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Country analysis > Zambia Last update: 2020-07-03  

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

Chapter Seven


This chapter draws together lessons learned from ten years of participatory work with the poor. The lessons cover four broad areas that are closely inter-related, and they point to pragmatic implications for the development process. The four areas are policy formulation and implementation, decentralisation of service provision, contribution to national poverty reduction strategies, and the usefulness and appropriateness of using participatory methods for making the above three major areas of recommendation operational.

Policy formulation and implementation

Participatory methods have over the years pointed to and improved understanding of several areas of Zambian life that have often been ignored or neglected in processes of policy formulation and implementation. These are the issues of seasonality, context specificity, changing social relationships and the interlinked nature of poverty.


Participatory research has clearly shown that poverty and many of the factors that influence well-being have seasonal dimensions. This means that the severity of poverty is experienced differently during the different periods and seasons of the year or the month, when food insecurity, illness, heavy labour demands and peak expenditure patterns coincide.

The lesson learned from these issues of seasonality is the need to take into serious account issues of seasonality when formulating and implementing policy. The stress period of December to February may not be the ideal time to start an activity that requires the participation of the community, and is perhaps the worst time to levy any kind of fee or payment from community members. Conversely, the months between June and early August, when some money from the sale of crops may be saved, are likely to represent the time of peak income.

Context specificity

Participatory reflection and action in Zambia has repeatedly shown the need to take into account the context in which people live and experience poverty. This context can mainly be defined by a combination of influences including the type of agroecological zone, cultural background and sources of livelihood. For example, poverty reduction strategies in a pastoral area will necessarily differ from those areas and districts which do not keep large livestock, or which use them only for draft power. In a like manner, predominantly millet or cassava growing areas will need different interventions from those that apply to maize or high input cash crops.

Similarly social factors make a difference. The organisation of household labour in a matrilineal society will differ from that in a patrilineal one. The development agent who translates national policy to, and spearheads development at, the local level should be aware not only of those differences but also of the factors affecting people’s livelihoods which lead from them, such as inheritance practices and bridewealth.

Both quantitative and qualitative research can contribute to understanding these complex patterns and relationships. Using quantitative research methods, the national Central Statistics Office observed large differences in poverty levels between communities which appear similar in many aspects, including ethnicity and agroecological zone. Using participatory research methods, the PAG was able to investigate and explain these differences. A critical mix of human, social and natural capital combined with an appropriate economic activity – often the cultivation of high value cash crops – defined the differences between relatively more and less poor communities. This particular study suggests the potential importance of partnership between different kinds of research for understanding poverty and therefore developing policies which stand a good chance of alleviating it.

Changing social relations

While it is important to understand and appreciate the culture of the various communities that the development practitioner and the policy maker encounter, it is also important to take into account the rapid changes that are taking place in terms of social relations.

The extended family, organised along either matrilineal or patrilineal lines, has acted as the traditional safety net in Zambian society. The orphan, the widow, the old and the retrenchees were usually assured of a home among their parents’ relatives. This is no longer the case, especially in urban areas where there is a proliferation of child-headed households and street children. People no longer look after their deceased relatives’ children and there are now more of these orphans, largely because of the effects of AIDS.

Due to the process of urbanization that has created third generation urban dwellers, the links between the latter and the homes of their fore-parents have been in most cases severely eroded. Rural-urban relationships are weak, and the pattern of exchange of remittances and food between rural and urban areas that is often a feature of other southern African economies is relatively less apparent in Zambia.

Every Zambian language abounds with sayings that extol the virtues of good hospitality, but the tradition of hospitality is another area of social relations that has altered under the impact of increased poverty. During the early 1990s, PAG researchers were generously offered food by research participants on many occasions. However, during the last two years of the 1990s, communities often told the research team, with deep regret, that they were unable to offer them anything due to poor harvests.

The participatory studies carried out during the 1990s have revealed an increasing concern over rising levels of crime in both rural and urban areas. Crop and cattle theft are the most common crimes in rural areas. While cattle rustling has been known about for years, crop thefts have only become prevalent towards the end of the 1990s when agricultural production fell dramatically. In urban areas, petty theft, child abuse, prostitution, and drug abuse are well perceived to be increasing.

