A New Approach to Aid How a Basic Income Program Saved a Namibian Village

By Dialika Krahe in Otjivero, Namibia

Part 2: A Village of Entrepreneurs


Since the pilot program began, she believes that she has discovered an answer to this question. The basic income, which includes the money for her seven children, provides Katangolo with 800 Namibian dollars a month. She calculates that after deducting the tuition, she will have 600 dollars left to feed her children. She smiles.

She wipes away the numbers in the sand and walks into her hut. Inside, there is a makeshift kitchen that comprises a wooden board and a few plastic bowls. The hut smells of rancid fat and an open fire. Katangolo counts her supplies. It has been 10 days since the last payment date, she still has two sacks of flour, and she shakes a bottle of oil to show that there is enough left. She also gathers dry spinach in the bush, which, now that the people here have a little money left over, she is sometimes even able to sell. "And if it still isn't enough," she says, "I'll just sell a chicken." Katangolo used her first BIG payment to buy two chickens for 25 Namibian dollars apiece.

Within a year, the two chickens had produced 40 offspring. Nowadays she sells one chicken for 30 dollars. If she were to sell all her chickens, she says, she would have turned a profit, after deducting the cost of feed, of about 1,000 dollars (€87). Through the use of capital and investment, she has generated economic growth and profit, and has even managed to reinvest her capital. Thanks to the basic income program, Katangolo is now a businesswoman.

She used her initial revenues to buy seed corn, and she now has a few healthy-looking rows of corn growing in front of her hut. She has purchased new corrugated metal to expand her hut, she is able to pay her children's tuition regularly, and sometimes she can even afford the luxury of macaroni instead of corn porridge, or a bus ticket to visit relatives in the north. "I would never have dreamed that this was possible," she says, giggling a little. Then she sits down on a plastic box and tells the story of how the money came to Otjivero.

'I'm Too Old for Lies'

It was two years ago, on a hot Tuesday in July, when a group of men and women from the city arrived in the village. They drove across the sand in their Jeeps and Volkswagens, raised a cloud of dust and, using a megaphone, announced that everyone in the village was to gather under a camel thorn tree. It sounded serious. Katangolo took along her children and an old tire to sit on, and walked the short distance to the gathering place.

Bishop Zephania Kameeta was standing under the tree. She had heard about him many times. He is famous man in Namibia, a man like Desmond Tutu in South Africa, who had played an important role in the struggle for independence. And there he was, standing in her god-forsaken village, with its poverty, filth and alcohol. There he was, Bishop Kameeta, standing on a white plastic table, microphone in hand, talking about the money that each of them was going to be given.

"We didn't believe him," says Katangolo, who lives in a country where nothing is free. But the bishop said: "I have not come all the way from the city to lie to you. Besides, I'm too old for lies." The visitors asked the people of Otjivero to go back to their huts and wait until someone came to register them, all 961 residents. Then they left. Six months passed, and nothing happened.

The next year, on Jan. 15, the group returned, and something astonishing happened: One after another, each resident received a plastic chip card imprinted with his or her name, a photograph and a fingerprint -- and, from a cash-dispensing machine they had brought along, the first red 100-dollar bill. The bishop had told the truth.

Buying Dignity

Bishop Zephania Kameeta is a man of faith, not of numbers. But people also need numbers so that they can continue to believe in God's righteousness, money to buy bread and clothing. "You cannot be rich and swim in a pool of poverty," says the bishop. "It's like swimming in a pool filled with sharks."

He is leaning back in a leather armchair in his office, with its mint-colored walls, two houses away from the Haarmanns. He is tired, exhausted by the effects of albinism and age, by jetlag and, most of all, by the world's injustices. He has just returned from Bangkok, where he spoke at a conference on the rights of the "untouchables." And now, after his 23-hour flight, he is back home, where hungry Namibians are waiting for his help. It never stops, he says.

Kameeta has spent much of his life fighting for causes. He was long politically active, fighting for independence and against apartheid, and he was arrested several times. Today, his fight is against hunger. The weapon he has chosen to wage the latest of his battles is an unconditional basic income, and the successes in Otjivero are his ammunition.

Those successes are certainly impressive. There are the women who travel to the city with their money, where they buy fabric remnants and make clothing to sell. And there is the man who invested his 100 dollars in cement and is now making concrete blocks. Another man opened a shoe repair shop. The residents have formed a committee of 18 people to provide financial advice. On payday, they walk through the village and ask the owners of bars not to sell alcohol until the evening, so that people don't waste their basic income on drink during the day.

Parents are now able to pay tuition, and the proportion of children attending school rose to 92 percent last year. The school has used the additional revenue to buy paper, pens and ink for its printers. The rate of malnourishment among the children has plunged from 42 to 10 percent. The local police crime statistics show a decline in theft and poaching. People with AIDS are responding more effectively to treatment, now that their nutritional needs are being met more consistently. "Suddenly the children were wearing shoes," says the teacher. A man went to see Dirk and Claudia Haarmann. Beaming from ear to ear, he asked: "Don't you see?" They asked him what he meant. "Don't you see? I now have trousers and a t-shirt. I am now a person."

Even dignity, it seems, can be purchased for 100 Namibian dollars a month.

Fast Progress

Robert McNamara, the former president of the World Bank, famously once said that there are two kinds of poverty: relative and absolute poverty. A relatively poor person is someone whose income is far below the average income in a country. Absolute poverty, in his definition, is suffered by those who live life on the extreme periphery of existence, those who fight to survive in a state of neglect and degradation. Until recently, the people of Otjivero lived in absolute poverty.

Before the introduction of the basic income, women prostituted themselves to earn money for food, while the men stole and poached. They spent the rest of their time sitting idle and in a daze in front of their dilapidated huts, waiting -- because there was nothing else to do but wait -- and they used alcohol to drown their sorrows. A person who is in absolute poverty has no energy left to concentrate on anything but eating, sleeping and trying to forget.

In Otjivero, once everyone had had enough to eat, progress came surprisingly quickly, especially to Frieda Nembwaya, the bishop's favorite example.

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