Geoffrey Chongo is the Head of Programs at the Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection (JCTR), located in Lusaka, Zambia. JCTR is a church-affiliated civil society organization that conducts evidence-based advocacy on political, social, and economic issues. The JCTR works through four main programs: economic equity and development, social conditions, faith and justice, and outreach, and uses the social teachings of the Church as the basis for its advocacy.
JCTR has written that the social teachings of the church are a rich resource for empowering people to work for social justice, yet this is often the church’s “best kept secret.” How can we, as people of the church, help expose this secret for the powerful tool that it is?
Church Social Teaching is commonly referred to as Catholic Social Teaching. It is a set of knowledge resulting from careful reflection on the complex realities of human existence. It espouses principles such as the inherent dignity of human beings. Other principles include the common good and God’s option for the poor. If these principles where honored and to become the basis of our action, both in private and public life, they could promote interest all in society.
JCTR tries to create awareness of these principles especially among people who occupy public life and whose decisions affect many people. JCTR also refers to the principles as Church Social Teachings and not Catholic Social Teachings as they apply not only to Catholics but to all churches and human beings so that all people can identify themselves with them.
Your organization has developed one of the most widely-cited statistical tools for evaluating poverty in Zambia: the basic needs basket (BNB). How does the BNB work, and how has it helped lessen the impact of poverty on the average person in Zambia?
The Urban Basic Needs Basket (BNB) is a tool that helps JCTR to monitor the cost of living in 15 selected urban towns throughout Zambia. Prices of selected essential and non-essential items that constitutes an urban BNB for an average family of five (as determined by government official census statistics) are surveyed and analyzed on a monthly basis and results used to advocate for policies that improves the living conditions of people. Stakeholders such as employers and trade unions use the urban BNB data to bargain for decent wages.
The urban BNB has had positive impacts on the lives of average individuals. Recently, Government introduced a minimum wage law for lowly paid workers such as shop workers, making reference to the JCTR Urban Basic Needs Basket. JCTR has also used the urban BNB data to push for tax measures that reduce the cost of living such as increase of tax free threshold for salaried employees and removal of VAT (Zero Rating) on selected goods on which poor people spend most of their income.
The BNB and its accompanying survey—the Satellite Homes Survey—have also given birth to wider surveys such as the Households Access to Selected Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ESCRs) in various towns in Zambia (2012-2014). These have resulted in building awareness in communities on ESCRs. We have seen communities such as those from Livingstone and Monze districts (in Southern Zambia) demand their rights and engage with duty bearers to receive access to water and electricity, respectively.
As regards the rural BNB, this is a tool that looks at food and nutrition security as well as access to various social services through a household and key informant questionnaire that is administered quarterly. This research has helped provide platforms for community members to engage with local/district leaders in setting the agenda for Constituency Development Funds as well as to give service providers and local leaders information on needs as presented by the community. Though development in these areas is slow, progress has been seen where toilets and boreholes have been sunk to provide better sanitation such as in Masaiti (Copperbelt province), Kazunula (Southern province) and Mambwe (Eastern province).
I know that debt relief is a topic important to you and to JCTR. How has government debt impacted the everyday life of the average person in your country, and what can be done to alleviate the negative consequences of debt?
Government debt has had adverse impacts on the lives of the ordinary Zambian people, especially prior to debt cancellation in 2005 under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries and the Multilateral Debt Relief initiatives. The Zambian Government used to spend over US$150 million annually on loan repayment, which was more than the health budget. Loan repayment therefore diverted resources from needy and priority areas such as health and education sectors to loan repayment.
Immediately after debt was cancelled, Government put over 100, 000 HIV/ AIDS patients on free Anti-Retroviral drugs and removed user fees for primary health and education services.
To alleviate the negative consequences of debt, Government should promote domestic resource mobilization as opposed to borrowing. The economy has been growing at an average annual growth rate of 6% and yet tax to GDP remains low, below 20%. Zambia is said to be losing US$ 2 billion annually through tax evasion and avoidance which is over two times the annual health budget.
Secondly, Government should invest in projects with high economic returns, which will enable the government to easily repay the loans without seriously diverting resources from social sectors.
The World Bank has deemed Zambia a “middle-income” country, with a projected average economic growth rate of six percent. That said, Zambia’s Human Development Index—which measures life expectancy, education levels, and income indices—is below that of countries in the low human development group, as well as below the average for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Why is that, and what can be done about it?
The economic growth that Zambia has been recording has been very narrow—concentrating only in a few sectors such as mining where its redistributive effect is very weak. The mining sector in Zambia is highly mechanized and thus employs very few people. The mining sector also contributes minimal tax revenues to the treasury for government to redistribute and create positive impacts on human development indicators.
Government should therefore promote broad based and more equitable economic growth by supporting sectors that have a huge labor force and would create many jobs if promoted, such as agriculture, where the majority of Zambian people work. Government should also collect more tax revenues from the growing economy and redistribute to social sectors to be able to improve human development indicators.
Why should the church care about this kind of economic inequality?
Jesus in John 10:10 tells us that He came to earth so that we can have life in full. The Church exists partly to fulfill Christ’s mission of removing the heavy burden of inequality and social, political and economic injustice so that people can live their lives in full. By promoting economic equality, the church is therefore responding to Jesus’ bidding of us to care for the poor.