Zambia travel report 2: Some notes on the economy

There are five things I noticed about the Zambian economy from just looking around outside and talking to people. To start, labour productivity here is low. There are many tiny shops, often selling very similar products, right besides each other, being quite empty most of the time. Similarly, in many restaurants and bars there is much more staff than required to run the place effectively. Personell stands around waiting for something to do. I suspect economies of scale could be achieved and a smaller staff is feasible. This is an obvious result of the low levels of education in Zambia. However, I suspect that in some places getting family or friends or other dependents a job also plays a role. If you have a successful restaurant or shop, you are expected to help your family, so giving them a job seems sensible from that perspective. This also reminds us that we cannot simply conclude that having so much staff is ‘inefficient’ or ‘irrational’, because the goal of employing these people may be to satisfy other goals than company profit.

Moreover, and this is the second observation, many people here probably do not have clearly defined property rights. For example, it is common for people to put a wall around their plot to stake out a claim to the land. Especially in the slums small low quality houses are built without any involvement of the authorities I doubt there is a register which keeps track of property for these houses. This makes it nearly impossible to obtain the loans required to invest in their shops. The shops thus remain small by necessity.

Thirdly, there are some positive signs about Zambian development. To start, the government takes care that traffic runs smoothly through many recent infrastructure investments. From what I hear, traffic used to be awful in Lusaka, while nowadays traffic jams are less common outside rush hour. Currently a bridge to Botswana is being constructed, until it is finished all imports coming from southern Africa by land arrive by little ferries. Moreover, education seems to be relatively widespread (at least in the capital). There are schools everywhere, often linked to a church. Many people here speak English, which they regularly learn at school. This is of course a major benefit in a globalised economy.

Fourthly, there seems to be a big difference between how rich(er) people treat their private property versus how public property is treated. Many rich people here have large and beautiful gardens, which are shielded from the outside world by big walls. Right outside the fancy garden, there are potholes the size of a child. There is lots of trash lying all over the place, except where it concerns private property, or where the government is executing its anti-cholera campaign by cleaning the streets. Knowing that the reason of Zambia’s poverty is that its ruling class has little concern for the welfare of the Zambian population (they take what they can get away with), it keeps surprising me that these rich people care so little about the public space they also have to move in. They either care more about private than about public property, they don’t trust the government (they run and bribe themselves) to be effective at anything anyway, or perhaps providing semi-private goods to the rich but not to the poor is simply too politically incendiary? The frequent power outages suggest that the first hypothesis seems reasonable, as most rich people and larger establishments have their own power generator. Clearly, there are collective action problems when it comes to public space. Those with political power do not need this collective action and probably even obstruct it, while those who would benefit most from government intervention do not have political power. Still, it baffles me that the rich care so little about the state of the country they live in. Their attitude is miles apart from my own European middle class attitude.

Nevertheless, and fifthly, there are clear signs of public spiritedness. Zambians are noteably proud of their low crime rates. Two taxi drivers have proudly compared Zambia’s safety to the anarchy of South Africa. I can walk around here with my telephone after dark, and nothing happens. It does not seem to be any more or less safe than any other large city when it comes to street robbery. It should be said that anyone with money does put a large wall around their house. This has also been explained to me as an inheritance of British colonial culture: the British used to put a wall around their properties, something which rich Zambians have copied, or to make clear who’s property the plot is. Moreover, despite the low levels of police surveillance of traffic, people drive relatively socially. Compared to other developing countries (or even Italy or Greece) I would say Zambians are social drivers (except for the little buses). Mutual trust and respect are the basis of any flourishing economy and liveable society, and Zambia would be far worse off without this public spirit.

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