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[Contents]

The poor of Zambia speak   Who would ever listen to the poor?

Chapter 1: Introduction

Poverty in Zambia in the 1990s: a decade of change


From being one of the most prosperous countries of sub-Saharan Africa, Zambia has experienced a very sharp decline, a crash, of its economy, which has had a great adverse impact on the quality of life of its 10 million people.

The decline started with the rising oil prices of the mid 1970s, which co-incided with the drop in world copper prices – copper being the mainstay of the Zambian economy. The droughts which were experienced in the early 1980s have persisted in the 1990s, and their impact, combined with rising cattle morbidity and mortality rates, has contributed to a decline in agricultural production. Liberalisation and structural adjustment of the economy have, at least in the short run, denied the farming community access to markets, both for agricultural inputs and for the sale of produce, and this has in many areas reinforced the tendency towards declining production. In addition, adjustment has led to increased unemployment and livelihood insecurity, due to retrenchment in public service and mining.

Zambia’s external debt, US $6,5 billion at December 1999, is both a consequence of the economic decline and a further cause of it, as the country has to spend almost US$ 150 million in debt repayments and servicing every year.

The result of these combined economic difficulties has been a very big drop in the quality of life as the situation increasingly worsens, as illustrated by the poverty indicators summarized below. The fall in living standards is felt most acutely by the most vulnerable people who, even before the economic crisis, had difficulty providing the basic necessities for their families and by those people who had known good times and were expecting even better ones.

The picture of economic decline has taken place in a context of political change. Zambia gained its independence in 1964, having been under British rule since the beginning of the century. President Kenneth Kaunda and his United National Independence Party (UNIP), which led the struggle for independence, assumed supreme power. Originally, the political regime was based on a multi-party system. In 1972, however, the constitution was amended. Zambia became a one-party state under the leadership of President Kaunda and the UNIP. Dissatisfaction among the population with the one party state and its policies forced President Kaunda to permit the formation of an opposition party in 1991. The Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) was founded by a number of grass roots groupings including businesspeople, trades unions leaders, students, Church leaders and discontented UNIP politicians. It aimed to replace the one-party regime and to liberalise the economic systems. Elections called in 1991 resulted in a victory for the MMD, and a new President, Frederick Chiluba.

In accordance with its electoral promises the new government initiated a programme of economic reforms shortly after entering office. This programme aimed to restrict the state’s role in economic life so that the private sector would become the driving force of economic development. Eliminating the budget deficit, phasing out subsidies, price control, curbing inflation, privatizing state companies and deregulating foreign trade and the foreign currency market were the instruments used by the government to revive the economy. The government promised that this programme would be combined with increased commitment to safeguarding the most exposed groups of the population against the immediate negative effects of the economic reform.

When the Government changed in 1991, the social sector, in the areas of health and education, was on the verge of collapse. Many years of worsening government finances had precluded investment in buildings, equipment and training. From the outset the MMD government set the stage for extensive change in the way the social sector was managed, especially in the delivery of agricultural supplies and the education and health care services. As was the case with economic reforms, there was a political commitment to the protection of the most vulnerable from the effects of institutional and economic reform.

Why this book?

This book is a summary of the findings of a decade of research on poverty which had relied on a range of participatory research tools. The objective of such research has been to accurately represent the perceptions and analyses of poor people concerning their situation, their objectives and their priorities. In the light of this kind of research, the purpose of this book is four-fold:
  • To bring out poor people’s perspectives of the changing situation in the 1990s
  • To report on how ordinary people cope with and adjust to an increasingly difficult situation
  • To Report on the actions and approaches of community based institutions which are working to assist the poor
  • To contribute to the ongoing process of national and international reflection about how best to reverse current trends.
Poor people, despite often having little formal education, are capable of extremely complex analyses of poverty. Their opinions and understandings can frequently add a great deal to other kinds of information, thereby increasing the accuracy of knowledge about poverty and contributing towards the elaboration of appropriate solutions.

Who are the poor in Zambia? The Consultations with the Poor study, which took place in 1999, asked focus groups of men, women and young people in a range of villages and informal urban settlements to describe different categories of well-being in their communities, and to estimate the proportion of people falling into each category today, and in the past. Their responses are summarized in Table 1.2 (rural) and Table 1.3 (urban). The first column gives the local words used to describe a particular class of well-being or poverty, while the second summarises the indicators of that class identified by different focus groups.

The different criteria used to describe categories of the poor quickly reveal that, for poor people, poverty is about far more than just income. Having money is frequently mentioned, in contrast with having access to a range of assets needed to gain a livelihood. Physical appearance, state of health, mobility and social position all appear as important indicators of relative wealth or poverty. The frequency with which a person is able to eat meals in an indicator in almost every category in both rural and urban settings. Several indicators appear in more than one category. Because the Tables are summaries of several discussions in a range of settings, this repetition of indicators reflects that people’s perceptions of what it means to be poor, or very poor, or suffering, are not the same in every place, and that such perceptions cannot always be easily organized into categories with clear boundaries.

Most of the criteria chosen reflect the changing economic and political situation in the country. In the urban sites, the class of “those who suffer a bit” includes those who “are in formal and informal employment, but earn too little to afford regular meals, health and education costs”. In a context of retrenchment, rising inflation and increased costs for health and education, the number of people in this class is generally held to have risen.

