Researching the politics of development



State capacity building in Zambia amidst shifting political coalitions and ideologies

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Working paper 171

Caesar Cheelo and Marja Hinfelaar

This paper summarises research on the ‘pocket of effectiveness’ (POE) phenomenon in Zambia. It traces the development of three POEs within the Zambia context: the Ministry of Finance, the Bank of Zambia and Zambia Revenue Authority. This paper shows that the performance of these POEs largely depends on structural forces underpinning Zambia’s historical trajectory, namely the character of its political settlement, the structure of the economy and global neoliberalism, and of the shifting political coalitions that have governed the country during this period. Originally shaped by the nationalised copper industry and a state-led economy, these organisations were subject to a radical reorientation under the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s. Donor-supported ‘capacity-building’ efforts and the need to adhere to international standards disciplined Zambia’s economic institutions, moderated political interference from the executive and enabled them to be highly functional in a narrow organisational sense. They turned out over time to be politically unsustainable in the face of developmental failures, alternative ideological commitments, elite fragmentation and political populism. Overall, Zambia’s governing elite was only fully aligned with this project of technocratic neoliberalism for a relatively brief period during the mid-2000s that ended with the unfortunate death of the then-president. With Zambia’s politics becoming increasingly competitive and fragmentary, this mode of economic governance came into direct conflict with both political populism and a residual commitment to a more statist and planning-based approach within the bureaucracy. Despite the rhetoric of economic nationalism, the prioritisation of short-term survival strategies has undermined the quality of economic governance to the extent that rising levels of debt dependency now threaten both Zambia’s sovereignty and its developmental future.