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A BIG Idea for Namibia

Hope is a couple sheets of steel. At least, that’s what hope represents for Herlina Smith. As she watches young children play in the sand, the pre-primary kindergarten teacher dreams of hope - of nails and corrugated sheets of metal.

“We need to make the school building bigger. Now, when we suddenly got so many more children, there is almost no room for them in the classroom,” she says on a celebratory Tuesday morning.

In Otjivero, a historically impoverished village of about 1,000
residents an hour and a half east of Windhoek, hope is alive for nearly
every resident. It’s not only steel, it’s a bag of maize, a pair of shoes, a year’s school fees, paid medical bills or a donkey cart ride.

A PILOT PROJECT
Since the beginning of 2008, each registered member in Otjivero received N$100 per month through the first social assistance grant in Namibia. A pilot project, the Basic Income Grant (BIG) was created to improve people’s life by reducing poverty and inequality.

Through a concerted effort by non-governmental organisations like the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC), churches and unions, the BIG program is the first project to concretely pilot income security in a developing country.

“It provides security that reinforces human dignity and empowerment,” says Dr. Claudia Haarman, one of the organisers of the project.

EARLY RESULTS
While the owners of the kindergarten saw their enrollment double since the beginning of the payout, BIG has also meant that patients at the medical clinic could now pay for their appointment. Others have ripped down houses constructed of plastic bags and replaced them with steel. Within the first two payments, two new businesses had sprung up.

“On the first pay out, the school was inundated with parents paying for their children’s school fees and buying uniforms,” says Dr. Haartman, a member of the BIG coalition.

HISTORY WITH CHURCHES
As a founding member of the coalition that started the Basic Income Grant, the LAC continues its work that has been hand in hand with Namibian churches and unions throughout the years.

“Since the beginning, the church leaders and unions, organisations that our clients belong to, have been advocates for the protection of human rights,” says Norman Tjombe, director of the LAC.

When the LAC was founded, it was through a close bond with faith-based organisations and worker’s unions. With each LAC office initially located on the premise of church property, the LAC fought alongside church leaders to end the human rights abuses occurring at the hands of the apartheid regime.

“It was not without significance that we were located on church property because there was a real fear that the aparthied-ruling government would try to destroy the LAC’s offices by bombing them, as happened to similar organisations’ offices in South Africa,” Tjombe says. “But the military rulers in the country still had some respect for churches.”

With Independence, the LAC fostered a renewed relationship with Namibian church leaders and various unions through various initiatives, including training, research and advocacy.

HOW BIG WORKS
With the Basic Income Grant, the LAC has joined the Namibian Council of Churches and the National Union of Namibian Workers in calling on government to improve every Namibians’ life through a monthly stipend.

The money, which would be recuperated through the tax system, would redistribute the wealth and even out the huge income disparity between the rich and poor.

“About two thirds of all Namibians live below the poverty line,” says Dr. Haartman. “The reduction of inequality – one of the greatest legacies of Colonialism and Apartheid – is not only a justice issue, but also has been identified as a prerequisite for economic growth and investment in developing countries.”

'HUNGER DOESN'T LIVE IN OUR HOUSE ANYMORE'
Since January 2008, people in Otjivero have been mobilizing their community to ensure the project works. As people sandwich in queue under the town’s largest tree waiting for their monthly payout on this Tuesday morning, the same sentiment is repeated.

“It has changed our life a lot, this is really good for us,” says village resident Paulina Dam.

“Hunger doesn’t live in our house anymore,” Joseph !Ganeb echos. “There’s not so much to worry about anymore, the kids are now well fed and well dressed.”

While critics worry the payout leads to a higher rate of alcohol consumption, people like !Ganeb patrol the village to see how some members spend the money after the payout. A grandfather who cares for six children, !Ganeb says he’s warned villagers who abuse the money on alcohol.

“What’s happening in Otjivero is absolutely inspiring,” says Norman Tjombe, director of the Legal Assistance Centre. “They are showing Namibia, and indeed the world, that a Basic Income Grant works and could make a significant difference to the country.”

Meanwhile, back at Herlina Smit’s Pre Primary Kindergarten, children in the playground erupt into a fit of laughter. A grin crosses Smith’s face – today, the day the payout arrives, her hope of steel and an extension to the daycare is one step closer to becoming reality.

For more information on the Basic Income Grant, visit the web site at www.bignam.org

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