By Carole Roberts, Desert Research Foundation of Namibia
“We live like flies, constantly hungry and moving from one place to another in search of food until we fall and die in the milk.”
These words were spoken by a middle-aged, male farm worker in Omaheke in a discussion on poverty in his community. He would probably be considered one of the ‘better-off’ workers by most of the community members who participated in a recent assessment of poverty in Namibia. He has a job that provides a regular income, no matter how small it might be.
Many Namibians – rural and urban – have extremely limited opportunities to earn cash. In today’s cash economy, it is hard to imagine how they cope. Certainly, freely available natural resources provide an important safety net, especially to those in rural areas. But effective conservation of the environment cannot be achieved without determined efforts to eradicate poverty, one of the facts that were driven home during the recent Participatory Poverty Assessment or PPA project.
Undertaken by Namibia’s National Planning Commission, the PPA is an effort to address poverty through appropriate and effective programmes by first understanding the root causes of poverty and identifying priority areas for action. The PPA was designed to gather the views of poor and marginalised people on poverty and its causes and effects, as well as on the availability and use of resources, and of the effectiveness of servi–ces provided to them by Government and other partners. This approach has broadened the understanding of poverty by providing in–sight into the perceptions of the poor and vulnerable regarding their livelihoods, how they cope, and the factors and issues that contribute to their situation. The PPA has not only provided the poor with a voice and a role in addressing poverty; it is helping to give decision-makers and planners a better understanding of poverty so that they can identify priority areas for action, and design and implement appropriate programmes to alleviate poverty in Namibia.
The PPA was carried out in 78 communities with different characteristics – six in each of our 13 regions – and where poverty had been identified as particularly serious. While the opinions and perceptions gathered were as diverse as the people who participated in the assessment, the PPA clarified certain ideas. Unemployment and the lack of income-generating opportunities ranked high amongst the causes of poverty, while the cost of basic services – safe water, health and education – was considered a factor that contributed to it. Alcohol abuse was identified as a compounding factor exacer-bating almost all components of poverty – from unemployment, to domestic violence, the breakdown of the family unit and the rate of HIV infection. Less tangible, but certainly an issue, is the lack of communication, co-operation and cohesiveness within communities – especially in urban areas. And last, but not least, service delivery that could improve people’s living conditions is not always getting to the people on the ground.
Battling the odds
People in Namibia see themselves primarily as livestock farmers and cultivators, although they might not own livestock or have ploughs or even land, and are actually dependent on income from other sources to get by. “Children need food, they eat ours and when they grow up they can’t find work,” or words to that effect was a common perception of many PPA participants. Every year more and more unprepared and under-qualified school-leavers enter a job market that cannot absorb them. The old are having to support more children and grandchildren on their meagre pensions, while those few with formal employment support extended families. In many areas, alcohol has become an all too cheap and readily available distraction.
While more and more pressure is exerted on natural resources in rural areas, thousands of Namibians flock to urban areas and other economic growth points, such as mines, in the hope of finding some way of making a living – often unsuccessfully. Local authorities struggle to keep up with the ever-increasing demand to supply housing, water, sanitation and other services.
Apart from our mines, another economic growth point is Aussenkehr – a group of irrigation farms on the Orange River where mostly grapes are cultivated for export. Here, the associative effects of po-verty and environmental degradation were clearly seen. Collectively, the farms have a permanent workforce of about 1 000 people, while approximately 5 000 seasonal workers find employment on the farms between June and early January.
During November and December when the vineyards are open for free pickings and form the basis of a huge informal raisin industry in Namibia, the number of people swells to 18 000. People flock to Aussenkehr from Caprivi, central northern Namibia and Kavango, and some from Karas, in the hope of making a living. Opportunities also exist for providing services though self-employment, selling alcohol, basic groceries, clothes, kapana, fish, reeds, firewood, building and maintaining reed houses, generating and selling electricity, running pick-a-phone boxes and braiding hair. A few herd the goats of a handful of richer people. The only natural resources in this very arid area are provided by the Orange River, and are the basis for many of the services supplied by the self-employed. Reeds are used to build houses, fish are eaten or sold to others and limited wood for fuel is harvested from the river. Access to these resources is controlled inconsistently.
While the economic buzz at Aussenkehr is possibly second to none in Namibia, the place somewhat resembles the Wild West and living conditions are rough. As in many areas that attract migrant workers, the people at Aussenkehr come there to make a living, often maintaining a family ‘back home’. They have no interest in investing in Aussenkehr itself. While the grape farms provide the opportunity to make a living, they provide little else. A patch of land to put up a home is free, but it is up to you to erect a shelter for yourself. Water is also free, but rudimentary and mostly unpurified water from the river, fed to the community from open tanks. Stomach upsets are consequently a common complaint, while sanitation facilities are, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. Of all the communities participating in the PPA, AIDS awareness was possibly the poorest in Aussenkehr.
While the dirty drinking water and inadequate housing (as well as the ubiquitous problem of unemployment) were identified by participants as the most pressing problems in Aussenkehr, just whose responsibility it should be to provide basic services to this community and other informal communities such as this, is complicated and opens a proverbial can of worms.
‘Eradication of extreme poverty and hunger’ tops the list of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which all United Nations member states, including Namibia, have pledged to address by 2015. The remaining seven development goals also have a direct bearing on improving the well-being of the poor through education, better health, gender equality and environmental sustainability. In addressing poverty while conserving natural resources for future generations, Namibia faces one its biggest challenges ever.
Imaginative and appropriate efforts are desperately needed to create more employment opportunities – especially in urban areas – and to address enormous social issues, such as alcohol abuse, head on, thus insuring a better environment for all.
This article appeared in the 2007/8 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.