Is food security more important than cash security?


10 Sep 2018

A recent search in Google for the exact phrase ‘food security’ came back with a whopping 24,500,000 finds, while ‘income security’ produced a list of 1,820,000 ‘hits’. ‘Cash security’ trailed way behind with only about 284,000 items.

Very different numbers. The content of the pages at the top of the search lists was also starkly different. Sites and references concerned with food security typically focus on poor people and poor countries having enough nutrition, whereas pages on income largely deal with the certainty of having an income in the long-term. Pages on cash security, by contrast, mainly talk about thieves, safes and protecting your money. This was surprising since food, income and cash security are so related. But Google and others (Namibians included) see them worlds apart: cash security troubles those who have much cash; food security is a concern for the poor who have little food; and income security is about long-term needs for an income, such as a pension.

And so it is with so many perspectives, policies and development programmes in Namibia. Much focus is on food security. That is what the poor need, and that is what they will get: in food packages, seeds, fertilisers, implements, farming training, baskets and pots. Come what may, self-sufficient food security is the goal. Rural people are even persuaded that food security can be achieved in places where it is impossible to grow food economically or sustainably. Much of this perpetuates and promotes poverty.

Even customary land rights – if people are lucky enough to have them in communal areas – forbid the use of land for commercial purposes. Instead, land held for customary occupation may only be used for residential and domestic food production purposes. To be fair, it is possible for rural residents in communal areas to have leasehold rights which could be used for commercial purposes. But then again, these are never offered as an option because the Ministry of Land Reform assumes that residents don’t need commercial rights. This has been the attitude and practice for 16 years since the introduction of the Communal Land Reform Act in 2002. Again, how much of this perpetuates, if not promotes, poverty?

We are also reminded that there is no point in giving the poor cash because we believe they don’t really need to buy much. ‘The poor are simple, ignorant people who need food and little else. Besides, any money they get is spent on alcohol. They don’t know any better.’ It is on the basis of these sorts of attitudes that the Namibian government dismissed proposals for a Basic Income Grant (BIG) years ago, and now has food packages handed out by the Ministry of Poverty Alleviation & Social Welfare in an attempt to reduce poverty. Sincerely, however, Namibia does a great job in providing social grants to the elderly, orphans and disabled. In that, there is much to rejoice.

In another blast of prejudice, we believe that rural residents in communal areas don’t need to use land as investments. They live in 38% of Namibia’s homes. How often do we hear the nuanced comment that such simple people really live day-to-day? They don’t need to, or can’t plan ahead we are told! For that reason, communal land need not be traded and therefore has no investment value. The same is true for the quarter (26%) of Namibian families who live, but can’t own land in informal settlements. But recall that livestock have long served the need for investments, capital and savings by people in Africa. That continues today in the keeping of millions of cattle, goats, sheep and poultry by non-farmers living in Windhoek and other towns.

What evidence do we have that the poor are stupid, irresponsible and with no need for long-term capital? On what evidence do we assume that day-to-day nutrition is their most pressing need? Why can’t people have the options that cash provides: to buy food, or medicine, or blankets, or taxi fares to a hospital, or cell phone credit to telephone for a job or advice from an uncle? Most modern necessities are as important to the poor as they are to the rich, especially in being able to get ahead: find a job, be mobile, look presentable, find a spouse, have children and to communicate with family and friends who provide social capital or support.

Namibian society is moving rapidly from a rural, subsistence environment to one based on incomes and consumerism in urban environments. Nutrition is needed, but so are cash incomes, and more so in towns. Unlike food security, cash security provides options for both: to buy food and other necessities of life. Options available to different groups during apartheid were not equal because it was then believed that some people were better than others. That was bad! But the same belief has guided many perspectives, policies and programmes in the same vein for the last 28 years.

Namibia should ensure that different socio-economic classes have the same options. That would be good!

By John Mendelsohn
31 August 2018