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Zambia. (PHOTO: MICHAEL HOBBES)

Why Is Zambia So Poor?

• September 12, 2013 • 10:00 AM

Zambia. (PHOTO: MICHAEL HOBBES)

This landlocked country in Sub-Saharan Africa isn’t a failed state in the traditional sense: There’s no dictator, no child soldiers. But most of its 14 million people live on less than $1 per day. How did things get this way, and can they ever get better?

Before we get started, I should admit something: I have no idea how a country goes from being poor to being rich.

I know that my own country did this, sure, and that Western Europe and Australia and Japan and Korea and lots of other places did too. But I don’t know anywhere that did it without totally unique circumstances, without an ugly century or two on the way.

In America, getting from poverty to here meant crowded factories, tenement housing, belching smokestacks, diseases caused by human shit in the drinking water. In other places development was born out of devastation, revolution, authoritarianism—nothing we would ask other countries to emulate.

Zambia is poor—that much is clear as soon as you arrive. To get to Kitwe, a city of 500,000 people in the Copper Belt Province, you land at Ndola airport an hour away. “Airport” is putting it grandiosely. It’s a strip of runway next to a low building the size of an exurban Starbucks. You get off the plane, walk 100 feet across the tarmac, and wait under an awning until a tractor pulls up, towing a cart with your luggage. Everyone crowds in, grabbing their bags, and you do, too—it’s all over in about 45 seconds. At no point are you indoors. As you leave, you hear a European in a suit remark, “I wish they did it like this everywhere.”

Zambia is not failed. It is simply very, very poor. Sixty-four percent of the population lives on less than $1 per day, 14 percent have HIV, 40 percent don’t have access to clean drinking water.

Probably Zambia isn’t a country you’ve thought about much. It’s a landlocked patch of 14 million people smack-dab in the middle of Sub-Saharan Africa. Most of its immediate bordermates—Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola—you know from the lowest quintile of various corruption, failed state, and poverty indices.

But relative to its neighbors, Zambia is actually doing pretty well. The religious groups (mostly Christian, some Muslims) largely get along, as do the various ethnicities. There’s no flamboyant dictator, no child soldiers, no celebrity adoptions, just downright boring elections. People do not disappear in the night, nor are they beaten or tortured for how they vote or who they spend time with. Crime waves, food riots, power outages—they’re not unheard of here, but they’re not everyday occurrences either.

So Zambia is not failed. It is simply very, very poor. Sixty-four percent of the population lives on less than $1 per day, 14 percent have HIV, 40 percent don’t have access to clean drinking water. Almost 90 percent of women in rural areas cannot read or write. Name a category—schools, health care, environment—and I’ll give you statistics that will depress the shit out of you.

That’s actually why I’m here. I work for an international development NGO. Part of my job is traveling to developing countries to gather information on the conditions there, to meet people who are working to improve them.

Given what I just admitted, maybe it’s a bit weird that helping countries go from poor to rich is part of what I do for a living. But the more I do this, the less I’m sure of. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy family, every poor country is poor in its own way, and everyone I meet has a narrative, a creation myth, for how it got this way and why it remains so.

I will spend the next 10 days meeting NGO activists, government officials, and business representatives. They will tell me that Zambia is terrible, that Zambia is fine, and that Zambia is getting better, respectively.

I’m not here to determine which of those statements is true. I’m here for the numbers, the information I can’t get back home. Somewhere between the handshakes, the spreadsheets, the PowerPoints, the annual reports, a story will emerge about Zambia, a story of a country watching its mineral wealth disappear, a country making everyone rich but itself.

I can tell we’re getting close to Kitwe because the number of people crossing the highway increases. The highway has no streetlights, the only light is from the cars, and about halfway there we start to see silhouettes of people in twos and threes running across the road. Our driver never slows down, even as the groups increase to six, seven people, crossing our headlights, stopping in the road to let a car whiz by, running again. I could ask him to slow down, but instead I just look.

We stop at a police checkpoint. The cops look in, see me in the backseat, wave us on.

“What was that about?” I ask the driver.

“No reason,” he says. “Just checking us out.”

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01. THE MINES
If you look up Kitwe on Google Maps, you’ll see that it’s dotted with what look like lakes, but are actually tailings dams, where the mines dump their runoff. For more than 150 years, the only reason to come to Kitwe—to Zambia, really—was the copper. Everyone, locals and foreigners alike, are here because of the mines—to work in them, to buy something they produce, to produce something they need.

