How poor is Namibia 32 years later?

Experts share their take
Poverty affects the daily lives of thousands of Namibians, and experts in the field worry that the solutions are not being tackled with the required urgency.
Jana-Mari Smith
Experts agree that although notable improvements have been made since Independence to uplift Namibians, including the most impoverished, poverty remains a widespread and worsening crisis.

“This is a crisis,” Rinaani Musutua of the Basic Income Grant (BIG) coalition said at the February launch of the Afrobarometer Lived Poverty Survey results. “Poverty, malnutrition, all those things have become a crisis, and we need to intervene right now. We can’t wait for five years, or how long it takes, to make the economic structural changes to ensure employment.”

Herbert Jauch, a labour researcher at the Economic and Social Justice Trust, explained that historical comparisons of the extent of poverty now compared to 32 years ago is difficult, due to a lack of data, and different ways poverty is measured. However, Jauch said a 1991 World Bank report found that poverty was extremely widespread in Namibia at that time, especially in rural areas. A flurry of changes to discriminatory laws, and the introduction of workers’ rights, public education and health services, social grants and more “certainly contributed to a reduction of poverty”, he said.

Nevertheless, poverty affects the daily lives of thousands of Namibians, and experts in the field worry that the solutions are not tackled with the required urgency.

No effort

University of Namibia senior economics lecturer Omu Kakujaha-Matundu agreed there have been substantial improvements since 1990, especially in tackling the provision of services such as potable water, housing, education and more. But, he said, “widespread poverty still exists.”

Jauch said while debates are ongoing about the most accurate estimates of the extent of poverty in Namibia, “there is no doubt that poverty is widespread and that it got worse during the past two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.” He added: “This far, government has not shown any determination to confront this crisis head-on.”

Kakujaha-Matundu argues that despite the fact that poverty is recognised as a crisis, “there is no urgency at all” to confront it. “The Neo-liberal system adopted by Namibia does not render itself to any meaningful restructuring of the economy. And without meaningful transformation and redistributive policies, Namibia won’t be able to meaningfully address poverty and its associated ills.” He warned that without deliberate and effective interventions, “just expect deepening levels of poverty and widening inequality.”

No roof

Anna Muller, the national coordinator of the Namibia Housing Action Group that works hand-in-hand with the non-governmental Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia, said while opportunities have increased for more Namibians post-Independence, “at the same time bureaucracy and rules have become tighter and leave many of those struggling to make ends meet.” She said Namibia’s housing crisis is a prime example. “Urban poverty has become visible in the presence of thousands of informal settlements in Namibia.”

The most recent draft of the revised 2022 national housing policy document, states: “Today, about 50% of Namibia’s population still has no access to adequate sanitation; and about 66% of Namibia’s urban population live in an informal settlement.” The document underlines that preliminary estimates show that there is an annual need of about 30 000 housing units, and warns “by 2050 Namibia’s urban population alone will outnumber its current overall population.” The document highlights that “88% of households have a monthly household income of less than N$10 000, and even employees in Namibia’s public service sector, who are considered middle income, including nurses, teachers, police officers, and military personnel, experience difficulties in accessing adequate housing.”

It is estimated that only about 2% of households have a monthly income above N$20 000, which is not a guarantee of being able to afford the median house price. The draft further points out that the most vulnerable in Namibia’s labour force, including domestic workers, security guards and construction workers, as well as those working in the informal economy, “are much further removed from accessing adequate housing.” In 2021, following the release of the multi-dimensional poverty index (MPI) data for Namibia, economist John Steytler wrote that “one of the major factors of poverty is lack of decent housing and sanitation. It acts as a driver to so many indicators of poverty.”

Innovation

The index showed that more than 43.3 percent of Namibia’s population are still living in multidimensional poverty. Muller said although some local authorities have embraced innovative ways to allow access to affordable land for housing to low-income families, the City of Windhoek continues to buck the trend. She said the biggest urban municipality “is finding it very difficult to support those in need of land and housing to scale. The vision remains fixed on conventional individualisation and bankable land and shelter solutions, typifying middle-class suburban development.” She said the majority of Namibians find it difficult to access bank loans, especially for housing, and as such, without alternatives, “thousands of households of which the majority is in the low income or ultra-low-income sector, are denied opportunities to develop their own land.” Muller warned also that those making a living in the vibrant informal sector are often excluded from opportunities and “left behind.”

No daily bread

The 2021 Namibian Afrobarometer survey, launched in February 2022, indicated an increase in food and cash insecurity for many Namibians as well as unemployment among the youth. On the issue of food security, 24% said they could not access food “always or many times” in 2021, compared to 6% in 2014, 10% of Namibians in 2017, and 13% in 2019. In 2003, The Afrobarometer survey also found that in 2021, 64% of respondents said they went without food at least once during the year, compared to 43% in 2014, 47% in 2017 and 59% in 2019.

The impacts of poverty on individuals, their families and the country in general are multiple. In his 2021 column titled ‘The high cost of being poor’, Steytler wrote that people living in impoverished circumstances face multiple hurdles on a daily basis. “Poor people can experience many different forms of deprivation at the same time, such as poor health, a lack of education, insecurity, or low living standards.” Jauch stressed that poverty’s impact is “immediate and devastating.” “Economic rights are human rights and the lack of basic services, amenities and goods is a human rights violation. It undermines and destroys the right to a life of human dignity.”

Poverty does not only have consequences for the poor, but for the entire country, Jauch said. “Poverty and inequality destroy the social cohesions of society. The current poverty trap, which so many Namibians experience, deprives them not only of a chance to meet their basic needs, but also robs them of the hope for a better future.”

Steytler last year stressed: “When the poorest of the poor are lifted out of poverty, it allows the rest of society to rise and thrive as well.” Jauch said freeing Namibians from “the debilitating shackles of poverty ... would also reduce the perverse levels of inequality which we experience around us.”

Way forward

Jauch and Musutua argue that the evidence is clear that a universal basic income grant is the surest way to reduce malnutrition and acute cash shortages on an urgent basis. “The most effective and most comprehensive approach is the introduction of a universal BIG, because it would not ‘leave anybody behind’, as our president once stated as his goal,” Jauch said. He said the BIG Coalition has invited others to offer alternatives, “but so far none of the critics of a BIG has been able to make a counter suggestion. Thus BIG is still absolutely essential to address severe poverty.”

The Basic Income Grant coalition has called for a universal monthly grant for all Namibians aged 18-65 of N$500 per month.