What was the idea behind the pilot-project in Otjivero?
The Basic Income Grant was actually a proposal of the government, as a way to fight poverty directly. It was a proposal by the Namibian tax-commission, NAMTAX. The commission was a temporary body, that was set up to find ways on how to address poverty in Namibia and actually their proposal for the best possible way to fight poverty in Namibia was the BIG – an universal grant, that targets everybody in Namibia to ensure the universality and also to ensure that you save administrative costs and prevent corruption as well. Because when you start means, testing people, when you try to point out, who is poor and who is not, it becomes an administrative hassle, an administrative nightmare: There might be some people, who claim that they are poor although they are not. However – even those people who are not poor, they might get the grant. But they won’t benefit as much as those who are poor, because those who are not poor are going to pay a little bit more through taxes.

Why did you decide to promote an unconditional cash transfer instead of a conditional cash-transfer?
The debate is, to whom the cash will go. In Namibia they say sometimes: Well, why don’t we give it to the extremely poor? But who is extremely poor? How do you decide, who is extremely poor? Others argue: Why don’t you just give it to the unemployed? But we have a lot of working poor. People are working but are extremely poor. That’s why we say: We don’t need to exclude people, based on that. Let’s make it inclusive and universal. It might not make such a big difference in my life, because I earn a certain salary. But to the next person it will make a huge difference. But even for me it does make a difference. It will supplement my income, even though I have to pay more back in terms of taxes. But I will be satisfied as long as I know that my next-door neighbor will have more food to put on the table. But people don’t even think about the implications. If you talk about high levels of poverty and crime, we say, people are committing crimes because they are hungry. If everybody has some sort of income, they will not go and steal from a shop. You will see, that the translation will be, that there is less stock theft, maybe less shoplifting and handbag snatching. We might eventually live in a very peaceful and much more free of crime society because poverty translates into frustration and that is, what a lot of people, that are against the BIG don’t think about. We have cases here of domestic violence, gender based violence. You will find that there have been a lot of frustrations leading to and with a bit of cash injection people might simply be not as stressed as they are. They might not get a fulltime-job immediately, but at least they know, they can walk into a shop and buy bread without necessarily sitting around and wait for somebody to give you something. It has implications on so many levels and I think this is a message that needs to get across.

Who were the supporters of the BIG-coalition, that helped setting up this project?

The BIG-Coalition as it stands now consists of different civil-society-organizations, the NUNW – the National Union of Namibian Workers, which is the largest federation that represents workers in Namibia, with nine different affiliates. LaRRi got on it initially as a supporting organization of the NUNW. But now we are there as an independent organization. We are there to offer advice and support and research etc. It also consists of a big organization, called NANASO, which is an umbrella-organization for all AIDS and HIV related organizations in the country. Then there is a big youth group, which is a national youth counsel. It is an umbrella-organization for all youth organizations in Namibia – and of course the church. Because of the fact, that all these organizations are membership-based, they represent a large body of the society. They are the ones who promote the idea of a BIG. Initially the idea was to say: Let’s do it for ourselves. Although we can fundraise for our capital in foreign countries, which most of it came from – especially from Germany, from Bred for the World, who was a big supporter and still is – our idea was, that we Namibians should care for ourselves. Because we are capable, we have the natural ressources and through a BIG we could redistribute wealth a bit equitable. That is the basic idea – universality and also the idea to fight immediate poverty.

What is the position of the Namibian Government towards the BIG?
We know that there are many people in the government who are very supportive of the BIG. The very first person to pledge for a basic income grant was the former prime minister, Hage Geingob. He is a key figure in Namibia and currently the Minister of Trade and Industry. But the problem is, that there have always been different reactions to the BIG. There has never really been a government position on how to respond to these issues. When we did the six-month report we presented the findings to the founding president, Sam Nujoma and he was very excited about the idea. But they never ever really came out in public to support it and say: “We think it is a good initiative.” We presented the findings to the prime minister. But still he says: “Would it not encourage laziness?” We say: No, the findings prove otherwise.

What where the precise findings you made during the pilot-project?
People in households, where there is no income are much more vulnerable and much more prone to poverty. Because in a household, where there is no income, people are much less likely to get out and get jobs or look for jobs because they don’t have money to travel. After getting the BIG people were able to get out and look for jobs. So it didn’t encourage laziness.