The right hand columns of both Tables show local people’s estimates of how the proportion of households in their community in each category has changed over time. A range of estimates is given, because each Table presents a summary of the discussion of several focus groups. All responses fall within the ranges given. As with the criteria for different classes, there is a diversity of opinions about change, particularly concerning the middle groups. Even within this diversity, however, some noticeable trends exist. In both rural and urban areas, the number of in the wealthiest class is broadly seen to have decreased, and the number of people in the poorest classes in broadly seen to have increased. In both rural and urban areas, this translates into an increase in the numbers of people who are not only poor but destitute, those who not only cannot eat regularly but do not even have a blanket to sleep under, or who wholly depend on other for food.

Many of themes which are introduced by the definitions of poverty and wellbeing in the two Tables below are pursued in the different chapters of this book, following a discussion of the methods which were used to do the research.
  • Livelihoods are discussed in Chapter Three, with a particular emphasis on how changes and shocks, such as liberalization and drought, have had an impact on the way that ordinary Zambians find a living. Poor people’s analysis of the causes and impacts of their situation are presented, as well as a range of strategies for coping with an increasingly difficult situation.
  • Health is the subject of Chapter Four, which first looks at an overview of contemporary health issues, placing an particular emphasis on the HIV/AIDS pandemic and its reported impacts. Secondly, there is a discussion of the impacts of the changes that the government has made to health service provision.
  • Education is discussed in Chapter Five. The discussion here focuses on two central questions: access and quality.
  • Institutions are the subject of Chapter Six. A case study is used to illustrate the factors that influence the success of projects managed by a development agent.
The common threads from these four chapters are drawn together in the Conclusions, which discuss both the implications of specific findings, and reflect more generally on the contribution that this kind of research can make in the present-day environment of poverty reduction policy in Zambia and beyond.

Table 1.1: Change in selected indicators of poverty, over time

Life expectancy at birth 46.1 1990 39.0 1999
Persons living below the poverty line 5 527 000 1991 6 589 000 1996
Persons living in extreme poverty 4 612 000 1991 5 068 000 1996
Human development index 0.460 1990 0.431 1997
Real GDP growth rate -2.3 1993 -2.5 1998
Inflation rate 17.2 1997 30.6 1998
Debt servicing (domestic resources, US$) 60.7 1996 143.0 1998
Number employed in formal sector 544 200 1990 465 000 1998

Source: Central Statistics Office, Zambia

Table 1.2 Wellbeing categories, criteria and proportions of households in each category, six rural sites. Consultations with the Poor, 1999.

Category Criteria Range of % households (Now) Range of % households (Before)
Abakankala (the rich)
Abekala bwino (who live well)
Have big farms; have livestock, eat well; employ other people on their farms; can afford to educate children; have fertilizer; have good health; have good health; have good houses; can travel easily; have hammer mills 0 – 30% 10 – 90%
Abakanala panono (who are rich a bit)
Abalibwino panono(Who are well a bit)
Have few cattle; cultivate fairly large fields; can afford a bit of fertilizers; some have hammermills; send their children to school; eat two meals a day; harvest enough to eat 2 - 40% 14 - 50%
Incushi (who suffer)
Bapina (the poor)
Balanda (the suffering poor)
Do not have proper meals; cannot afford to educate children; do not have good cloths; cannot afford health costs; cannot afford to buy soap; can hardly cultivate fields 20 - 90% 0 – 20%
Balanda (the very poor and suffering)
Bapina sana (the very poor)
Lack food; eat once or twice in a number of days; poor hygiene; flies all over them; cannot afford school and health costs; lead miserable lives; dirty clothing; poor sanitation, access to water; look like mad people; live on vegetables and sweet potatoes 3 – 85% 2- 25%
The blind, widows, orphans, disabled, dumb, chronically ill, the aged Cannot cultivate fields; depend on others (churches and neighbours) for food; have no children/dependent to work for them 10 – 40% 2 – 10%


Table 1.3: Wellbeing categories, criteria and proportions of households in each category, six urban sites. Consultations with the poor, 1999.

Category Criteria Range of % of households (now) Range of % of households (before)
Bakankala (very rich) Eat from morning till bedtime; easily afford health and education costs; own and drive cars; own individual boreholes; satellite dishes for TV; big business enterprises; afford private medical care services 0 – 2% 0 – 20%
Abalibwino (well off)
Olemela (the rich)
Bakankala (the rich)
Own and live in big houses; in formal employment; have lucrative private businesses; eat three meals a day; afford education and health costs for their own families 0 – 15% 0 – 10%
Abaikala bwiino panono (who live a little bit well) Eat three meals a day; are in formal employment; can afford health and education costs; are well dressed; some have own businesses; have radios and television costs 5 – 50% 5 – 70%
Abaculapanono (who suffer a little bit) Some are in formal, others in informal employment but earn too little to afford regular meals; health and education costs; some depend on piece work, some in prostitution 15 – 70% 10 – 60%
Bacula (who suffer)
Bapina (the poor)
They work for the rich; have no shelter; they do not bath because they cannot afford water; they look like made people and are not respected in the community; cannot afford health and education costs; no regular meals; do not have money; children turn into street kids. 15-70% 5 – 30%
Otsaukilatu (who suffer through and through) Cannot do piece work; survive through begging; cannot afford health or education costs; no houses of their own; own meal in a number of days; no blankets 10 – 70% 4 – 30%



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