Letter From Zambia
Half a world away in Washington, the architects of this human disaster dine in comfort and seclusion, spending more on one meal than Masauso Phiri's wife makes in a year of selling buns in their shantytown. Although most World Bank staff work at its Washington headquarters, those unlucky enough to be posted in the Third World receive ample compensation for their misfortune. This includes subsidized housing (complete with free furnishings), an extended "assignment grant" of $25,000 and a "mobility premium" to defray the cost of child education. Salaries are tax-free and averaged $86,000 in 1995, according to a General Accounting Office report to Congress. No "structural adjustment," then, for this privileged coterie of bankers and policy analysts. Meanwhile, in Africa a hidden genocide lays waste the continent.
"It's not right for a bank to run the whole world," says Fred M'membe, editor of the Zambia Post. "They do not represent anybody other than the countries that control them. What this means in practice is that the United States runs our countries." He continues: "Look at any African country today, and you'll find that the figures are swinging down. Education standards are going down, health standards going down and infrastructure is literally breaking up."
In the midst of this chaos, what remains of Africa's wealth is being plundered. And this, argue many, is the real impetus behind structural adjustment. "They say if you perform well, there'll be a flow of foreign direct investment," says M'membe. "Investment" like Shoprite Checkers, the South African supermarket chain that is colonizing Zambia with the help of a massive government tax rebate. Shoprite has ravaged the economies of entire towns, undercutting local traders and putting out of business stores run for generations by one family.
To make matters worse, Shoprite buys nothing locally. Tax-free produce--even maize and potatoes--is trucked in from Zimbabwe and South Africa. Meanwhile, Zambian maize rots in the fields, because the farmers who grow it cannot find a market. Under the previous government an agricultural marketing board was responsible for collecting and distributing produce from the whole country. Under structural adjustment, the private sector is left to do its worst. But with the poor state of the country's roads, private traders find it cheaper to import subsidized maize from the United States. Some farmers are so desperate that they give their produce away to Lusaka-based dealers, who promise to return with the earnings. Of course, they never do.
The majority of privatized Zambian businesses have been sold off into foreign ownership. In the case of Zambia Breweries--producers of the country's famous Mosi (Victoria Falls) lager--South African Breweries is now in charge. Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines--which has acted as a mini-government in the country's Copper Belt region--is now being sold off to a Canadian and Swiss consortium under pressure from international lenders, who have refused to give Zambia balance-of-payments support until the mines are privatized. Many more home-grown companies have simply gone bankrupt or are struggling to survive.
"Africa can only develop with the participation of its own people," says Emily Sikazwe. People-centered development is a strategy to which the UN, NGOs and even the World Bank--which sprinkles its publications with high-minded concepts--have signed on. Meanwhile, organizing together into a Campaign Against Poverty, Zambian NGOs are issuing a challenge to the World Bank and the IMF to allow Africans to participate in deciding how their countries are run.
If the neoliberal economists of the World Bank are interested in heeding this call, they will have to leave their plush offices in Washington. They'll have to go to Lusaka, to Nairobi and to Harare. They'll have to go to Misisi, to UTH, and they'll have to listen to what people there say.