"So how are things in Zambia these days?"

That's a question I've been hearing a lot these past few weeks. Travelling through several European countries with my colleague, Leonard Chiti, S.J., Deputy Director of JCTR, we have been visiting friends who are very interested in the current situation in Zambia. And we have tried to be honest in answering their many questions. "Honest" meaning not overly optimistic or overly pessimistic!

When asked how the Chipolopolo Boys are doing, we can honestly say, "OK - but could be better!" Too bad we won't be in South Africa for the World Cup, but we can be proud of a good showing earlier this year in Angola for the Africa Cup of Nations.

But how about the economy? Certainly there are many nice stories coming out about high growth rates and new investments. But to be honest, how many Zambians on the ground are enjoying those mystical mathematical figures?

Employment is still stagnated and the cost of the monthly JCTR Basic Needs Basket is way beyond the reach of most families. Agricultural policies leave a lot to be worried about.

If we are honest, we can't say much positive about the political scene in the country. Surely most Zambians would like to hear more about presidential policies than about presidential travels. And opposition figures would win more friends with stronger strategic plans for turning the economy around and improving living conditions than with insults of current government leaders.

And the Church? Well, if name-calling, persecution and arrest because you stand for justice and a special concern for the poor is a sign of something good, then the Church is certainly doing good! At least some of the Church….

Yes, when asked how things are in Zambia these days, we have had to be honest and present a mixed picture, a snapshot of positives and negatives, of potentials and problems.

Surely the most outstanding negative side of Zambia is the prevalence of deep and lasting poverty. The past few weeks I've offered in this column some trenchant analysis of this situation by JCTR staff member, Dominic Liche.

Under the title "Will Poverty Ever End in Zambia," Dominic has examined the many facets of the impoverishment of the majority of our citizens. Here now are his concluding remarks:

From what I've argued so far in my analysis, it surely is very clear that poverty is not only about the absence of riches. Poverty is about how decisions are made, about happiness, about contentment with one's life. Personal decisions, community decisions and even national decisions contribute a lot to poverty. Many decisions made in communities and nations ensure that some sectors of society will continuously be poor.

Decisions made not to adequately develop rural areas, for example, when these areas need certain basic minimums to start improving the lives of the residents is one such decision that will perpetuate poverty in rural areas. Decisions by national leaders to use huge resources on their own needs and desires (state dinners, travelling around the world, holidays, helping relatives and friends) mean that those who might benefit from such resources, mostly the poor, will continue to be poor.
Personal decisions at family level can also perpetuate poverty. A parent who chooses to use more than half of his or her earnings on alcohol or womanising/manising can mean children heading towards the poverty lane that they might never come out of. Sadly we see a lot of that in Zambia today.

The solution to ending poverty is not all about material resources. It is about happiness and finding meaning in one's life. Just heaping money on the poor contributes in most cases to people's failure to come out of poverty. If a poor person knows that the nuns next door will always give him food, why should he begin working hard to find his own sources of income? But just receiving and living out of someone else's pocket is dehumanising and strips people of their human dignity.

This dynamic also applies to nation states. Some of the developing countries and some non-developing countries have been labeled failed states or non-viable national economies. They are non-viable despite the huge amount of donor monies that have been heaped on them for decades now. It would seem that maybe such states are addicted to poverty and to just receiving without giving.

It amazes me, for example, that despite the so much money that Zambia receives from donor countries and international financial institutions, and all the local resources we have, no government official moved a motion to help the survivors of the Haitian earthquake. Instead, some Lusaka-based Members of Parliament wanted K 5 billion (about USD 1.1 million) to be given to them. Why couldn't they think of the suffering Haitians? Maybe because they have become used to receiving and not to giving.

Despite highlighting these many difficulties in ending poverty, I still believe it is possible to do so. This of course will need much more effort and ingenuity than are now being devoted to a really formidable task. It would need attention to spiritual poverty by highlighting the importance of faith in one's life. Faith in that is about having meaning in one's life, about believing that things will be better and that there are always alternatives in the situations one find themselves in, and about being content with what one has and what one is in life.

This might need research (not fruitless research that yields no results except huge gains to the consultants) to learn why some people refuse to come out of poverty. This would be a much more psychological and spiritual kind of research and I believe some people have already begun working on this.

It would require new ways of dealing with poverty that are multifaceted. Prof. Michael J. Kelly, S.J., once wrote about dealing with HIV and AIDS that there is need for many spears to kill the pandemic. Indeed poverty will need those many spears as well to effectively bring an end to it.

At other times I have argued for some steps to end poverty that are mainly targeted at bad national leaders, here in Zambia and elsewhere, who propagate bad policies. But I want to conclude my reflections here by emphasising that how individuals perceive themselves as worthy, how realistically happy they are, and how the choices are that they make as individuals have a lot to do with ending poverty.

And this is certainly true both in Zambia and in the wider world.

www.jctr.org.zm (external link)
Peter Henriot
Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection
Lusaka, Zambia