If a perception of economic debate as being a preserve of the chosen few goes unchallenged, then we risk losing the very essence of public life. Public life risks becoming a mere semblance. We have seen an awful lot of cagey positioning and irritable repudiations of the wider views from the recognised and respectable institutions such as the Economic Association of Zambia (EAZ). And such defensive positions miss an essential element about public life: debate is the very air, without which society is unable to exist. Some defenders of Economics refute themselves because their views block out the very fountain of political experience for many Zambians. Experience and development are not necessarily about self- appointed economists talking amongst themselves. The opposite is true. Rosa Luxemburg’s Problem of Dictatorship is illustrative. Freedom only for those that claim to have studied true economics – however numerous they might be – is no freedom at all. “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.”
Charges of elitism in Zambian political and economic spheres are exclusionary. As Robert Sharpe of the worldwide writers notes that the ability to see the other side is particularly important. Academics in particular aim to encourage a hybrid of ideas, wrong or right.
“The essence of free speech is that we allow people with whom we disagree to speak. Wrongheaded views will be aired. But free speech means no one gets the last word. We can – and indeed, we should – use our own right to free speech to challenge expressions we think are unpleasant or wrong. To do this we need to be equipped to argue in public.”
Such views and ability to debate and differ is a skill we should endeavour to inculcate in all Zambians – economists included. Social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc) augments my views. On social media platforms, people can listen, disagree or even block each other. Emojis are constantly flying to show emotions about the subject matter. What is amazing in all these dynamics is that there is probably no barrier to entry: have a gadget and data bundles and you would be good to go. More widely, such debates have been crucial in shaping social change. As the Guardian reports in their article “Why Debate still Matters”: “the idea of prejudice within debate is key throughout history: for arguments to be properly heard, one has to first accept that all have the right to make them, and to believe in a commonality of capability, capacity and sensibility.” This is not about the so-called Economists. It is about a people and why they choose to be who they are. The so-called Economists are happy to turn us (the so-called non-economists) into their audience but they won’t tolerate our views.
Fighters of independence in Zambia never studied economics, neither did they solve any econometrics. They were noble men and women who believed in the common good. They understood life from the hills and the mountains, and they remain proud of their contribution to this country, the very country on which Economists attempt to articulate their ideas, fortunately or unfortunately.
There appears a tacit assumption in recent debates: that the so-called self-appointed economists have a ready-made formula for Zambia’s development in their pockets by virtue of their own experiences. But this is so narrow and myopic at best. Political developments in Zambia require concerted efforts, despite efforts to mask them. These problems are not going anywhere. We must face them and those that brought us this far must start admitting their guilt. As the Guardian argues: “[I]f we are to hold our politicians to account…..then we must be able to follow the arguments of those who hold that power and most importantly expose their inconsistencies, including those coming out of the defunct EAZ. We shall do this by encouraging public debate and by bringing cherished opinions/experiences about the economy whenever we want, using whatever means necessary. In any case, economics is about resource access, shelter, food and clothing and most importantly ability to curve a lifestyle for ourselves. This does not need one to have a PhD in Economics. On the contrary, it only requires one to live in Zambia and experience what it means to be poor in an economy full of natural resources. It only needs one to be a farmer and experience the challenges of input access or restrictive market imperatives. This should be our concern as opposed to narrow perspectives about academic and theoretical advancements. Recent developments have shown that when narrow perspectives meet academics, the concoction is always disastrous.
In sum, Zambians must guard against elitism in the Zambian political and economic spheres. Public debate and exchange of experiences cannot be a preserve of self-anointed individuals. Real development can only be realised when a complete transformation involves every Zambian. Rather than seek recognition as Economists, each and each one of us must question our own opinions, and what our contribution to this society. This, I believe, is the greatest way to measure noble men and women.
(Dr Simon Manda – a Zambian non-Economist and a Farmer Lecturer, University of Zambia. Email: Smanda08@yahoo.com)