Besides the effect on poverty, has there been a measurable effect on the access to education and health services?
People were able to go out and get to school for the first time. Because Omitara-Otjivero has a primary school, that goes until grade 7. So this grade was for the inhabitants almost the final grade in their lives. But for the very first time after the BIG was implemented, children were able to leave Omitara-Otjivero to go to secondary school. Access to healthcare improved very greatly, because the poor now were able to access healthcare. They gained access and paid. School fees increased almost double or triple fold. Parents were able to enroll their children in school. There was almost hundred percent enrollment–rate. Kids were able to stay longer in class unlike in the past, where they couldn’t – because they were hungry. It had an impact on a number of levels and we say now: The debate should not focus on the 100 N$ but rather on the trickle effects on what this 100 N$ could translate into. If a household has six people, it means that this household gets 600 N$ extra-income into that household. And often we know that the income is run by the parents, who are then able to decide on how to spend the money.

Critics of BIG said that the money could be spent in an irresponsible way…
We don’t prescribe how the money should be spent. Even if the people decide to spent it on alcohol. Even billionaires spent money on alcohol. But only because people are poor, other people think, that they are lazy, that they drink from all the money, which is an insult to the poor. Even poor people have priorities. Sometimes they just don’t know on how to implement those, because they have no means to do that. We realized with Omitara’s people – they had priorities. They knew exactly what they wanted to do with the money and they executed their plans accordingly. So we refuse all this stories about laziness, about alcoholism. In fact: All this things went down. Crime for instance dropped significantly, because it was poverty related crime. People were stealing to survive. They were stealing to bring food on the table. They were stealing from the nearby farms. And actually that went down quite a lot.
And we found during the baseline study that there were a lot of young people locked up, they in police cells, because they were stealing wood as firewood and that made them end up in prison. They were stealing livestock from the nearby farms – so it has all to do with poverty. Because people are hungry and when people are hungry, they can almost do everything to survive.

What is the position and which were interventions of the IMF and the Worldbank? Did they make their position on the BIG clear?
It was more about: “It is not gonna work, it’s not gonna be sustainable. It might be costly, it encourages laziness.” And it is unfortunate that the Worldbank has to make such suggestions. We don’t really understand the motif behind the Worldbank to make such suggestions. If they are quick to say: Nambia has got a high level of inequality – income inequality, why are they not open on discussions on how to address this problem. We believe that the BIG is the best way. In fact they gave wrong figures on the total cost for the country. They included the old-aged people, about 600.000 persons which is a significant number of the population, into the number of people, that could benefit from the BIG. But they won’t benefit because of the universal Old-Age-Grant they are not included into the ones, that get the BIG. Only the ones in a household who are below 60 would benefit from the BIG. What we are saying is, we are promoting a multiplicity of incomes for households to protect households against shocks, against poverty and against disease. It ‘s a pity that the Worldbank and the IMF intervened in that way. But they haven’t said anything since. Since we presented the first findings of the pilot, 6 month later, 12 month later they haven’t come back to refute any of those findings.

But some critics, like Rigmar Osterkamp were still to be heard, afterwards….
Yes, there is a German professor, Mr. Osterkamp , who continuously writes negative articles about the BIG and about our efforts. And it is really very sad. He proposes that the idea comes from Germany, because it was not implemented in Germany and because of the fact, that the two people that were in the forefront of the BIG in Namibia, in the beginning were Germans: Claudia and Dirk Hamann. But just because they are Germans it doesn’t necessarily mean, that they don’t understand the reality of poverty in Nambia. And that is why they are promoting the BIG. But Mr. Osterkamp comes and says: It’s a German idea, it’s because it failed in Germany, Nambia is used as a guinea pig. I mean to say: Your are simply stupid, you cannot make up your mind yourself…
It’s clearly an insult to the intelligence – not only of the proponents of the BIG, but also on our own government.

There had been some struggles in the trade unions umbrella organization, the NUNW. This year the NUNW stepped out of the BIG-coalition and this year in September it was decided to return.
There was no official announcement to step out of the BIG –coalition. It was all done through the media. But nevertheless – of course for the NUNW it was clear that there was somehow interference. As you may know: Union politics are linked with national politics. And this has happened immediately after the president of the Nation announced that he does not believe, that a BIG is the best possible way to fight poverty; that maybe we should explore other alternatives; that it creates dependency and laziness. It’s an argument that we had so many times without people providing any proof. And we say, that we have concrete proof that it doesn’t. So, what more do you need? NUNW was in a time, when they were preparing for congress… there are definitely people, who are linked to our ruling party, there are also people who are influential in the NUNW and who do not believe in the principals of the BIG. They had an influence on the decision to step out of the BIG. Unfortunately they didn’t really follow procedures.

Who exactly decided to leave the coalition and how did you come to know about the decision?

