Almost three decades after the end of independence, the Namibian government’s failure to tackle inequality means society continues to remain unequal, if not worse.
At political gatherings, the Swapo-led government often boasts about the social protection plans it has in place to look after the vulnerable communities. This week the tune of that song changed when President Hage Geingob reminded his government that the billions spend annually on social safety nets such as old-age pension, disability and OVC grants is not the panacea for inequality.
According to Namibia’s development strategy encapsulated in Vision 2030 “Poverty is reduced to the minimum, the existing pattern of income distribution is equitable and disparity is at the minimum”
For the 2017/18, government has allocated N$6.7 billion for the administration of various social safety nets.
While speaking at official opening of the cabinet workshop on the National Equitable Economic Empowerment Framework (NEEEF), Geingob stressed the need to address existing structural impediments if Namibia is to win the battle against inequality.
The political will to tackle inequality across in Namibia and globally has been seen as mere rhetoric, especially when considering the fact that one percent of the world’s elite own 99 percent of its wealth, just to highlight the severity of the problem.
According to the World Bank – in terms of the Gini Coefficient – Namibia is one of the countries with the highest levels of income disparities in the world.
Geingob noted that “since 1990 we have made good progress in reducing poverty, with the overall poverty rate declining from 70 percent in 1993/94 to 18 percent in 2015/16.”
The fall in income disparities as measured by the Gini-Coefficient, has only seen a marginal decline from 0.70 to 0.58 during the same period for Namibia.
Geingob says poverty and income disparities are inter-related, and should therefore not be conflated.
The President does not agree with the argument that purports that “with poverty on the decline, there is no need to proceed with reforms aimed at addressing underlying structural inequality.”
He said this in light of the World Bank Report on the Distributional Impact of Fiscal Policy in Namibia, released in 2017 which argues that the main reasons for the decline in poverty and the minimal decline in income disparity may be attributed to Government interventions, such as the “relatively progressive tax policy and a system of comprehensive social safety nets.”
“In terms of the progressiveness of our tax system, the World Bank report states that the top ten percent income earners accounts for 70 percent of tax collection,” Geingob noted.
Experts have however warned, in the not so distant past that the suggested policy responses to inequality both at the national and global level expressed through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have not been able to satisfactorily address the problems of inequality.
The responses, have tended to draw on the more long-standing responses to global poverty rather than to challenge the sources of inequality which are driven by the injustices of society.
The consequential interventions which focus on targeting development resources to the impoverished and through the extension of measures for social protection, through social safety nets, are unlikely to resolve the problem of inequality.
“We are proud that we are able to cater for most of our vulnerable citizens, through social grants. But we cannot build a prosperous nation around that model.
We have to address the underlying structural impediments, which make it difficult if not impossible for many Namibians to effectively participate in the economy, and engage in wealth creating opportunities,” he said.
The President blamed Namibia’s income inequality on Namibia’s political history, including the burning land question.
“It is an unfortunate reality and daily experience – black Namibians continue to bear the biggest brunt from this dark period of our history. It is why we will intensify corrective interventions during the remaining period of the Harambee Prosperity Plan. Later this year, we will convene the second Land Conference. The conference will aim to deal with inefficiencies and challenges around land redistribution; restitution and tenure. I shall not dwell on that here,” he said worryingly.
Government’s commitment to the land question has raised eyebrows however, especially its poor track record when it comes to land redistribution.
Geingob this week took issue with critics who accuse government of not taking the land issue and concomitant income inequalities seriously.
“I was recently asked what Government has been doing about the land question. I found the question odd as it suggested that Government had done nothing to address the land question and the issue of income inequalities. Our response to those that try to discredit Government interventions at every opportunity is: what are your solutions? Sadly, very often, the reply is a deafening silence,” he said.
He added: “In addressing the issue of income inequalities, we are not starting on a blank page. We can draw from the comparative experiences of Singapore, Malaysia and closer to home, South Africa. Even as we draw from their experiences, we will do it the Namibian way, context-specific and in a sustainable manner, where all feel included.”