Democracy – Not Just a Buzzword
By USAID Assistant Administrator for Africa Dr. Monde Muyangwa
September 15, 2023
Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema once said, “You cannot eat democracy.” As we celebrate the International Day of Democracy on Friday September 15, I couldn’t agree more. As President Biden has said, “the right to vote, and have your vote counted, is the threshold of democracy and liberty everywhere in the world. And with it, anything is possible. Without it, in my view, nothing is possible.” The power to select who and how you are governed is the fundamental element of democracy, but it is not the end. Democratic governance and rule of law are also a means to deliver tangible benefits – economic opportunity, improved service delivery, positive health outcomes, and civil liberties – for all Zambians, and working toward a thriving democracy is everyone’s responsibility.
Born and raised in Zambia and now a U.S. citizen, I have seen firsthand Zambia’s democratic progression over the last three decades. As a youth, I lived in the era of the one-party state and witnessed its limitations on social, political, and economic freedoms. Since then, I have watched Zambia become a regional model for peaceful, multi-party political transitions. Zambians have spoken through many surveys that they prefer democracy as a way to organize their society. When I represented the U.S. Government at the Second Summit for Democracy in Zambia in March, I witnessed Zambians’ conviction that democracy is the best bet for an open and honest government that affirms the rights and hopes of people everywhere.
Since the 2021 election, Zambia has made meaningful advances toward attaining a truly democratic society. In the last two years, Zambia has initiated free education for all; increased funding for the Constituency Development Fund to provide infrastructure, bursaries and access to finance for small businesses; recruited teachers and health workers; made progress toward decentralization; abolished the death penalty and a colonial-era defamation law; reduced violent cadreism; and tightened fiscal discipline. As a beneficiary of Zambia’s public education system, I know education is a great equalizer and amplifier of economic opportunity, and I feel parents’ relief over the removal of financial barriers that prevented so many children from progressing in their education.
The world has taken note of this progress. African leaders have demonstrated confidence in Zambia by selecting it for three key leadership roles: Chair of COMESA; Chair of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence, and Security; and a climate and health advocacy leader on the continent. Zambia was also selected to co-host the Second Summit for Democracy, during which it led a day-long series of events highlighting the many electoral stakeholders contributing to electoral integrity and explored how elections on the African continent have changed in recent years. Zambia has been recognized by the global community for advances in economic reform and debt restructuring as well.
We can be proud of these accomplishments, yet there is much work still to be done.
We know there are always forces running counter to democratic efforts – for example, one of which is corruption, and another, orchestrated disinformation. Recognizing that paying bribes to court officials or the police chips away trust in the justice system, or that diverting medicines from government health facilities to private pharmacies means those who need lifesaving treatment may not get it, Zambians voted overwhelmingly against corrupt practices that prevent the country from achieving its full potential and want to see effective action taken. Revisions to the anti-corruption policy, for example, have given hope that there is a systemic approach at hand. Additionally, Zambia has not been immune to the global rise of mis- and disinformation. Disinformation on social media, especially about politics and government policies, is often subtle, creating falsehoods and dis-satisfaction that undermine democracy and will necessitate everyone’s continued vigilance.
Democratic governance isn’t just an ideal; it delivers tangible economic benefits to citizens. Democracy delivers for a single mother of four who sells vegetables for a fair market price without inflated fees in an environment safe from fear or intimidation. Democracy delivers for a young boy from Kabwe who gets sick and is able to go to a nearby clinic, which is open, well-staffed, and well-stocked with the medicine he needs. Democracy delivers when a local community formulates an Integrated Development Plan and comes together around infrastructure priorities for Constituency Development Fund resources. Democracy delivers when it leads to economic prosperity for Zambians across the board. Zambia has taken key steps in this direction, including the IMF and debt restructuring deals as well as measures to improve fiscal management. Still more work lies ahead to create a predictable, stable environment anchored in the rule of law so that investors can be confident in their investments and Zambian taxpayers more trusting in the government’s accountable use of public resources. Continued progress in these areas will ensure that democracy delivers for millions of Zambians.
On this International Day of Democracy, now is the time for the government, citizens and international partners alike to strengthen our commitment to democratic reforms and norms. As the leader of the Africa Bureau at the United States’ premier development agency, I assure you that the United States remains committed to supporting Zambians in their quest for a democratic society that unleashes the country’s full potential and delivers for all.