Learn­ing from Namibia

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

A big rea­son for Namibia’s suc­cess has been the govern­ment’s fo­cus on ed­u­ca­tion. While peo­ple in ad­vanced coun­tries take for granted free pri­mary and sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion, in many poor coun­tries, sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion, and even pri­mary schools, re­quire tuition. In­deed, gov­ern­ments are of­ten ad­vised to im­pose tuition as a form of “cost re­cov­ery.” In Namibia, how­ever, pub­lic pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion is free; and, as of the cur­rent school year, so is pub­lic sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion.

Namibia’s govern­ment is also proac­tive in other im­por­tant ways. Malaria erad­i­ca­tion ef­forts have re­duced an­nual cases by 97% in about a decade. Buck­ing the global trend of in­creas­ing in­equal­ity, Namibia’s Gini co­ef­fi­cient (the stan­dard mea­sure of in­equal­ity in an in­come dis­tri­bu­tion) has fallen by some 15 points since 1993 (ad­mit­tedly from one of the high­est lev­els in the world). And the poverty rate has been more than halved, from 69% in 1993 to un­der 30%, with ex­treme poverty (the num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing on less than $1.90 a day) fall­ing by a sim­i­lar mar­gin, from just un­der 53% to less than 23%.

Namibia also has Africa’s high­est rank­ing for press freedom from Re­porters With­out Borders – well ahead of the United States and other wealthy economies. The coun­try also has favourable rat­ings – among the high­est in Africa – on Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional’s Cor­rup­tion Per­cep­tions In­dex.

Even as com­mod­ity prices have been fall­ing, Namibia has man­aged to main­tain strong GDP growth – an es­ti­mated 4.5% in 2015, fol­low­ing av­er­age growth of nearly 4.2% from 1991-2014. At the same time, its debt-to-GDP ra­tio, at around 25%, is less than a third of the debt ra­tio in Europe or the US.

Of course, Namibia has its prob­lems. The un­em­ploy­ment rate, at least as con­ven­tion­ally mea­sured, re­mains stub­bornly high, at nearly 28%. And, like other coun­tries in the re­gion, it faces a high level of HIV/AIDS – nearly 17% of the pop­u­la­tion are HIV-pos­i­tive.

The World Bank clas­si­fies Namibia as up­per mid­dle in­come, but the author­i­ties in­sist that theirs is in fact a de­vel­op­ing coun­try. Namibia cer­tainly has some of the dif­fi­cul­ties we as­so­ciate with less-de­vel­oped economies. It has to develop a very large and arid coun­try with a small pop­u­la­tion. This in­cludes iso­lated desert com­mu­ni­ties of no­madic hunter-gath­er­ers, who some­how must be in­te­grated into a mod­ern so­ci­ety with­out los­ing their iden­tity.

In­te­grat­ing peo­ple who a quar­ter-cen­tury ago were on the fringes of the global econ­omy would be an enor­mous task for any coun­try. For Namibia, it is even harder: as much as any coun­try in the world, it is con­fronting head-on the ef­fects of cli­mate change.

Nonethe­less, Namibia has taken th­ese prob­lems in stride as it cre­ates a di­ver­si­fied econ­omy and co­he­sive so­ci­ety. Re­mark­ably, ri­val political fac­tions of the coun­try’s freedom strug­gle have come to­gether to work for the com­mon good.

In­deed, Namibia pro­vides low-cost health care not only for its own ci­ti­zens, but also for its neigh­bours. Some 15-20% of health-care vis­its in the north of Namibia are An­golan ci­ti­zens. The man­ager of the ho­tel where we stayed, just across the bor­der, reg­u­larly sends a lit­tle boat across the croc­o­dile-in­fested river to bring over An­golans who want to buy pro­vi­sions at the ho­tel can­teen or see the vis­it­ing Namib­ian health-care work­ers.

No one in Namibia talks about build­ing a wall be­tween their coun­try and its poor and cor­rupt neigh­bours. Rather, the Namib­ians we met un­der­stand that you can’t pick your neigh­bours, so it’s best to work with them by shar­ing scarce wa­ter re­sources, co­op­er­at­ing on re­gional health ef­forts, en­cour­ag­ing in­vest­ment, and ex­chang­ing stu­dents.

More­over, Namibia’s govern­ment has wisely un­der­stood that abun­dant natural re­sources can eas­ily be­come a curse, en­rich­ing a few at the ex­pense of the many. The author­i­ties know that un­less Namibia’s natural wealth is in­vested in in­fra­struc­ture and its peo­ple’s pro­duc­tive ca­pac­i­ties, re­source ex­haus­tion will leave the coun­try poorer, not richer. They also know that it would be ir­re­spon­si­ble not to garner for Namib­ians the most pos­si­ble from the coun­try’s re­sources, and are re­think­ing in­vest­ment laws and re­vis­it­ing min­ing con­tracts to en­sure that that is the case.

Trans­parency is cru­cial to this process, which is why the govern­ment’s strong sup­port of press freedom is so im­por­tant. As Pres­i­dent Hage Gein­gob told us, the press of­ten says things that he doesn’t like. But, hav­ing fought for freedom from apartheid South Africa, Gein­gob says, Namibia must de­fend the free­doms it won. Be­sides, Gein­gob rec­og­nizes how trans­parency pro­tects him from de­mands for favours from cor­po­rate and other in­ter­est groups.

Not all of Namibia’s key re­sources are fi­nite. Some – like fish­eries – are re­new­able, and the govern­ment is work­ing hard to pre­serve and en­hance them. Most im­por­tant, un­like most other re­source-de­pen­dent economies, it has suc­ceeded in di­ver­si­fy­ing the econ­omy – to the point that ser­vices ac­count for more than 60% of its GDP, with tourism lead­ing the way. Ev­ery year, more than a mil­lion for­eign tourists visit the coun­try.

That is not sur­pris­ing. Namibia is one of the most beau­ti­ful places in the world, and its peo­ple cul­ti­vate its en­vi­ron­ment and pro­tect its an­i­mals. About 100 years ago, the colo­nial­ists – the “1%” of their time – en­joyed hunt­ing for sport and dec­i­mated the rhino and ele­phant pop­u­la­tion. Now, lo­cal sci­en­tists are bring­ing an­i­mals back to the Skele­ton Coast and other parts of the coun­try. Iron­i­cally, some fund­ing for this comes from to­day’s 1%, who donate to the cause.

Namibia shows that even coun­tries that start with se­ri­ous dis­ad­van­tages – ex­tremes of racism, colo­nial­ism, in­equal­ity, and un­der­de­vel­op­ment – can chart a path to­ward shared pros­per­ity. Its achieve­ment de­serves in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion – and em­u­la­tion.

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