What do we get out of it?

08 March 2019
The issue of foreign companies appearing to usurp local companies in bids for lucrative tenders in road works project (in other areas as well), will not go away; nor should it.  The public must continue to demand practical inclusion in projects paid with state funds. 
This week’s trade union protests are overly dramatic because it is an election year and they have received criticism for being largely missing in action on major labour problems for several years.  But, the points they are shouting about have a conditional measure of validity. 
There is no question that Namibians have been consistent in demanding that local people benefit from natural resources.  This demand was a part of the independence struggle as a foreign occupying power was exploiting and exporting Namibian wealth.  This issue is no less a pivotal point in 2019. 
Chinese, South African, Italian, French or other foreign/global companies win tenders to operate in Namibia.  They have the bank guarantees, corporate size, skills set, and tested experience to get the job done.  When they are done with their contracts, they take their money and move on to their next global project, wherever that may be.   
The Namibian public sees this, somehow feels ‘robbed’ and continues to ask, “What do we get out of it?”  Some decry that foreigners are ‘treated better’ in Namibia than Namibians.
The answer to the question of ‘what do we get out of it’ will depend largely on who is asking the question and what they expected to ‘get out of it’ in the first place. 
Ask a construction worker who has been unemployed for two years and has been desperate to find a job, who now has a job working on a Chinese company’s construction site, if he wants that company to be kicked out of Namibia.  His answer might be different from the defiant words on the placards at the union protest this week.
While we also advocate for local beneficiation, we are not unmindful that these huge infrastructure projects require hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, technically skilled/trained experts, logistically complex designs, plans, and experienced management. 
No investor will borrow US$50 million from a bank and turn it over to untried local people just to make union protestors happy.  The bill for that financing is not being paid back by the local politicians or union leaders, but by the investor who takes the risk.
It is unreasonable and illogical to ever believe that someone will take 100 percent risk and gleefully accept a lower percentage of the benefits. 
The protests against any foreign company ever winning public works contracts in Namibia are misdirected.  Instead, the demand must be for them to bring their foreign currency, skills, and performance outputs to Namibia and leave these things behind when they go. 
Laws and regulations can be put in place to require paid trainees to shadow the experienced workers throughout the life of the contract.  Penalties should be levied upon the company winning the bid AND the trainees, if the skills transfer does not meet specified performance levels.  
Some service provision and physical labour jobs should go to local people.  Bringing in someone from abroad to push a wheelbarrow or sell cool drinks from a food cart should be forbidden.
That said, Namibians must raise their game.  Our customer service and quality control are erratic.  We are known for not performing to standard, particularly when we are under time pressure; we like to get paid, but we don’t always like to do the full amount of work needed in return. 
Let government agencies consistently monitor the performance of trainees, apprentices, and sub-contractors with a penalty process for lack of delivery.
Those shouting against foreign companies winning large building tenders are disingenuous if they do not admit that over the years, many local companies have won tenders for various smaller public works projects around the country only to take the money, do very little, leave their workers with no salaries, then disappear completely or scream for more money claiming “the amount granted was not enough.” 
A further challenge is that the structure and conditions of some of these winning bids are kept secret.  Lift the veil and let the public know how much in VAT, taxes as well as business/regulatory fees are being paid. 
List the jobs created at all levels and advertise the social contributions, training/skills transfer programs and other levies being paid during the life of the contract. 
If a bidding bond is N$20 million dollars (for example) or a company has to show that it has done at least N$50 million in business in a given year or have done a similar large project before -that eliminates 99.9 percent of local companies from the bidding process at the outset; our country has mostly cottage industries and few corporates. 
While being a small company does not mean there is less talent, experience and skills available, few middle-sized companies have access to the larger bank credit lines and guarantees or the big ticket job resume. 
Local companies rightfully complain, how can I ever get to the level of having that N$20 million or N$50 million track record if I never get a taste of the larger contracts?  Officials must seriously consider this reality and create a program to ameliorate the problem.
A policy framework that demands a defined set of local participation obligations for foreign companies and one that demands skills transfer at higher expertise levels must be put in place and it must be consistently supervised for compliance.  Our monitoring and evaluation systems and up-to-date statistics-taking are questionable.  We need to improve on this if we want to compete in the big leagues for huge public works contracts.
Let us continue to protest against foreign companies winning bids paid with state funds when there is no monitoring of what these companies are actually doing while in Namibia, no inclusion of SMEs as downstream service providers, no trainees and recent graduates (with capacity) as paid apprentices and no linkage to community development programs. 
Equally, let us protest against Namibian service providers who are included as subcontractors to larger foreign companies and don’t live up to their end of the deal. 
Let us keep demanding that the public ‘gets something’ out of every single major contract paid with state funds, while linking that demand to the realities on the ground. 


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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