Namibia shows how to support low cost housing

Around a quarter of Namibians live in informal urban neighbourhoods; they live without secure tenure and without adequate access to services. So how has the country gained its reputation for progressive state action on housing?

Diana Mitlin's picture
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13 June 2014

Community reblocking to improve settlement design and the quality of the neighbourhood in Namibia (Photo: Diana Mitlin/IIED)

The answer is more than the recent 'Blueprint' for mass housing that the government set out in 2013 — it's also the long 'working relationship' between citizens and government. 

Cooperation and reform

For more than a decade, the city of Windhoek has been working with the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia to upgrade homes and provide legal housing options people can afford. It's this engagement of local communities in developing their own neighbourhoods, and the empowerment and capacity development that comes with it, that has helped transform relations between grassroots organisations and local authorities.

When I first visited Namibia in the late 1990s, members of the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia and the Namibian Housing Action Group were working with the city of Windhoek to improve options for informal settlement dwellers. Together, they produced the city's Development and Upgrading Strategy, changing building codes and regulations to lower the cost of legal housing plots with basic services and letting residents build and upgrade their homes incrementally. 

Huge need

But considerable need remains. Five years ago the federation surveyed Namibia's shack settlements in detail, documenting living conditions in 235 settlements that housed 134,884 households (and 541,119 people). They highlighted the very poor living conditions endured by some of the lowest income citizens.

In half the informal settlements, residents had no toilets. Even in settlements that had some communal or individual toilets, 43 per cent of people did not have access to basic sanitation. The report, completed with local authority participation wherever possible, demonstrated the scale of need, and drew attention to the deficits in state provision.

Sharing experience

The value of Windhoek's approach has been widely recognised. The Namibian Federation is a member of Shack/Slum Dwellers International, a network of similar federations in cities across the global South. Many grassroots activists from other cities and nations have brought their local government officials and politicians to see and learn from the Windhoek programme. And officials from the Namibian Federation have been asked to share their experiences abroad, where their progressive approach is far from the norm.

One senior Namibian official commented on a visit to Harare and Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, saying: "We experienced so much resistance from other planning professionals about our ideas to set development levels that matched affordability. I understood this because, having worked in the City of Windhoek for over 20 years, I saw how far we had come*."

Namibia's blueprint for housing

In Namibia, the government's housing 'Blueprint' recognises how the largest backlog of need is in the lowest income groups, estimating 45,000 housing units are needed by households with monthly incomes equalling about US$150 and a further 30,000 by those earning US$150-460. The plan is to build 185,000 dwellings by 2030, with specific actions to help the urban poor, including upgrading informal settlements, support for community self-help housing, and social housing for very low income groups and those with particular needs. 

members of the Namibian Shack Dwellers' Federation at a community meeting (Photo: Diana Mitlin/IIED)

And the Blueprint includes explicit support for the federation's grassroots savings groups: N$50 million (US$5 million) a year of government money will be given to support the federation's Twahangana loan fund. In committing this money, government is recognising federation members' capability in addressing the needs of those living in Namibia's informal settlements. By April 2013, the federation had helped 5,591 households to secure tenure, and 3,403 houses had been constructed. 

Constructive cooperation

Affordable mass housing has to be a joint effort. Informal settlements can't be widely upgraded, nor enough basic accommodation provided, without state intervention. Government must somehow enable finance, and reform regulations. Local families can then work with government to secure tenure and upgrade services, before improving their own housing. Similarly, governments that are serious about addressing poor housing at scale must work with local communities.

  • Without strong local engagement, government will not be able to design interventions that are sensitive to diverse local contexts
  • Without strong citizen engagement, local authorities will struggle to achieve the required scale and effective use of resources. They need to both encourage a local contribution and ensure that local groups can monitor formal contractors' work
  • Without strong local grassroots organisations, government programmes will find it difficult to reach the lowest-income and most vulnerable groups — too easily government investments are captured by wealthier and more powerful individuals
  • Perhaps most importantly, government engagement with communities builds capacity and empowers local involvement, potentially transforming relations between organised citizens and local authorities for the better, and securing multiple future benefits. 

In Namibia, for example, the Shack Dwellers Federation is using its skills to help build local organisations, establish priorities, organise 'reblocking' (land planning), install services, upgrade settlements and actually build the housing. Faced with decades in which the world has made little progress in addressing the needs of informal settlement residents, Namibia's housing blueprint is a welcome commitment towards inclusive urban development.

* Quoted in a report by George Masinba (Dialogue on Shelter) on the Zimbabwe Slum Upgrading Project Exchange to Namibia 31st-4th of March 2011. 

Diana Mitlin (diana.mitlin@iied.org) is a principal researcher with IIED's Human Settlements Group.

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