Namibian Lutheran bishop backs basic income as anti-poverty lever

By staff writers
February 22, 2007

Namibia's Lutheran bishop Dr Zephania Kameeta has stressed the commitment of civil society to the fight against poverty in the country, rejecting criticism that a proposed Basic Income Grant (BIG) they are advocating would encourage people to become overly dependent.

Responding to questions after his presentation at a panel session of the 45th session of the United Nations Commission on Social Development in New York, USA, Dr Kameeta highlighted the opportunity of skills' improvement and job creation in the BIG process, contending that the grant would enable the poor to break the scandalous circle of poverty.

He pointed out that skepticism about the scheme did not discourage him and others in the campaign, and they would continue with cautious optimism to struggle together for the sake of the poor.

Dr Kameeta is bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia (ELCRN) and vice-president of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) for the Africa region.

The annual session of the UN Commission was held from 7 to 16 February in New York, USA, under the theme "Promoting full employment and decent work for all." It evaluated plans and programmes of action for social groups including older persons, youth and persons with disabilities.

'Decent work,' a concept coined by the International Labour Organization, means work that is productive and delivers a fair income, provides social protection for families, and is done in a safe environment under conditions of freedom and equality for men and women.

A government tax commission initially proposed the Basic Income Grant, or BIG. Civil society including the Council of Churches in Namibia, trade unions, youth and women's organizations, and other non-governmental organizations now actively advocate the grant for all Namibians.

"We in Namibia are not interested in the story of a dishwasher who became a millionaire - this for me is not a best practice model," Dr Kameeta said in his presentation. "When I think of a best practice model, I want to stress the small but crucial two words, 'For All.' This means asking for and demanding a heavenly kingdom on earth, or what politicians call a turn-around strategy ... but in a concrete and tangible [way]," he noted.

The ELCRN bishop spoke of the daily lives of unemployed people in Namibia, who often must look for firewood and water, and care for other family members. The time and labor spent on these tasks diminishes the chances of the poor ever building up their own employment opportunities, he said.

"Human beings living under bridges, and those who search in dumps for their daily bread are not doing that by choice, but are forced to do so by unjust economic forces and systems combined with economic greed," said Kameeta.

The Lutheran leader said decent employment "is a matter of survival for the people" in a country which "holds the sad record of being the most unequal society in the world." Despite Namibia's ranking as a lower middle-income country, about two-thirds of its population lives below the poverty line.

Having a job "is a question of 'to be or not to be' as there are scarcely any safety nets and virtually no possibilities of making a decent living outside the formal sector," Kameeta said at the UN panel.

The 2005 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Program indicated that 34.9 per cent of Namibia's 2 million people live on one US dollar per day, while 55.8 per cent live on two US dollars.

The ELCRN bishop has taken up a leading role in the BIG campaign. In October 2006, Namibia's NGO consortium appointed him as one of the ambassadors to lead the national campaign against poverty under the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP).

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