That is why Jonathan Mutambwa (like everyone else in this story, that’s not his real name) is here, too. He works at an NGO in Kitwe that helps communities negotiate with the mining companies. He’s skinny, with a kind face, round glasses, and the same baggy polo shirt both days I see him.

Jonathan takes me to his regular lunch spot, a nightclub in the elbow of Kitwe’s two main streets that operates as a restaurant until dark. It’s buffet-style, and he picks lunch for us both: Fish, maize, a green paste I assume is vegetables. It’s only when we get to the table that I realize he didn’t get us any silverware.

“That’s where you wash your hands,” Jonathan says, pointing to a water cooler with a slotted milk crate under it. I start washing my hands and the owner shrieks and runs over. “The bucket, the bucket!” she says. I was letting the water run onto the floor. Jonathan is laughing at me, along with the rest of the restaurant.

He tells us about his home village, where most people work without contracts as waiters or security officers. “You find out your salary when you are paid. If you are paid.” People go six, eight months without pay. If you complain, you’re gone.

While Jonathan teaches me how to eat—you ball up the maize dough, then pinch the veggies and sauce into it—he talks about Kitwe, how mining created and destroyed it.

Zambia has the 9th richest copper deposits in the world, he says. In fact, that’s how it got its crushed-Coke-can shape. When the British and the Belgians were negotiating the line between Zambia and what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, they both knew about the fat, lucrative spike of copper running vertically between the two territories.

The British got it first. They marked the borders of their territory by painting blue marks on all of the trees, giving themselves most of the copper. Later, the Belgians drew their own border, this time with beacons driven into the ground, and kept the copper on the Belgian side.

When the British protested, the Belgians pointed out that there was no way to prove where the original borders had been, since all the trees had mysteriously been cut down. The copper stayed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Jonathan admits that this story is apocryphal, but he can’t resist retelling it.)

For the rest of the world, the history of Zambia is basically the history of copper in Zambia. In 1890, the British South Africa Company (owned by everybody’s favorite colonialist, Cecil Rhodes) arrived here and called it, with the humility characteristic of the man and the era, Northern Rhodesia.

The copper was so easy to get to that European explorers reportedly saw African tribesmen wearing copper bracelets. The company, backed by the British government, promptly started mining, recruiting the men strong enough to work and taxing everyone else.

My favorite game-show fact about Zambia is that it’s the only country to start the Olympics as one country and finish it as another. In 1964, decades of discontent with British rule, including the flight of all that copper revenue, culminated in a vote for independence. Athletes arrived in Tokyo as Northern Rhodesians and left as Zambians.

They returned to a Zambia whose language was English, religion was Christianity, legal system was common law, and, for better or for worse, economy was married to the world price of copper. Over the next 35 years, Zambia’s economy would suffer simply due to a slump in copper prices. The World Bank and the IMF have been telling Zambia as long as anyone can remember that it needs to diversify, but even now, Zambia’s fortunes (or at least its GDP) rise and fall in sync with copper.

If Zambia is married to mining, then Kitwe is handcuffed to it. Most of the buildings in Kitwe, the roads, the health clinics, the schools, were built by the national mining company. At its peak, the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines company employed more than 65,000 Zambians and carried out services like water delivery and waste collection for five cities in the Copper Belt Province.

This topic comes up a lot in Kitwe, not just in official meetings, but in chit-chat with waiters, cab drivers, people in waiting rooms. They talk about a time when a mining company provided public services as glory days, the peak from which Kitwe, and Zambia, has fallen.

And fallen it has. The problem with the state-run mining company providing all that infrastructure, all those services, was that it ate into profits. Starting in 1996, the government sold it off in chunks to private bidders. Mining employment has dropped to just 30,000, half of its glory-days peak, and the job of maintaining all that company housing and infrastructure has reverted back to the government.

Today, all of the mines are private. Zambia’s GDP growth has been above six percent for over a decade, riding the wave, as always, of increasing copper prices. Copper is 40 percent of Zambia’s GDP and 95 percent of its exports, but little of that money makes it here. The stats identify Switzerland as Zambia’s primary export market. This is not an indicator that Zambia hosts a thriving chocolate and suspenders sector, but rather that its copper trades are booked in the jurisdiction where they are least likely to be taxed.

