Friday, 27 March 2015

Poverty & Multinationals in Zambia: A theological perspective

Below is a summary of a paper delivered by Francis Wilson at a symposium on the relevance of the Church in the 21st Century held under the auspices of the United Church of Zambia on the occasion of its Diamond Jubilee, in Lusaka in January 2015. Although pointing to Central and Southern Africa in general and Zambia in particular it is not without relevance to the Scottish Church either.

For Wilson the calling of the Christian church is to think theologically about society, economics and politics.  It has an obligation to seek to shape society for the common good against social evils. It is part of our ecumenical inheritance, a truth shared by all the great denominations, whether Reformed, Anglican or Roman Catholic.

There is a need to recognise the importance of values in shaping an economy. The market is a tool not a value and there are times when the forces of the market have to yield to higher moral values.  Christians opposed slavery as being inconsistent with the Christian understanding of human worth. As the market is generally a-moral, moral values are fundamentally important in shaping any economy and the market is a tool which can be used for good or ill.

Many of the values underpinning the present global economy are fundamentally unchristian. The emphasis always is on material things and consumerism the necessity of earning more money to satisfy greed no matter how rich one is. 

Christian values emphasise the ultimate worth of every individual no matter what they believe; what their position in society; how poor or rich they may be. The church believes in the importance of community and pushes for an ever more compassionate and caring society.

In a society with too great a degree of inequality, human community is impossible and Christians need to be very concerned about high levels of inequality in any society. What is the situation in Zambia? Does the church care? What do we, what do you, propose to do about it?

Another concern is the nature of poverty. This has many faces. But a country’s average per capita income can give one some idea as to the general well-being of the county. So Zambia with a per capita income in 2013 of $2990 is poorer than Botswana with a per capita income of $14 630 although better off than Zimbabwe with a per capita income of $1570.

In Zambia it is estimated that some 73% live below the poverty line but these figures are only guidelines. They tell us nothing about the nature or the causes of poverty, nor of the poverty endured by individual persons or their households. Nor indeed do the figures tell us anything about the distribution of income in the country concerned. There are many painful faces of poverty in the country: infant mortality, destitute old people, and unemployed young people feeling worthless and with no aim in life.  Is the Church thinking strategically and creatively about this? How does the church help people to acquire the tools - including personal courage, endurance & imagination - to improve the quality of life even if per capita income does not lift dramatically?

Zambia has been part of the modern globalisation process for more than a century with the discovery and exploitation of copper for the world market. In Zambia there are seven different types of multinationals. They include:

·         Mining or Extractive such as Copper and Coal

·         Consumer Goods including food, clothing, appliances, furniture etc

·         Media & Communications - TV; Films; Cell Phones; Internet

·         Transport - Garages; Car Hire; Petrol

·         Agriculture - Equipment; Seeds; Fertilizer; Products

·         Energy - Electricity and Oil

·         Banking - Global financial network

Wilson focuses on what he calls the three Ms

·         Mining

·         McDonalds

·         Media


Mining in Zambia immediately raises at least two value issues which need to be considered critically by the churches. Whose mineral resources?  Much of the Zambia’s mineral wealth has been siphoned out of the country especially when demand for copper was especially high.

In contrast, in Botswana mining companies earn agreed, reasonable, profits on diamonds whilst the bulk of the wealth stays in the country.

In Angola for example, the vast wealth accruing to the country from its oil seems, alas, to be destined to enriching the pockets of a few rather than improving the lives of the citizens. Contrast this with Norway where much of the oil wealth has been placed in a “Sovereign Fund” which now has investments around the world to be used in future for the well-being of all the people of Norway. In this context it is perhaps worth pointing out the crucial role of the church over the previous century in helping to create the political conditions and the institutions which enabled Norway to respond so wisely to the oil discoveries.

The migrant labour system is another issue: a huge source of social destruction in Southern Africa and a major factor in the spread of catastrophic levels of HIV/AIDS throughout the region.  It serves to generate poverty in the rural areas where the migrants come from. Decent family housing for all migrants and their families near their place of work is necessary, with workers treated as people with families rather than as labour units from which energy is to be extracted.

There are many multinational retail chains operating in Zambia selling such items as food, furniture, clothing and electronic equipment. Trade is of course, generally, of benefit to both sides but in any such transaction the terms of trade need to be examined with some care and here the churches could play an important role by asking some pertinent questions. For example, are the multinational retail firms doing more than training Zambian till-assistants? Is the retail sector in Zambia being educated and given the necessary experience for full global partnership employing senior Zambian managers and decision makers? Are Zambians being empowered within Zambia? Who is running the show? Or are the retail outlets in the country merely colonies used primarily to extract wealth for the imperial headquarters based in America, Europe or Asia?

Another theological dimension is the dichotomy between passive consumption and active production. “Couch potatoes”, people who may spend many hours each day passively and uncritically watching their television screens with the danger of consumerism replacing all manner of activities which used to be taken for granted.

The development of cell-phones and the internet is having a radical impact on communication particularly in Africa. The isolation of the past is being replaced, seemingly in the twinkling of any eye, by the global village. What are the consequences of such a revolutionary technology likely to be? How does the church help people to adjust to the new realities in ways that are human, caring and just for all?

1.       While multinationals are not all bad. They bring with them global linkages and new ideas, organisational efficiency and some sense of corporate social responsibility but some aspect require critical assessment by the church;

a.       Multinationals are essentially driven by profits. While necessary considerations also need to be given to of human value and of the ethical goals that give real meaning to life.

b.      Multinationals create wealth but at a cost.  Mining companies’ migrant labour system is highly destructive and impoverishes areas from which the migrants came. To say nothing of the work-related injuries and diseases.

c.       Multinationals tend to create elites earning incomes far above those of the general working population and are part of the process of the  widening inequality .This needs to be reversed if  the world is not to disintegrate due to lack of human solidarity.

A strong legal framework backed by honest and alert officials multinationals can prevent multinationals from robbing a country and its people of their rightful resources.

d.      The creation of dependency on multinationals fails to provide local business leaders with the knowledge and experience to be real partners in management and decision making.

Care for the Environment provides to mitigate climate change by facilitating the planting of trees by farmers needs to be scaled up.

The Church should continue with compassion and caring ministries, nurturing imaginative initiatives to deal with society’s, helping government to formulate better policy and criticising prophetically where government falls short.

Wilson concludes that in response a representative Zambian Church Commission might reflect theologically on the challenges facing the church both in terms of Faith & Order and its Life & Work modelled on the 1933 but focusing on Abundant Life, and of Ubuntu now and in the future. 


  1. I am interested to know what the cost of living is for a family of 5 in the capital in Zambia

    1. Thanks, Bill and Joanne. These are the latest figures from JCTR for October 2015. The October Basic Needs Basket for a family of five living in Lusaka as measured by the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) increased by K302.1 from K3, 957.46 in September to K4, 249.56. This was almost all from increases in food prices. 12 out of the 15 food items increased, the highest being that of Kapenta that saw a K50 rise.
      In comparison to the Lusaka October 2014 BNB (which stood at K3, 635.83) there has been a rise of over K600 (16.8% increase). As you can see the Lusaka Basic Needs Basket now costs over K4, 000 and this is a cause for concern to many especially with the continued depreciation of the Kwacha continues unabated, the loadshedding and the resultant job losses arising from the decline in productivity. This makes life and the cost of living even more difficult for the vast majority of ordinary people and their families.