Zambians pay price of stability

NO ONE could accuse the International Monetary Fund's representative in Zambia of not having a sense of humour. The walls of his office are covered with cartoons from local newspapers lambasting the IMF for its devastating impact on the life of ordinary Zambians.

After days of roughing it in the bush, where 85 per cent of people live below the poverty line, I had put on my suit and gone to see the money men. A breakfast meeting with the IMF was followed by others with a diplomat from one of the creditor countries, the World Bank and a top Zambian civil servant.

I had one basic question. How could the West justify an economic reform designed to maximise debt repayments at a time when thousands more people were dying?

About 25 per cent of Zambia's earnings goes on paying the interest on the debt. Health and other services have been cut to pay for it. Since the cuts were introduced, life expectancy has fallen from 54 to 42 and deaths among the under-fives has risen to 203 from 125 per thousand.

The IMF representative was nervous about an on-the-record conversation. The situation was too delicate for that, he said. I had no more luck at the embassy of one of the main creditor countries. Bilateral aid, I was told, off the record, had been suspended since a failed coup attempt last year. And there were one or two questions about human rights.

But a senior civil servant said "Whenever we address the issue - with commissions on corruption or human rights - they [the West] move the goalposts and demand something else."

According to the World Bank's man in Zambia, Gedion Njoko, the sufferings of the poor were nothing to do with the policy of Structural Adjustment. They were the results of poverty and poor economic management by the Zambian author- ities. Hard choices had got inflation down from 300 per cent in 1991 to 20 per cent. The economy had stabilised. Now comes the second phase, in which it is hoped investment will arrive.