Issue 34 - Article 10

Managing humanitarian programmes in least-developed countries: the case of Zambia

July 7, 2006
Wilson Zimba, consultant

Humanitarian response in Zambia is currently managed and coordinated by the Office of the Vice-President, the second-highest political position in the country. This level of political clout was assigned to humanitarian response following the devastating drought of 1991–92. The drought caused food shortages across most of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, from Zambia to South Africa. The food crisis required extensive food imports and foreign donations. It also demonstrated how unprepared Zambia was for disasters of that magnitude.

Developing a management structure

Following the drought, the government set up a permanent structure called the Disaster Management Unit within the Office of the Vice-President. The Unit’s initial focus was on training, and establishing administrative structures in the capital, Lusaka, and in the provinces. With expertise from the Cranfield University Disaster Management Centre in the UK, and financial support from UNDP and the British Foreign Office, the government trained personnel from various stakeholder institutions including government departments, the police and military and non-governmental organisations. It was envisaged that, with this training, the skills base would be broadened and political support built. So much progress was made that, in the decade since it was set up, the Disaster Management Unit became a household name across the country.

However, further training efforts have been compromised by squabbles among the various players, which means that, in the long term, fewer people will possess the necessary knowledge to implement government humanitarian policy. In turn, this means continued instability in a sector where personal, political, religious and racial considerations take precedence over genuine humanitarian needs and concerns. These problems are exacerbated by the government’s growing tendency to downplay disasters when they occur. The government has, for instance, been reluctant to acknowledge food shortages in 2005 arising from drought in the rainy season. Food prices have risen amid government claims that the staple grain, maize, was abundant.

Despite these limitations, notable developments have taken place in streamlining and guiding humanitarian response among all actors. The Vice-President has inaugurated an official government policy, and a Disaster Management Operations Manual has been produced. This is a milestone in the development of official humanitarian response in Zambia. Both the policy and the manual emphasise devolving power from the centre to the administrative locations closest to where disaster victims live. In terms of reporting channels, a cluster of settlements, especially rural ones, were to be administered by a satellite disaster management committee of elected men and women. During a disaster, this committee reports to the district disaster management committee, made up of government technocrats and reporting to the Disaster Management Unit in Lusaka. However, to achieve this ambitious level of operations, significant capacity-building programmes will be required. Past experience and recent failures give little grounds for optimism.

Special challenges facing humanitarian response in Zambia


Poverty is a cause and effect of disasters. In Zambia, poverty is so severe and widespread that it is difficult to discriminate between disaster victims and the chronically poor. According to the latest census, in 2006, between 70% and 85% of Zambia’s ten million people live on less than a dollar a day. Nearly three-quarters of the country’s children live below the poverty line. This widespread poverty poses special challenges for targeting humanitarian aid, and marshalling community support among very poor people. It is not uncommon in Zambia for food to be redirected from victims of disaster to the equally needy people charged with administering relief. This has undermined the confidence of donors, who have imposed unachievable conditionalities and rules on aid in a bid to curb pilfering. Such conditions only hurt disaster victims.


As touched on above, humanitarian assistance is heavily politicised. The government chooses which events are declared disasters. Stated criteria are of no use: political expedience is all that counts. Elections in particular can be crucial in determining who gets relief, and when. Religious groups also play the influence game, seizing the opportunities humanitarian response offers not only to access donor funding (a major motivation) but also to win disciples for their institutions. Benevolence is a tool of religious influence, especially when it is practiced on a mass scale.


Corruption and bribery are a huge, albeit unacknowledged, cause of ineffectiveness and inefficiency in humanitarian response in Zambia. Of course, there are some genuine NGOs and faith-based organisations, and government policy and the operations manual have recognised the capacity of NGOs and the private sector to do a fair job. But watchdog and security institutions become compromised and irrelevant in the face of corruption. In the Zambian disaster response, community and political leaders short-change the people of what rightly belongs to them. Corruption in the humanitarian business takes place at all levels. The loser is the disaster victim, who cannot pay for eligibility, and very few genuine disaster victims can offer anything as a bribe. Thus, genuine disaster victims usually do not benefit as much as they deserve to from humanitarian assistance, which itself is becoming difficult to come by.


HIV/AIDS is a huge disaster, with cross-cutting effects on individuals, households and communities. Its economic repercussions include loss of employment, loss of productive capacity, high expenditure on treatment for sick family members and the loss of family property or savings through death. For those dependent on subsistence agriculture, there is an urgent need to increase cash income to pay for the extra commodities needed to care for victims. Children are the worst-hit: HIV/AIDS accounts for three-quarters of Zambia’s one million-plus orphans. Looking after these orphans is a daunting challenge to Zambia’s humanitarian response capacity. Although HIV prevention campaigns are part of health education programmes, Zambian society is still extremely patriarchal, and the limited control women have over sex matters means that efforts to reduce rates of HIV transmission have had only limited success. The role and status of women need to be revolutionised if these campaigns are to be effective. The government’s Disaster Management Unit has developed no mechanism to tackle issues of HIV/AIDS, and neither government policy nor the Operations Manual offer clear guidance on HIV/AIDS and gender concerns.

Opportunities for Zambia

In the face of these huge challenges, Zambia can and has made progress in reducing vulnerability in certain sectors. NGOs such as Care, World Vision and Oxfam have delivered a range of services, including water and sanitation, seed multiplication projects, food preservation, livelihood diversification and income-broadening projects. These have had significant impacts on the vulnerability of potential disaster victims, especially in rural communities. One can only imagine how much can be achieved if government departments did the same. The government’s ineffectiveness is compounded by high levels of turnover among staff due to poor conditions of employment and mortality and morbidity from HIV/AIDS. One of the missing links in the whole humanitarian equation of Zambia is the low level of expertise among government operatives, undermining the quality of humanitarian service that government departments can offer.

The enforcement of anti-corruption regulations needs to be given priority in humanitarian programmes. Coupled with this, there should be public education on corruption. Campaigns against corruption should be treated as a vulnerability reduction activity in themselves. Corruption reduces the effectiveness of all services targeted at the poor, and as such is a major factor in high levels of vulnerability in Zambia.

In terms of HIV/AIDS, a lot has been achieved in raising public awareness of the disease. The majority of Zambians are aware of HIV prevention measures. However, the patriarchal nature of gender relations means that women are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and HIV infection. Very strong gender development programmes need to be carried out alongside HIV/AIDS prevention measures. As long as women are economically dependent on men, and men are inclined to exploit women’s economic weakness, HIV/AIDS is likely to remain an economic and humanitarian obstacle in Zambia. Again, this means training of all those in the humanitarian business in gender development and women’s empowerment. Training people at various levels in best practice in humanitarian response will enhance capacity and effectiveness in Zambia.

Wilson Zimba is a long-time trainer and consultant in disaster management in Zambia. His email address is


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