Namibia lacks capacity, not money for socioeconomic development

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In this exclusive and wide-ranging interview with Moses Magadza, Ambassador Musinga Bandora, the United Nations Development Programme representative and also United Nations Resident coordinator in Namibia shares his thoughts on many issues including Namibia’s socioeconomic development trajectory; the implications of Namibia’s upper middle income status; the role and challenges of UN agencies; decentralization; human capacity development and the country’s efforts towards meeting Millennium Development Goals.

Moses Magadza:  Are you happy with the functioning of the Namibia country office as you found it or have you identified some changes which you would like to introduce progressively to improve its functioning?

Musinga Bandora:  While I have no specific difficulties with the way I found the country office, certainly there is room to improve because the conditions of work evolve.   The challenges that this office was created to address in terms of supporting Namibia develop also change.  Accordingly, the country office has to evolve to cope with that and the kind of skills needed to address these challenges.  So we are continually evolving, more so working in Namibia which has moved from a low middle income to an upper middle income country in the last few years.  This has created new demands that are specific to middle income countries which this office and the UN generally have to respond to.

Moses Magadza: What would you say is the mandate of your office and what challenges do you need to overcome before this office can deliver more on that mandate?

Musinga Bandora:  We are here specifically to support Namibia address its development challenges.  This is not only as UNDP but as Resident Coordinator of the UN operations across our mandates: in education, health, human development, gender, poverty, HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, food and security as Namibia strives to address its development challenges, we are called upon to bring our assets, reach to the global capacity and knowledge to help Namibia.  Within that framework of supporting human development we strive to ensure that we have our partnership with Namibia well-articulated so that we can add value.  We do this by working also with other agencies to coordinate policy, technical support and resources.

Moses Magadza:  What challenges do you envisage as you do this? 

Musinga Bandora: Not being able to sometimes get the right skills.  Lack of financial resources is another challenge but which is not limited to the UN.  Our counterparts in government also face capacity challenges including in the civil society.  A fundamental challenge is that of relevance; ensuring that the UN continues to be relevant to the development narrative in the country.  When this office started 24 years ago, Namibia was still a least developed country.  It has moved.  Operating in a least developed country is totally different because you are not only developing institutions, human capacity and systems but transferring resources.  When you then transit into an upper middle income country you need to adjust accordingly to remain relevant.  That involves change of mindsets.

Moses Magadza: Having identified those challenges, what strategies do you have to overcome them?

Musinga Bandora:  One is to think differently, which we are doing in partnership with the government; moving from development assistance to development partnership. Another strategy is recognizing that working in a middle income environment requires different assets, skill sets and a different form of partnership.  Thinking differently is fundamental because the global environment is changing.  The benefactors of the United Nations – mainly the donors – are facing serious financial challenges in their own communities so the resources they transfer to the UN are diminishing.  We have to learn to adjust to these dwindling resources; to do more with less.  To achieve this we have to restructure, work smarter and give priority to technology.  In addition, we need to build new partnerships.  There are new players in the development field.  They include emerging economies such as China and South Africa which have resources and capacity, which we can bring on board to support development.  There are also philanthropic and other private organizations that – in the context of social responsibility – would want to support development.  We need to access these new players.  The UN is diversifying its fund base.  Thinking differently involves also how to access the resources of countries like Namibia. Namibia does not lack money.  It has access to resources. Indeed, the government’s own reports suggest that the development budget of the country is chronically underspent every year.  So Namibia’s problem is not money.  They are putting money into development (health, education etc.) but returns are not commensurate with the investment.  Part of thinking differently is considering how Namibia can use the systems of the UN to make sure that its money works better for itself.

Moses Magadza:  The IMF classifies Namibia as a middle income economy, which means that the country does not rank very high among developing countries that need its assistance.  What are you planning to do to help Namibia access international funds for executing its development agenda which includes addressing income inequality in the country?

