You are here

Student Voice - Zambia - 2017

Daniel Cheong
Daniel

First Encounters

My first encounter with Zambia was a bit of a mix-up at the airport – somehow, my flight had been mistaken for a day earlier. However, instead of setting negative expectations, the two hours I spent at the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport (immigration and all) was in fact a good introduction to Lusaka. Connectionless, I walked into an Airtel shop to ask for a phone call – with full expectation that I would be declined – but instead managed to make three: one to Marja, the Program Director at SAIPAR, and two Vernon, who eventually picked me up. This hospitality, if I may call it, validated what Jackie repeated multiple times to me before I left Cornell: “Zambians are nice.”

This interesting start to my experience in Zambia also made me question some of the pre-conceived notions I had of the country and region in general. While my initial reaction was one of slight annoyance, it shifted to acceptance, but I wondered if this shift was one driven by some underlying perception of “the way things work” in the country. Addressing this tension, and thinking about how to communicate these issues constructively to Zambians and foreigners alike would become a common theme in my work also.

 

Beginning Work at ZIPAR

Moving on to work – I had a relatively shorter internship period of five weeks, and hit the ground running the day after I landed in Lusaka. In view of this short period, I had already drafted a rough outline for the research policy paper on Copper-Based Industrialization with my supervisor, Caesar Cheelo at the Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR). I was drawn to this not only because of my interest in economics and infrastructural development, but because of its relevance in Zambia’s economy, and the amount of literature that had already been expended on the topic. Combining these elements to attempt at providing useful policy recommendations, or at least some insights, promised to be challenging work.  

My first day at ZIPAR involved quite a bit of wayfinding. While I got a thorough introduction to the project by Caesar’s deputy, Thulani Banda, I was less clear about the structure and setup of ZIPAR – something that I have come to understand better towards the end of my internship. This first day also involved figuring out the local transport system. Since taxis were mostly prohibitive in cost (at least for my budget), minibuses were the way to go. On the way back from ZIPAR that day, I was “thrown into the deep end”, as Thulani rightly described, and found my way back to the guesthouse. Navigating the transport system and recognizing the calls of locales in Lusaka (“Longarces”, “Town”, “Kalingalinga”, etc.) would also be something I came to better understand by the end of my time in Lusaka.  

 

On Neocolonialism and Data 

New things abounded – most important for the project, though, was knowledge of the copper industry, both globally and in Zambia. I was fortunate, I think, to have known nothing very much about the copper industry as a whole, let alone in Zambia, as this gave me a blank slate on which to write this newfound information. I realized that the narrative of copper and copper extraction in Zambia was dominated by foreign (mostly Western) institutions and academics, just as the actual extraction was dominated by the colonialist then and large foreign mining companies now. The debate surrounding exploitation, independent governance, agency, and forms of neo-colonialism were not new to me (having grown up in erstwhile-British Colony, Singapore), though the impact of these forces stood out most viscerally to me while working on this project in Lusaka. 

Related to this point was the relative difficulty of attaining reliable and complete data. Data, especially about past policy implementations and results often had to come from direct interviews, often with government officials, which sometimes involved anecdotal evidence. Data on mining companies, their production, and profitability, on the other hand, were mostly hidden altogether in the growing web of complex foreign ownership structures and increasing financialization of the commodity. Again, all of these were not particularly new – I had experienced them whilst working on African microfinance and housing finance investments previously – though the challenge of data extraction, even when in the country’s capital, was somewhat unprecedented.  

 

Learnings 

Notwithstanding some of these constraints, I was greatly encouraged and enriched by the collegiate environment at both ZIPAR and SAIPAR. At ZIPAR, a quasi-governmental think tank, I could see researchers with both policy ideas and political acumen, and learnt much from their past experience and policy work. At the same time, I could also see the tension between government stakeholders and ZIPAR’s research agenda. Casual conversations with staff from various divisions gave me the greater clarity that I desired at the outset on ZIPAR’s role and constraints. At SAIPAR, where I was fortunate to also visit occasionally, I was enriched by the more varied research focus, and began to see links to my copper-based industrialization project from multiple perspectives – sociological, historical, and anthropological, for instance. Whilst focused squarely on industrialization and enhancing the Zambian economy, this exposed me to much broader human considerations of development in the copper industry. 

An important part of my experience was also cultural learning. Having had the benefit of traveling to different countries in most continents (except Antarctica), I thought that adapting would be pretty easy. There were not many challenges per se, though some things did make me sit up and take notice. One was that of work ethic. For one, I learnt to quickly adapt to shorter workdays (9am-430pm), and what seemed to be a more relaxed environment surrounding work. This was not the case in the US, and certainly not so in Singapore, though that was not to say that there was less productivity. Nevertheless, this did translate into some inconveniences, such as “Zambian time” – some wide degree of flexibility with what “tomorrow” means. For instance, the guesthouse manager promised WiFi provision “tomorrow” the day after I arrived. As I am writing this on the day of my departure, I believe no WiFi has come yet. This brought me back to the earlier tension I identified – were we to accept these as “the way things are”, and in so doing implicitly perpetuate a continuing negative perception? Or were we to attempt at trying to demand change, which, however politely done, could seem like imposition from without?  

Another avenue of learning was slightly more “fun” – learning not only to enjoy, but cook local cuisine. And by local cuisine, a big part of that meant learning to cook nshima and rape (canola). Thanks to the kind staff at the guesthouse, fellow intern Becky and I learnt to make the traditional meal – nshima (ground maize made into a cake), rape (canola vegetables) and fried tilapia.

 

My internship came to a close with the completion of my paper and presentations at both ZIPAR and SAIPAR. My work attempted to shift the focus on supply chain-centered industrialization to forward manufacturing in emerging, copper-intensive sectors such as renewable energies, with the goal of moving Zambia down the global copper value chain. I sincerely hope that this in some way shed light on possible paths Zambia can take with regard to mining and manufacturing policy. As I finished my time at ZIPAR, I also began to reflect on some takeaways from the experience. First, I was grateful for the exposure to fieldwork in development economics, as I begin a graduate program in economics for development at Oxford in the fall. This experience both confirmed my interest, and underlined the myriad complexities and potential for growth that drew me to the field in the first place. Second, I was also fortunate to interface with many professionals in the development space with a variety of perspectives – local government, independent think-tank, international NGO, etc. This has given me a broader understanding of the latent dynamics and politics within the field of development, along with some examples of career paths moving forward. Third, I gathered that besides some commonality, what is core to any sort of ‘global-ity’ is also difference – most of the time shallow, but some unexpectedly deep. Whilst reflecting on the reactions of fellow interns and students to this Zambian experience, I realized that crucial in the idea of “global competence” and navigating differences is a high degree of flexibility and the ability to set well-calibrated expectations. I hope to bring these lessons with me as I move into graduate school, and look forward to the possibility of continuing work remotely with the staff at ZIPAR, along with new collaborations in the future.