Many of the mining companies pay just 0.6 percent royalties to Zambia, far below the already-meager industry standard of three percent. One mine reportedly got the low rate by telling the government “this mine’s basically tapped out, we’ll just be here two years.” That was more than 13 years ago, and the royalty rate hasn’t gone up, even though the price of just about every mineral you can squeeze out of Zambia has.

And then there’s the Chinese. They arrived like a well-packed picnic, everything in shipping crates ready to be unpacked. Their own materials, their own equipment, their own workers, their own fences. If you were designing a foreign investment not to benefit the host community, this is what it would look like.

So far this story—shitty colonizers, problematic independence, Chinese economic invaders—is the one we hear over and over from this part of the world, a sort of Mad Libs history of Sub-Saharan Africa. But once I’m here, I’m dying to know: What does this story mean for the people who live here?

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02. THE CULTURE
Our guesthouse is at the top of a hill, next to a belt of power lines we’re told leads all the way to Lusaka. It’s owned by a woman named Helen, who tells us she is “one of the last white Zambians” with the same pride people tell you their family came over on the Mayflower.

One of her employees is Thomas Sonkwe. He is the waiter at our hotel, making us cappuccinos, asking us what time we want dinner and breakfast. He is 43 but looks 21, shaved head on a wiry frame, here from 7 a.m. ‘til 8 p.m. every day but never weary-looking.

“You work in human rights,” Thomas says one night after he’s served dinner, a statement, not a question. “I’m trying to start a human rights organization myself. I want to stop child abuse. The children selling water for the parents in the streets.”

He tells us lots of people here in Kitwe have been laid off (“retrenched” he says, like most people here, the language of a corporate boardroom), and they send their kids into the city to sell clothes, water, fruit, whatever they can arbitrage for a few extra kwachas.

“The Environmental Management Act says developers are allowed to discharge [pollutants] to a certain threshold,” Noah says. “But the same agency can’t determine whether that level is going to harm the environment, and has no equipment to test whether the emissions are within the law.”

“Things look fine here in Kitwe, the city,” he says, and I nod, though this is not true, “but out in the villages, it would shock you the way people treat each other.” He tells us about his home village, where most people work without contracts as waiters or security officers. “You find out your salary when you are paid. If you are paid.” People go six, eight months without pay. If you complain, you’re gone.

Over the next few days, I get Thomas’ life story piece by piece. He was born to a housewife and a chauffeur, one of two boys and five girls. He has sickle cell anemia, and his mother told him “As weak as you are, you’ll never get a hard job, so you’ll need to go to school.”

She told him to be a lawyer: “From the go, my mother said I should be in the court, because there you will be just sitting.”

He is the only person in his family who completed high school. When I ask him what his sisters do for a living, he says they are married.

Ten years ago, one of his sisters died of AIDS. Thomas offered to take in her two children, Aaron and Leonard, whose fathers had died the same way. Thomas wanted to send them to school, but his family resisted, saying there was no point. And his nephews, for their part, “they wanted easy things now,” Thomas says.

By 16, Aaron was married, with a pregnant wife and no job. By 18, his wife was a prostitute, the only viable way to earn a living to support their baby. Three years later, they were both dead of AIDS.

This is why Thomas wants to start an NGO, why he saved up for a year of law school by working as a security guard, why he’s working at this guesthouse, so he can pay for another one. He tells me he knows the syllabus of his next year of law school, so he’s reading the books now, since he’ll have to work while he’s in school and won’t have the time to keep up.

“It’s not a problem with policy, but within families.” This is Namwile Uzondile, the director of a rural health education project. I meet her the morning after Thomas tells me about his nephews. She looks like Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, and talks fast, like she doesn’t have time to wait for you to agree with her on your own.

We are talking about poverty here in Kitwe, what it looks like, what causes it.

“It’s you,” she says.

“… White people?” I ask.

“No, you men,” she says. “The men here are jealous of women’s earnings and education, and block them from getting employment.”

In rural areas, women do most of the farming, but the men are the ones who go to the market, sell the crops, pocket the money. Before they even get home, many of those kwachas have already disappeared into beer, sunglasses, and brand names. The wives have to resort to asking nicely for money for school fees, medicines, next season’s seeds and fertilizers.

