Poverty in general terms is the condition where people’s basic needs of food, water, clothing and shelter are met.
The state of being poor is as old as human life itself. Despite the welcome rhetoric by many well-meaning leaders to end poverty by offering optimism, there are always those members of society either by the design of God or unavoidable circumstances live on the fringes of life alongside those who have more than their basic needs.
This human experience instructs us that the chances of ending absolute poverty due to political will in our generation are slim. The possibility of ending poverty altogether, in our official lingo eradicating poverty by the year 2050, is zero. The closer we get to ending extreme poverty, the harder it is going to be to do it.
Poverty is mainly a perception – a status bestowed upon people who have relatively little even in societies of plenty by those who have more than their needs prescribe. The standard definition of poverty as per the United Nations is the condition of people in the world who spend less than 1.25 US Dollar per day to live. This narrow definition does not help any nation or to end poverty in the true sense of the word.
Trying to end poverty is like taking all the richest world leaders one evening to dinner, and ask them around the table to take out their calculators, work out and agree about how to split the bill that evening. It is more difficult to figure out how the calculations are made that we in sub-Saharan Africa are the poorest when all the international measurements of poverty cannot agree that a man in his Afrikan rural village with over 200 head of cattle, five wives, fifteen children, ten mahangu fields yet does not have a bank account is the poorest compared to a fellow in Utah (USA) who depends on government food stamps for food. This is why the measurements of targets to hit the Millennium Development Goals are, at the very least, a misnomer.
There is certainly more to development in the context of international solidarity than simply ending poverty. It is a good thing for leaders, such as President Geingob, to express outrage at the levels of poverty and the absence of basic amenities to the majority of people.
It is commendable for governments to envision the possibility of reducing the threats of hunger, the lack of shelter and health services to their voters. It is humanly encouraging to cringe when we see a world in which so many people have less than we have and that we want them to have more. It is in fact human nature for us to feel empathy and sympathy when other human beings live less than ourselves.
However, it is important not to get carried away with possibilities and convince ourselves that relative poverty will always exist and it should always be at the forefront of efforts to improve our world because it demands more than the bare minimum solution. President Geingob meant well when he ‘declared war against poverty’ as the target of his presidential term. In his enthusiasm, he used a terminology that is and will not give him the best legacy in so far as eradicating poverty is concerned. It would have been ideal for him, with the same spirit, to promise poverty reduction or alleviation but not poverty eradication as this is an unachievable goal and he will be judged to have failed when there is a myriad of factors that make this noble promise a pipe dream.
First, the President would have been better served if his language was such that he under-promised and left himself room to over-deliver. Leaders’ legacies are buttressed by either an over-achievement or, by the trust they accumulated on the basis of, as they say, a ‘promise made-promise kept’.
Second, the promise generated unrealistic expectations that the new President would feed, clothe and protect people from work. They heard that they only had to wait for trucks to arrive as some dividend from the liberation struggle which has entered its third phase of prosperity and good life. Third, the timing of the declaration of the war against poverty is not helpful: there is a serious drought across the country; the President increased the state bureaucracy and in so doing denied himself the resources that he would have to execute his promises if the state personnel were kept mean and lean.
He increased old pension payouts by 67 percent in a context where the controls of the payouts are weak or non-existent; the fiscus is under severe pressure due to a host of factors emanating from both domestic and international market forces; the comportment and decorum of the current presidential personnel do not appear to exercise frugality that would in turn escort the President’s principal message of care and empathy with vulnerable citizens.
One would have expected that with Professor Joseph Stiglitz’s warning that no country (even the wealthiest countries) has been able to eradicate poverty, our national conversation would have shifted from the war against poverty to a more realistic vocabulary, namely attacking the perils of inequality which presents the nation a better opportunity to articulate a broader and more sustainable vision.
Tackling inequalities is a more helpful frame to work with. After all, Namibia is amongst the top three nations with the worst economic inequalities in the world, and there are poorer nations than Namibia. In this context inequality is about much more than income and differing bank accounts. The politics of inequality is what the war against poverty is about and much less about ending poverty with mechanisms that render the already poor more dependent on the state which is in turn facing more pressures to hand out what it was heard to promise, in the climate of dwindling resources.
