Saturday, March 10, 2007

Political stability and economic growth

Political stability and economic growth
By Editor
Saturday March 10, 2007 [02:00]

IT is good that President Levy Mwanawasa is assuring the nation that the transition to his successor will continue to be as peaceful as it has been before. We are saying this because, as President Mwanawasa himself rightly observes, the transfer of power in most African countries has been problematic and has in most cases led to political instability.

That Zambia is a peaceful country is not an exaggeration. But that is not to say that political stability should also be taken for granted. In most cases, it is actually the acts of politicians that have led otherwise stable and peaceful countries into civil strife. Sometimes it is the irresponsible behaviour of politicians that lead countries into instability. There are many countries, be it in Africa or other parts of the world, that have experienced political instability as a result of the conduct of their politicians.

Another point to keep in mind is the fact that the absence of physical conflicts such as civil wars in a country does not necessarily mean that there is political stability. A country may not be going through a conflict per se, but it could be experiencing or undergoing political instability in a number of ways. Perhaps this is why it is important to go beyond the question of whether or not there is political stability in a country. Simply put, we could say that maybe there is a need to critically evaluate and assess some of the factors that lead to or pass for political instability.

For example, the realities of high poverty and unemployment levels may be a source of political instability if not well handled. It is also true that political instability has arisen out of economic instability. We saw this a few years ago in Argentina where governments were crumbling as soon as they were formed because of the economic instability that the Latin American country was going through at the time. We agree with President Mwanawasa that political instability is not good for investment attraction to the country.

But let’s not forget that political stability is not a guarantee for good economic growth or development. Today, the relationship between economic growth and political stability raises a lot of questions in view of the fact that even countries such as the United States, which are considered to be good examples of political stability, are now experiencing great economic inequality. Although the United States prides itself in terms of political stability and a democratic culture founded more than 200 years ago, we are aware of the economic inequalities that exist there. Zambia itself as a country has enjoyed more than 40 years of relative political stability but it ranks poorly on the world map when it comes to economic development.

Holding democratic elections every five years does not mean much if those who are elected at those intervals are doing nothing to address economic inequalities such as unemployment, which are themselves a potential source of political instability. It is a known fact that some countries of the world, including a few in the Middle East, which do not run any elections but are ruled by emirs have themselves made more economic progress and improved the welfare of their citizens than countries like Zambia which have had a number of elections.

We should not be misunderstood here. We are not dismissing the idea of democracy and the need to make sure that those in government get there through a democratic system such as periodic elections. What we are saying is that there are several factors that can lead to both political stability and economic growth. For example, a country may have a constitutionally elected government which in the process turns itself into a kleptocracy, with leaders looting its resources at will. Even if such a government was elected through a democratic process, it is impossible to expect economic equality or stability in such a case.

In the case of most poor countries, including Zambia, economic development has been elusive owing, partly, to external forces such as imposition of economic policies on local economies by institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. We still have not forgotten about the failed structural adjustment programme (SAP) and how myopic people like Frederick Chiluba blindly embraced such a policy, which was later to be denounced and betrayed by its proponents. Through SAP, we saw how many of our school children were thrown out of school as a result of the decision by Chiluba and his government to impose school fees even at primary level. We saw how medical health centres in rural areas became inaccessible as a result of the introduction of medical user fees which most of our people could not afford.

Yes, President Mwanawasa can plead for foreign investment to flow into the country. No one should discourage him from doing that because we need more investment into the economy if we are to develop our country. But as we do that, it should not only be to the benefit of foreign investors while we end up as losers. Already, we are seeing how outsiders are making millions of dollars out of our own natural resources such as copper and yet there is nothing much to show in terms of a general improvement in the lives of our people.

And we hope that by saying that Zambia has learnt from some of its mistakes and it is making corrections, President Mwanawasa is also telling the nation that the government will in future be very careful in the manner it makes its economic decisions so that the country’s wealth is not just given away to outsiders without due consideration of the consequences. Therefore, as much as we should strive for political stability and work towards economic development, let us also pay attention to some of the factors that actually lead to instability, both to the economy and in our politics. Political instability is not desirable for any country, yet political stability is not the panacea to good economic growth. If anything, eradication of economic inequalities - through sound economic policies - is more likely to lead to political stability. This is how we look at things.

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