Namwile is regularly invited to the mines to lecture employees on spousal abuse, which she describes as an epidemic. Some of the mines have their own on-site battered women’s shelters.

Last year Namwile conducted a survey of prostitutes here in Kitwe, and found that at least half of them had education certificates, but couldn’t find work. Most had been married off early, 15 or 16, and since then had either left their husbands or lost them to AIDS.

“These are decent ladies. If she’s lost her husband and she remains with the family, two or three children, she has nothing to do, nothing to feed the children, the only option is to go out there and look for money,” Namwile says.

Thomas has six kids of his own. He can only afford to send the two oldest to school. The rest, he teaches himself.

“They’re doing better than kids going to grade one,” he says. “The 2nd and 3rd, they can do mathematics because I teach them.”

One of them has sickle cell, and Thomas spends a lot of time at the hospital. A few months ago, while he was there, his landlord came into his house looking for the rent and, not finding Thomas, found his daughter, and beat her up as a punishment for the debt.

I ask him why he had so many kids if he doesn’t have very much money.

“Where I’m from, we are not many,” he says. He wants his kids to get educated and move back to his home village, people it with better skills, a better culture. “I want to make sure,” he says, “my children enjoy what their parents leave for them.”

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03. THE LAND
Here’s how you buy a plot of land in Zambia:

First, you go to the tribal chief. Ninety-four percent of the land in Zambia is customary or traditional, no one has a title to it. It’s not just sitting there, people are living on it, farming, grazing animals, it’s just technically under the control of a chief.

The word chief conjures up images of thatched huts and grass skirts, but the chiefs in Zambia are more like governors. They get a government salary, they wear suits, some of them live in the capital.

And they have a lot of power. The chiefs get to approve every purchase of land on their territory, so if you want a chunk of what’s theirs, you have to ask nicely. In Zambia most of the chiefs require a gift just to get a meeting. This might mean taking them lunch at a restaurant in Lusaka, or it could mean buying their daughter a car—it’s up to them.

For most Zambians—say everyone and you’re only off by only a few percentage points—this is the job market, these are your options: Farming a small plot of land or selling consumer products a few at a time.

However you do it, you get the chief to approve the land you want to buy. Then he writes a letter to the District Land Council saying, “I’ve allocated this acre to Steve,” or whatever. Then the government sends a surveyor out to the site to find out if anyone’s currently using the land, whether it’s culturally significant, if there’s any good reason you shouldn’t have it. If the district government approves, it sends a letter up the chain to the Ministry of Land: “We agree, Steve can have this acre now.” The minister issues a title, and it’s yours.

And that, usually, is when the trouble begins.

At each stage of this process, all the power resides in one individual. At the tribal level it’s the chief. At the district level it’s the surveyor. At the national level it’s the minister. Each of these individuals can either block you from getting the land or, if you get on their good side, give you more than you’re entitled to.

The law only allows the chief to distribute 250 hectares at a time, for example, but he’ll give you more if you get on his good side. The surveyor, if he’s so inclined, can expand the plot of land the chief gave you, or ignore evidence that the land is already being farmed.

After the title has been issued, the Minister of Land is the only person you need to keep happy. Once land is converted from traditional ownership to individual, the chief and the district lose all their power over it. The land is yours to use however you want, and whatever promises you made to the chief and the district before they gave you the land are, legally speaking, null and void.

This system is problematic enough at the individual level, but imagine that the purchaser of the land isn’t a person, but a multinational company.

The way it’s explained to me over and over again is this: First, a company comes in and gets the chief to allocate a big plot of land by promising to feed his tax base, build schools and roads, offer jobs to his friends and neighbors. Then the company pays off the surveyor to give the company more than the chief originally allocated, and to file a report saying the land is vacant, out of use, culturally insignificant.

As soon as the ink on the title is dry, the company starts negotiating with the national government to get a tax holiday so it can avoid paying the taxes that were the condition for the chief allotting the land. The chief complains—where are my schools, my hospitals, my jobs?—but by now the land isn’t under his authority anymore, it’s designated as “state land,” and he has as much a claim to it, statutorily speaking, as Donald Trump does to the White House.

