Supporting good governance - a Zambian case study

a man walking across Manda Hill Bridge in Lusaka, Zambia

The future of Zambia is bright. Image: Unsplash

Tim Hanstad
CEO of the Chandler Foundation and Co-Founder, Landesa
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  • Helping governments improve their performance is the surest path to large-scale, lasting impact.
  • The best opportunities for philanthropists to help improve government delivery occur when governments are open to new partners and ideas.
  • This generally occurs after a political transition when the seeds of potential and growing conditions are most ideal.

There are certain headlines that keep philanthropists and nongovernmental organization (NGO) leaders up at night. These headlines are often about pandemics, economic emergencies, natural and man-made disasters, and refugee crises. Over the last two years, there have been many such headlines, sending philanthropists and NGO leaders scrambling to respond.

But there are some headlines that we too often overlook - those about historic political changes that provide new opportunities for progress.

We in the global development sector – NGOs and private donors alike – are so attuned to identifying and responding to crisis events, that we can miss the opportunities to build on hopeful turning points with new governments.

Too often we miss the opportunity for catalytic investments. This is in part because we are not actively looking for opportunities to partner with and improve the performance of governments. Instead, we take as a given that governments no matter who is in power – don't work. We focus on ameliorating the impact of dysfunctional governments, often by supporting delivery systems that are parallel to government initiatives.

This is a huge mistake on many levels. The focus should be on capacity building rather than a duplication of purpose.

Helping governments improve their performance is the surest path to large-scale, lasting impact. This kind of change could eventually put the global development sector out of a job, which should always be our goal. The best opportunities for philanthropists to help improve government delivery of critical services occur when governments are already motivated, aligned, and open to new partners and ideas. This generally occurs after a political transition when the seeds of potential and growing conditions are most ideal. Call it leveraging the “Kairos moment” – the moment of maximum opportunity.

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The case of Zambia

Consider the situation in Zambia. Over the last five years, the country appeared to be at a crossroads. Few could predict if it would go in the direction of neighbouring Botswana, a country with less autocracy, greater democracy, and economic policies that attract private investment and facilitate inclusive prosperity, or follow the path of its other neighbour Zimbabwe when it was under former President Robert Mugabe, a well-known repressive kleptocrat.

Under outgoing President Edgar Lungu (2015-2021), Zambia appeared to be lurching toward Zimbabwe’s path. But the country’s mid-August 2021 election provides hope and a Kairos moment for NGOs and philanthropists to step in and help the new government - now led by President Hakainde Hichilema, a former opposition leader - to restore civil liberties, address corruption, and improve the economy.


Hichilema inherits a country beset with challenges well beyond the current COVID-19 health crisis. One of the biggest cities in the country, Kabwe, is known as one of the most polluted places on Earth. It has a population of more than 200,000 residents who have been exposed to heavy metals because of unregulated mining.

This has led to widespread symptoms of lead and cadmium toxicity. The country also endures widespread blackouts as climate change has dried the rivers flowing through the nation’s hydroelectric dams. To make matters worse, Zambia is in the midst of an economic crisis exacerbated by widespread corruption.

But at the same time, there are reasons for optimism. The August 12 election was the third time power has transferred peacefully from a ruling party to an opposition party in post-independence Zambia. Primary school enrolment has reached 98%, up from just 59% in 2000.

Under-five mortality has declined from 180 per 1000 live births in 1990 to 62 per 1000 live births in 2021. And, perhaps most importantly, newly-elected Hichilema has taken early, promising steps to follow through on his campaign promises to address corruption, restore media freedoms, respect human rights, and responsibly reform the economy.

Winds of change

Philanthropists and NGOs should seize this opportunity, and others like it on the continent, where seeds of promise are sprouting. In Niger, for example, President Mahamadou Issoufou stepped down earlier this year following his second 5-year term in office, thereby setting a valuable precedent. It was the first democratic transition between elected leaders in the country’s 60-year post-independence history.

As the Africa Center for Strategic Studies noted recently, “Democracy-building is more than a single event but will require creating a democratic culture, a years-long effort.” But will philanthropists commit to helping these countries transition to vibrant economies and stable democracies over the next decade/s?

African businessman and philanthropist Mo Ibrahim calls good governance the cornerstone of effective development: “Unless you are ruled properly, you cannot move forward. Everything else is secondary. Everything.”

Philanthropists should take note: your efforts to improve education, health outcomes, women’s empowerment, food security and the like can all be on firmer footing and achieve a more durable impact with effective governments at the helm.

Unless you are ruled properly, you cannot move forward. Everything else is second. Everything.

African Philanthropist Mo Ibrahim

Zambia’s political transition comes at a time when there is an authoritarian slide across parts of Africa (not to mention Europe and the United States), which makes these rare Kairos moments all the more important.

These moments must be leveraged to support motivated governments as they address corruption, jumpstart moribund economies, and establish the institutions needed for good governance requires. This will involve partnering with local NGOs that engage directly with the government to help build government capacity to deliver services including health care, education, agricultural support, and property rights.

Further support can be offered to help governments establish evidence-based policy-making processes and to build up a strong cadre of public servants. There is also room for civil society to be strengthened to better perform its role as a watchdog.

Lessons learned

In my decades working in the global development sector, I have seen numerous examples where non-profit organizations – with donor support – were able to leverage Kairos moments to deliver timely and practical assistance to effectively build the capacity and improve the performance of motivated governments.

What proved effective was a combination of social purpose from organizations focused on varying aspects of good governance that were willing to directly and constructively engage with dedicated government officials at all levels, and donors who were willing to provide the responsive, flexible resources necessary to support the iterative, long-term path to large-scale impact.


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