This article is part of the ‘Advancing gender just economies’ series, presented by ourEconomy, ActionAid, FEMNET, Womankind Worldwide and Fight Inequality Alliance.

The national budget in any country is one of the key instruments a government can use to fight inequality and bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. For this reason, Fight Inequality Alliance Zambia has been carrying out a People’s Budget campaign in the last couple of months to advocate for a more equal budget that represents the needs of the majority poor and not the elite.

Why embark on a People’s Budget campaign?

With levels of inequality, both in terms of the gap between the rich and poor, as well as between women and men, being extremely high and growing in Zambia, there is a need for a radically different approach. Fight Inequality Alliance Zambia is a growing group of youth activists, women’s rights groups, NGOs and other civil society organisations coming together to fight the root causes of inequality in the country through a people powered movement. People on the frontlines of inequality in the country — women, young people and social movements — are at the centre of our collective efforts.

Most ordinary Zambians, especially those living on the frontlines of inequality (in rural areas, youths, women, etc), do not have access to the national budget, neither do they ever get a chance to input into the budget prior to its presentation. This year, the government collected budget submissions online and the question we ask is: how many people were aware that the submissions were open, how many people (especially in the rural areas) have access to internet, let alone are able to make a submission online? We know that the people who should be influencing the budget the most were not heard.

So we decided to conduct trainings in some rural parts of the country on the budget cycle, letting grassroots activists know how and when they can get involved in the budget process and how they can make a submission. And most importantly, we were training people on how they can track budget implementation in their own areas to ensure that the allocation they get is used for the rightful reasons and they are able to hold their leaders accountable. This helps build people’s collective power to make change in their own lives and influence policy.

Through these trainings, we were collecting submissions from the grassroots on what a more equal budget would look like to people and what their budget priorities would be. Their demands were taken down in a budget submissions book, forming an alternative budget that we called “The People’s Budget”.

In order to get young people involved in the fight for a more equal budget, we conducted a nationwide inter-university debate (with 15+ colleges and universities participating) with motions themed around the budget and other governance issues in Mufulira in the country’s Copperbelt this last weekend.

Our comment on the 2020 national budget

The official theme for the Zambia 2020 national budget is, “focusing national priorities towards stimulating the domestic economy” and given the terrible state of the Zambian domestic economy, the theme seems ideal and our hope was that the budget actually really speaks to this theme. However, the 2020 budget announced by the government at the end of September, like most budgets before, does not in any way try to address the inequality gap between the rich and the poor in Zambia. This is seen by the increase in allocation to road and infrastructure development, for example (10.5 billion Kwacha – almost 800 million USD — allocated, thus an increase of 3 billion Kwacha from the 2019 budget) at the expense of key sectors such health, education, social protection, and environmental protection, which go shockingly underfunded and would benefit the people on the frontlines of inequality the most.

The budget has, for example, reduced allocation to strategic food reserves by 12 million Kwacha. And this at the time when most of our most marginalized districts are faced with a hunger crisis which also shows that private institutions will buy more products from the farmers than the government itself.

Despite Zambia being one of the most peaceful countries, it’s shocking to see the government increase allocation of funds to defense and public order from 5.8% of the budget in 2019 to 6.2% in 2020 and from 3.3% in 2019 to 3.8% respectively, while reducing allocations to education from 15.3% in 2019 to 12.4% in 2020 and health from 9.3% in 2019 to 8.8% in 2020. This is surely a misplacement of priorities and will only increase inequality and hurt women the most.

Most of the roads being worked on with the budget increase are in the cities where only the elite have access to them. Poor people do not have any cars to be driving on these roads. Meanwhile, roads in such marginalized places as Shangombo district, where we held our Tikanyo (or Equalizing) Festival as part of the Fight Inequality week of action in January, remain unattended to.

Furthermore, the allocation towards the Farmer Input Support Program (FISP) has also reduced. This has a negative effect especially on women who are the majority of small-scale farmers in the country. Such unfair budget allocations widen the gender inequality gap and are both discriminatory and exploiting of women. This is why women are taking a lead on this campaign before they live these injustices on an everyday basis; it is important that they are able to relate how such budget allocations affect them on a personal level.

Over 50% of the people taking part in this campaign were rural women, and 60% felt priority in the budget should be given to education and agriculture. This will reduce the burden on most women who carry out the majority of unpaid care work. Women are key to national development, we therefore feel it is imperative that the government has wide consultations on grassroot priorities before enacting any budget.

The way forward

In preparation for the 2021 budget, the Fight Inequality Alliance Zambia shall continue to empower citizens and sensitize them on the budget process and how budget allocations affect them on a personal level. This is important so that citizens, especially women and youths, can make submissions to the budget come 2020. We shall also continue to collect submissions and utilize social media to popularize the People’s Budget and advocate for a more equal budget.

I finally want to implore every Zambian citizen to get involved in this process and speak up for themselves as well as also ensure to speak against the making of budget submissions only online without engaging the majority of citizens who do not have access to internet. This is the only way to ensure that people’s cry for a fair and equal Zambia will be heard and taken into account in the national budget.

The time to act is now, the power of the people is stronger than the people in power!