While men have, by and large, continued to enjoy a social status that is higher than that of women, two major developments in gender relations have been identified by the PAG studies, particularly towards the end of the 1990s:
  • The female voice is increasingly being heard in important project committees. Many donor assisted development activities, like the Microprojects Unit, demand that up to 50% of committees should be made up of women. The public profile has been raised to the extent that they now regularly act as organisers and managers rather than passive recipients. However, these changes are far from being universally accepted.
  • Women are increasingly becoming the major, and in some cases the sole, breadwinner of their respective households. Credit schemes like those supported by DfID and CARE International, and skills training such as that organised by the YWCA have greatly empowered women to effectively assume the role of breadwinner. As such, women’s standing both in the household and the community at large has improved. This is a great asset that development practitioners should take into full account when promoting community-based development that requires the participation of all.
Such changes in social relations are an important element of understanding why poverty reduction policies succeed or fail. Social relations – whether in terms of stealing food if you are hungry, or sheltering the orphaned child of your dead brother – are linked to poverty. Policymakers need to reflect seriously on the best ways of taking into account such important areas, and consider the changes which might be necessary to incorporate learning about social changes into on-going plans and strategies for poverty reduction.

The interlinked nature of poverty

The PAG research has revealed the importance of understanding the holistic nature of life for the poor in Zambia. This points to the interlinkage between the various aspects of life. Thus, for example, health is never seen in isolation from other aspects of living, like poverty. Poverty is not just a lack of food, money or clothing, but also incorporates vulnerability, insecurity, and exclusion. Since poverty is one interlinked whole, isolated interventions by sector-based external organisations (for example, the health or extension departments) are unlikely to achieve the comprehensive impact on poverty reduction that is desired. An integrated approach is needed where all development actors, including the poor communities themselves, work to analyse the impact of potential and actual interventions across a range of sectors, and where the multidimensionality of poverty is taken into account at all levels of the policy process.

Decentralisation of service provision

Central government line ministries, led by Health, have achieved varying levels of success in the process of decentralisation. In the case of ministries, decentralisation refers to the national headquarters handing over power for service provision to the district level. To work effectively, this implies that all stakeholders, including the traditionally passive recipients of these services, should play their appropriate roles in service provision. However, the decentralisation of responsibilities is not always matched by the decentralisation of the resources that are adequate to fulfil these responsibilities. The PAG’s experience suggests the need to pay attention to the following points:

Information provision

There must be a continuous flow of information, both vertically and horizontally. The case study in Chapter six of this book shows the importance of information dissemination, which encourages full participation of all stakeholders, promotes transparency and accountability, and assists in conflict resolution. The notion of horizontal and vertical linkages refers to the need for partners at different levels of government to share information among themselves, in addition to ensuring that such information also flows from government to community and from community to government. The particular types of information that should flow more freely concern resource availability, policy pronouncements, and people’s rights and entitlements.

Provision of an enabling environment

The process of decentralisation has involved service providers beginning to devolve the power of decision-making to service users. It is argued that these users have an incentive to improve the services that they receive. The mechanism for decentralisation has been described in terms of participation in all development activities, from the initiation and planning stage, through to implementation and monitoring. In order for such participation to occur, all stakeholders, including service providers, NGO personnel, community members and their leader, need to be able to share not only factual information, but also their experiences and concerns. Facilitating such an enabling environment presents a challenge to all those involved.

Capacity building

In order to achieve the enabling environment described above, capacity at both district and the community level needs to be built. Participatory methods have proved most effective in this capacity building process, especially when a participatory process emphasises attitude and behaviour change.

For District level service providers, capacity building through public participation means supporting staff to take into account local people’s views in development activities, through letting go of the top-down approaches most are used to, and instead working towards a more community-based approach.

At the community level, attitude and behaviour change focuses on adopting more self-reliant attitudes, through enhancing the capacity of community members to participate in planning and implementing development activities. Where training is given efficiently, the skills gained by respondents become vital to a project’s sustainability and success. However, the capacity to offer training of sufficiently high quality does not invariably exist at the District level and even less frequently at the local level.

Contribution to National Poverty Reduction Strategy

A National Poverty Reduction Action Plan (NPRAP) and the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) have already been drawn up. PAG’s experience with participatory approaches would suggest taking into account the following in the implementation of the Plan:

Context specificity

The documents made comments and recommendations that applied to the whole country. The Plan remained at this general level because bringing it down to provincial, district and sub-district level would have turned it into a huge, unattractive volume that would have put off those who should read it. However, PAG findings suggest that this Plan be unbundled and sections of it made applicable to the various agroecological areas, taking into account present sources of livelihood as outlined in Chapter Three of this book. Issues of seasonality also need to be taken into account.


