Monday, 16 February 2009

Update on Zambia

Well so far it's taken me nearly 45 minutes to check a couple of important emails, get onto Twitter, and moderate blog comments. Has been a busy day today, mostly at the Zambian parliament meeting their Public Accounts Committee, their Information and Broadcasting Committee, members of their Commonwealth Parliamentary Association executive, the Deputy Speaker (a very impressive woman), and having lunch with MPs at the place they live.

Yes, that's right - Norman Baker would be delighted to hear that backbench MPs in Zambia all live in the same motel, paid for out of their allowances. Parliament sits for about 6 months of the year, and if they want to stay there when Parliament is not sitting, they have to pay for it out of their own pockets. Ministers have their own houses, which are provided by the Government too.

We also learned that Ministers are not allowed to venture more than 25km out of Lusaka without the permission of the President, as he wants them to be in the capital, working and available for him to see whenever he needs to do so. They even need his permission to visit their constituencies! Often they only make it to their constituencies a few times a year, and as a consequence are often not re-elected. There's a very high turnover of MPs in Zambia, partly also because party allegiance is not so strong. Basically there was the one party which split, so political differences are not that great.

Travel times make it difficult also for MPs to go back to their constituencies every week, as most of us do in the UK. The Deputy Speaker represents the most northern seat in Zambia, and it's more than 1000km (and not on motorways either!) Her seat has about 15,000 voters and is 200km wide. Some urban seats will have many, many more voters. They do have boundary reviews, but there's much more variation between constituency size than there is in the UK.

I met another MP, Vincent Mwale who was elected at the age of 27 and is still only 30, which makes him the youngest MP in the Zambian parliament. His background was in setting up an NGO working on HIV/ AIDS issues, and he became so well-known and popular through his work that he was elected to Parliament on the strength of it. We talked about Obama's election and how important removing the 'gag rule' will be to the fight against HIV/ AIDS.

Vincent told me he represents about 140,000 people but only 33,000 voters as many people don't have their national ID which allows them to register. They recognise this is a problem, but running electoral registration drives is very expensive.

MPs are on a salary of about 1500 pounds per month (no pound sign on this keyboard!) which is more than a civil servant but less than the private sector. It doesn't go too far as their constituents expect them to dip into their pockets all the time - even to help them buy coffins when someone in the family has died! Someone said they were regarded as 'a walking ATM'. Obviously this leads to problems, which is one of the things we're here to discuss this week.

My hour is nearly up. I will leave you with the words of one Zambian MP today: "Spaghetti doesn't stop being confused until you eat it".

1 comment:

Dave H said...

If you're on a PC, press the ALT key and while still holding it down type 156 on the numeric keypad. When you release the ALT key a pound sign should appear.

You can generate hundreds of characters like this.

(Note: I am not trying to be helpful, naturally, merely patronising)