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CHALLENGES 2006-2007: Poverty in Botswana Persists Despite Growth

Joel Konopo

GABORONE, Jan 15 2007 (IPS) - Despite Botswana’s high rate of economic growth over the past two decades, it is unlikely that the country will halve the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day by 2015. However, significant progress has been made towards halving the proportion of people suffering from hunger.

Botswana’s average economic growth has been more than seven percent over the past 20 years. Per capita gross domestic product figures show an increase from about 1,600 dollars in 1980 to almost 10,000 dollars today.

However, according the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 47 percent of the population live below the poverty line of a dollar per day. Half of female-headed households live on less than one dollar a day.

Dorcus Sebina of the UNDP is positive that the Botswana authorities are committed to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which include halving poverty and hunger by 2015. A recent UNDP report states that Botswana is showing potential for long term growth that will raise standards of living.

The UNDP believes that it is ‘‘likely’’ that Botswana will reach the target of halving the proportion of people suffering from hunger by 2015. The proportion of children under five who are underweight was reduced from 17 percent to 13 percent between 1996 and 2000, according to Botswana’s Central Statistics Office.

Over the same period the proportion of children under five who are too thin for their age was reduced from 11 to five percent, while the proportion of under-fives who are too short for their age dropped from 29 to 23 percent.

But ordinary Batswana are less optimistic about developmental progress in their country. For Thomson Tekere, a taxi driver in the capital of Gaborone, the picture looks bleak. ‘‘Nothing has changed. Many people are still marginalised and ignored in rural areas.’’

For him, the recent history of the Basarwa (San people) in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve exemplifies the problem. The government’s decision to force the Basarwa out of the reserve has recently been reversed through legal action, but he still feels they do not have much of a future.

Neo Moreri, also a Gaborone resident, agrees. ‘‘People living in remote areas will never enjoy the fruits of economic development in this country.’’

‘‘Progress is slow,’’ says David Morwang of SOS Children’s Villages, an orphanage located in Tlokweng, a small village a few kilometres east of Gaborone. While poverty was more widespread in Botswana before 1990, authorities still lack strategies for integrating poor rural communities into the mainstream economy.

This view is shared by the European Union (EU) in its report ‘‘EU Strategy For Africa’’ released in February 2006. The document identifies Botswana as one of the countries in which the rural poor are particularly marginalised.

Changing this picture will require sustained action over the next decade, argues Modireemang Klass, chairperson of Molepolole Village Development Community in the south-eastern part of the country.

Klass argues that political commitment is vital to change levels of inequality in Botswana. These levels are striking given Botswana’s status as an upper middle-income country.

According to the UNDP, the poorest 20 percent of the population get a measly four percent of the total national income. The richest 20 percent of Batswana earn almost 60 percent of the total national income. The unemployment rate is also high, at almost 16 percent.

It seems economic development has mostly benefited the politicians, professional people and civil servants. This also explains the high level of inequality, writes Ian Taylor, an academic who has studied development in Botswana, in the 2003 book ‘Limits to Liberation in Southern Africa’.

The urban-rural divide exacerbates inequality. Four out of five households in rural areas are still dependent on income from a family member in the urban areas. About one-fifth of rural households do not have any income source that statisticians could discern, writes Taylor.

The difference in the level of access to resources means that development outcomes still vary considerably between rural and urban centres. That is why people like Morwang and Klass doubt that Botswana will achieve the MDG on eradicating poverty and hunger.

They feel that it would be a major achievement for Botswana to reach a poverty level by 2015 which is lower than that of 1990.

In contrast, Pedzani Malikongwa, a vendor in Gaborone, argues that most Batswana are lazy and over-reliant on government.

‘‘We should work hard and stop complaining. Government is doing its part. Who else can afford to give you money for free just because you have aged?’’ she asks with reference to the government pension of about 154 pula (about 20 dollars) for people over the age of 65.

 
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