The NPRAP appears as a government document to be implemented by government departments with the occasional participation of other stakeholders, such as NGOs, Churches, donors, the private sector and communities. PAG experience is that successful and sustainable development activities need full partnerships between and among all the stakeholders. The Micro Projects Unit evaluation called these tripartite partnerships, consisting of beneficiary communities, the District level service providers, and the Microprojects Unit itself, representing Central Government. In the wider sense of national poverty reduction efforts, the process of elaborating a nationally owned poverty reduction strategy will require an innovative approach to building a partnership of all stakeholders, in order that they can sit together, share all the relevant information, and plan and execute development activities.

Civil society involvement in monitoring

The NPRAP suggested that actors representing the broad base of civil society should be involved in monitoring the use of funds that may accrue from debt relief and should also be involved in future external loan negotiations and the planning of specific projects. However, two problematic issues remain:
  • The form of communication used is crucial to the success of any dialogue. Attempts to allow comments on national plans by district and community level reviewers may be rendered less successful by an overly academic language used at the national level.
  • Priorities for action may diverge at national and local levels. In terms of poverty reduction, at the national level the promotion of economic growth may be perceived as paramount while at the district level reduction of the vulnerability of the very poorest may be viewed as more important. This implies the need for mechanisms to resolve differences over resource allocation.

The Participatory Approach

This book has shown that participatory methods are not just about generating information. By helping to establish a genuine commitment among all actors in the development process, the value of interventions designed to improve the well being of poor people can be increased. This increase in value may be achieved through seeking sustainable contributions from project beneficiaries, or through avoiding expensive mistakes that are based on misunderstanding between local residents and the organisations that represent them.

Participation is also about sharing information and about responding to it with changes in attitudes and behaviour. Poverty reduction will require the participation of all stakeholders. Some of these stakeholders have become accustomed to top-down approaches in which officials make decisions and tell others what they should do. Those less powerful people are in turn used to being the passive recipients of services delivered from the top. It is important to realise that all people can learn from one another and that the sensitive deployment of participatory methods can contribute to supporting changes in both of these mindsets. However, powerful people need humility in order to allow others to inform their opinions.

Collaboration between researchers and respondents, policymakers and programme implementers has been very important in the process of sharing findings. The information generated through participatory research can be used by all concerned with developing strategies that benefit the poor. Similarly the process of exchange between qualitative and quantitative methods has demonstrated the relevance and robustness of each school of thought. This process of sharing could be continued and scaled up.

The series of participatory studies that this book is based on have influenced national level policies in a number of ways that have been detailed under the relevant chapters above. These include:
  • Health: contribution of methods to identify vulnerable groups for exemption from user fees.
  • Education: revision of the mandatory requirement for all pupils to wear official school uniforms and of the necessity to pay school fees in cash at a certain time of year.
  • Organisations: improved techniques for identifying key stakeholders, targeting the type of assistance to local needs and seeking sustainable levels of appropriate kinds of contribution to project costs.
These processes speak well both of the researchers and the officials who took time to listen to the voices of poor people that emerge from the original documents. However, the process of producing regular participatory appraisals of social conditions to allow poor people the opportunity to provide feedback so that services and projects can be improved is on-going. Consultation alone does not bridge the information gaps between local and national levels; what is needed is on-going critical reflection on methods and interventions, pragmatic action and sustained follow-up.

About the authors

John T. Milimo is a Social Anthropologist with 20 years of experience in development related research and training. His major focus is a poverty issue. He is director of the Participatory Assessment Group, a non-governmental organisation which conducts research and trains development workers in participatory community based approaches to development. Dr Milimo has taught at the Universities of Zambia and that of Alabama, USA and has published articles in international journals and books.

Toby Shilito has been managing a consultancy firm supplying services to International Development agencies for the last four years. As an independent consultant with years’ experience, he specialises in analysing the social and environmental impacts of development projects and offers organisational development advice relating primarily to public sector restructuring initiatives.

Karen Brock is a social scientists working on participatory approaches to poverty reduction and related policy issues. She has worked on impact of Participatory Poverty Assessments on pro-poor policy; methodological innovation and complimentarity in poverty assessments; information, knowledge, narrative and discourses in policy processes; and agropastoral livelihoods in Africa. She works as a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Sussex.

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