In late December the United States followed through on a promise by writing off $280 million in debts owed to it by Zambia.
In all, Western countries and NGOs wrote off over $1 billion in debt owed by Zambia. When all is said and done, according to the BBC, Zambia’s debt is likely to fall from around US $7 billion to around US $500 million.
Now the only issue is what the hell Zambia will do with this sudden lowering of debt. Zambia’s debt problems originated largely from widespread corruption within its government. Former president Frederick Chiluba drove the country into the ground during his 10 year reign that ended in 2001, and if Zambia is going to succeed it will take more than just debt relief — it will take a complete change in its political culture.
Of course, Chiluba’s corruption trial is a very good start, but too often reformers have come to power in African nations only to find the culture of corruption to entrenched to over come, and in some cases find themselves quickly compromised by that culture. For example, current Zambia president Levy Mwanawasa hold his office thanks to winning just 28 percent of the vote in a 2001 election that was deemed unfair by independent election monitors, including the Carter Center and Mwanawasa rejected proposed changes to Zambia’s constitution that would modify election rules to make such outcomes less likely.
Not exactly the sort of person ideal to lead basic reforms to overcome official corruption.
Zambia, which was already suffering from food insecurity, was hit this month by flooding that destroyed crops and infrastructure in the Gwembe district, south of the capital city of Lusaka.
Zambia is one of a number of African nations suffering from food shortages. As many as 10 million people require food aid in Zambia after drought and corruption took their toll on the country’s food supply.
The BBC reported that up to 2,000 hectares of maize had been destroyed in the flooding.
The World Food Program reports that food shortages are coming to an end in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia, but such problems continue to worsen in Zimbabwe.
James Morris, head of the World Food Program, told The New York Times,
A serious humanitarian disaster has been averted. Food has been put in place over the last several months in such a way that mass starvation and death has not occurred. We’re seeing significant progress in Malawi and Zambia. We don’t have that same optimism in Zimbabwe.
In Zimbabwe, the WFP’s estimate of the numbers of people facing food shortages jumped to 7.2 million in December, up from 6.7 million in August.
For the past year the United Nations’ World Food Program has been warning of several pending famines in southern Africa, but a report by The Times UK suggests that aid agencies may have exaggerated the extent of hunger in countries such as Zambia.
The Times dispatched reporters to Zambia and could find little evidence of the famine that threatened three million people there according to the WFP. While Zambians are poor, they didn’t appear to be starving.
The Times quotes former Zambian Agriculture Minister Guy Scott as saying, “It looks to me as if the international donor community wanted to see a disaster without being critical enough.”
This is brought into focus by looking at the consequences of Zambia’s much-publicized refusal of food aid from the United States because of concerns over genetically modified organisms. Despite that refusal, however, the mass starvation forecast for Zambia simply never happened. As Scott told The Times,
I thought that the Government’s refusal to accept GM maize was going to lead to a large number of deaths. But it hasn’t. Of course you want to err on the side of caution. But the GM ban, and the lack of any consequences, has raised questions about the severity of the crisis.
Scott tells the Times that he believes aid agencies probably focused on areas worst hit by drought and so overestimated the extent of food shortages.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warned in February that parts of southern Africa are at serious risk of famine over the next few months that could threaten as many as four million people.
The famine threat is greatest in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe, of course, has seen its crop production cut in half thanks to the confiscatory and anti-democratic policies of Robert Mugabe.
Malawi has suffered from flooding the past couple years which has waterlogged crops and reduced yields. Food is available in Malawi, but the poverty levels there often make it impossible for people to obtain food.
In Zambia, too, flooding caused a 24 percent decrease in harvests in 2001 as compared to 2000.
Famine stalks Southern Africa. The BBC, February 19, 2002.
Another example of just how retrograde some governments in the developing world tend to be: the BBC reports that 27-year-old estate agent Wilfred Nkabeka was recently sentenced to two years in jail for defaming the president of Zambia, Frederick Chiluba.
After having a bit too much to drink, Nkabeka told anyone who would listen that Chiluba was “stupid” and referred to him with other colorful phrases. Nkabeka was arrested and conviction of defamation.
Ironically, the political party that Chiluba belongs to is called the Movement for Multiparty Democracy. Apparently observers need to put a big asterisk next to the “Democracy” to indicate that it is only a broad suggestion. (No wonder Zambia is among the poorest performing of poorly performing states in Africa).
Zambian jailed for calling president stupid. The BBC, October 31, 2001.