By Milimo Mwiba
On Thursday more than a thousand people will be in London to stand up for justice. Just by turning up to the Tea Time for Change mass lobby on international development issues, they are showing solidarity with the poorest people in the world. By sitting down with their MPs and lobbying them to take action, they can make a profound difference to those people’s futures.
Zambia, my home, is rich in natural resources such as timber, minerals and wildlife, but my people are some of the poorest in the world – still struggling to meet their basic needs. Despite the improvements of recent years – with rising economic growth, debt cancellation and more effective poverty reduction programmes – more than 60% of Zambians still live in abject poverty, unable to afford a daily decent meal.
Zambia is ranked 150 out of 169 on the 2010 Human Development Index (HDI) with the average life-expectancy of my fellow countrymen and women standing at just 47 years. For every 100,000 women who give birth, nearly 600 die; and for every 1,000 children born alive, more than 100 will die before their fifth birthday. The improvements of recent years are real and tangible, but they are still too little and too late for many of my fellow citizens.
How can this happen in a country so rich in resources? Zambia is unable to benefit from that natural wealth, especially in the mining sector, because it lacks the expertise and the necessary capital to create indigenous industries and recycle the resulting profits here at home. As a result, Zambia relies heavily on foreign direct investment. The efforts of successive governments to attract those foreign investors have forced Zambia to create a so-called enabling environment of financial incentives and lax regulation, which provides huge profits for multinational companies setting up shop in our country, but little benefit for the population as a whole.
Not content with those advantages, many multinationals use avoidance schemes to minimise their tax bills even further, and in some cases, make under-the-table payments to officials to secure additional concessions. These are major industries in Zambia operating as the equivalent of “cowboy builders” in Britain, their payments and profits hidden from view. As a result, the mining sector only contributes 2% to Zambia’s official GDP, compared with 17% in the 1980s when the mines’ majority shareholdings were held by the government.
There is a critical need for transparency in the operations of these companies and the way they deal with governments like ours. How can the Zambian people hold its democratically elected government to account if it does not know what payments it receives from these companies, what concessions it offers them, and how much tax they should properly be paying? With transparency in tax and all payments to government, Zambia would be able to meet its obligations to its people – to create well-paid jobs and improve living standards, and to provide the funds needed to offer better healthcare and education, and build roads, hospitals and schools.
In recent years, a new policy regime on investments has been developed in Zambia, including better promotion of transparency and accountability, and that in turn has improved the confidence of companies who want a stable and reputable business environment to invest in our country for the long term. But much more can still be achieved if Britain and other countries ensure that multinational companies taking profits out of Zambia are obliged to open up their books to public scrutiny and are prevented from dodging the taxes owed to our government.
At the Tea Time for Change mass lobby of parliament in London, people from all over Britain will be standing up for economic justice and transparency in my country and in many other poor nations around the world. Please add your voice and urge the UK to make it easier for the people in poor countries to get what is due to them.
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• Milimo Mwiba is head of the justice and peace programme at Caritas Zambia