Organization: Namibian Voices for Development
Location: Windhoek, Namibia
Exploring the Influence of Prevailing Perceptions of Poverty in Social Policy Reform: The Case of the BIG Pilot Project in Namibia
From January 2008 to December 2009, a group of civil society organizations known as the Basic Income Grant (BIG) Coalition, piloted an Unconditional Cash Transfer program in the rural Namibian settlement of Otjivero. Roughly 930 residents received a monthly transfer of N$100 (US$13) to spend as they wish. Today the Unconditional Cash Transfer continues a bridging allowance of N$80 (US$10). Being unconditional in the nature, the BIG program constitutes a challenge to the underlying negative perceptions of ‘the poor’ that dominate mainstream development and impose conditionality.
Using the BIG Pilot Project as a case study, this paper explores the role of unconditionality in development assistance. Supporters of the BIG Pilot Project see it as a catalyst for the reduction of poverty and related problems in Otjivero. Through in-depth interviews with residents of Otjivero, this paper recounts respondents’ perception of poverty as well as their experience with the BIG program. Despite compelling evidence, critics have questioned the BIG program, most commonly arguing that it fosters dependence and promotes laziness. Through analysis of local newspapers, this paper identifies and explains the contrasting perceptions of poverty held by proponents and opponents in Namibia’s BIG debate. On the one hand, BIB advocates, such as the BIG Coalition, present individualistic explanations as the cause of poverty, while on the other hand, the political elite dwell on structural justification for poverty and inequality. Challenging both proponents and opponents, the poor recipients of the BIG Pilot Project provide a third perspective that is largely absent from the BIG discussions. This paper concludes by exploring the implications of the findings for social policy reform, highlighting the voices of the poor in the BIG debate from the viewpoint of empowerment.