Thursday, 9 June 2016

Namibia: Joined Hands Tackle Poverty

Washington, DC — A conversation with Namibian President Hage Geingob's senior economic advisor brings to mind mental exercises in outlining complex documents.

John Steytler, who was a senior advisor at the International Monetary Fund in Washington DC and returned to Namibia to become statistician general before joining the president's team at State House, seamlessly describes key action areas within targets within priorities.

A good governance framework is a presidential priority. Transparency is a target within governance. Accountability is a necessary step towards transparency, as is press freedom.

Beyond those and other targets is a deeper goal. "The outcome we want is trust," Steytler says. Why trust? Because "everything that we do should be aimed at reducing poverty," with the ultimate goal of wiping it out. "President Geingob would like to build a 'Namibian house' where no one should feel left out, which speaks to inclusivity."
Namibia: Joined Hands Tackle Poverty
President Geingob is mobilizing his year-old administration for a multi-sectorial campaign – the Harambee Plan – against the extreme poverty that has plagued Namibia for generations. "We want to use government machinery," he told AllAfrica. "All the ministries must get involved. We are mainstreaming the fight against poverty."

He wants private sector support. And he wants widespread engagement from the Namibian people. When he appointed retired Lutheran Bishop Zephania Kameeta to lead the new Ministry of Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare, the president told him to travel the country. "I'm not saying you must ignore the research that has been done," Kameeta says Geingob told him. "But I want you to listen to the Namibian people. What do they want? How do they see poverty eradication?"

Kameeta and his team traveled more than 10,000 kilometers. At every stop, he says, "They came in hundreds, which shows people are desperate, and there is a lot of expectation and no time should be wasted."

Holding hands to build the Namibian house

"We need to hold hands if we want to achieve our objectives as a nation," Steytler. "But if the different stakeholders don't trust each other, then it will be difficult for us to hold hands." Trust, and pulling together – the meaning of the Swahili word 'Harambee' – are works-in-progress in Namibia.

President Geingob credits his two predecessors with beginning the tough tasks of national reconciliation and building essential infrastructure in a fractured society. A brutal German colonial administration, including a genocide that killed 65,000 of 80,000 ethnic Hereros – killings for which Germany's development minister apologized in 2004 – was succeeded by 75 years of South African apartheid rule and a two-decade war for independence.

Geingob says Namibians, having paid a price for peace, are impatient for results. They want land, water, education and jobs. The Harambee Plan, outlined in the president's State of the Nation address in March, is a blueprint for delivery, and he has told officials to set high standards.

The governance priority is an example. "Although we are doing fairly well," Steytler says, "we have set ourselves ambitious targets to improve the governance framework." Namibia wants to become the most accountable government in Africa as measured by the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. It wants to be the most transparent government on the continent as rated by Transparency International. It wants to be seen as having the freest press in Africa – and among the freest in the world.

We will not compromise on fighting poverty

Because of immediate needs, such as addressing hunger and malnutrition, "there will be some social interventions in the fight against poverty", Steytler says. "The president says we will tolerate zero deaths from hunger, so we start with tackling hunger poverty. We also tackle maternal mortality and infant mortality. Every child that dies before the age of five is one child too many."

But "poverty can only be eradicated, Steytler says, "if we create wealth for our citizens. To create wealth for our citizens, we need an economy that's flexible, robust and competitive."

In the Harambee Plan, he says, "we have components to make the economy more competitive but also more flexible. We need to make it easier to register businesses. We need to respond to the skills gap, so we need to develop our own skills, but we also have to get skills from the world market. We want to make it easier for companies to bring in skilled labor to contribute to our economy.

"We want to introduce more financing mechanisms for our young people to participate in the economy. For example, we are thinking of a national venture capital fund for young people – a Youth Enterprise Development Fund."

Steytler says Namibia has made good progress in education. The literacy rate is near 95 percent, and gender equity in access to education has largely been achieved. "But" he says, "we need to focus more on quality of the education, and we need to revamp our technical education."

Nurturing of entrepreneurial skills, he says, will come through the SME [small and medium enterprise] Development Agency. We've also introduced a concept we call Equipment Aid Scheme. This is something that President Geingob started as the Minister of Trade and Industry. It proved to be very, very effective. We have young entrepreneurs, but they don't have core equipment to perform their duties. So government may donate some equipment."

2016 must produce results, Namibian officials say, but it is also a learning year. "On issues like most transparent nation, most free press, most competitive nation, zero hunger, water security, we will not change those," Steytler says. But towards the end of the year, we will take stock, and if we find that the way we implement is wrong, that we are pressing the wrong levers, then those levers we will change. Now, during the actual implementation, is where we will learn a lot of lessons."

When the goal to eradicate poverty was first announced, Steytler says, "people ridiculed the president, and we had long debates. But prosperity for us doesn't mean abundance and turning people into high-net-worth individuals. Prosperity for us is something basic: let us strive to provide food, decent shelter, clothing, quality education, good healthcare services, and good infrastructure to the Namibian people. And then with that, the world will be theirs."

Part Two of the conversation will discuss Namibia as an African gateway, spreading prosperity across the region.

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