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Comment la privatisation des banques nationales affecte les femmes au sud

samedi 31 mai 2003, par Manue

Aide au développement contre privatisation des services publics. L’adage de la Banque Mondiale et du FMI est tristement connu dans les pays du sud. Privatiser, nous dit-on, pour plus d’efficacité et pour éviter la légendaire corruption des entreprises publiques. Comme si celles-ci étaient fautives par nature. Comme si attaquer les problèmes à leur source (améliorer les services et lutter contre la corruption) ne valait pas qu’on y regarde à deux fois avant de donner le contrôle des services de base à des entreprises privées, étrangères et multinationales dans leur immense majorité, et dont l’objectif premier n’est jamais de mieux servir les populations, ni de promouvoir l’économie du pays qu’elles investissent.
S’appuyant sur l’exemple de la banque nationale de la Zambie, ce papier (en anglais) explique de manière limpide comment la privatisation d’une telle structure se ferait à l’encontre de l’économie nationale, du développement des zones rurales, de l’épargne et du crédit aux petits porteurs, dont femmes forment la majorité.

The old song of privatization

It is now common, in developing countries, that the IMF and World Bank make privatization of economic enterprises a pre-condition for balance of payments support, and for development aid. This withdrawal of government ownership and control of economic enterprises is what is here meant by the term ’privatization’. This demand for the state to withdraw from economic enterprise, and to hand over to public or private companies, has even extended to public utilities such as companies concerned with water and electricity supply, telephones and banking.
The rationale behind this IMF demand is three-fold. Firstly, it is said that the administration of parastatal companies is more bureaucratic and inefficient, because they operate like government bureaucracies, and are protected by government from having to adapt to competition and market forces. Secondly, they are more likely to be internally corrupt, for example by having inflated payrolls to provide employment to relatives and placement of government officials. Thirdly, their revenues and assets are likely to be diverted by corrupt government officials who gain external control over company decision making. All three of these factors lead to parastatals that provide services and commodities at uncompetitive prices, and also lead to low productivity and loss making, and to the ultimate collapse of the enterprise if exposed to competition in a free market.
In the face of such a rationale, there are some obvious counter arguments. For example, even if the charges of inefficiency and corruption are true, are public companies and multi-nationals any different or better ? (Remember Enron !) And would it not be better to eliminate corruption rather than sell off the company ? And if government officials are corruptly interfering with a parastatal company and siphoning off the profits, is it not better to deal with the underlying issues of good governance, and eliminate corruption amongst government officials ? Are we not blaming the victim ? Or is the IMF telling us to take corrupt government as a given, as if we are not in a position to take action ?
But it is not sufficient merely to counter argue on IMF terms. The IMF argues purely in terms of productivity and efficiency. But the main reasons for setting up parastatal companies in the first place was to provide a service to the general public, and to provide the public with control over company policy. The purpose of this public control was to ensure that the company’s economic activities were in the general public interest, rather than in the interest of a small elite, or in the interest of a small number of shareholders, or in the interest of foreign investors.
In Zambia, there is currently an IMF demand that the government should privatize not only ZANACO (the Zambia National Commercial Bank), but also the electricity supply company ZESCO and the telephone company ZAMTEL.

The Case of the Zambia National Commercial Bank (ZANACO)

