Access to capital, business development and collective bargaining capacity are critical to rural liv

Friday, February 10, 2006

There is need for us as a nation to start paying a lot of direct attention to the crisis of rural poverty.

As Archbishop James Spaita of Kasama Diocese has correctly observed, the economic situation in most of the rural areas of Zambia is very bad. And whatever the claims we may have today of economic progress or signs of recovery, there is nothing of this that can be seen in our rural areas. The situation in our rural areas has been one of continued deterioration. This may not seem to be much of a crisis because the policy and opinion makers are shying away from it. They are not talking much about it. The politicians, businessmen and key civil society opinion makers are generally in the urban areas and their concerns are much more about what goes on here and not out there in the rural areas.

When they talk about rural areas, like they are doing about Solwezi now, it is only when there are some mineral of one sort or another to be extracted. It is not simply about poverty or plight of the rural people in this or that area. And as Archbishop Spaita has pointed out, privatisation and other economic reform measures undertaken by our government over the last fourteen years or so have not brought anything positive for our rural areas. These measures have in fact, in most cases, taken away the little economic activity that was in our rural areas under some branches of parastatal companies and co-operatives. There has been no private sector initiatives worth talking about in our rural areas.

It must be clear to all now that private capital does not generally follow where there is poverty to reduce or wipe it out. Private capital goes where there are big opportunities for making profits and accumulation. This is not to say there are no benevolent people in business; there are many of them but the driving factor for their being in business is profit and accumulation; everything else is secondary.

It therefore, remains a duty or responsibility of government to address the problem of rural poverty. Even in areas like Solwezi, people shouldn’t be excited that the extraction of copper will bring prosperity to the poor people of that area. Why are we ignoring the realities of our Copperbelt? What has almost hundred years of mining on the Copperbelt brought to the Lamba people of that area?

Our Copperbelt is still predominantly rural and poor. Most of our Copperbelt rural areas are relying on health and education services provided by missionaries, churches and other charitable organisations. The Lamba people are as poor as anybody else. So what makes us think people in Solwezi will soon be swimming in money and prosperity as a result of mining in that area?

Yes, mining can bring prosperity but this will only happen if our government takes appropriate measures to ensure that our people in Solwezi benefit from the mining activities in their area. Otherwise, their story will not be different from that of their Lamba brothers and sisters on the Copperbelt who are left in poverty and having to endure the pollution of their environment, their rivers and streams that the mining industry has left them.

And also we shouldn’t forget that addressing rural poverty in one way is providing a solution to urban poverty. Although urban poverty is more often the focus of public attention because of its vicinity to opinion makers, hidden is the rural poverty that drives it. Look at the rural-urban migration over the last fourteen years or so – it is frightening.

Our impoverished people in rural areas face enormous challenges from which they are forced to flee at the earliest opportunity. Not only do they confront limited economic opportunities and under-developed markets, but they also tend to have less access to public infrastructure and services such as health, sanitation and education. And they are less able to engage in advocacy with decision and opinion makers. This resource pressure creates additional challenges to our rural communities and their livelihoods, accelerating rural urban migration flows.

We believe that alleviating suffering and poverty requires a focus on the needs of our rural communities. We need to commit ourselves and focus our work to addressing rural poverty. We need to come up with policies that attack the root causes of rural poverty – political, social and economic factors that make our rural communities vulnerable and trapped in endemic poverty. We need to identify local solutions to poverty that can be replicated and scaled up to reach an ever-increasing number of people. Rather than tackling each symptom of poverty, one by one, we should instead look holistically at innovative approaches to foster sustainable livelihoods. We should attempt as far as possible to meet the needs of, and respect the rights of our impoverished rural dwellers.

It is important for our decision makers to appreciate the fact that access to capital, business development and collective bargaining capacity are critical to rural livelihoods.

We need to respond favourably to the cries of our rural communities for increased and improved health and education facilities; for food and other necessities of life. It should never be that the anger of our poor people in rural areas be the finger of accusation pointed at all of us because we failed to respond to their cries.

Let’s not forget that profound African sense that we are human only through the humanity of other human beings – we cannot be human while the majority of our fellow citizens continue to live in sub human conditions with very little being done to change this. Whatever power we have should be used as the basis for the economic empowerment of our most disadvantaged people – our rural dwellers.

This is why it is important to improve the quality of our politics so that we can start to seriously address these problems. Our current political set-up has relegated politics to trivialities, chosen precisely because they salve the consciences of the rich and powerful, and conceal the plight of the poor and powerless. This cannot continue.

If this continues, radical revolutionary measures will be inevitable, they will be invoked in an attempt to address these imbalances, these inequalities and injustices. These are the options open to us as a people, as a nation. Which way do we choose to go? The choice is ours. But time is running out.

Source: The Lusaka Post (link opens in a new window)