Govt On Track in Halving Poverty

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By Petronella Sibeene WINDHOEK Namibia might achieve one of its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – that of reducing poverty by half before 2015. While admitting that there is further scope to improve the poverty scenario in the country, Director General of the National Planning Commission, Helmut Angula, expressed the hope that the UN goal of reducing poverty in Namibia would be achieved even before the anticipated timeframe. Namibia’s passion for reducing poverty stems from the country’s involvement in presiding over the architects that crafted the said MDGs in 2000, when the country served as the President of the United Nations General Assembly during the Millennium Summit in New York. In an interview with New Era yesterday, Angula defined poverty in the Namibian context as the measure of income differences among the country’s people. He elaborated that when a community spends 98 percent of its income on food consumption and cannot afford to spend money on other basic needs, then such a community lives in poverty. At independence, Namibia inherited rampant poverty, given the racial and discriminatory laws that led to the majority of black people living in poverty. But since independence, the government has tried to address poverty, which Angula says is highly exacerbated by a lack of knowledge. He explained that in order to assess the poverty situation in the country, the government in 1993/4 undertook a survey, The Namibian Household Income and Expenditure Survey, that revealed that 38% of the Namibian population lived in poverty while nine percent survived in extreme poverty. Ten years later, the same survey recorded a reduction of 28% of people living in poverty and four percent in extreme poverty. Due to the big margin in terms of income distribution in the country, the Gini-coefficient (the measure of inequality of distribution) for Namibia stood at 0.7 though it later dropped to 0.6 in 2003/4. This ranks Namibia among countries with the highest income inequalities in the world. In 2004, the government conducted another survey that acted as a post-mortem on the progress made in terms of meeting the MDGs. “As it came out, Namibia was on track,” he said. Looking at the basic needs for Namibian citizens, the government has addressed the issue of accessibility to potable water with at least 87% of the Namibian population benefiting from this venture. Only 46% had access to this natural resource in pre-independent Namibia. The annual government allocation towards electrification programmes stands at N$25 million. Electricity, another basic need for a developing nation, was only accessible to a few Namibians before 1990. More than 600 villages today have access to this commodity. The education sector has similarly made great strides in ensuring that children are in school. Though the historical disparities in the education sector before independence were evident, above 90% of children aged six to 24 attend school today. While some families might be struggling to meet the basic needs of their children, the government has introduced the feeding programme in some schools to feed vulnerable children. The recently launched report on the status and living conditions of the elderly in the country shows that poverty exists among this age group. According to Angula, government on a yearly basis allocates a certain amount meant for social grants. However, societal complexities have compromised the living style of the elderly. “The problem is the complexity of families where social grants are shared to feed the whole family and yet it is meant for one person,” said Angula. He described this phenomenon as difficult to deal with. At the same time, he urged young people to take care of their children and not place this burden on the elderly. He however said, “When you compare both surveys and the NDPII on poverty reduction, it indicates that Namibia is achieving its goal of reducing poverty. The MDG target of reducing poverty will be reached even before that date – 2015.” Although great strides have been made in tackling the problem of poverty in the country, Angula said that in some sectors, the country lags behind. He mentioned the infant mortality rate as one area where the country needs to pull up its socks. In 2001, 37 592 children under the age of five died in the first eight months of the year, according to the Population and Housing Census Report 2001. Though he could not provide the number, he says the government is addressing this issue through an increased number of health facilities and medicine provisions, especially for mothers who are HIV-positive. With a sense of worry, he added that HIV/AIDS is robbing Namibia of its professional people who could contribute to nation- building. Unemployment remains another challenge still haunting Namibia. According to Angula, before independence, unemployment existed but was not visible as the masses were restricted to their homelands. With independence, people have become mobile as they search for job opportunities. While the unemployment rate in the country stands at 36%, Angula says the government is using different kinds of economic methods such as training to fight this challenge. Training, he says, is the greatest hope to reduce unemployment. The government allocates 26% of the national budget towards the education of Namibians, and skills empowerment remains one way of reducing unemployment in the country. Namibia’s small population (close to 2 million people) poses some challenges for the development of the country. Sixteen years after independence, the country is slow in setting up a strong manufacturing sector due to the weak purchasing power of its population. This has in turn acted as a limitation in the creation of jobs. The government through the Ministry of Trade and Industry gives certain incentives such as tax subsidies aimed at encouraging people in the industry especially those manufacturing for export. Another way of encouraging manufacturing in the country is through the ministry’s initiative to put up industrial parks, later leased to manufacturers. He reiterated that the budget focuses on fighting poverty and that the government would continue investing money in economic activities aimed at reducing this social evil.