22 January 2013

Zambia: Information Can Help Zambia Fight Poverty


Since independence in 1964, successive Zambian governments have grappled with rampant poverty and unemployment in a country that boasts a vast array of natural resources. Countless conferences on poverty reduction and employment creation have been held and solutions proposed, yet every year the situation worsens. Some of the conferences have now become perennial talk shows that never yield any meaningful solutions.

During election campaigns - be it general elections or by-elections or whatever - poverty reduction and employment creation are always among the top issues contained in the manifestos of different political contestants. But thousands of graduates still pound every street and avenue searching for the elusive job opportunity, while more than 40 percent of Zambians are said to be living below the poverty line.

For a population and government supported by a mere 10 percent of the labour force, the revenue raised through income tax and taxes on economic activities is not enough to support our economy and its population - or to supply the government with enough resources to provide good and services such as clean water, medicines in hospitals and a good network of roads.

Who then can help our government find long lasting solutions to the problems of poverty, job creation and wealth building that every successive Zambian government since the days of Kaunda has failed to solve? Is it the Church, NGOs or donor communities? Is it the ruling party, ministers and Members of Parliament? Or is it the President?

The solutions cannot come from any of the above groups. The solutions can be found with the very people that are afflicted by the economic woes we are trying to solve - the poor and marginalized, the unemployed and those that cannot contribute to the country's coffers are the very people that hold the answers to the problems they are going through.

The reason why they cannot solve these problems is because our national policies and laws have been enacted and designed without consulting them.

At Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) we believe that the poor and marginalized have all the requisite knowledge and experience to solve their problems. All they require is a platform where their ideas and inputs can be accommodated and heard. One such readily available platform is the space and time provided by the country's media, both mainstream and community-based.

Allowing the country's poor and marginalized to use media space and promoting their voices on public and community radio is a proven method of allowing long lasting solutions to emerge. The wealth of knowledge and information contained by some of Zambia's poorest people is amazing.

The country has very rich indigenous knowledge systems that could play a key role in employment creation and poverty reduction, but this can only happen if the marginalised citizens, who are the custodians of this information, have access to platforms through which to share their knowledge.

Through innovative communication methods like the radio listening clubs and use of data-enabled mobile phones, community members can package their views, news and stories into programmes and articles that the media can then use to create radio or TV content. The pictures captured using simple devices like mobile phones can form the basis of news articles that newspapers can turn into in-depth features and columns.

PSAf promotes the use of these innovative communication methods and the presence of ICTs, which also allow for instant feedback and forward and backward linkages between the media, policy makers and the poor and disadvantaged.

For example, the PSAf Radio Platform for Community Development (RPCD) project seeks to use radio listening clubs in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique to bring to light the issues affecting the poor and marginalized and to interrogate what solutions are being proposed by them. Working with five selected community radio stations in each country and funded by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), the project will allow policy makers in these countries a chance to sit on the same radio platform with the very people their policies target.

The project will also provide these radio stations with more programme content on issues of local concern so that they can serve their communities better. It is the hope of PSAf that this interface among the media, policy makers and vulnerable communities will result is long lasting solutions to issues of poverty reduction, disaster management and mitigation, unemployment and general community development.

The reality is that no conference will eradicate poverty. No amount of politicking will eradicate poverty. The solution lies in the effective use of information to fight poverty.

All Zambians - both the rich and the poor - need to engage in constructive dialogue that will come up with solutions. One of the biggest forms of empowerment for any individual is being able to freely access and channel information. And one of the biggest setbacks any individual or community can face is restricted or limited access to information.

It is not possible for a nation to develop without free flow of information. These projects will help to ensure that information flows.

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