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Letter From Zambia | The Nation

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Letter From Zambia

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Phiri, like many of his neighbors, has heard of structural adjustment. It was because of the SAP that he lost his job as a security guard. It was because of the SAP that he lost a child--a 3-year-old boy, who died of pneumonia in 1996. "I know it is meant to put the economy on the right track, but to me it seems to make us suffer," he says. "We can't eat policies." He looks at the ground. "I don't have any hope. I don't have any money, so I can't think of any future. My future is doomed."

About the Author

Mark Lynas
Mark Lynas is editor of the international human rights and development website www.oneworld.net. He also coordinates...

Only one in five people in Misisi is employed. The unemployed are part of an army of jobless, created when economists from the World Bank and IMF decided that Zambia's public sector was "bloated" and that companies would benefit from the tonic of privatization and an opening of markets to international competition. The Zambian government boasts that it has the speediest privatization program in Africa. But half the companies sold out of the state sector are now bankrupt. More than 60,000 people have lost their jobs as a direct result of the economic liberalization program introduced after 1991. With many mouths dependent on one breadwinner, this has thrown an estimated 420,000 into destitution.

In their desperation, people turn on one another--crime is soaring in the compounds around Lusaka. I attended the funeral of one old woman, shot in her house by bandits as she tried to prevent them from entering. In the darkness outside her house, male friends and relatives sit around the fire in quiet contemplation. They will spend the night there, in the cold, just sitting, talking and remembering. Inside the house women wail. The robbers took nothing. The old woman had nothing to take.

"SAPs cause poverty," says Women for Change's Sikazwe. "And poverty has a woman's face." Women shoulder the main burden of providing for families, and girls are the first to be withdrawn from school when a father loses his job. Women like Esnart Banda, a widow with five children, who makes about 2,000 kwacha (72 cents) a day selling vegetables in a market near Misisi. Most days she can afford only one meal for her children, even though the youngest is suffering from TB. Her kids join 40 percent of Zambia's children in suffering from chronic undernutrition.

It's worth pausing here to look at the figures. In 1980, under the former socialist government of Kenneth Kaunda, the under 5 mortality rate was 162 deaths per 1,000 births. It's now 202 per 1,000. That means one in five children in Zambia dies before reaching the age of 5. The average life expectancy has fallen from 54 in the mid-eighties to 40 now. With the AIDS epidemic raging, this can only get worse. Over the same period the primary school enrollment rate has plummeted from 96 percent to 77 percent. Half a million children are now out of school, out of a total national population of only 9 million.

These last figures are not accidental. They reflect the results of cuts in public spending and the introduction of school fees. For example, whereas in 1991 the Zambian government spent about $60 per primary school pupil, it now spends just $15. Cuts in public spending--the slimming down of a "bloated" public sector--are a central plank of structural adjustment, as promoted by the World Bank and the IMF. In one of SAP's greatest ironies, the World Bank is now recasting itself as a "Knowledge Bank"--even as it condemns millions of children across Africa to a lifetime of ignorance and illiteracy.

"What if the IMF was to pack its bags and leave Zambia? Do they imagine the situation would get worse for us?" asks Sikazwe. "What would they say if we took them to the World Court in The Hague and accused them of genocide?" How does she sum up the impact of structural adjustment on Zambia? "Devastating."

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