I’m simplifying this, obviously, but this is the basic story that every NGO we meet with in Kitwe tells us. Subsistence farming communities of 200, maybe 2,000 people, many illiterate, all poor, going head-to-head at the negotiating table against multibillion-dollar companies.

Many of these negotiations are about compensation. Zambian law says people who get kicked off their land to make way for a mine or a farm have to be fairly compensated, but neglects to specify a number, a negotiation process, or even the definition of fair. Communities have to work all this out between themselves, the local administration and the company across the negotiation table.

The first sticking point in these negotiations is usually related to the value of the land. Government assessors are in charge of determining what the land is worth, but each ministry has its own method for this, its own formula for paying off communities to leave their land and give up their income. The companies know this, of course, so they shop around, looking for the lowest compensation rate, the stingiest assessors.

Sometimes the companies fast-forward to the payouts. In one recent case, a multinational mining company offered community members 10,000 kwacha each (about $2,000) to move off the land it had just purchased.

“For someone earning 1,000 kwacha a year, that’s a lot,” says Mary Mwane, who works at a land NGO. We’re sitting in her second-floor, bars-on-the-door offices across from a stand selling auto parts. “They don’t see that that’s a one-time payment.”

Mary is the one who has told me all this, the way it works here, the monotony of the promises-made, promises-broken cycle of community relations. She’s visibly upset. She spends a lot of her time in the kinds of communities she’s telling me about, she’s seen men in suits appear from out of nowhere (well, out of the U.S., Europe, or South Africa) commit to build schools and hospitals, then disappear, letter to the District in hand, never to be heard from again.

The companies aren’t required to disclose the size of the land they purchase, the length of the lease, or the procedure they followed to get it. The people living on the land are in the dark until one day a company man knocks on their door with a deed to it and, if they’re lucky, a payout if they agree to leave.

“I have money, I know the procedure, I can’t even get land,” Mary says. So why is it so easy for these companies?

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04. THE SKILLS
“There are no environmental lawyers in Zambia.” This is Noah, he works for a regional development agency. He’s agreed to meet at our guesthouse, he arrives wearing a crisp pastel shirt and pants. He looks like the temptation from a Tyler Perry movie.

I am crosslegged in a flea market T-shirt with pink letters shouting MUTE across the front. Noah was 90 minutes late getting here, so an hour ago I changed out of my work clothes. I keep apologizing.

Noah is saying that one of the reasons Zambia is so stagnant, that the World Bank and IMF’s orders to modernize and diversify go unfollowed, is that the country simply doesn’t have any technical capacity to spare.

“The Environmental Management Act says developers are allowed to discharge [pollutants] to a certain threshold,” Noah says. “But the same agency can’t determine whether that level is going to harm the environment, and has no equipment to test whether the emissions are within the law.”

In this economy, having a job—a paycheck, a name tag, a pension—is a rare thing, and having one that is secure and well-paid is practically unheard of. There are a million reasons for this—historical, cultural, economic, take your pick—but the explanation I hear the most is political.

The only actors that have the equipment to measure pollution in groundwater, particles in the air, are the companies themselves, and they unanimously report that they’re within the legal limit.

“This country doesn’t have the skills to meaningfully monitor whether promises are being kept,” Noah says.

One reason for this is simply a matter of money. Later, in Lusaka, a representative of the Ministry of Energy tells me that 30 percent of government jobs are funded but are sitting empty because they can’t find someone with the skills to fill them. Or at least they can’t at the salaries being offered.

Just yesterday, the representative says, she had a high-skilled machinery operator turn down a job because she could only offer him 4,000 kwachas a month, about $800. That’s one-half to one-third what he would make doing the same thing for a company.

Even herself, even on a government middle manager’s salary, she can’t afford a car and had to pay to build her house one bag of concrete at a time.

This problem is everywhere you look. As of 2012, the Ministry of Labor only had 13 inspectors for the whole country. There are so few judges in the courts that people have reportedly waited in pre-trial detention for up to 10 years.

I ask her what she would do if her budget doubled overnight.

“I’d hire more people,” she says. “I’ve got three people working in the geological survey. I need 12.”

Another reason Zambia lacks skills is that some parts of the workforce operate as cartels. Take lawyers. Zambia only has 1,000 of them, and they’re concentrated where the money is: Lusaka (government), Copper Belt (mining) and Livingstone (safari tourists). Some provinces don’t have any lawyers at all. The government operates a kind of legal bookmobile, a team of lawyers that travels around the country offering basic services, but it only comes to each province once every two months. If you miss it this time, you’re out of luck until it returns.

