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Not quite on track

by Lewis Mwape

In depth

Infrastructure matters – rural regions without access to the railway have not benefited from Zambia’s recent economic growth.

Infrastructure matters – rural regions without access to the railway have not benefited from Zambia’s recent economic growth.

Zambia’s economy has been growing fast in recent years. Nonetheless, many Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) still look out of reach.

From 2005 on, annual GDP growth has averaged about six percent in Zambia. Inflation currently amounts to 6.6 %, down from 30 % in 2000. Such macroeconomic success, however, has not allowed the country to halve poverty as aspired in MDG 1. Of Zambia’s 16 million people, 68 % must cope with less than the equivalent of $ 1.25 per day. In their recent joint MDG Progress Report, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Zambian government state that the rate of people living in even worse “extreme” poverty is now 42 %, down from 58 % in 1991. Reducing that rate to 29 % by 2015 hardly seems realistic.

To date, urban areas and the districts along the railway line have benefited from economic growth. Poverty persists unabated in other rural areas how­ever. According to Zambia’s Central Statistics Office, almost 65 % of the people of Luapula Province live in extreme poverty. The shares for the Western and Eastern Provinces are 64 % and 59 % respectively. Zambia is among the world’s most unequal countries to judge by the Gini coefficient of 0.65.

There are great disparities between rural and urban development. The MDG Progress Report observes that rural areas suffer a chronic lack of investment in infrastructure and public services. This lack of investments affects roads, power supply and communication technology as well as skills, market access and health services. For the sake of people’s welfare, agriculture must become more productive, and the prerequisite for that is better rural infrastructure.

Resources must therefore be redirected to the regions neglected so far. It is worth pointing out, moreover, that life remains very tough in urban shanty towns. The communities who dwell there lack access to vital services and resources just as many villagers do.

Bridging the disparities should be high on the agenda of policymakers. It is not. Indeed, recent ­decisions are likely to hurt many poor people. The government has removed subsidies for fuel and maize, the nation’s staple food, so the cost of living is set to rise fast. Moreover, the national power company is about to hike tariffs, further pushing the cost of living to levels unattainable for many people.

It is true that the legal minimum wage was raised considerably in recent months. This step will help formal-sector workers to cope with the rising prices. However, the vast majority of Zambians work in the informal sector, and they do not benefit from the minimum wage.

Zambia needs more formal-sector employment, but progress in this respect remains slow. There recently have been major foreign investments in mining, but unfortunately this trend has done little to create attractive jobs for disadvantaged Zambians. The reason is that the industry is being mechanised. Mine operators are actually flying in staff with high quali­fications from abroad.

Foreign investments in land, moreover, have basically amounted to land grabs, with local people being displaced. Developments like this obviously exacerbate inequality and poverty, and, making matters worse, they are environmentally unsustainable. Mining and irresponsible timber businesses, for example, are damaging the natural environment.

Some progress

In spite of many problems, there has been progress on some MDGs in Zambia. Primary-school enrolment has improved for example. The rate is now 94 %. It was 80 % in 1990. Moreover, gender equality has been achieved at this level. Zambia’s primary schools had 0.9 girls per boy in 1990; the ratio was 0.99 in 2010. More pupils than previously complete grade seven. Such success, however, leads to new challenges. Secondary schooling needs to improve, for otherwise the opportunities of better primary education cannot be grasped.

It is a depressing trend, moreover, that Zambia has backed away from gender equality in secondary schools. The girls-per-boy ratio at this level was 0.92 in 1990, but dropped to 0.86 by 2010. Girls are obviously still being socialised to become wives, mothers and caregivers. The consequences include teenage pregnancies and early marriages. The country certainly needs targeted policies to promote gender equality, as women’s organisations are demanding in awareness-raising campaigns. Laws should guarantee equal access to education, the labour market, public services and political representation. Today, however, only 11 % of our members of parliament are women.

The national data for fighting HIV/AIDS are healthy. The HIV prevalence rate among adults peaked at 21.5 % in 2001. By 2009, it was down to 13.5 %. This reduction was achieved even though Zambia spends only 3.4 % of GDP on health care, the lowest ratio in all of Southern Africa. That the health sector needs to improve dramatically is evident in other data however. For example, the maternal mortality rate was 440 per 100,000 live births in 2008 – down from 600 in 2000, but up from 390 in 1990.

Health facilities in Zambia are severely understaffed. The Ministry of Health is operating at about 50 % of capacity. Most health centres in rural areas cannot rely on qualified staff but depend on unqualified workers. There are too few health facilities, moreover, so patients have to travel long distances. Even in urban areas, hospitals tend to be so overcrowded that it is common for mothers to give birth on the floor.

In this context, it is most welcome that President Michael Sata recently announced that 650 new health centres will be built across the country. They will improve access to health services. The government, however, must also invest in training for health workers. It should also devise policies to provide an en­abling environment for private-sector participation in this field.

It is a promising trend of recent years that the government is increasingly relying on domestic resources. Thanks to economic growth, it has been able to fund 70 % of the national budget with internal revenues since 2006. The figure itself indicates, however, that Zambia still depends on donor support.

A worrisome trend, in this context, is rising government debt, with China stepping in as the main creditor. The money has been used for various purposes, including hydro power, roads, sports amenities and regional electricity connections. Whether this policy is sustainable remains to be seen. Zam­bians remember well what hardships over-indebtedness implied. The country needed debt relief in the multilateral HIPC programme (HIPC stands for highly-indebted poor countries), and the accumulation of new debts is irritating against this backdrop.

Western donors still have considerable influence in Zambia. Over the past decade, they steadily shifted their assistance away from a project-based approach to more budget support. The idea was – and still is – to promote the general policies of the Zambian government, which pledged to reduce poverty in turn. Development cooperation should focus on making agriculture and other sectors more productive.

Ultimately, poverty will only be eliminated if the Zambian economy expands beyond the commodities sector. It will otherwise prove impossible to generate the decent formal employment the people need. The matter is urgent, given that Zambia’s population is growing fast and that youth un- and underemployment is already a huge burden.


Lewis Mwape is the acting executive director of the Zambia Council for Social Development (ZCSD), an umbrella organization of civil-society agencies.
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