Start with Zambia’s geography, which is not conducive to agriculture in the first place. Next, add in nshima as the stable food and subsistence farming as its primary source. What you get are livelihoods dependent in large part on the labor-intensive cultivation of maize, a cultivation exposed to the hardship of wildlife, weather, and vandals.
Low yields and hard work mean kids go to school tired and hungry and have little free time for homework. Instead, they clean the house, maintain the crops or livestock, or fetch water. By the time they get done with chores in the evening it is often too dark to study and electricity is still a luxury few can afford. At any rate, children have few incentives for investments in their own human capital through education — the only thing they know that exists for certain is what they have seen in their village. Schools could reorient them in theory, but in practice Zambian education has a long way to go.
For various reasons teachers may not show up to teach or may teach only half the day. If they happen to be dedicated, teachers must cope with classes that are too large and a severe lack of study materials. This often extends to an undersupply of even pencils and notebooks. Foreigners fund computer labs in schools with inadequate electricity to power them and no teachers knowledgably enough to maintain them. Young girls may not be able to find or afford feminine hygiene products and so are embarrassed to go to school during their period, possibly losing a week of education per month and maintaining the societal gender gap.
Unfortunately, government polices have too often only compounded the problem. Because it is poor, tax revenue in Zambia remains low. Infrastructure in the country is underdeveloped so domestic trade remains expensive. This keeps costs of necessities like fertilizer high, diminishing vital income for farmers. Healthcare remains a problem and this too the government struggles to provide. Low income in rural areas means the private sector has little incentive to invest in for-profit hospitals or other critical services.
The government has decided hunger is a problem in the nation so it has restricted maize exports, unintentionally limiting a key avenue to economic activity for farmers. Instead, it subsidies maize production; first, by offering maize seeds and fertilizer at reduced cost, and then by buying surplus maize from farmers at above market price. To compound the problem it has mismanaged the maize reserves it collects, in one case letting tens of thousands of tons rot in a state warehouse. On the whole, these policies lead to an oversupply of maize and discourage crop diversification. Families remain reliant on maize and so rural residents tend to vote into power those who will continue to subsidize its production. Maize is indeed a political crop.
Those educated or wealthy enough to escape usually do, moving to cities like Lusaka or Chabata or leaving Zambia altogether. Those who remain are mired in a poverty trap where education remains second to cultivating enough maize to survive, and where low income in turn leads to low government revenues, further inducing a lack of government services and infrastructure, reinforcing the trap.
This is to say nothing of culture, or laws, or colonial and tribal history, or national leadership, or domestic and international politics, or myriad of other factors that, along with those mentioned above, have contributed to the state in which Zambia finds itself.
Though they are mostly ideologically opposed, both William Easterly and Jeffery Sachs are concerned with this problem. Easterly wrote about “increasing returns” to skilled labor in his book The Elusive Quest for Growth. In it he posited that “brain drain” is partly a result of skilled workers’ desire to be around other skilled workers. When workers coalesce, skills are used more effectively and creatively and lead to higher incomes. This is similar to the O-Ring model. Sachs has helped start the Millennium Villages project, which basically aims to give small rural villages everything they need all at once (education, health, clean water, food, etc.). To be sure the challenges of development are great, which is the reason the area is so intellectually rich.