Extreme poverty: Zambia needs to move “from rhetoric to action,” says UN expert

LUSAKA – “Effectively addressing extreme poverty in Zambia requires moving from rhetoric to action,” said the United Nations Independent Expert on human rights and extreme poverty, Magdalena Sepúlveda, at the end of her visit to the country, the first mission of a UN human rights expert to Zambia.

“Zambia is a country rich in natural resources that experienced significant economic growth in the last 8 years. Nevertheless, it was appalling to see the persistence of extreme poverty in different regions of the country,” stressed the UN expert sharing some of her preliminary findings at a press conference in Lusaka.

Ms. Sepúlveda met with various Government authorities, international organizations and NGOs, and visited communities living in poverty in Chipata, Chirundu, Katete and the Zambian capital. “In my visits to communities I learnt about the daily struggle for survival by people living in extremely difficult conditions. The Government has made clear commitments and outlined important plans to change this situation, but words must be translated into more actions.”

The expert, who was briefed on the ongoing review of the Constitution by the National Constitution Conference, pointed out that this process is a unique opportunity to bring the Zambian legal framework in line with international human rights commitments made by the country. “Access to health, housing, education and social security are all universal human rights that must be incorporated into the Bill of Rights,” said Ms. Sepúlveda.

According to the expert, improving law is important, “but it is not sufficient”. In her view, poverty will not be reduced in Zambia until poor people are placed at the center of national policies planning and if resources to social protection are not ensured. “The extremely poor must be the number one priority of the State budget,” she stressed.

Ms. Sepulveda saw first-hand the remarkable impact of pilot programmes of social cash transfer in urban and rural communities, which benefit households unable to undertake any income generating activity. “Without social cash transfers, older people, women and children would be virtually abandoned to their fate,” said the expert. “I was extremely pleased to hear that the Government has decided to scale-up these programmes.”

The independent expert fully acknowledged the resources constraints of the Government and encouraged international donors to support social protection programmes in Zambia. Nonetheless, she also stressed that the Government still can do much more with the limited resources that it has. “Governments must closely assess the allocation of public spending and fiercely combat corruption”.

The expert stressed that transparency, accountability and participation are indispensable for effective poverty reduction policies. “Civil society has a crucial role in the struggle against poverty, it should not only actively participate in the design process but also be able to monitor and evaluate what is being done.”

In this sense, Ms. Sepulveda expressed concern about the impact that the recently adopted NGO Act may have in restricting the independence of NGOs and subjecting them to excessive controls. She also called for enhanced support to the Human Rights Commission and the immediate adoption of the Anti Corruption Statute and an access to information act.

As a result of this visit, the expert will prepare a report that will be presented at the UN Human Rights Council in June 2010, describing her main findings and providing recommendations on the enhancement of the human rights situation of people living in extreme poverty.

Magdalena Sepúlveda is the Independent Expert on the question of human rights and extreme poverty since May 2008. She is a Chilean lawyer currently working as Research Director at the International Council on Human Rights Policy in Geneva.