This was decided on a National Executive Committee Meeting, which is only attended by a few individuals and they made the decision on behalf of everybody else. On behalf of thousands, who are members of the NUNW. Of course our response that time was with shock and dismay that we unfortunately had to learn through the media about the withdrawal from the BIG. In fact, what happened – my sister sent me an SMS and said: Switch on the TV! There was the General Secretary of NUNW announcing the withdrawal from the BIG with immediate effect. So – of course we had to respond, and our response was, well, to be disappointed. But we hoped that the next national congress would provide an alternative decision. And we are actually very happy, that the Congress said: No, we want to go back to the BIG, because we believe it’s the only way we could fight poverty. In fact the discussion with some members of the union, who would say, well, for us, we are wiser now, we have seen poverty and we can not behave as if it was business as usual. Things need to change. We see a new, big, wind of change and we are hoping, that it would continue like that. So now, when we have the NUNW back, we are extremely excited. And we see prospects, and we see at some point we gonna make a breakthrough.

Is the return to the BIG – Coalition an emancipation of the trade unions from the government’s policy on the one hand and an emancipation of the basis of the trade unions from some of their leaders?
I think, as you might have read, the theme of the congress was: “back to basics”. One of our former colleagues, Herbert Jauch, has always written and said: The unions have lost the plot. They have become confused between defending und promoting the rights of workers and the poor. And they have become allies of the government. At some point it was almost very difficult to distinguish the position of NUNW and the position of the government or at least of the position of the ruling party. Now, this is a clear indication, that there is a wind of change. People are speaking to the theme of the congress. They are beginning to walk the talk. But they are not only talking, they are walking it as well. That is a clear indication that maybe things are changing. I mean – it is still too early. I cannot be 200 % hopeful, but at least this was a very, very difficult decision to make and I understand that it was debated vigorously at the congress. And I know from reliable sources that there was even a call made, almost from the head of the state house that this issue has to be scratched off the agenda of the NUNW congress. However, the secretary general refused to do this. That is a clear indication, that there is some commitment that we look after the interest of the workers and the poor.

Dirk Haarmann, on of the founding members of the BIG-Coalition once said during a discussion, that the step out and the return is maybe a good thing, because it widened the discussion and enforces a discussion about the topic.

The good thing that came from the step-out was that it put the BIG at the center of discussions in the country. More and more people started talking and writing. And most of the talking and writings are very positive. They are pro-BIG… except Mr. Osterkamp. I don’t know if you saw last week’s newspaper articles. He was there again, talking about the BIG. He is one individual, who comes from a wealthy background. But he needs to think back about those people, who could possibly benefit from the BIG. Instead he thinks in a very selfish manner, because he is trying to sabotage a project with so much potential for so many people for his own selfish interest. For me he is not providing any alternatives and it’s rather sad that he thinks he has to sabotage any possibility. Now, even with the good news and the announcement of the NUNW, he decided in the aftermath to write another article against the idea. So the step-in and step-out showed clearly, that the BIG needs to be discussed much further and to be put on the centre stage, but it also opened a lot of peoples eyes to say: there is real poverty in this country and we need to discuss it. But it also made us realize that there are also people who know about the BIG and want it. And we can see that now also on the SMS-page of “The Namibian” , through newsletters and newspapers…

How are going to continue with the project? How was the discussion about the BIG and you findings recepted in other countries?
The last sentence in our statement was that we continue promoting the ideas, the principles and the practicability of the BIG – with or without the NUNW. Of course our call was: Please comrades, come back, because we didn’t want to close the doors immediately. Now, there is a lot of interest, especially internationally about how far can this project go. It’s not that our coalition want to be seen as good individuals, it’s not about individual interest. If the Namibian government is taking this up, it will count in it’s favor. If they want to rule this country for the next five years, then this is the time for them to show, that they care for the poor. A country is not judged after how good you look after the wealthy, but on how good you look after the interest of your most vulnerable and the poor. So there has been a lot of interest from other countries and comparisons as well. In many countries you find conditional cash transfers, so most of the debate is, why are you promoting a universal instead of a conditional cash transfer. We have argued many times, why an universal and not a conditional cash transfer. In fact, what happens if go somewhere, if I have the opportunity to talk about the BIG, it doesn’t matter if it is an individual or a group of people, it intersects with so many areas of our working. For example: issues of domestic workers. If I talk about working conditions and salaries, of incomes of domestic workers and social security – in the end I say: What do you think is the best possible way? It’s the implementation of a BIG, then most of our problems will be solved. Especially for the poorly earning people. But there is still a lot of work to be done, especially education and sensitization. But it is high time that the poor themselves have to speak out and demand. Because, as long as it’s me, Dirk and Claudia Haarmann , Herbert Jauch or Zephania Kameeta , they might say, well those ones want to be seen as nice guys and maybe it is for their own benefit and maybe when it is implemented, they want positions. No! That is not the idea. The idea is to encourage, to empower the poor enough to say: We want the BIG and we demand it.

Thank you very much for the interview.