Last year, only six lawyers were admitted to the bar out of 164 who took the exam. The year before that, it was 16 out of 145. Keep in mind, these aren’t people coming in off the streets. These are people who have a law degree.

The Zambia Institute of Advanced Legal Education (ZAILE), which administers the test, blames … well, everything. In a speech this year the board chairman called out “poor academic background of law graduates, lack of sponsorship, lack of student accommodation, lack of adequate facilities, poor lecture delivery, [and] unsatisfactory pupilage.”

Maybe his explanation is right. Maybe the teachers are bad, the students lazy, the accommodations shoddy. But ZIALE, or any professional licensing body really, has no incentive to open its doors more than a crack. More lawyers means more competition, and more competition means lower wages.

Back at the guesthouse, I shake Noah’s hand and he drives away in a plume of dust. At dinner, Helen tells us she has the same problem filling positions.

“They’re lazy and they don’t want to work,” she says. She repeats a South African saying I’ve heard in this part of the world before: “They’re born tired and they live to rest.”

She says this in front of Thomas, who is serving dinner. I look for his reaction, but he doesn’t seem to be listening. He’s looking through us, like his mind is somewhere far away.

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05. THE POLITICIANS
The most prominent feature of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, is the dust. It’s everywhere—frosting the paved roads, burying the unpaved ones, coming off your hands in big brown drops no matter how many times you wash them.

Lusaka sprawls, one story tall, across an area roughly the size of Philadelphia. The restaurants, gyms, shops, NGOs—most of them are converted three- or four-bedroom houses, squat stucco behind broken glass-tipped walls. Window shopping in Lusaka means driving slowly, reading movie poster-size signs on the walls telling you what’s behind them.

By 7 a.m. the city is already awake, stands selling vegetables, vendors walking into traffic with bags of fruit and rolls. Ninety percent of the population is, in NGO-speak “informally employed.” Or, as Thomas put it: “Children selling things for their parents in the streets.” For most Zambians—say everyone and you’re only off by only a few percentage points—this is the job market, these are your options: Farming a small plot of land or selling consumer products a few at a time.

There are the cops that pull you over to ask for 50 kwacha ($10); the schools with slots reserved for paying parents; the hospitals that swear the earliest appointment, the only available medicine, is six months away until you reach into your pocket.

In this economy, having a job—a paycheck, a name tag, a pension—is a rare thing, and having one that is secure and well-paid is practically unheard of. There are a million reasons for this—historical, cultural, economic, take your pick—but the explanation I hear the most is political.

The first problem is how the money comes in. More than 60 percent of Zambia’s government revenue comes from the copper mines. That sounds like a lot, but thanks to the low royalties it’s just a few drips off the waterfall of Zambia’s mineral wealth.

The rest of the revenue is supposed to come from taxes, but looking around, how would that even work? So many people are barely getting by, eating vegetables they grow in their backyards, doing piecework where they can find it. Taxing all this informal activity would be costly in both resources and voter goodwill. In 2012, Zambia collected just $2.3 million in income taxes from its citizens.

You’d think this would be a government priority: Formalize all those fruit stalls and day laborers, hand out tax cards, threaten audits. But the problem with more taxes is that they create more taxpayers. If you make people give away a percentage of their income every month, they’re going to want to know where it goes, what they’re getting in return.

That brings us to the second problem: Zambian politicians. You know how when a football player gets big, he buys his mom a house and hires all his buddies to be his managers and security guards? From what everyone here tells me, the Zambian equivalent of the NFL is national politics.

It goes as high up as you want to follow it. Michael Sata, the president of Zambia, appointed his uncle the finance minister, his nephew the deputy finance minister, his niece the local government minister, and cousins as ambassador to Japan and chief justice.

In a rather bald statement of the status quo, Daniel Munkombwe, a member of parliament who has been in office since independence in 1964, told a journalist earlier this year: “There is nobody who goes into Parliament naked, we go to Parliament because of allowances. … I know people will say Munkombwe has gone into government because he wants to eat, but who does not want to eat?”

