The cost of living in Namibia is always on the increase. The price of electricity has basically doubled in the last ten years. The price of a taxi went from N$7 to N$14 in the same time. The Consumer Price Index for Namibia continues to rise month on month as life gets more expensive. There is no commensurate rise in people’s wages so that they are able to keep pace with the prices. If you add to this situation massive job losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the need for a Universal Basic Income Grant is becoming apparent. Many of the jobs lost due to Covid-19 will be permanent and will not be coming back.
The coming of the fourth industrial revolution means automation replacing employees with job titles as diverse as lawyers, truckers, journalists and restaurant servers. While truck drivers in Namibia are not in imminent danger of losing their jobs to self-driving trucks, the reality is that this change is coming. Not if, but when. In his treatise on the problems facing humanity in the 21st century author Noah Yuval Hariri posed the question: What will happen to workers when capital no longer requires their labour?
We are told the solution is to ‘’buy local to create jobs’’, but are we assured those jobs will ever materialize? A group executive from Olthaver & List is a constant presence on my Facebook timeline urging us to buy local. This movement is supported by local media and the Manufacturers Association. Let’s say we all shop at Pick n Pay, owned by O&L in Namibia. Will they commit to re-hiring the people they recently let go? Will they commit publicly to not installing automated self-checkout machines in Namibia, or will they do what is most profitable for their shareholders? Unfortunately, the reality is that the way the private sector is incentivized makes them unwilling and unable to address poverty and inequality in any meaningful way. When Shoprite workers were being disciplined in contravention of the law, the Manufacturers Association supported Shoprite. Are we to believe that they now have the best interests of working Namibians at heart?
Consumers should buy local if they are able to, but let us not pretend that it is a remedy to the economic crisis facing many Namibians.
A basic income grant is a monthly payment that goes to everyone. As a universal programme, this means that everyone benefits from this. Some Namibian politicians have said that the programme must be targeted towards only the people most in need. This means, however, that you will now need to create and establish a whole bureaucracy to determine who is eligible and who is not. The eligible will have to go on proving they are eligible and workers will have to verify the facts and so on and on. This actually creates a higher cost than simply having a universal programme where everyone benefits. The problem with means-testing is that some of those in need will not get the funds they desperately need because they lacked some piece of paper or weren’t eligible for an obscure reason. Think about the N$750 Emergency Income Grant paid at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak which helped a great number of people through the crisis. The problem however, is that each and every one of us knows someone who needed that money and wasn’t able to access it for one reason or another. This is why universal programmes work.
BIG stimulates consumer spending that helps drive our economy as was confirmed in the pilot project. Small businesses are the ones who employ the majority of workers. A basic income grant allows people to have funds to start their small business and become self-sufficient. Furthermore, funds given to working people and unemployed people end up being spent on other local businesses. People take taxis, they buy bread and pay for school uniforms. This also stimulates the economy and creates employment.
Giving money directly to people is the lifeline they need in the highly unequal economy rather than self-serving narratives which benefit the already affluent. People will say that rather than “giving away money” we should “’teach a man to fish”, but the reality is in Namibia we have lots of people who know how to fish already. The just need to be able to afford some bait.
*Rob Parker is a consumer rights advocate in Namibia