Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Debatable Question

What do you do when the government fails to provide certain basic services that are generally agreed to be a public responsibility? This is a question we may be facing in the United States one day in the not-too-distant future. It is a question many Zambians confront every day.

Under this heading we could certainly discuss clean and safe drinking water, roads, a sanitation system, health care, and a social security system. Not to mention public education. In each of these areas, Zambia fails to provide even minimally adequate services in some or all parts of the country.

What happens when these services are missing? People suffer many preventable illnesses and do not live as long. Many children die before they reach school age. Road fatalities and injuries are common. In old age, people often descend into deep poverty. Citizens lack power when they cannot read or speak well. The country fails to develop.

One answer to what to do when the government does not fulfill its responsibilities is that the people come together and do their best to do it themselves. I've been thinking again about community schools here, especially because one of my students invited me to visit the school he has been helping, Jenna Community School.

I know he hoped I would have some ideas about how they could raise the funds needed to build a permanent structure. The foundation has been laid for a 6-classroom facility, including a small library and office. Currently the school is meeting in a flimsy church building that doesn't look as if it will survive the rainy season. Just as with Trust Community School, a third to half of the pupils are orphans, some living in child-headed families. Others live in very poor families where the parents can't pay the school fees attached to government schools, or buy the uniforms and school shoes and other things deemed necessary in the public system. Without the community school, these children would be home all day or on the streets.

The teachers are paid a small salary, the equivalent of US $35/month. You might wonder how anyone could work for so little. In some cases, they have a spouse who works a regular job and provides support. Sometimes they also farm or have a small business or income-generating project in their off hours. Sometimes they just cope somehow and see the position as volunteer work until they are posted by the government in a regular school. This, of course, means that there is frequent turnover of teachers, even when they love the community school and would like to stay on permanently. I admire the community spirit and the dedication of all those who work with community schools in Zambia.

The government has the capacity to tax, control of natural resources, and the power to create a stable and secure environment for the development of its citizens. We need to encourage people to be self-reliant and neighborly, to work productively and to care for their families. That is a given. But should we also expect that individuals provide alone--or at the community level--for all basic needs? Isn't there a proper role for government? Consider some of the many features of a good quality life that have traditionally depended on government support: safe medications, reliable water and power, universal opportunities for basic education and training, access for people with disabilities, public transportation, safe food, and social insurances. In all of these areas, Zambia has some services, but many deficiencies. And in America, there seems to be an acrimonious debate underway in which one side sees government as unnecessary, even evil.

I guess I feel more sympathetic to Zambia's situation and predicament because they have so many challenges and are so new at being an independent country. It is harder for me to understand why in America we are having this debate, why so many are unwilling to pay more taxes, why some elected officials are so resistant to continuing to provide basic services for all and compassionate care for our vulnerable populations.

Here's my final reflection to ponder these days: In Zambia and in America, how can we create a respectful process for conversation between diverse groups, to hear and understand what each fears and what each hopes for, and so we can explore the consequences of different policy choices? And in both places, how can we cultivate and strengthen our sense of community and mutual responsibility?

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