Page last updated at 09:58 GMT, Friday, 23 May 2008 10:58 UK

Namibians line up for free cash

People in Otjivero, Namibia, line up to receive their monthly payment

By Frauke Jensen
Otjivero, Namibia

Joseph Ganeb's job is to go around the tin-shack bars or shebeens of Otjivero in rural Namibia to make sure people do not waste their new-found wealth on alcohol.

This month there are a lot of people who are buying shoes for their children
Control Officer Joseph Ganeb

He has been elected the community's "control officer" to monitor a pilot income support scheme.

Since January, all of Otjivero's 1,200 odd inhabitants, both employed and unemployed, old and young, have been receiving 100 Namibian dollars (about $13) each month.

"We don't want new shebeens here, so nobody is allowed to open another shebeen," Mr Ganeb told the BBC.

"If people want to use the money to start a business, they must do something else."

Each month people gather under the big camel-thorn tree at the centre of the settlement, along the main road 100km east of the capital, Windhoek, to receive what is called a "BIG payment".

BIG stands for Basic Income Grant, an initiative powered by the Evangelical Lutheran Church and other civil society organisations.

A woman in Otjivero, Namibia, receives her monthly payment
All residents, whether unemployed or not, receive the payment

It was born out of a recommendation put forward by the government-appointed commission six years ago that all Namibians should receive a monthly payment.

It was argued that if the payment was universal, there would be no stigma attached to receiving it.

"But government was not really sold on the idea, so we mobilised resources from within civil society to launch the pilot project," says Bishop Zephania Kameeta.

An estimated 75% of Namibia's two million people live in poverty.

As in most African countries, there is no unemployment benefit, although the state does give support to people with disabilities and pensioners.

Mr Ganeb says $13 may not sound much, but it is enough to make a difference.

"First we went to pay our school fees, which have been outstanding for a very long time.

"Then we bought school uniforms and this month there are a lot of people who are buying shoes for their children."

Business boom

Linda, a young woman who grew up with her grandparents, left school after fifth grade and had two children in quick succession before she was 20.

The opponents of BIG always have the reasoning that people will become dependent
Pastor Wilfred Diergaardt

With no job and no means, she was forced into prostitution followed by alcohol to douse the shame. Now aged 28, she says BIG has changed her life.

"I am happy now, because I can buy food for the children and I can even save a little.

"This month I will pay off my debts and in June and July I will start saving for a goat so that we can have our own milk," she told the BBC.

Economic activity has picked up in the settlement since the beginning of the year and a grocery store, a hairdresser, a barber and an ice-cream vendor have opened for business.

"The opponents of BIG always have the reasoning that people will become dependent," says Pastor Wilfred Diergaardt.

"In fact, what we are seeing here is really lifting people up out of dependency into becoming human again."

Claudia Haarman, one of the administrators of the project, agrees.

An elderly woman in Otjivero, Namibia, with a child on her back
The elderly supporting grandchildren now receive $13 a month for each child

"What makes people dependent is poverty, because they are dependent on other people, they are dependent to beg."

She sites examples of how people have suddenly taken charge of their destiny.

"Before, people felt they couldn't go to the school to complain because they hadn't paid fees.

"Now we have people, who say: 'I paid for my child, I'm taking responsibility that she performs in school.'

"And this just makes us aware that this little money makes people very responsible and independent to live a life in dignity."

ARV boost

There have also been noticeable health changes in Otjivero, with more people attending the clinic, because they can now afford the N$4 (50 US cents) fee.

The camel-thorn tree where the "BIG payments" are made
The scheme is breathing new life into Otjivero

Previously the nurse had often had to call an ambulance to take malnourished children to hospital, but since the introduction of BIG she has had no such cases.

Anti-retroviral (ARV) uptake from those with HIV has also increased, so much so that the health ministry now regularly sends a doctor to the clinic to supervise treatment.

ARVs are free to Aids patients in Namibia, but few used to come to the clinic in case a check-up revealed other problems for which they would have to fork out the clinic fee.

If the pilot project succeeds within the next two years, BIG could become a national provision for all people under the pension age of 60.

It could help balance one of the most unequal societies in the world.

An added incentive for the government would be that by registering everyone, it could help ensure taxes are paid, which in turn could fund the scheme.

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Country profile: Namibia
16 Apr 08 |  Country profiles

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