Friday, November 9, 2007

Big Question I: Who benefits from economic growth?

In these days of well hyped African economic growth, one has to wonder which groups in society will see more benefit from humming economies. Will it be the already-rich and the large businessmen? If so, will their new largesse trickle down into the rest of society? (Will they go out to eat more, hire more gardeners, build a house, etc.) Or, will the poor feel the economic growth through more job opportunities, better prices for their goods, etc. Will this growth, then, trickle up?

These questions are entwined in a larger debate on development itself. Say a government only has “X” amount funds for a new development program. Does it: a) spend the monies on projects that directly benefit the business class – i.e. internet infrastructure, better roads to port, etc. – or, b) spend the money on projects for the poor – a new health clinic, more water pumps, etc. – which may benefit a larger percentage of society?

The one issue of development based on economic indicators is that it excludes more human-based needs: cheap food, good schools for the kids, medical care. Perhaps we should look beyond the moot mathematics of economics (I stole that here) and find more people-centered answers, says Peter Henroit, director of the Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection, based in Lusaka, Zambia.

So development is mainly a matter of improvement in people's lives, especially the lives of the poor and marginalised. Its measurements are not primarily economic indicators, like GDP growth, but social indicators, like life expectancy. It is not the quantity of economic growth but the quality of economic growth that matters. It is not investment per se, but the consequences of that investment on human capacities to enjoy the fullness of life.

It seems to me that this is precisely the focus of discussion that is most needed today in Zambia. Why do I say that? Because so much of the praise and defense of the current public policies of our government is phrased in terms of economic indicators that lack a clear human face. (One very noteworthy exception was the recent explanation given by a government minister of how the lowering of inflation could be helping the poor through stabilisation of mealie meal prices and lower interest rates on loans.)

Thus when Zambians are told by the Government that new Chinese investments will provide thousands of jobs, they have the right to know the wages, conditions of service and permanency of those promised jobs. That is, they should be told whether the consequences of the investments will really be people-centered.

And when we learn that the growth rate may be six percent this Year, We Should Be Told What Impact That Will Have On Availability of Food for Families, School Books for Children, Medicines for Sick, Agricultural Inputs in Rural Areas And Clean Drinking Water in Our Urban Compounds. in Other Words, What Does It All Mean for the Improvement of the Lives of People? After All, 6 Percent Growth Rate is an Abstract Mathematical Equation That Needs to Be Translated Into Human Terms.

It surely is not helpful to say that it will be sometime in the future before human improvements can be seen, that we must not rush but be patient, and that in the long-run everyone in Zambia will benefit from current programmes. Remember what the British economist Lord Keynes aptly said, "In the long-run, we will all be dead!" We can't wait!

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