Musinga Bandora:  Well, Namibia has a history of colonialism and apartheid which have created legacies of structural inequalities.  Statistically Namibia is one of the most unequal places in the world.  This notwithstanding, Namibia has graduated from a least developed to a high income country, albeit a developing one.  This says a few things.  It shows that the economic policies that Namibia has put in place are working, so the economy is growing.  It also says that if incomes have not kept pace with the growth of the economy, there is a problem of sharing the national resources.  That is an internal governance issue.  Some countries have different strategies of balancing his structural and historical inequality. Some have gone for massive nationalization.  Others have gone for the gradual trickle-down theory.  My view is that Namibia has opted for the prudent gradual process of balancing inequality through empowerment and social welfare programmes in various sectors that include education, health and infrastructure development. There are also empowerment schemes like TIPEG (Targeted Intervention Programme for Employment and Economic Growth) to right the imbalance. True, a middle income status masks serious inequality and poverty in Namibia but we should also see the positives.   Being a middle income country says that the economy is growing and policies are working.  It says that Africa can also get out of statistical poverty; that Namibia has the resources. Although it presents the challenge of distribution or sharing, there are also specific advantages that come with being a middle income country.  Firstly, the country can borrow cheaper because it is not considered high risk on the financial market.  Secondly, it encourages foreign investment because people are confident that their investment is safe.  Thirdly it also gives the country credibility in financial markets abroad.  For example, Namibia is involved in Eurobonds with a triple B rating.  This would not have been possible if the country was not rated an upper middle income economy. As can be seen, the issue really is not about the UN working to raise money for Namibia or Namibia accessing foreign domestic assistance.  The total ODA (Official Development Assistance) for Namibia is less than three percent of the national budged and therefore it is insignificant.  The biggest players are PEPFAR (The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and Global Fund which are in one sector. They provide about USD200 million.  Again, this is insignificant.  Namibia has a budget of 64 billion Namibian dollars for a population of 2, 3 million people.  That money is adequate to address development challenges.  Clearly, the challenge is not bringing more money where Namibia cannot spend its own money.  The challenge is to ensure that there are institutions, people in the right number and the right skills as well as systems that work so that when money is pumped in there are good returns.  All these things have to be built in with our support.  Being a middle income country is to be celebrated but we must not lose sight of the challenge of addressing inequality which – in the long term – can undermine whatever else Namibia has achieved.

Moses Magadza:  Within the United Nations Development Assistance Framework, the UN has been intervening in mitigating the effects of HIV/AIDS in Namibia.  What has been the impact of these interventions?

Musinga Bandora:  Dramatic because first and foremost, of the government’s own commitment and serious work.  Secondly because of the partnerships that the government has built around the response to HIV/AIDS including partnership with the UN.  We have seen serious developments.  Prevalence rates have fallen by 50 percent in the last decade.  AIDS related deaths have fallen by 50 percent also in the last decade.  We have seen access to treatment climb to almost 85 percent towards universal access.  Transmission of Mother to Child has dropped to six percent and Namibia is now moving towards elimination.  We have seen a lot of resource augmentation.  The government has moved from funding under 50 percent to 60 percent of the national response.  In this regard the government’s own response has been dramatic.  Of course, there are challenges but the UN has supported all these efforts with capacity, advocacy and policies; working around the national strategic framework for HIV/AIDS.  We have a joint team which groups all the UN agencies to ensure that we respond comprehensively.  Namibia is one of the few countries that have done very well to responding to HIV/AIDS in an integrated manner; looking also at malaria, TB and other associated diseases.  Development angles of HIV/AIDS such as gender and the so called key populations are being addressed.

Moses Magadza:  What is your office likely to do in partnership with the government to deal more effectively with the epidemic?

Musinga Bandora:  First of all to continue with what we are doing because it is working.  Moving on to address the challenges that include new infections.  Notwithstanding the fall in infections there are still new infections especially within the 18 – 35 years cohort.  That is something we must target; making sure that prevention becomes a key or core message.  Secondly, addressing issues of stigma and discrimination which are still fueling new infections by preventing some people from accessing treatment and care.  Thirdly, we will deepen the results that we have achieved so far in terms of moving towards elimination of Transmission of Mother to Child, moving towards 100 percent access, elimination of malaria and deeper integration until HIV/AIDS is managed as any other chronic disease such as diabetic, hypertension which are managed as part and parcel of primary health care.

Moses Magadza:  Tackling development challenges that you have outlined in partnership with a host country raises domestic expectations with respect to human resources augmentation.  How well is your office placed to augment Namibian’s human resource capacity?

Musinga Bandora:  Indeed, lack of human capacity is symptomatic of all countries that share a common history with Namibia.  The challenges that I have outlined including under spending, not getting adequate returns from social investment also affect South Africa, for instance.  Namibia lacks capacity to deal with development challenges.  This is where we come in; helping Namibia to build the capacity for policy and legal frameworks for development, building institutions and systems that can drive development and linking Namibia to knowledge and experiences within south – south cooperation.  We can link Namibia to knowledge within the entire UN system: technical know-how; capacity support; institutional strengthening; systems development etc.  To do this we have been working with government to map the real development challenges.  Over the past two years we have helped the government to fine-tune aspects of their fourth National Development Plan.  Accordingly, the next development framework of the UN would specifically support NDP4 interrelated goals of growth, income and jobs.  We have identified four areas in which we are going to offer support: health, education and skills, addressing extreme poverty and looking at the enablers that would help government achieve NDP4 objectives. These enablers include governance, gender, human rights and others.  We have already signed that framework with the government.

