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Breaking the Vicious Circle of Poverty

by Bettina von Clausewitz Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010 at 6:07 AM

In 2008 in Namibia the Lutheran bishop Zephania Kameeta provided a whole village with an unconditional basic income. BIG (Basic Income Grant) is like a magic word, the code for a bold idea that poverty is not a hopeless fate but an enemy that can be forced to its knees.


Namibian Bishop Kameeta wants a Basic Income for All

By Bettina von Clausewitz

[This article published by DeutscheRadio 12/11/2010 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

In Namibia the Lutheran bishop Zephania Kameeta is engaged for more justice: earlier in the struggle against apartheid and now against poverty. In 2008 he and his supporters provided a whole village with an unconditional basic income for the first time – a unique pilot project greatly noticed worldwide.

Kameeta: “I always tell people: you can break through the vicious circle of poverty by giving directly to the poor. That is the desire of BIG. We give the poor directly 100 Namibian dollars. By doing this, we say: you are worth as much as everyone else. You can do the right thing with this money. That interrupts the cycle of poverty.”

BIG is like a magic formula, the code for a bold idea that shows: poverty is not a hopeless fate but an enemy that can be forced to its knees. The “Basic Income Grant” – abridged BIG – stands for an unconditional basic income. All persons (with the exception of pensioners) in the 1000-person village Otjivero near the capitol receive 100 Namibian dollars monthly. This is not quite ten Euros – for two years without inspections or return favors.

For many this is the starting capital for a new life, bishop Kameeta explains.

“Take the woman who now opens a little bakery. From the 100 dollars, she bakes bread and sells it. In the first month, she earned 3-400 dollars per week. Now she earns more than 1000 dollars and employs several other women.”

The difference is striking everywhere. Huts that earlier were made of only cardboard, wood and a little corrugated iron are not rebuilt out of bricks. These bricks are made directly in Otjivero and do not come from a factory in Windhuk – from a man who also receives 100 dollars and now employs others who work together. They all earn more now.

The circumspect 65-year old liberation theologian knows many similar stories. Documented by academic studies, 90 percent of children now finish elementary school. Previously only half finished. Malnutrition has fallen from 42 to 10 percent. Violence and criminality have declined.

Kameeta now uses his popularity as a churchman, an anti-apartheid fighter and leading politician after the 1990 independence of South Africa to canvass for the BIG-idea. In Namibia he is as well-known as Desmond Tutu in South Africa. This is also because he is very close to the people. In an entertaining way, Kameeta tells of two young women from Otjivero who were changed from Cinderellas into modern teenagers.

Kameeta: “One of the two who now works in a holiday resort told me she bought a new dress and shoes for the 100 dollars. She made herself attractive and earns 800 dollars a month with her job. She is thankful for that and says: I now look after my family, my grandfather who brought me up after my mother died and the other grandchildren. This helps very much.”

These are touching stories. But critical voices also increase.

“We cannot distribute money to people who do nothing.”

The Namibian president Pohamba is quoted in the press. This is a clear headwind for a pilot project that is also financed by regional evangelical churches in Rhineland and Westphalia, Germany.

A great alliance of churches and non-governmental organizations – the so-called BIG-coalition – is a local supporter. The powerful union association NUNW, originally part of the coalition, recently did an about-face. BIG is the “wrong way,” it said. In September 2010 the officials withdrew from the base.

Bishop Kameeta calls this the conventional power struggle. He guided parliamentary debates for ten years and is known for his patience:

“When the government says BIG is too expensive and will strain the budget too much, I say the money does not dissolve in thin air when given to the poor. It flows back into society, especially to the countryside!”

The rural exodus or drift to the cities may come to a standstill or at least be reduced. When people have money and can survive where they are, they remain. They only need to be helped to develop themselves. BIG can do this.

Is this a springboard into a new life or a social hammock, a free ride for laziness without combating the causes of poverty? This discussion runs through politics and developmental organizations. “Teach the poor to fish, don’t give them a fish,” many say. The churchman Kameeta has a different view of the person.

“The problem is that someone needs a fishing rod, a net or a boat, not only that someone needs to learn to fish. I would say if you think he or she cannot fish, you reveal your underlying prejudice. They are dumb only because they are poor. But that is not true! To assume the poor must be taught something shows how many poor in our society suffer discrimination!

On the other side, we say the poor know very well how to fish. We give them the possibility for doing that.”

Meanwhile the two-year pilot phase in Otjivero has ended. Nevertheless the people there receive 80 Namibian dollars a month from the BIG-coalition, a “temporary stopgap” for two years – as long as the donations from the home country and foreign cou9ntries are offered – or until the government relents.

“We hold fast to our dreams. The government asked whether BIG should really cover everyone, even the rich. We explain the rich will then repay the money through the taxes. But that seems very hard to understand.”

While some scrutinize the success or failure of Otjevero, Kameeta is planning further steps. 100 poor villages in the North should be supplied with BIG. That is his vision, to show that the idea works. Only six percent of the annual budget is needed to provide Namibia’s 1.9 million inhabitants with a basic income, the BIG coalition argues, even if the International Monetary Fund describes the program as illusory.

For Zephania Kameeta, living his vision of justice and giving people back their dignity is central. In apartheid times, he suffered imprisonment and persecution. Today the churchman who has written psalms is smiled at condescendingly by some.

“I was probably trained by the struggle for Namibia’s independence. At that time we heard the same arguments: the South African government is too strong, the army is too great. Do you really believe Namibia will be free one day?... I believed this at that time and that we should be zealous that no discrimination occurs any more. These arguments do not scare us.

The experiences we now make with the supposedly weak and poor in Otjivero are very strong. This is a reality, not ideologies and theories. If such changes are possible in Otjivero, they are possible all over the country.”


“The Changing Spring” by Melitta Muller-Hansen

“Believing Without Seeing” by Margot Kassmann

“Lilies of the Field” by Margot Kassmann

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