ZANACO was first established in 1972, at the height of the socialist reforms of the then UNIP government. For the national economy, the purpose was to achieve more government control over the commercial banking sector, where all other commercial banks were merely the Zambian outposts of multinationals (the principle banks being Barclays and Standard, both UK-based). The newly established ZANACO also provided a conduit for government capital to be made available to parastatals, and the government income from banking revenues.
A further IMF argument for privatizing ZANACO is that it is currently insolvent, and is currently being propped up by an injection of capital from the government. However, it should be noted that this insolvency does not arise from any lack of internal efficiency, or even from lack of potential profitability. It arises from the plundering of bank assets by government officials during the earlier regime of President Frederick Chiluba. During this time, when the government was essentially in the hands of a gang of thieves, the bank was used as a conduit for funds stolen from government and externalized abroad. It was also forced into providing unsafe loans to other parastatals, from which funds were being plundered by government officials. In fact, cases are currently in court in Zambia on a series of such issues, with charges having been leveled against, amongst others, the former Managing Director of ZANACO Michael Musonda, the former Finance Minister Katele Kalumba, and the former Director of the Intelligence Service Xavier Chungu.
The problem which ZANACO faced was not, therefore, internal in origin. Instead, top bank officials had allowed themselves to connive in the plunder of state resources which had been initiated and orchestrated by crooked members of the previous government administration.

ZANACO as the ’People’s Bank’

At the level of the individual citizen, and despite all the problems summarized above, the role of the bank remains important and appreciated, although it perhaps no longer lives up to its former popular nickname of the ’People’s Bank’. For the small-scale entrepreneur in a poor country such as Zambia, a people-oriented bank is a great advantage because of its potential for providing a refuge for savings, and a source of both working capital and start-up capital. In these areas the People’s Bank began with a more service oriented approach than the other commercial banks, being explicitly concerned with encouraging the emergence of Zambian businesses in a country where the economy was dominated by foreign capital, and even foreign personnel. More specifically, the People’s Bank earned its nickname by offering the ordinary customer the following advantages :

- More branches in rural areas, to provide banking services to farmers and small business people ;

- Smaller minimum deposits in savings accounts, to encourage small-scale saving ;

- More small loans ;

- More risk taking in giving loans, to encourage the emergence of small businesses.

These ’People’s Bank’ policies contradicted the policy of profit maximization. It was clear that profit was not to be interpreted narrowly, where each individual branch had to be profitable. On the contrary, the People’s Bank was willing to run loss making rural branches, provided that the overall banking enterprise was profitable. This has never been the policy of the big multinational banks, which will always close down a branch once it is shown to be unprofitable.
But a parastatal bank has the potential to consider the productivity and profitability of the national economy, and not merely its own profitability. It has to consider the welfare of all the people, and not just the shareholders. Although the bank may have to remain profitable to secure its continued existence, the government can act to ensure that it does not put profit maximization above national interest, and above general public interest.
By the same token, the opposite is the case for a private or multinational bank. It automatically puts profit maximization above national interest. Management is likely to be quite explicit that their interest is in bank profit, and national interest is not their concern, but rather the concern of the government. Whereas the People’s Bank still has branches all over the country, and in all rural towns, there is no such coverage provided by any multi-national bank.
If the People’s Bank is privatized, it is inevitable that all unprofitable rural branches will be closed. It is also inevitable that any small ’unprofitable’ savers will be discouraged by higher levels of minimum deposits and higher bank charges (which already characterize the multinational banks in Zambia), and that higher risk borrowers, who disproportionately include small business people, will not be given access to loans. These consequences are made more inevitable by the certainty that the new investors will be foreign investors, who are certainly investing only for the profit on their shares and rise in share capital, and not because of any long term interest in the economy of Zambia, or the welfare of Zambians. Investors will certainly be foreigners, because there is little development of any Zambian bourgeois class with sufficient capital to invest in banks. What little capital is available is mostly invested in small-scale trading and manufacturing, which brings prospect of quick turnover, and quick and high rate of return.

