to inherently unequal distribution of power within our society. The politicians are on one side and the silent majority is on the other side. This has led to rampart poverty levels. It also explains the the majority continues under destitution even when the majority prefers their suffering to end. This is why the constitution process has failed time and time again!

Our politicians like quoting figures in their speeches about the state of Zambia. They even sometimes bemoan that we have too much “poverty”. They define our poverty as an absence of being unable to meet basic needs (food, shelter) and live decently (accommodation, employment). They recognise the majority as poor people struggling to survive. People languishing in destitution in in Chibolya, Msisi and Masala and countless dilapidated shanty compounds. They may even admit, if pushed, that such poverty is morally unacceptable. What none of them are willing to admit is that this poverty is only a proximate manifestation of a deeper poverty – the poverty of power.

The current crop of Zambian politicians are not willing to admit that our poverty is due to the power they wield over the majority. They are not willing to accept that the poor are firmly at the bottom of the food chain, while they dance at the top. In short, they have no honest or humility about the current situation. But as a people we should be under no doubt. Our poverty is a direct consequence of the rich and powerful in our society holding access to power and preventing the majority poor from having a voice. Our poverty is a direct consequence of the continuing forceful usurping of the free operation of the process of development of the productive capacity of the poor. This process has continued since independence and continues to afflict us today.

So how do we change this deplorable situation? There’s no clear answer to this, but I think two things are at least necessary.

First, we need to shift the debate from discussing poverty at superficial level (statistics) and start talking about the poverty of power. The silent majority must realise that we are poor because we have no real voice or power. So in our public debate we must take every opportunity to draw the links between financial poverty and power poverty. We should repeatedly highlight the political, social, moral, ideological, economic and cultural mechanisms are produce and reinforcing poverty and makes Zambia a country in which concentrated mass poverty exists side by side with a revolting concentration of wealth owned by a small minority.

Secondly, we need to push for a radical institutional shake-up of the systems that govern our country. The way we do that is by asking a simple question: If Zambia was governed in the interests of the poor, what would it look like? What institutions does it need? What sort of governance model should it have? What sort of constitution would deliver that? Unless the distribution of power in our country is altered considerable in favour of the poor and new incentives for better leaders to emerge in the future are in place, the nation will remain within its current political equilibrium that has perpetuated continuous under-development. What we need is something that will alter the balance of power and give the poor a greater say in the development of the nation - not just platitudes, but a real and fundamental shift in dynamics. That is our best hope for incentivising future governments to deliver policies that are more pro-poor and pro-growth in the long term. In that world, they would be no more corrupt politicians who have wasted billions of Kwacha to deliver legislative change that rewards the richer and more affluent Zambians.

We cannot deliver these two things without a serious deliberate effort by the poor, academics, youth organisations (they have a large stake in the future) and churches across the land. These groups who the key to forge a “coalition of the poor” that will bring about a new alignment. Such a “coalition of the poor” must focus on altering the balance of powers inherent in our laws and bring about a substantive renewal of institutions. Without such a coalition power will remain with the political elite and our people will continue to die in poverty.


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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