Multiparty Politics, Poverty and the Unsolved Rural Question in Zambia

(di Arrigo Pallotti) (abstract)

Zambia indipendent day

This essay investigates the historical and political roots of the long-term marginalization of the rural areas within Zambia’s political economy and shows that the high expectations that accompanied Zambia’s double transition to multiparty politics and market liberalization in the early 1990s were largely frustrated by the stagnation of the economy during Chiluba’s presidency, and by the persistence of high poverty rates within a context of strong economic growth during the last decade. While soon after independence the government neglected the development of the rural areas, in the first half of the 1970s Kaunda and UNIP resolved to stimulate the growth of agricultural production, but their efforts paradoxically deepened the rural-urban development gap. Archival evidence shows that in the mid-1970s, when Zambia was hit by a serious economic crisis, the confusion concerning the goals and priorities of the rural development policy hampered policy-makers, and severely limited the effectiveness of the new rural development programs implemented by the government. Since the early 1980s the latter set in motion a process of gradual liberalization of the agricultural sector and removed producer and consumer subsidies. While large-scale commercial farmers benefited from the economic reforms by increaseing the production of highly profitable non-traditional export crops, small farmers found it difficult to adjust to the new economic dispensation, due to the increase in input prices, the lack of credit in the rural areas and the dodgy business practices of private traders. Within the context of the neoliberal development policy pursued by the Zambian government in the last two decades, state initiatives aimed at supporting smallholder agriculture have been highly fragmented and their benefits have disproportionally accrued to the better-off peasants. The essay argues that the unsolved rural question and the widespread economic and social marginalization in the urban centres opened the way to the electoral victory of Michael Sata and the PF in 2011. In spite of his demagogic electoral promises, Sata did not adopt a new and alternative economic policy, but continued to implement the neoliberal development strategy formulated by his predecessor Rupiah Banda. In addition, Sata undermined the autonomy of the judiciary, the media and civil society, and harnessed the opposition parties. During Sata’s presidency the economic marginalization of Zambia’s smallholder agriculture continued unabated. This, together with the persistence of widespread poverty, highlights the contradictions of a democratization process that not only seems still far from consolidation, but that the persistence of high poverty rates makes all the more unpredictable.


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