Zambia has become significant as an international test case for a number of global priorities, including the G20 Common Framework; as a democratic state and potential African ally for Western powers in global geopolitics; and to China, not just as a major debtor, but as an ongoing economic partner and valuable source of natural resources. China remains important as an export destination. Meanwhile, Western investment is vital and underpins the mining industry that produces these exports. Balancing these interests requires the promotion of a fair system, supported by economic institutions that allow a transparent and efficient market to function, while also intervening to ensure benefits accrue to Zambia and its people. Making this a reality will require significant improvements in dialogue, diplomacy and the implementation of a strong developmental plan.
Since coming into power, Hichilema and his administration have demonstrated an assertiveness and ‘positive neutrality’ on international relations, especially in economic diplomacy. The government has shown that Zambia has the capacity to be a leader in its regional and international engagements. Adherence to international norms and standards offers protection to Zambians as well as investors. These standards are not necessarily prescriptive – Zambia can coordinate and build regional alliances and lobbying blocs within international organizations to shape these standards.
Domestic institutional development strengthens the investment environment, demonstrates credible commitment to upholding agreements with investors, and allays fears of resource nationalism. There is also a need for structures and systems to strengthen the absorption capacity for domestic, regional and international investment and development assistance. The establishment of a partner coordination body – similar to the creditor committee structure but used for a broader range of discussions to develop wider partnerships – would be a useful tool to improve cooperation. The government would also benefit from better promotion and acknowledgment of the importance of non-Chinese and non-Western partners, especially those from the global south. This would help depolarize Zambia’s international relations, and also address domestic allegations of neo-colonialism.
Attracting investment is vital for the legitimacy of the Hichilema government. Domestic political and economic pressure is mounting as electoral promises of jobs and improved living standards become ever harder to deliver against a backdrop of rising fuel and food prices caused by factors well beyond Zambia’s control. Hitting government targets – such as producing 3 million tonnes of copper per year by 2032 – will require delivery on a holistic economic vision that extends beyond mining. Most significantly, there is a need to build on existing environmental efforts and to articulate a plan for sustainable green energy generation that supports industry, exports and national electrification targets for the rural population. Government delivery on this will require the delegation of responsibilities to departments and the enabling of decision-makers.
Building momentum in anti-corruption will also contribute towards greater trust between elected governments and Zambia’s civil service. While international support is vital, there have been examples of international actors contributing to poor governance and undermining democracy in Zambia. Combatting corruption is the first step towards ensuring that citizens have an equitable and sustainable stake in the nation’s strategic industries, especially critical minerals.
The patient pursuit of institutional reform, and rejection of populist quick wins, will require the continued support of Zambian citizens. Transparent communication and consultation will be vital to ensure that ordinary people have a sense of ownership of the country’s future and understand the benefits they accrue from Zambia’s foreign relations.