A Food Bank or a BIG?

In its 29th edition of January, the Villager took up the debate on how poverty could be addressed in Namibia.  
This should be the central topic of our times given the massive levels of inequality that still characterise our country.  After a visit to Katutura, the Prime Minister confirmed that poverty is widespread and visible for all to see – except perhaps for those who hide in the islands of wealth in their elite suburbs.  On the occasion of the departure of the Brazilian Ambassador to Namibia, our Prime Minister praised Brazil as an example of a country that tries to address poverty and he suggested that Namibia should consider establishing a food bank to address hunger.  Such a food bank would be meant to allow the wealthy to donate food for the poor.  When questioned if a general Basic Income Grant (BIG) for all would not be a better option, the Prime Minster stated that a BIG should only be paid to the poor if implemented country-wide.
These suggestions deserve to be seriously debated and this column is a contribution to that debate.  While the idea of a food bank might be able to provide some food for the hungry, it is a very limited intervention that does not address the root causes of poverty at all.  Instead it entrenches existing power relations with the rich deciding to donate some food and the poor remaining in the powerless position of being receivers of charity.  Thus a food bank cannot be more than an emergency arrangement and is certainly far less than what Brazil implemented through its “Zero Hunger” Programme with its cash transfer scheme under and the “Bolsa Familia” programme.  Brazil is also a country where a universal basic income grant is still envisaged by the ruling Workers Party.  The party’s Senator from Sao Paulo visited Namibia two years ago and still advocates for the BIG as an effective instrument to fight poverty.
Namibia piloted its own BIG in Otjivero and the results have shown that a universal cash grant for all inhabitants from birth until the age of 60 is indeed a very effective tool to fight poverty.  Not only did the health and nutritional status of inhabitants improve significantly, but educational outcomes were hugely enhanced, economic activities increased and crime declined. Far from making people “lazy”, the BIG ignited local economic activities by creating local demand for basic consumer goods like bread, clothing and housing materials.  Some of them are produced locally and thus the BIG had a visible economic spin-off.   Equally important, the BIG has an emancipator effect as it lowered the dependency of the Otjivero residents on the rich and powerful in their surroundings, mostly commercial farmers.  Particularly impressive was the way in which young women used the BIG to gain greater control over their own lives and become less dependent on men for their survival.  Unlike a food bank, the BIG as a universal grant for all does not turn the recipients into victims who have to be thankful for what the rich may provide for them.
The Prime Minister proposed that a national BIG should not be given to everybody but only to the poor.  At first sight, this argument makes perfect sense because those who are well off do not need a BIG and thus should not receive it.  However, there are two very strong arguments why a BIG should be paid to everybody:  Firstly, if it is paid to everybody there will be no stigma attached to it.  Everybody receives it as a basic economic right and beneficiaries will not be stigmatised as the poor who can’t make it on their own.  Secondly, there is a very practical reason that makes payment to all much cheaper than payment for the poor only.  In order to identify who is regarded as poor, the government would need to do “means-testing”, that is to find out how much money people are earning and then deciding who should get the BIG.  This is an expensive bureaucratic exercise that could cost more than the BIG payout itself!  Also, as most household’s incomes are not constant and can change from month to month, it will be very difficult to decide who should get the BIG and who should not.  
The better solution therefore is to pay the BIG to everybody as a basic human and economic right and then recover the BIG payment from the wealthy through the tax system.  This would be a very practical way of reclaiming the BIG from those who do not need it and at the same time ensuring that each Namibian will be able to cover the most basic needs.  Unless a better solution can be presented, it is time to implement a BIG at a level that will allow Namibians to free themselves from the shackles of poverty.  The time has come to act decisively!