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The Time Traveler: Why do we need food aid?

07 June 2019
Author   Hugh Ellis
One of the headlines last week that caught my eye, but seemed to generate very little public debate otherwise, was this one: ‘India to donate 1000 tonnes of food aid to Namibia.’
The gist of the story is that the Indian government is to supply Namibia with 1000 metric tonnes of grain, including rice and millet, for distribution to vulnerable people during Namibia’s drought emergency.
I applaud the Indian government for the gesture of solidarity. I am certainly not saying we should refuse it. But I can’t help but feel that the very fact that a country like Namibia requires food aid from overseas shows how far both Government, and all of us as a society, have failed.
Namibia shouldn’t need food aid, or any aid really, except perhaps some high-technology assistance or advanced research and development help, here and there.
Namibia is, by some reckonings, the sixth largest producer of Uranium in the world. We are amongst the top 10 diamond producing countries. Our breathtaking landscapes and wildlife attract hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. While our marine reserves are not what they were, fish exports still generated N$2.5 billion in revenue in just one quarter of last year, according to the Namibia Statistics Agency.
Can someone explain to me, in clear, simple language, why a country like this ends up needing foreign aid to feed its people?
Of course, I know part of the answer, as does anyone who follows our political and economic debates.
Government has failed to enforce taxes on the multinational corporations that own many of our biggest assets. Corruption has whittled away the benefits that development programs and social grants were designed to achieve.
Spending on unnecessary goods - an over-large army, luxurious lifestyles for the elite, security for politicians that should be unwarranted in a democratic society – has drained the public revenue of much-needed cash. The State and civil society have failed to challenge the inequitable distribution of wealth resulting from 100 years of colonialism and apartheid.
Our politicians often get angry when the likes of the World Bank classify Namibia as a ‘middle-income country’. But the World Bank is, for once, telling the truth. We are a middle-income country. By some measures, we are an extremely wealthy country. It’s just the distribution of that income and wealth we can’t get right.
Now, I’m no fool. I realize that things cannot be changed overnight, and that Government cannot do anything it wishes. There are constitutional requirements, some of which are clearly unfair, and some of which were too hastily negotiated in the euphoria that led up to independence in 1990.
But still. It seems somehow that we use these things to deny ourselves any agency at all, or worse still, we repeat patterns of past colonial and apartheid governments.
There is nothing constitutional that stops us implementing a stiff land tax on white commercial farmers to fund resettlement of displaced black Namibians on ancestral land, but we have not done it.
We could make great use of training and assigning more policewomen to investigate gender-based violence cases, enforce protection orders, even something as basic as escorting women home from entertainment events at night.
But instead we got Operation Kalahari Desert, which seems reminiscent of apartheid policing, at least in poor communities, and which seems to frequently make women of colour its victims, rather than its beneficiaries.
I may be sounding cynical by now, but my intention is quite the opposite.
When I meet visitors from other African countries, one thing they almost always say is that our problems are small by comparison to theirs. That they don’t understand why a country such as ours should have hunger and poverty among its people.
Let’s take them at their word.
I’m not even here to ‘bash the Government’. The first moves must come from the people.
When students demonstrated recently for access to loans – not even grants – to go to college, I was surprised how few civil society organizations and members of the general public stood up to support them.
Let us - as a first response - rediscover that old spirit of solidarity.
Hugh Ellis is a lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views expressed here are personal views. Follow him on Twitter @ellis_hugh, or browse his Instagram feed at ellis.hugh