The ruling party has recently been accused of paying opposition MPs to switch sides. There’s no actual smoking-gun evidence, but Zambia’s cabinet has ballooned to 20 ministers and 47 deputy ministers, the largest in Africa. With salaries three to four times higher than opposition MPs and each ministerial post bundled with perks like a company car, free fuel, house servants, and mobile phone talk-time, you get the feeling politicians aren’t jumping from opposition into government on moral sentiment alone.

It’s easy to paint all of the problems in Zambia with this brush, to talk about kleptocrats wringing their privilege for as much income, as many perks, as they can squeeze. But even if Zambia was run by a coalition of charitable technocrats and Mormon philanthropists, that wouldn’t solve the most fundamental problem of all: There simply isn’t that much money to go around.

In 2011, Zambia spent a total of $4.3 billion running itself. Stretch that to cover every man, woman, and child, and it amounts to just $325 per person per year. That amount—less than a dollar per person per day—has to cover education, health care, infrastructure, law enforcement, foreign debt … everything.

I think of something Jonathan said the day after I arrived in Zambia, leading me through the market. “Politics here is like a kind of blindness,” he said. “They’re only in it for themselves and their families.”

Before the elections in 2011, he met with opposition MPs who spoke with the same language, the same passion as he did. Right after the election it all stopped.

“I talked to guys that, when they were in the opposition, they would say ‘No more Chinese companies in Zambia!'” he says. “As soon as they won the election, they held a banquet for Chinese investors.”

Like Munkombwe said, whether you’re a company or a politician, who doesn’t want to eat?

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06. THE CORRUPTION
On my last working day in Zambia I meet a sustainability representative for a mining company. We meet in an office building in central Lusaka, six stories of glass and steel looking like a radio beacon next to the one-story stucco surrounding it.

Jane has been at the mining company for two years. She worked at several Zambian NGOs before this, and gives me the rundown of who I should meet with and what I should ask them. When she talks sometimes she sounds like the other NGO representatives I’m meeting with, all crusade and outrage (“these communities aren’t in control of their own destinies!”). Other times, she has the flat affect and careful wording of a corporate PR exec on cable news (“stakeholders will be consulted in due course”).

She tells me about her company’s human rights policy, how they train company staff on women’s rights, how they meet with people living near their mining sites. It sounds like a different country than the one the NGOs have been describing, one where people whose sole possession is a backyard farm sit down for civilized negotiations with the multinational company that wants to buy that farm out from under them, one where miners wear hardhats and proofread their wives’ business plans.

I meet a Zambian expat in Zimbabwe. She says every time she returns, there are more cars, more roads, more restaurants, bars, gyms, decent cappuccinos. “It’s all malls,” she says. “Zambians love to go to the goddamn mall.”

I ask her about the problems the NGOs told me about, the paltry compensation, the regulator-shopping, the entire inspection bureaus that could fit in the back seat of a Chevy Malibu .

“The government assesses the value of the land,” she says, in cable-news mode. “They have taken into account the full value of the land.”

“But what do you do in a country with so little government capacity?” I ask, thinking of all those empty civil service positions, the missing lawyers, the outdated equipment.

Now she goes all NGO. “Little government capacity,” she says, is the nicest way to put it. “There are simply no systems for routine government services,” she says. Getting a license, a permit, certificates, approvals to start work, visas for expats to fly down here—nothing is in one place, nothing is fast or easy.

And that’s just the bureaucracy. Then there are the cops that pull you over to ask for 50 kwacha ($10); the schools with slots reserved for paying parents; the hospitals that swear the earliest appointment, the only available medicine, is six months away until you reach into your pocket.

“People are desperate for jobs,” she says. “Everyone is trying to get a job in the formal sector. So they try to bribe our HR staff to hire them.”

But wait, it gets worse. “Sometimes we have to pay for the inspectors to come to our mines,” Jane says.

The conversation goes like this: Jane tells the local certification body that she needs an inspector to sign off for a permit. The local certification body tells her that they would be happy to come out to the site, but they don’t have fuel for their cars, or enough petty cash to pay per diems. Jane offers to pay their costs, but only their costs, and the payments aren’t related to clearing the inspection.

“We ask them for a breakdown, government per diem is this, salary is this, fuel is this,” she says. “It must be well-documented, obviously.”

“Are all the mining companies doing this?” I ask, trying not to show my aghast-ness.

