Friday, June 17, 2011

Human-centred economics

Human-centred economics
Tue 14 June 2011, 04:20 CAT

Does the current understanding of economics benefit in any significant way the majority of citizens of this country?

Do the recent promises and development programmes in the light of elections offer an opportunity to direct economic growth to human development? Good economic models are those that constantly ask whether such policies benefit the people, and more especially, the most vulnerable in society.

The Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) has insisted that the economy is unhelpful unless it serves the human person, and not the other way around. That we can never say we are developing unless the lives of the poor people are improving.

In the light of elections this year, there are many claims of development by both the ruling party and opposition political parties. The ruling party claims that it is their leader who is bringing about true economic and social development.

The opposition political parties discredit these claims and showcase how they will develop Zambia with the available resources once elected into leadership positions. Whether these claims are true or not, let us concentrate on looking at economic development as only being meaningful when it benefits the poor and the most vulnerable in society.

In the past few years, we have seen the face of Zambia changing. Before 2005, Zambia was heavily indebted, suffered from bad policies of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) that saw wage freezes, stagnation in the education and health sectors, high inflation rates, and high poverty levels. Now Zambia has a new face – low inflation rates, high Gross Domestic Product, and high foreign investment.

But with this celebrated “economic boom” where people have struggled to move out of extreme poverty, there always seems to be those who take advantage of such progress for themselves. Although many policies and economic models have mushroomed in an attempt to see that the people of Zambia develop and come out of poverty, underdevelopment and poverty continue to be a huge challenge.

The return to multiparty democracy in the 1990s came with the concept of liberalisation of the economy, a concept which was so good on paper that decision makers without much consideration of the people, especially the poor, rushed to accept it. Although most of the policies were aimed at bringing about more economic development, these policies led to much suffering of the people, mostly the poor.

For example, privatisation of state-owned industries and mining companies saw many people without jobs due to downsizing, technological advancements, and the search for more competent people. Privatisation and a stress on private ownership saw people in rural areas loosing markets with a withdrawal of services (such as banks) from rural areas.

The free market system that came with democracy saw important sectors such as health and education also being commercialised. User fees were introduced in hospitals and clinics, tuition fees became the order of the day in schools, and social security schemes were slowly becoming history.

The current view of economics tends to instil a belief in the minds of our policy-makers that once you concentrate on sectors that produce and make profit and produce high GDPs, e.g., mines, agricultural, manufacturing companies and tourism, the country will develop.

Human beings, who ought to be the owners of such economic policies, are only thought of benefitting from a “trickle down” effect. But there cannot be development when people are hungry, sick, uneducated, and lacking basic needs.

With such trends, we have rural areas back-rolling in development and general welfare. Rural poverty is still high at about 78 per cent. Access to markets is still a problem, and we are seeing a trend where investments and the benefits of the “economic boom” are only utilised to improve urban areas and to win popular electoral acceptance.

Infrastructure in rural areas is very poor, and educational standards in rural schools are plummeting (even when more new schools are being built), often with few books and desks, while the number of pupils being enrolled is increasing.

Although it can be argued that this situation is changing with the introduction of free primary education and health services, the unavailability of services such as drugs, education materials, and human resources still remains a problem.

In addition to the challenges of access to markets, health and education, people in rural areas consume far below the recommended calories of food per person per day.

In a world where we crave for policies and theories that will help to expand the economy, large sectors of the population are still marginalised.

Unemployment levels keep rising. There are too many people chasing too few jobs. Even when foreign investment is seen to have given many Zambians jobs, the type of jobs, the remuneration, conditions in which workers work, remain poor.

The precondition for any economic policy or theory should be the question, “how would such a policy or theory benefit the people involved?” The problems that people continue to face especially in accessing basic needs show that our policies and economic theories may not be specifically and directly directed to the wellbeing of Zambians, especially the poor.

Good economics and mature development processes are those that raise the standards and dignity of all the people. In the development process, human dignity and the common good should never be compromised. There is need to stop taking a limited view of economics under current models.

We need to constantly look at the broader view that places human beings at the centre. We should keep an eye on the most vulnerable in our society when making economic policy decisions. Our measure of development should be when we have many more people who were poor coming out of poverty.

Just how do you think that we can direct our economic benefits to improving the lives of poor Zambians? (external link)

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