Reducing socio-economic inequalities in a place like Namibia ought to be the focal point of our development campaigns as it gives us room to accept and explain that building a better world is a slow yet incremental process which should not put the government under duress to feed all those who have been done in by history and circumstances of the past.
Government endeavours should be seen for what they are – and not to feed, clothe and protect people from work. The campaign ought to be about undertaking to leaving the world in a better condition that we found it, and to the best of our abilities ushering in a world wherein the quality of education, healthcare, national infrastructure and the safety and security available to every person is sufficient to bestow on all the citizens realistic hope, ambition and confidence to participate, wherever they are and with whatever they know and have, in the national development of their communities and the country as a whole.
Real and sustainable development is not possible without tackling the inequalities that exist and that make people wonder whether they are in the same country with those who have everything and in fact flaunt it without any countenance how they got there. In a real sense, poverty as such does not produce discontent. Inequalities do as those who are relatively deprived will rise up against those who are seen to benefit in a manner that is not commensurate with their fair share of work in the economy. Often in history it is the behaviour of the super-rich and the super-powerful that provoke the disaffected and precipitate revolution, not poverty per se.
There are more doable things that Namibia could accomplish better than eradicate poverty. For practical purposes, we can limit our efforts to the following most critical areas of intervention, while the nation is barely over two million, and still enjoys peace and stability under a legitimate and democratically elected political leadership. These are:
Education and Training: As per constitution, make education for all Namibian children free and compulsory, placed in competent hands and complemented by strict regimes to ensure that education becomes truly an enabler and equalizer. Education is a double-edged sword, and as such role models are as essential as what learners are given pedagogically (education where the teacher decides what to teach and how to teach it), andragogically (education where the learner decides what must be taught), and heutagogically (education where the teacher and the learner both agree on what must be taught and how). Parallel to the need for strong curricula and relevant contents ought to be strict laws to protect the girl children against predator teachers and school administrators. In West and East Afrikan countries, there are very strict anti-defilement laws that would see the teachers that are caught in romantic acts with learners summarily dismissed from the profession. It cannot be right that Namibia has the highest teenage pregnancy statistics in Afrika, as if to say that our school populations suffer from more hormonal witchcraft than other nations on the same continent breathing the same air under the same sun!
Housing: The nation would go a long way if our war was against homelessness. This means starting with improving, with state assistance and resources, the settlements where the people are already so that they become more permanent and more respect-giving to the dwellers. A decent home for one’s family restores dignity on the people more than a car. Post-secondary education students should not hustle as they do for accommodation, only to be exploited by unscrupulous landlords and taxi drivers. Rent control is no longer an option, but an absolute essential in Namibia. This is more doable than ending poverty, and a better investment in the generation socialized to be law-abiding and gracious to those who made it possible for them.
Healthcare: While we are small, healthcare provision ought to be non-negotiable similar to the path that Cuba took to the extent that Cuba is today the biggest exporter of medical doctors in the world. To see pregnant mothers cleaning their bodies naked at outside state health facilities in a free Namibia is a sin.
Food security: If we did our planning properly and consonant with our abilities as a nation, our efforts to feed ourselves would have been more pronounced and consistent. There are key regions crying out for serious economic stimulation to provide food – Kavango and Zambezi – yet we remain dependent on white South Africas for food.
Safety of all the inhabitants. Our constitution enjoins our national leaders to provide safety and security for all Namibian inhabitants. Our neighborhoods are becoming less safe by the day. This is bad for our way of life and is a chaser to potential investors who read upon arrival that the crime situation is becoming unmanageable. Something must be done to strengthen law enforcement so that life is predictable and meaningful for all in the country. In this way the Land of the Brave becomes a place of opportunities and wherein ALL ARE equal, free and safe regardless of their race, language, origin, and economic status. It is possible if we turn to one another instead of against one another as citizens and one another’s keepers.