Zambia may have made a successful democratic transition but can it make democracy deliver for Zambia? And for which Zambians?
As an early riser among the democratic transitions of sub-Saharan Africa, Zambia demonstrated the power of peaceful political handovers and the promise of multiparty rule. The country’s political stability contributed to its economic prosperity and its elevation to lower middle-income status. Natural resources and mineral revenue created the fiscal space for poverty reduction efforts.
But while poverty rates fell until 2004, Zambia’s highly unequal income distribution deteriorated still further and—despite continuing growth—the country saw negligible reduction in poverty between 2006 and 2010, according to the Living Conditions Monitoring Survey. The World Bank‘s Zambia poverty assessment in 2012 found that changes in rural, urban, and national poverty have all been statistically insignificant since 2006. In rural areas, where more than two thirds of Zambians live, three quarters of the rural population survive on less than $1 a day.
The question, then, is can democracy deliver for Zambia? And for which Zambians? Between now and the 2016 tripartite elections, Zambia has an important opportunity to shape its future. What it needs is an integrated agenda that recognises the political and governance roots of economic problems, especially those that are manifested in gender disparities.
Democratic transition has been a shining example for Africa.
The gender divide
Unless Zambia delivers democracy dividends in the form of accountable delivery of services—services critical to long-term social and economic vitality, such as education and health care—Zambians will not prosper.
Many Zambians survive on less than $1 a day.
Zambian women and girls, in particular, are not feeling the benefits of economic growth. If they are to progress, investments must be made in girls’ health and education; political parties need to engage women and represent their interests; elected leaders—especially members of parliament—must address gender disparities in service delivery; and civil society and the National Electoral Commission need to consider the disadvantages women face in the first-past-the-post system, since it restricts constituency choices of candidates and often favors the most broadly acceptable individual—in a system where the ‘safest’ candidate is often the one chosen to stand for election, that person is not likely to be a Zambian woman.
Women and girls lag behind many of their peers in the region, according to the Zambia 2012 gender protocol barometer, which tracks the country’s performance against the 28 targets of the Southern African development community protocol on gender and development set for 2015. Zambia ranks 10th out of 15 countries on the Southern African Gender and Development Index, one of the key measures for the barometer. Women’s representation in parliament dropped after the 2011 elections to 11% and the percentage of women in local government is a mere 6%. Violence against women threatens basic rights and women’s ability to contribute to economic and political life. In four surveyed districts, as many as 80% of women report experiencing domestic violence, often multiple times and in multiple forms.
Gender inequity is apparent in measures of education and women’s health. Female literacy in Zambia is estimated at 59.8%, compared to males at 82%. Six out of 10 married girls aged 15 to 19 cannot read at all. Only 22% of boys and 17% of girls complete grade 12, although this is an improvement from 17% and 11.6%, respectively, in 2004. The 48% female pass rate for grade 9 and grade 12 exams lags behind the 56% male pass rate. Adolescent pregnancy is the number one reason girls discontinue their education.
There are real obstacles to students’ participation in education, but again girls fare worse than boys. Girls are generally not seen as a priority for education in many rural families. Related barriers include early marriages, domestic duties—such as caring for family members affected by HIV-Aids—menstrual hygiene management in schools, and facilities for housing. In recent years, the government discontinued boarding options at schools and girls’ drop-out rates jumped. Many girls could not travel the significant distances involved, either because of safety concerns or because after completing their domestic duties and traveling to school, they were too tired to learn. Groups like Camfed advocate change and provide services locally, but without horizontal and vertical linkages, laudable efforts such as these remain of limited impact.
In many cases, women’s use of health services is dependent on acquiring permission from men and their ability to secure sufficient resources for treatment. Maternal mortality is high, at 591 per 100,000 live births, and only 47% of births are attended by skilled care providers.
Making the governance connection
So where does democracy and governance come in? Education and health care services—key determinants of long-term economic viability and resilience—depend to a large extent on the priorities and performance of elected representatives. If democracy is going to deliver for Zambians, services need to reach the rural areas and people need to see how the parties in power are serving their interests. Currently, people in rural areas are often unable to make connections between elections and livelihoods since so little changes for them after the votes are counted. Voter turnout is falling steadily; if the current trend continues, turnout may well be 35-40% overall and 45-50% of those registered to vote.
Zambians are very much aware of elections and related activities—they simply choose not to participate. A voter survey after the 2011 election found that the major reason for non-participation was the perception of candidates and elected representatives. Many elected representatives regularly break campaign promises and are rarely seen in their constituencies until just before the next election. Attendance at campaign meetings is often motivated by the prospect of give-aways. Candidates unknown to local people are often simply imposed on the electorate.
Electoral processes are weakened by a party system dominated by powerful personalities rather than policy platforms. Where parties are perceived as pursuing the interests of their leaders rather than the people, the people are understandably distanced from the electoral process. A lack of dialogue between and within parties limits debate, and divergent views can lead to expulsion from the party. The African peer review mechanism has identified political patronage as a priority issue for Zambia. Too often in Zambia, party platforms are put forward in a two- to three-month period just prior to the elections, offering little space for consideration of policy options, inclusion of these issues into party manifestos, or dissemination of party platforms prior to the vote.
Once elected, leaders at the local and national level face considerable challenges. Local governments are heavily indebted and lack the resources to carry out their mandates even as key functions are devolved to them. In addition, local governments lack capacity to engage with national budgets—they need help demystifying the national budget, publicising it, and tracking expenditures in their areas. Given the current system, it is important to link local concerns to national policy; over time, making this connection will help to challenge the status quo wherein local governments receive funds from the center rather than informing the allocation of those funds based on grassroots concerns.
Strengthening the constituency for change
Strengthening MPs’ constituency offices will enable people to have an entry point to their elected representative, and informing them about the role of these offices and the MPs will help them to exercise their rights more effectively. Currently, MPs resist going to their home provinces, in part because they often feel pressure to use their own personal funds to address their constituents’ problems. Constituency offices are typically underutilised and not well understood. Tools like the constituency relations toolkit, developed out of DAI’s work in Azerbaijan and Pakistan, help MPs track who they have helped, how many people they have helped, and the issues constituents are facing; complementary training helps them use that information to communicate back to the constituency what has been accomplished and to aggregate local data so that it is meaningful for national committee and oversight bodies. Combined with the parliamentary scorecard, such tools help MPs get credit for their work and hold them accountable for performance.
Improving the lives of Zambians—men, women, and girls—requires a fundamental shift in policy discourse, service provision, and political representation. There are pockets of good work going on in Zambia right now, but to truly disrupt the status quo, strong coalitions of committed actors will need to coalesce around integrated agendas for change.