Gender Dimensions of Bank Privatization

Having identified some of the ways that a parastatal bank may better meet the needs of the ordinary citizen, we now turn our attention to whether these advantages affect women and men equally. More specifically, are the better services available from a parastatal bank more to the advantage of women, rather than men ? Are women’s interests served more than men’s ? Do parastatal banks enable women to overcome discrimination against them in their economic life ?
If we look at the way a parastatal bank is likely to provide better and more useful services to the ordinary citizen, and to provide a better coverage of such services, we can soon see that these better services are especially to the advantage of women, rather than men. This is simply because men are amongst the more privileged in society. The more banking services are extended to ordinary citizens and small business people, the more there will be a greater proportion of women amongst those receiving services.
More specifically, the People’s Bank is better geared, in its policy and provisions, to reach customers who are more rural, poorer, and engaged in small-scale farming, or small-scale business. In each of these overlapping categories, for a developing country such as Zambia, we find that there is a majority of women. Given the privileges and domination of men in economic matters in the patriarchal societies of the developing world, it is women who are the majority amongst the poor, amongst the small-scale farmers, and amongst the small traders and business people. The People’s Bank is therefore of special benefit to women, who will not be reached by a more profit-oriented bank. If the People’s Bank is privatized, and then takes a hard-nosed approach to profitability, we may expect that the proportion of women amongst bank account holders will fall.
Furthermore, we should note that it is women who have special need of access to banks. In a small business, such as farming or marketing, it is very important to have a safe place to save money, to put working capital, or to find somebody to give a small loan. Without a bank, this is particularly difficult for women because men (usually husbands) control the money, demand to be the custodians of money, and make it difficult to make a distinction between household money and business money. For a woman, a bank is not merely a safe place for money, it is also a refuge which enables a woman to maintain control of her money, and of her business. A bank provides an essential mechanism that enables a woman to exert economic independence and empowerment. A banking system, if it has any interest in women’s economic advancement, should go out of its way to attract women as customers.
If a bank takes a hard-nosed and low risk attitude towards giving loans, then women are unlikely to qualify. This is because the bank will demand collateral to underwrite the loan. This collateral will normally be in the form of a title to house or land, which means that, in Zambia, only men can provide such collateral. Currently in Zambia, in the demand for collateral, it is probable that both parastatal and private banks exhibit much the same levels of discrimination against women.
But the People’s Bank, if it worked entirely to an egalitarian charter, would automatically provide gender equality in its services, and act to counter any gender discrimination in the local tradition. But multinational (and foreign) banks tend to do exactly the opposite, and seem to be more concerned with ’fitting in’ with the local patriarchal culture. In Zambia, to this day, Barclays Bank discriminates against women in opening a current account. The applicant, if female and married, is asked on the application form to produce the details and signature of her husband. By implication, the husband supervises the account, and is in a position deny a current account to his wife.

So it has to be admitted that the People’s Bank in Zambia has not been exemplary in attracting women customers, nor can it be said to have championed women’s empowerment. However, the above considerations do show clear advantages to women from the People’s Bank, as well as better prospect of further advantage.
Firstly, by its better coverage and focus on small business people, there is automatically a better service to women, and a better likelihood of a larger proportion of women amongst the bank clients. Secondly, being a People’s Bank (ultimately under government control), it is more obliged to follow government policies on gender equality, and more open to women’s public pressure for equal treatment in public life.
Why are women, throughout the world, having to set up their own Women’s Banks, or otherwise relying on microcredit institutions like the Grameen Bank, rather than using commercial banks ? It is precisely because they cannot get equal treatment from commercial banks ! Institutions such as Women’s Banks must be treated as a stop-gap measure, until such time that women have sufficient public voice and influence as to enforce equal treatment by commercial banks.
There will always be more prospect of women influencing commercial bank policy where the bank is parastatal. The prospect of local Zambian women influencing the gender policy of a foreign multinational bank is negligible, and grim. If multinational policy could be influenced, this could only be done by a concerted effort by the global women’s movement.
The arguments advanced in this paper, of the advantage to women of parastatal rather than privatized banks, could easily be extended to other public utilities such as telephone networks, and systems for supply of water and electricity.

Women need to keep local control of these utilities if there is to be any hope of pushing for gender equity in the distribution of services. In these areas, privatization and profit are the enemies of women.


By Sara Hlupekile Longwe, FEMNET (Zambia)

This article comes from the March/April edition of the 50 Years Is Enough Network’s quarterly newsletter, Economic Justice News. All can be found on the website

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