Rural Namibia Is a Burial Site [opinion]

THE STORY of rural development, or lack of it, starts in the cities. The young (mostly men) hanging around street corners in our cities and towns under the scorching sun looking for a piece job, the shanty towns and informal settlements and all the squalor and poverty that go with these point to something that has badly gone wrong somewhere – the countryside.

Historically, the movements of people have been from the countryside to cities because of both push and pull factors. In England, the enclosure movement of the 19th century pushed people to the cities. And in other countries that were industrialising following the Industrial Revolution in England, pull factors were at work as people were needed to keep the wheels of industry running.

It is a different ball game in most of Africa. Here poverty is the main push factor and the limelights of the cities the magnet, because unlike their counterparts in other parts of the world, African cities do not have much to offer and many new immigrants end up joining an army of job-seekers desperate to make a living.

Are the rural areas in Namibia then in varying stages of neglect and decay and thus centres of out-migration? Not so, according to former President Hifikupunye Pohamba. At that time he spoke in glowing terms about the centrality of rural development saying “rural development remains the top priority on the development agenda of the government”.

Some might remember that the directorate of rural development was in the past being pushed from one ministry to another perhaps pointing to the confusion among policy makers. First it was just an appendage at the ministry of agriculture before it moved to the ministry of local government where it was eventually housed.

But even here, there were no official plans, policies, blueprints or a framework document on rural development. So whatever development was taking place there, must have been on an ad hoc basis.

But there is good news now with the establishment of a fully-fledged ministry of urban and rural development – we are no longer talking of a directorate or one leg of a ministry. The other issue that would need attention is the quality of people, especially at the permanent secretary, director and deputy director level, who are supposed to drive the rural development agenda – itself a complex and multifaceted process.

But let us be clear on some issues. First, decentralisation is not rural development – just one of the ingredients. Government simply delegates minor functions to regions carried out by junior officers who in many instances still have to consult headquarters before taking a decision.

Secondly, the land question which is put forward as contributing to rural under-development and thus poverty is not quite true. We could have done a lot with the available land. Thus, instead of getting fixated with acquiring commercial farm land for distribution we should channel money to developing communal farming. And just a few days ago the deputy minister of the ministry of land reform, Clinton Swartbooi, spoke along those lines and I think he was spot on.

What is to be done? At the rhetorical level government recognises the need to integrate the communal areas into the mainstream economy to provide jobs and economic opportunities to rural people who, after all, constitute a large proportion of the population.

We, therefore, have to shift our approach to focus on places rather than sectors and an emphasis on investments rather than subsidies. The lessons we have learned over the years, not only here in Namibia but in other African countries, is that a ‘shopping list’ or atomist approach to rural development didn’t work. There is thus a need for rural communities to approach development from a wider perspective and to focus more on a broad range of development goals rather than merely creating incentives for agricultural or resource based businesses.

After everything is said and done, we have to bring in the pillars and foundations on which this ‘house’ called rural economy will be based. These pillars are rural electrification. The United Nations recently estimated that close to 1,4 billion people around the globe have no accesses to electricity – what is called energy poverty.

The other crucial ingredient is water supply – most rural people have to walk long distances to access this precious and life-saving resource. Thus most Africans remain hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Other pillars, which are equally crucial, are roadstransport networks, health centres and schools.

This is the only way to radicalise rural development in order to effect meaningful change in communal lands. Otherwise the countryside will remain a reservoir of cheap labour and a burial site.

Source : The Namibian