“Sometimes [the inspectors] say, ‘Your friends come here, and they offer us this and this. You guys are so stingy.’” This is a point of pride in the company. We only pay for their costs.

The company has even paid the police to follow up on complaints or to investigate thefts. “They say, ‘We don’t have this in our budget’ or ‘We’ll need you to pay for it,’” Jane says. So the company fixes the police cars, covers their travel expenses, treats them to lunch.

The government, Jane tells me, has been experimenting with new procedures to cut down on petty bribery. Now, when she files permit applications or visa forms, she leaves them at a desk without seeing a clerk. The fewer people you see, goes the logic, the fewer opportunities you’ll have to bribe them.

“If people keep shunting you from office to office, they are asking you for a bribe,” she says, whether there is anyone at the desk or not. “We tell them, ‘The company I work for, we’re not going to pay up.’ But at the end of the day, they know you’re on a short timeline, and they aren’t.”

zambia-7

I’M NOT GOING TO end with some sweeping declaration about why Zambia is poor and the one thing it needs to be richer. I’ve been here for a week; I’m not going to tell Zambia how to run itself, what it needs to fix and in what order. The explanations I heard, they aren’t the whole puzzle, they aren’t even the biggest pieces.

The only thing I’m able to conclude after my trip here is that it’s incredibly difficult for a poor country to go about getting un-poor. Just when you think you’ve got the right narrative, another one comes bursting out of the footnotes. It’s the informality. No, it’s the taxes. No, it’s the mining companies. No, it’s the regulators.

And that’s what makes fixing it so difficult. Does Zambia need better schools? Debt relief? Microfinance? Nicer mining companies? Better laws? Stronger enforcement? Yes. All of them. And all at the same time.

You can’t fix the land issues without tackling the corruption. You can’t fix the corruption without tackling the politics. You can’t fix the politics without addressing the culture. Thomas’ family told him his nephews didn’t need to be in school. From their perspective, that’s not totally irrational. In a country with so few formal jobs and so much competition for getting them, I can see how spending hundreds of hours, thousands of kwachas, on education would seem superfluous. Thomas’ daughter wants to become a lawyer. You could almost forgive Thomas if he told her that the bar exam failure rate is more than 90 percent, so what’s the use?

So honestly, I have nothing to say, no prescriptions, no lessons. I don’t even have a clear narrative for how my own country went from Deadwood to Real Housewives, much less a guidebook for how a poor country would make that transition now. Zambia is trying to make it in a world of cell phones, broadband Internet, Range Rovers, international flights. I don’t know if that makes development easier, or harder.

A week after I leave Lusaka, I meet a Zambian expat in Zimbabwe. She left Lusaka four years ago, and she says every time she returns, there are more cars, more roads, more restaurants, bars, gyms, decent cappuccinos.

I tell her that in Lusaka I saw construction cranes on the horizon in every direction.

“It’s all malls,” she says. “Zambians love to go to the goddamn mall.”

That’s not the only reason for optimism. Inflation is down to seven percent from 20 percent last decade. International investors pledged $750 million last year to build infrastructure. The new draft of the constitution limits presidential powers and confronts the MP-hopping problem. Fundamentally, Zambia is a stable country sitting on top of an El Dorado of fertile land and lucrative minerals. In the long run, things will probably get better.

On my last day in Zambia I go on a daytrip, a safari lodge an hour outside Lusaka. South Africans, Europeans, rich Zambians, all lounging around a pool. The surroundings look like the Africa you see in movies: tall grass, spindly trees, termite mounds, and antelopes.

The guide points out animals, talks about what they eat, how they mate, how long they live. He says all of them are available to hunt, as long as I’m willing to pay. Bagging a warthog will cost $500. An antelope, $1,000. The lions, when they’re too old, are set free for the hunters to have at them. That’ll cost me $10,000.

As I drive back to the lodge at the end of the day, I pass a Jeep going the other direction. Hanging halfway out of the cab is a huge female impala, on its back, blood everywhere, eyes still open. Maybe it’s just the bouncing of the Jeep, but it looks like it’s still kicking.

“Are they going to eat it?” I ask.

“No, it’s a trophy,” he says. “They’re just going to take it away.”

Michael Hobbes
Michael Hobbes lives in Berlin. He blogs at Rottin' in Denmark.

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