Moses Magadza:  Decentralization seems to be the in thing all over the world as governments move towards bringing services closer to the people.  The government of the Republic of Namibia launched this strategy of development in March 1998 but some people say it has not yielded significant impacts at the grassroots level because it would appear that the strategy calls for increased commitment of resources at this level.  What role do you see UNDP playing towards easing the resource constraints which inhibit effective implementation of this strategy?

Musinga Bandora:  I think the problem is not with the policy.  There are problems of capacity, which exist at all levels.  One needs to understand decentralization in the context of Namibia.  Namibia is a huge territory with a very sparse population.  Some communities are not viable entities because they are so small.  Imagine the challenge of taking water to a community of 200 people and having to pipe water another 500 kilometers to supply a community of 200 people.  The communities are not economically viable but need services, nonetheless.  The government is doing this at great cost.  You cannot decentralize only the resources.  When you decentralize you decentralize also authority; capacity to levy taxes to be able to self-administer.  In Namibia decentralization is easier as a policy.  Implementation is very difficult because the communities are desolate apart from the North and Kavango and Zambezi regions where there are critical numbers of people.  The rest of Namibia is scattered and sparsely populated.  What I think is important is to progressively build capacity to make sure that when authority is transferred to local authorities so people would have the capacity to self-manage.  The fundamentals of capacity, institutions, and systems and so on – must be in place for decentralization to work.

Moses Magadza:  Ambassador, from what you have observed so far, is Namibia is on track with respect to the attainment of MDGs by 2015?

Musinga Bandora:  Namibia has done well across the board.  They are on target in several MDGs but they are lagging in some.  For example on the MDG on poverty, they are lagging in terms of inequality but in terms of income, poverty rates have fallen to about 29 percent from about 59 percent.   In terms of education, enrollment of boys and girls is now almost at par – almost 100 percent. Therefore in terms of access, that has been achieved.  The issue now is quality.  In terms of gender equality, they have tried.  Granted, there are fewer female members of parliament now than there were in the previous parliament but overall, the status of women in the country has improved.  The recently announced 50:50 gender policy is laudable within the SWAPO party.  One hopes that the policy would be carried forward to other institutions of government.  We dare not forget, of course, that because of historical prejudices. Women are still disadvantaged.  It may be a challenge to find qualified women to occupy some of the spaces.  However, empowerment is necessary so that women are given the skills to be able to take on some of these positions.  With respect to health, Namibia has done well.  They are not at the Abuja target of 15 percent of national budget allocation to health but very close at about 12 percent.  Funding of the HIV/AIDS response is at 62 percent and the roll back in terms of malaria has been impressive.  However, again, quality remains and issue.  Government is pumping in money but are the people getting quality health care?  In terms of drinking water, they have done well and access is at about 85 percent.  However, sanitation remains a big problem, with over 50 percent of Namibians practicing open defecation, which is a very serious health hazard.  In terms of environmental sustainability, Namibia is doing well with a robust environmental protection programme.  They just hosted the COP 11.

UNDP is developing a policy of reinvigorated action to address some of the MDGs where we think with a little more focus, capacity and resources, we can meet the targets.  Namibia has identified child and maternal health as some of the areas where, with a little push we can meet the targets in 2015.  Sanitation is another area in which we might not meet the target but come closer.  The challenge is what will happen beyond 2015, hence the ongoing discussion globally in terms of the post 2015 development agenda.  Namibia is playing an active part in that President Hifikepunye Pohamba is serving on the African Union Committee of Heads of State on Post 2015 to craft Africa’s common position.  The idea is to develop goals that address the totality of the human condition including access, inequality and participation.

Moses Magadza:  Finally, as the coordinator of UN agencies in Namibia, to what extent are you satisfied that the activities of these agencies are coordinated well enough to help the country realize its development goals?

Musinga Bandora:  I think we are very well coordinated. We have a new UN partnership framework that gives context and content of the UN partnership with the country between 2014 and 2018.  As the UN Resident Coordinator it was my task to ensure that the UN is coordinated; that we speak as one and approach development in an integrated way.  We have also adopted a joint programme on HIV/AIDS which brings all the UN agencies in one project to develop a comprehensive UN support to the national strategic framework.  We are favored by circumstances in that Namibia gave us this UN House [in Klein Windhoek] so we are co-located. Of course, there would be challenges. We are agencies and each agency has its own governance structure. We are also in different categories. Some are specialized agencies, some are programmes and some are funds. In some cases, we differ with systems. Harmonizing our systems is sometimes a challenge. However, where there is a will, there is always a way. We use our differences as strengths rather than weaknesses.

Moses Magadza: On that resolute note, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Musinga Bandora: Thank you very much!

*Winner of the SADC Media Award and nine other journalism awards, Moses Magadza is Zimbabwean journalist, editor and blogger who is broadening his mind at the University of Namibia School of Postgraduate Studies. He can be contacted on