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Country analysis > Zambia Last update: 2020-03-27  

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


We live in a period of rapid change, some visible, some largely unseen. For those wealthy and privileged enough to be connected with it, the most visible example is communications technology. Largely unseen, except by themselves, are rates of change in the lives of many poor people. Yet, as this book so eloquently and credibly shows, in recent years the poor of Zambia have suffered sharp shocks and downturns with appalling and dramatic effects on the lives and livelihoods. Few countries in the past century can have experienced in peacetime the brutal reversals of economic fortune that have battered Zambia. As so often, the poorer people have been hardest hit. And it is they whose devastating realities are least perceived by those with wealth and power. Nor is this true only in Zambia. To varying degrees it applies to all elites and in all countries in the world.

This points to a newly perceived challenge. It is for those concerned with development policy and practice, wherever they live and work, to keep in touch and up-to-date with the life and conditions of the poor; to appreciate their realities, and to minimize harm and maximize gains and benefits for those who are most at risk.

Fortunately, in parallel with the revolution in communications technology, but again mush less visible, the 1990s have seen a quieter but perhaps no less significant revolution in the development, spread and acceptance of participatory approaches and methods for learning and action. These make it easier to policy-makers to be in touch and up-to-date. As this book shows, participatory appraisals can now enable poor people to express, analyse and share with others their complex and diverse realities. In this revolution, Zambia has been one of the countries in the lead. This has been, not least through the pioneering work of John Milimo and his colleagues in the Participatory Assessment Group (PAG).

In the many participatory studies which contribute to this book, they applied and evolved a versatile and varied repertoire of techniques, both verbal and visual. Through these they have gained insights, many of which would have been inaccessible though means of more traditional research. These shed light on poor people’s livelihoods and means of coping, and on health services and conditions, education, community-level participation and much else.

The compilation of policy-related insights from participatory research presented here is probably without precedent anywhere in the world. There have been many Participatory Poverty Assessments (PPAs). That facilitated by the PAG in Zambia in 1994 was, after Ghana’s, only the second to use PRA methods of visualization. It had a major influence in establishing these in PPA practice, in South Africa, Mozambique and now many other countries and in countries and in continents beyond Africa. In Zambia itself the PPA was only one of a whole series of participatory studies conducted by the PAG. They include beneficiary Assessments, the PPA itself, time series evaluations with revisits, and studies which were sector and group-specific. As the reader with quickly gather, the findings are full of interest and value, and highly credible.

To give a taste, they include: the pervasive effects significance of seasonality; the bad behaviour and attitudes of many (but not all) health service providers and teachers; the painful details of social change such as declining willingness to take in orphans; the abuse and discrimination which many orphans suffer; the cruel poverty of time and energy when many households cannot cultivate for themselves because they must meet their daily needs by working for others; the evidence that the poorest do not get treated at clinics; the increasing burdens on women as they do more of the breadwinning. There is also the positive trend of a perceived improvement in some health services.

There are lessons here for other countries, both North and South. One is how a group of researchers/facilitators like the PAG, once trained in participatory approaches and methods, can become a national asset as they have been in Zambia, able over the years to make such a substantial contribution to up-to-date knowledge and understanding. Another is that some findings can lead to changes in policy and practice.

This book makes a further contribution by pointing to frontiers now facing participatory poverty research. Credibility is now less an issue than it was: the findings presented here carry conviction. More critical is influence on policy and action. Of their nature the influences, causality and processes that change policy are dispersed and opaque. This makes it all the more impressive that the authors are able to point to heightened awareness in Zambia of factors and changes affecting the poor, not least the pervasive importance of seasonality.

Let us hope that this book will reinforce participatory learning and action in Zambia. And that it will inspire other in other countries. Let us hope that its fruits will not only be good things that happen in Zambia. Let us hope that there will be more books like this, in countries of the North and South. For almost everywhere poor people need to be enabled to express and communicate their realities, perceptions and priorities credibly and with force to those in power.

“Who would ever listen to the poor?” remains a critical question. Beyond this, the crux is to make a difference. For policy makers to be informed is one thing. For them to listen is another. For them to change policy is yet another. And for that policy to be implemented and to make a difference for the better for poor people is a further and often weak link. All those along the chain of policy and implementation need to be influenced and then committed. A frontier here is to involve policy-makers and implementers themselves directly in the field of facilitation and learning. For this, participatory approaches and methods have a special potential: they are interested and even fun; they generate insights; and to those who take part, face-to-face with poor people, are often touched and moved. Personal and face-to-face interaction and learning from poor people is powerful for generating commitment. Can Zambia, having been a leader in policy-related participatory research, now also pioneer transformative experiences for those with power to act and to make a difference?

Robert Chambers

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