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Just Politics; by Aaron Ng’ambi: the Downside of Meritocracy

There is no doubt that the election of President Hakainde Hichilema (HH) has been a big lift for our country and has changed our trajectory for the better. Hence, the victory of the United Party for National Development (UPND) Alliance could not have come at the right time than this. The political and economic prospects in the country as of present seem more promising than ever before, because of the change of government. However, with all this excitement and optimism characterising our current state of affairs, the UPND Alliance keeps preaching inclusiveness and meritocracy as a benchmark for presidential appointments or as qualifications for any Zambian to serve in the new dawn government. This is a good start but not enough for us to solve the many challenges our country is currently faced with, and in this article, I intend to demonstrate that it takes more than meritocracy to put our country back on the path to prosperity.

On face value, the idea that those who are to serve in this government should be picked on merit sounds very appealing, convincing, and logical. Nonetheless, very little thought or attention is given to the possibility of why meritocracy cannot be the only answer to help address the immense problems of our time. The worse mistake that any government can make in this day and age is to create an economy which focuses on this notion that in order for people to have any form of upward mobility, they should have a college or university degree. This kind of thinking is not progressive because it does not represent the realities of our time. We live in a generation where college or university dropouts have done more to achieve incredible success in innovation, entrepreneurship, and other different aspects of our lives. This is true not only in Zambia but the world over if you consider the stories of people like Mark Zuckerberg, the owner and founder of Facebook, who is a college dropout himself. Because of such examples, we need to re-think this notion that only those people with a good college degree are better suited to serve our great nation. We think that the new administration of President HH should begin to focus on creating an economy not based on upward mobility which is only facilitated by a college degree, but rather create an economy which is centered on the dignity of work. We need an economy where high school dropouts or college dropouts have opportunities of work available to them, so much so that they too feel their work or craft is just as significant as those of the educated elite in our society. Such an economy is only possible when a government provides a paradigm shift in how the people think or their attitudes towards work regardless of what kind of qualifications they have or work they do. Speaking about the plight of sanitary workers, just before his assassination, Dr Martin Luther King Jr once said, “The person who picks up our garbage is, in the final analysis, as significant as a physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labour has dignity.”

It is a matter of fact that the word Meritocracy was first coined in 1958 by Michael D. Young, a British sociologist and politician. And basically, the fundamental principle of meritocracy is driven from the assumption that if everyone has an equal chance then those who become winners deserve their winnings or success. Unfortunately, in practice this is not always the case because not everybody gets an equal chance to rise up in life. In our society and many other societies around the world, children born of poor families tend to stay poor when they grow up. There are few opportunities available to poor children coming from poor families. And on the other hand, affluent parents tend to pass on their advantages to their kids in any given society. This is why it is extremely difficult to solely focus of meritocracy as the means to recruit or appoint people to positions of service. Let us consider the United States as an example. There are more students at Ivy League universities from the top one per cent of the rich people than from the bottom half of the entire country combined. Which means that those affluent students who graduate from Ivy League universities will be better positioned to have good jobs and better opportunities than the average college graduate from a non-Ivy League University. Hence, in this article, I wish to support the argument present in the book called The Tyranny of Merit, what has become of the Common Good? which is a brilliant publication by the renowned Harvard professor Michael Sandel. Professor Sandel argues that “meritocracy is corrosive of the common good.” And if meritocracy is the only tool used in any given society as a measure of one’s success, it creates this kind of thinking or hubris among the winners that the success attained is their own doing, while losers suffer some form of humiliation. Therefore, it is important that this new dawn government of the UPND alliance understands that indeed there is a dark side to meritocracy for which the government cannot afford to overlook as they attempt to assemble a team of the best among us to serve this country.

In his address to the nation as the President-elect, President HH had made it clear that his government will consider three things in terms of those people he will appoint to serve with him. Number 1, the President promised that there will be regional representation in his cabinet and other positions of government. Then, he went on to state that people will be assigned to positions on merit. And lastly, the President highlighted competence as another qualification for all his appointments. In principle, I agree with all these things the President vowed that he would use as a yardstick to make his appointments. However, it seems like there has been a shift in the narrative with a major focus on meritocracy as the core element to presidential appointments. This is why it is important that we address this issue of why the new dawn government should also pay attention to the downside of meritocracy. Because we need to remember that most people in Zambia who are born in extreme poverty, such as the deep rural areas of our country are unlikely to obtain a college degree. I state here what I have said without fear of contradictions, because I am aware that there are those who will argue that President HH himself was born in the village, but he went on to obtain a university degree and subsequently went on to be President of this Republic. Now, this is a profound tale to tell, but the reality is that President HH is an outlier, and his story of success cannot be used as a benchmark for ordinary citizens in rural parts of Zambia. I believe that the President has been both lucky and very fortunate in his life, the kind of luck that others may not have. Therefore, my argument and earnest submission to the new dawn government is that; create a situation where meritocracy is not the only virtue for success, but rather other virtues such as hard work, passion and opportunities for work determine the upward mobility for all of our citizens irrespective of where they come from. The President and the new dawn government do not need only university graduates to serve in government; rather, what we need is simply ordinary hardworking Zambians who are passionate, talented, and focused. And preferable those with institutional memory to be given a chance to serve in different capacities. This will help us to achieve the common good for our beloved country.

For comments, write to; aaronngambi@yahoo.com

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