The recently announced streamlining of qualification criteria for the pilot food bank in Windhoek is not a surprise to us.
This newspaper has on several occasions raised caution flags about the food bank component of President Hage Geingob’s Harambee Prosperity Plan (HPP).
We remain sceptical about our government’s ability to consistently, efficiently and permanently provide free food for the poor of this country using food banks alone.
This week, Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare Minister, Zephania Kameeta, stated during his budget motivation speech that the list of food bank beneficiaries would be reduced by 7,196 households. This is not an insignificant reduction in light of rising poverty and unemployment and when the economy is under severe financial constraints.
Worse, the minister announced that he will be searching for further budget reductions in his ministry’s critically needed programs.
We firmly believe that in an economic recession, more resources should be made available to the poverty ministry not less. We cannot fathom the thinking in the Geingob Administration that provides N$5.5 billion for the defence ministry while cutting off poor families from the free food that they (unfortunately) have come to rely upon.
This level of created dependence is one of the negatives of any free handout program. We stated our caution on this point at the dawn of the food bank pilot project.
While we predicted the unsustainability and the gradual contraction of the free food handout program, we acknowledge the importance of the driving principle behind welfare projects for the needy. Government must be seen to be tangibly doing something to assist its most destitute citizens to avoid social unrest.
We do not crow with ‘I told you so’ complacency over the emerging cracks in the food bank program, instead, we feel alarmed by the poor who had food given to them yesterday and now will have nothing to fill their food pots tomorrow.
Poverty reduction programs must be evaluated with an eye towards liberal, yet realistic sustainability at the outset, rather than painful conservative contractions in mid-stream. It is wrong to promise a free cornucopia of food, build-up dependency on it and then, cut it off.
Is anyone placing mitigation protocols in place to handle social developments in communities caused by families who used to receive free food and are now cut off, living side-by-side with those who continue to receive the freebees? Human beings are what they are in such competitive situations.
The ‘stricter rules’ for the poor to qualify for food bank handouts that oblige them to present identification documents and a police declaration of their poverty status, is an ill-conceived mechanism.
Many Namibians living on the fringes of society do not have official documents for one reason or another. Some who have arrived in the shanty towns surrounding the capital city from rural areas, lack birth certificates or the means to get them; some have ID cards lost or stolen regularly.
These people will now be blocked from the free food they need, through no fault of their own.
The very idea of asking underpaid, overworked police desk officers to affirm someone’s poverty status (earning less than N$400 per household per month) to qualify a household for the food bank program, lacks common sense.
The under-funded police services have no vetting technology, available trained staff or budget to ‘clear’ such a thing for so many people on a regular basis (these clearances only last a set amount of time).
With what unbiased mechanism, data-base or transparent, legally-based system will an officer verify the N$400 or less income level of a household? How will they verify that the people in front of them are even from a particular household?
We think that creating this artificial ‘bar’ of a police stamp to confirm a household’s abject poverty, is insensitive. The queues at police stations already teaming with people needing clearances for school purposes, jobs, banking and other items will be joined by masses needing clearances for food.
We are compelled to ask: why does government create superfluous bureaucratic hurdles that they are ill-equipped to administer efficiently? Adding a document chase to the burden of the poor who are now dependent on free food handouts does not make the project more ‘strict’, but more cumbersome, oppressive and uncaring.
Furthermore, the requirement for a police poverty stamp gives corruption another path. We covered a story last year where people were on the food bank street committee lists while in fact they had employed family members in the police, military or civil service.
Such opportunism was to be expected as selfish and dishonest people thrive when resources are scarce. This new food bank paper chase means the money-for-stamped-police-documents underground market will expand even further. Is there a plan in place to monitor and curb this inevitability?
When will government go beyond its budget restricted, ailing food bank program and implement other valves to release the poverty pressure?
Why not give a tax reduction scheme to grocery stores and bakeries to allow the needy to ‘purchase’ specific items with a special benefits card?
Why not increase the funding for the school feeding program and allow learners in primary and secondary schools to get at least one hot meal each morning?
Why not work with the Council of Churches to provide soup kitchens around the country, every Sunday with food provided by government purchases from local farmers including safe meat from above-the-red-line sources and over-stocked game on government land?
If regularly providing free food to feed hungry people is the goal, then government using all of its ministries and shrinking budgets must move beyond unsustainable food banks and towards direct meal programs using existing infrastructure and logistics.
Poverty alleviation is rightfully, a stated goal of the government, but to go beyond talking is ever the challenge in Namibia.
Regardless of whatever program is properly implemented, for the sake of the people in dire need, government must never handout free food and then snatch it away; once it is given, it must be available always.