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National Council for Construction: Integrity, accountability, transparency

When the economy sends you grey skies, the temptation can be to hunker down and protect your resources until they pass. However, in business, opportunities need to be seized upon fast, and this can’t be on done on a national scale unless the resources and personnel are already in place. We took at a look at Zambia’s National Council for Construction to see how they prepared the country for its industrial upswing, and how they continue to encourage and empower Zambia’s national development today.

In October 1964, Zambia achieved independence from the United Kingdom. Four years later, the Joint Liaison Council for the Construction Industry (JLC) was formed, with the goal of overseeing and streamlining the country’s construction efforts. This would be the chrysalis within which National Council for Construction (NCC) would form, but it would not emerge and formally begin operations until 1998. This lengthy incubation period was due, in part, to turbulent political changes for Zambia over these three decades, as we see time and again when a country embraces and finds it feet in a new era of independence.

Shortly after Zambia’s separation from the UK, it faced a serious blow to its economy. Copper had long been the country’s main export; in the mid-1970s, the price of copper took a drastic global plunge in the mid-1970s, threatening desperate ramifications for the Zambian people. Given these declined prices, the cost of transporting copper to its markets at all was a great strain on Zambia, further crippling the industry. The country turned to foreign lenders to get it through this dry patch, expecting the price to rise again in mining’s usual pattern of ups and downs. However, twenty years later, the situation had not improved, and Zambia could no longer handle its mounting debts. In fact, their per capita foreign debt became amongst the highest in the world.

Upon becoming independent in 1964, Zambian prime minister Kenneth Kaunda had become the country’s inaugural president. However, the extent of the country’s debt put growing strain on the Kaunda administration’s popularity. Ruling the country as a one-party state since he removed his rivals in 1972, Kaunda faced riots from Zambians demanding that he reinstate multi-party elections. Anti-Kaunda feeling was so strong that 1990 saw an attempted coup. Shortly after, Kaunda responded to and re-instated multi-party elections, which promptly resulted in his removal from power.

Under the new government, let by Frederick Chiluba, responses to Zambia’s economic difficulties needed to be found. The party, Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), prioritised private sector led policies; they knew that with its reliance on copper still in jeopardy, Zambia needed to make sure that it would keep growing and developing its business and infrastructure, instead of falling stagnant, if recovering were ever to be possible. It was further decided that for meaningful development to occur in the circumstances, the country needed an official body representing all issues related to the construction industry to give this growth direction. Without this organization, the sector had no easy channel through which to co-ordinate its efforts, nor personal reasons to do so – through an organizational body, business practices could be steered towards sustainability and cooperation, with the country’s needs in mind rather than simply individual profit.

Thus, the NCC was formed; the council’s mission was to promote and build the capacity of the Zambian construction industry by serving as a middle-man between all trade organisations and professional bodies in the sector. Through encouraging the active participation of its constituents in the planning and construction of infrastructure, it sought, and continues to seek to enhance, support and facilitate national development in Zambia, despite the national difficulties that existed on its inception.

By overseeing the industry and serving as a go-between, the council is not only in a position to encourage communication and collaboration between companies, but it is also able to ensure that industrial practices remain open and fair. Following Zambia’s issues with the previous government, integrity was a central tenet of the NCC when it formed. Its core values are accountability, transparency and zero tolerance to corruption – values they are not only committed to upholding in their own practices, but protecting and enforcing in the wider construction sector as well. Especially in times of financial difficulty, corruption and backroom-dealing in the industrial sector could further choke development by creating closed doors and unofficial monopolies.

For almost four years, the NCC was following its charge to regulate business practices, but had not been granted any actual legal and regulatory authority to do so! Finally, in 2003, the National Council for Construction Act No. 13 was passed, bringing the NCC’s authority in line with the task it had been given. From then, the NCC were able to register all contractors, affiliations of professional bodies or organizations involves in the construction industry, and so make sure that these registered parties adhere to proper business standards. Through this authority, the NCC’s presence could now serve to make sure that smaller businesses are able to participate and compete, and work practices remain accountable and above-board.

The NCC do not just exist to police company practices, however. As well as encouraging high working standards, they make this more possible by providing and facilitating training for employees across the sector. They are also able to guide construction work to make sure that it does not only occur in the most profitable, but the most needed areas. The NCC notices that infrastructure development had previously largely been restricted to urban areas such as Lusaka and the Copperbelt, which left rural areas without access to vital services, and also made it difficult to access the natural resources in these areas.

In the 2000s, Zambia’s economy stabilized, largely due to a rise in investment within the mining sector and a recovery in copper prices. This led to a rise in investor confidence in Zambia, and thankfully, it now had the evenly-spread infrastructure and construction capabilities in place to seize this sudden opportunity. It also had the capabilities in its construction personnel, which not only allowed Zambia to respond to this new business and foreign investment, but meant its workers were in a better position to compete with workers coming from overseas. The council is even beginning work in position Zambia to participate in the sustainability race by going greener – an aim that not only benefits the planet, but will also save them substantial amounts of money when it comes to energy. This push is being promoted by the Zambia Green Jobs Program, who NCC recently committed to supporting in their efforts to future-proof their country ready for the next industrial game-changes, just as NCC managed before them.