Middle-Income Country of Poor Citizens [opinion]

AFTER the visit of the UN boss, Ban Ki-Moon, from 24-25 June 2014 was announced last week, headlines were making their usual rounds, testifying about Namibia’s headway against HIV-AIDS and other socioeconomic development ills having occurred since independence.

Figures on the size of the economy, the per-capita income, and how Namibia is meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were also thrown around including statistics that the poverty rate has fallen from 59% to 29%, improved status for women, sustained peace and stability, and how access to clean water is at about 85%.

Numbers don’t lie. But what they lack is a human face to tell the daily struggle of the people behind the numbers. Like the reality that many Namibian families – both rural and urban – lack enough food. That men and women employed in low-wage sectors are struggling to afford food, education, health and shelter for their children. And the reality is that many (roughly 30%) Namibian children under the age of five are chronically malnourished, with the risk of going blind. A significant number experience disorders in terms of learning and growth, and others suffer from various infections.

There is also the reality that almost half of our population depends on wells for their drinking water their daily diet consists mainly of grain and their cooking is done on wood fire.

The reality is that many poor Namibians live in shacks – where they lack basic amenities – at the peripheries of our towns and cities, and that 60% of the Namibian population are actually employed in the informal economy where they earn close to nothing.

Therefore, what Ban Ki-Moon visited, is a country with one of the smallest populations in the world but one that is getting poorer. A rich (in terms of resources) and technically middle-income country, in which today inequality and poverty persist unhindered.

What he probably also found are two Namibias pulling in opposite directions: one Namibia where the rich few are engaging in class-based looting through tenderpreneurship, exorbitant board sitting fees, and other corrupt practices, and the other Namibia where many live in poverty or live on extremely low wages.

One Namibia whose children before they are born are already assured a better future, and another which passes on poverty to its next generation. One Namibia that can afford anything it wants for its children and families, and another that is struggling to afford anything.

Notwithstanding the strides made so far, poverty is not only Namibia’s great moral challenge but also a civil rights issue of our time. Whereas during the national liberation struggle it provided great impetus for many of us to commit to the total liberation of Namibia, it’s disheartening that when it comes to the urgency of making the fight against poverty a priority, we all, as a nation, have gone napping.

Public debate on poverty is missing in action, be it from the corridors of our government, the parliament garden, or classrooms at our institutions of high learning. It is such a low priority that we do not even have a national policy or programme on poverty.

There is a tendency, in defence, from some in government circles to cite Namibia’s increasing economic growth (the size of the economy and per capita income) since independence and the various national development programmes as clear government commitment toward addressing Namibia’s poverty. But economic growth (which by the way is a market-driven approach straight from the Washington Consensus’s pocketbook) is never a good indicator when it comes to addressing poverty and inequality.

Therefore, we need to combine the existing broader economic measures with smart job creation measures, equality and robust social protection measures. Unemployment and the prevalence of low-wage work are what is driving many Namibians into poverty. Addressing poverty means jobs for everyone who wants to work, including skills training, especially for those who lack proper qualifications, to enhance their employment prospects.

The number of low-wage jobs in the formal and informal employment sector is also what is producing a skyrocketing number of Namibia’s “working poor.” Therefore, a national minimum wage is badly needed to address the scourge of low-wage income.

Affordable housing also is another key to poverty alleviation. Though not through the mass housing project’s low-cost housing scheme, which to me seems likely to lock families in poor neighborhoods. We probably can get better results with housing vouchers in terms of allowing families (in urban and rural areas) with choices to escape to safe communities with good schoolsneighborhoodsclean waterarks.

Addressing Namibia’s poverty would also require that we repair the nation’s health care system towards a universal health care, overhaul the education system, and strengthen the social pensions and orphans’ grants.

We cannot ignore the growing evidence that a plague of catastrophic proportions is looming. Time is running out. Let’s declare war on poverty with the same vigour and determination that we fought for our political freedom.

Ndumba J Kamwanyah is a lecturer at Unam in the department of Human Sciences. His work examines the intersection between policy and governance. The views expressed are entirely his.

Source : The Namibian