Will the UPND government answer the cries of the majority of Zambians who are hungry and poor, in the 2023 Budget and adequately address their cries about hunger, rent and the escalating cost of living? These Zambians, after all, voted the Patriotic Front (PF) out of government to have these human needs addressed, urgently.
The World Bank has degraded us, correctly, to a very poor country, the lowest of its four-income group classification: we are now a low-income economy, or “low-income country”. This means we are among the countries of the world with the lowest income per person per year – USD1,085, or less. In the high-income countries, individual incomes are USD13,205 or more, per year, per year. The difference between Zambia and high-income countries is therefore more than 1,217%! There are only three countries more unequal than Zambia in the world today. Poverty, grinding, spirit and dignity sapping poverty, is the fate of the majority of Zambians. More than 60 percent of Zambians are poor, very poor.
Among the 28 countries we share the distinction of having the lowest income with are Syria, Yemen, Somali, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Niger– these countries are at war, or coming out of war. It must exercise our minds what our classification would be should we actually experience war. The majority of the 28 countries are in the so called “Sub Sahara Africa” – former colonial possessions.
Most of our politicians know the immediate causes of our extreme poverty. They all tell us they have the answers to our poverty. All our political parties promise us they will address our urgent needs, urgently, when elected into government. The UPND in opposition took this practice of promising us solutions to our hunger, poverty, unemployment, inequalities and high cost of living to a new level: they created in us the impression they had all the solutions on their fingertips, and soon after assuming office, we would immediately see change in our lives. It is not too much to ask them to prioritise, in the 2023 budget, food, rent, and transport above all else? Hunger eats away the dignity of a human being. Even animals have a place of their own to sleep. Without transport, without mobility, it is impossible to look for work or carry out many meaningful income generating activities. We are failing to transport the sick to hospital. It is too expensive to pay for transport for school children.
On 6th July 2022, Fr. Alex Muyebe, S.J., Executive Director of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflections issued a passionate call for a pro-poor 2023 National Budget. This plea is available on the JCTR website at: https://www.jctr.org.zm/ It is impossible not to be possessed with a sense of urgency about the need to do something, about the hunger and poverty that is torturing millions of Zambians, upon reading this call, from Fr. Muyebe.
Father Muyebe makes this profound observation about us: “Poverty has always been one of the major barriers to human development in Zambia since independence in 1964. No country can achieve sustained economic growth for national development without effectively addressing wide-spread poverty in its population. Unfortunately, in Zambia today we have become so much accustomed to co-existing peacefully with poverty that we no longer get alarmed when we hear of stressful stories of our brothers and sisters in poor households around the country who are struggling to barely survive due to the rising cost of living. Something is not adding up. Even if the speed at which prices are increasing is on the slowdown, the fact is that commodity prices are very high and are likely to remain that way for some time given the ever increasing fuel pump prices. This is happening in a context where incomes are very low and in some instances very miserable, especially for the unskilled category of employees such as domestic workers and shop workers. The minimum wage has remained unrevised for many years. For instance, the legal minimum wage for a domestic worker in Zambia has remained at 53 USD per month since 2011(The Minimum Wages and Conditions of Employment (Domestic Workers) Order 2011(S.I. No. 3 of 2011)).”
It is the condition, most worrisome, of the teeming unemployed, the domestic workers, the casual workers, the seasonal farm labourers, the urban piece work hustlers, the mothers at home who must watch their children drift into a hunger induced sleep – all the majority of whom are largely young –that the loss of human dignity because of extreme poverty and hunger surely must move any government to “do something urgently” about it? It is this mass of suffering humanity ironically which is also the bulk of the “voting folder” for all our politicians and political parties. This is the bulk of Zambia’s young working class. How long must they suffer thus?
Interestingly, to illustrate how tough and distressing life has become for the majority of our lowly paid workers after the 2021 elections, Fr. Muyebe uses the example of his friend Bernard who is a security guard. This is what Bernard is going through, for risking his life to protect property at a private firm:
“Bernard is employed as a guard at a private firm in Kabulonga and he lives with two dependants in Chipata township where he managed to find a small house befitting his income. Bernard’s monthly income has remained static for four years at K1,500 with a take home pay of K1,432 after NAPSA and NHIMA deductions. Meanwhile Bernard’s expenses have continued to grow exponentially, especially since January 2022. In the period between December 2021 and June 2022, Bernard’s rentals for a very small two-bedroomed house have increased from K550 (for the house) and K75 for electricity (ma lights) to K600 (for the house) and K150 for electricity (ma lights). His other regular monthly expenses include 25kg bag of breakfast mealie-meal (increased from K110 to K140), kapenta (increased from K120 to K220 per meda or measured in a small plate (kambale) increased from K12 to K20, cooking oil increased from K35 to K50 per a 750 ml bottle or measured in a tiny freezit sachet for single cooking (yopimisa) increased from K2 to K5, and transport from Chipata to town increased from K7 to K15 one way and from town to Kabulonga increased from K11 to K17 one way”.
Bernard at least has a “job”. Millions of other Zambians depend on “Bernards” and “Charitys” wo are struggling to subsidise their jobs by forgoing many life’s necessities, including walking long distances to work because they cannot afford transport, just to sustain a “job” We respect the mathematics of the World Bank and what they have found, about us – that we belong to the poorest countries in the world with the lowest income per person; we have known this all along, since our independence in 1964! We expect the rest of the world to respect the fact that this is the burning, most urgent question we face, and our government must be fully occupied with it, as priority number one.
We are experiencing a national disaster of mass hunger, poverty, unemployment and inequalities. Food, rent, transport and a minimum basket of basic human needs to guarantee the dignity and sanity of millions of Zambians are what the voters cried out for in the 2021 elections. Politicians are elected to solve human problems; politics, after all, is the art of the impossible, in our circumstances. No economic or social priority is superior to human dignity, human life. It is impossible for the UPND government not to respond to the urgent plea for relief from hunger, high rentals, costly transport and a cluster of other urgent basic needs, in the 2023 National Budget, for the masses of Zambia.
This, I must differ with Fr. Muyebe, is not about “option for the poor”! It is “service to Zambians” precisely because hunger and poverty are the conditions of the majority of Zambians, and the UPND and president Hakainde Hichilema were elected to address these conditions for the majority, and not advance the interests of a rich minority, of Zambians. Will the UPND listen to the cries of their electors?
Hunger and poverty dehumanise, acute chronic hunger and absolute poverty dehumanises absolutely.
(Send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org)