On the eve of the G20 summit Fr Joe KomaKoma, a Zambian bishops’ conference official, says poverty is literally killing his ellow countrymen
In August, Zambia experienced a month-long strike from civil servants, particularly teachers and health workers. The main contention of health workers was the salary package and other working conditions. The government was not prepared to go beyond the 15 per cent increment when the civil servants wanted a 25 per cent increment and improvement in some allowances.
One felt sorry for the government since it had only budgeted for a maximum increment of 11 per cent. The government feared that going beyond that figure would make them break one of the conditionalities imposed by the international finance institutions (the IMF and the World Bank) that governments who seek their help should not spend more than eight per cent of the GDP for personal emoluments.
The harsh reality here is that the government of the republic of Zambia does not have the freedom to sit with its own citizens to decide a salary package that meets the cost of living. Needless to say, civil servants are poorly paid. Their salaries barely meet the basic needs basket of about US$400 (£242) per month. This has caused an exodus from the sector leaving the few teachers and nurses on government payroll overworked.
This lack of sovereignty by our government to pay a decent wage to its workers led to the month-long strike with disastrous consequences. It meant that the majority of Zambians (about 70 per cent) who live on a dollar or less a day had no access to healthcare during this period.
Many avoidable deaths were reported as a result. There were heartrending reports such as the woman who gave birth on the streets as her family shuttled from one government healthcare centre to the next in the hope of finding one with minimal services. The child was stillborn.
My country’s situation highlights what is deficient about the current world economic order. It shows that the so-called efforts to try and help poor countries out of poverty and under development have only worked to increase our poverty.
True development can only be achieved through freedom and justice where each society is given the space and respect to set its own priorities for national development; we cannot leave that to the whims of the IMF or World Bank. Unfortunately this is the position we are in at present.
We are living in a world where the profit motive is paramount and not the full and dignified development of all peoples. We do not seem to care about the means by which this profit motive is achieved, even when poor countries like Zambia are squeezed so that rich countries can continue to proposer. This is a world in which financial speculation and unregulated exploitation of the earth’s resources has become the norm.
Zambia has borne the brunt of such behaviour in the recent past. It is no secret that the IMF and the World Bank arm-twisted our government to allow international mining companies to come and exploit Zambia’s renowned copper at great profits to the investors and minimal benefit to the country. The IMF-sponsored agreements with these mining companies allowed them to have minimal local investment, low taxation, and the ability for them to take their profits outside the country. When the global economic crisis hit last year, a good number of those companies were quick to shut up shop, leaving behind not only massive numbers of unemployed miners but also serious environmental degradation. This is a great cost which now sits in Zambia’s lap.
We have let human greed and selfcentredness permeate our social relations to the detriment of the common good. We have let the major players in the economic and financial fields behave outside the ethical sphere in the name of wealth creation for the few. And we have let the international institutions serve the interests of the rich and powerful countries.
As the G20 prepare to meet in Pittsburgh, it must be reminded of the promises its leaders pledged at their summit in London in April – the £30 billion to support social protection, boost trade and safeguard development in developing countries and emerging markets. I was there, marching on Hyde Park, my voice raised as we reminded them and the rest of the world that the global recession has had a disproportionate impact on the vulnerable in the world’s poorest countries.
Without the common good as its ultimate end the current economic order risks destroying the wealth that it purports to create and instead increasing poverty. Without taking into account the necessity of a fair distribution of the created wealth it makes it is inevitable that the gap between the rich and poor will continue to widen.
A new world economic order is desperately needed: one that will be able to manage fairly the global economy, guarantee the protection of the environment, bring about food security and peace, and revive economies hit by the current economic crisis. This can only happen if there is the political will and commitment at individual, national and international levels. Unless we act, nothing will change.
As Christians we must champion this cause. We need to stand in solidarity from North and South doing what is necessary in our societies. And our challenge, for those of us from poor countries, is to push our governments to be more accountable and to ensure that they exercise better democratic governance which will then give us a solid platform to ask for what is just from the international community.
Fr Joe KomaKoma, is a Cafod partner and secretary general of the Zambia episcopal conference. Cafod Harvest Fast Day is on Friday October 2