Namibia's women lead the way in housing development

Persistence, celebration and the First Lady's help have turned around the fortunes of women's savings organisations helping to meet Namibia's housing needs.

Diana Mitlin's picture
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10 September 2015

Diana Mitlin is a principal researcher with IIED's Human Settlements Group

Residents of Tsandi, a settlement in the Omusati region of northern Namibia, look at the community-led sanitation installation for houses being built by the Shack Dwellers' Federation of Namibia (Photo: Diana Mitlin/IIED)

In October 2014, the Shack Dwellers' Federation of Namibia was facing a severe challenge after being excluded from the government's Mass Housing programme. The initial government "blueprint" had recognised the federation's essential contribution to meeting the housing needs of the lowest-income Namibian citizens, but the programme roll-out had taken a different direction.

Blueprint for Mass Housing

When the government announced the Blueprint for Mass Housing in 2013, the Shack Dwellers' Federation of Namibia together with the Namibia Housing Action Group (NHAG), an NGO providing technical advice, were included in the commitment with N$50 million a year to support the federation's grassroots saving fund, known as Twahangana. 

The blueprint:

  • Estimated 45,000 houses were needed by households with monthly incomes at US$150 or below, and 30,000 by those earning between USD $150-460 each month, and
  • Committed the government to construct 185,000 dwellings by 2030. 

Specific actions were designed to help the urban poor – upgrading informal settlements, support for community self-help housing, and social housing for very low-income families. The government recognised the ability of the federation to help deliver these commitments.

The federation was well placed to play a role. It had 20 years of working with the lowest-income families; around 10 per cent of the 135,000 families living in informal settlements were federation members; and  it had helped 5,591 households to secure tenure, and 3,403 families to construct their own homes by 2013.

However, as the Mass Housing initiative rolled out, the federation's potential and historic contribution seemed to have been forgotten. Despite the words in the blueprint, the Mass Housing initiative offered little to those with the most acute needs.

Instead the units constructed were for lower-middle and middle-income households, with expensive loan obligations.

The federation members were upset that their work of 20 years was not being recognised. They also found that their member savings groups were being ignored by Windhoek City council, whose previous progressive policies were being overlooked for other priorities.

But the federation women were determined not to stop. They carried on their efforts, working closely with local authorities that appreciated their organising capabilities, such as Gobabis and Tsandi. This led to federation women completing 245 houses, between June 2014 and June 2015, with another 62 under construction.

Strategic celebration

The federation held a 21st anniversary event in October 2014 with radio coverage and a pull-out supplement in The Namibian, which helped boost their confidence, and gave a new lease of life to activities such as the savings fund and youth initiatives.

Although there was no immediate response from the government, there was increasing public frustration with the Mass Housing initiative because people could not afford what was being provided.

Help from the First Lady

Following elections in November 2014 the government began to recognise the skills of federation members once more. As Edith Mbanga, national co-ordinator, explained: "This year is when the government came back to us. We met with the First Lady, Madame Monica Geingos, and found her very interested in helping the poor. It is her wish that we work closer with her and she works closer with us."

But when the government promised N$7 million for April 2015 to March 2016 for housing construction, the news wasn't all good. The federation needed additional money to build the capacities of their members to negotiate for more land, install services and build homes.

A subsequent meeting with the new Minister of Urban and Rural Development, facilitated by the new patron of the Shack Dwellers' Federation of Namibia, the First Lady, Madame Monica Geingos, confirmed that this money will be allocated to the federation.

The difference between a new house (front), built by the Shack Dwellers' Federation of Namibia, and an old house (behind) is plain to see (Photo: Diana Mitlin/IIED)

And then at the national meeting of the federation, in June 2015, the governor of Khomas region, Laura Veenelapi McLeod-Katjirua offered practical help, suggesting that they meet to see how she could ensure that federation members are once more able to acquire land in Windhoek.

Moving forward together

Ten months on, the federation and NHAG believe that their decision to celebrate their own work, rather than attacking the government, paid off. This was not easy – many members were angry and wanted to fight. But now they are seeing the results of their strategy as national politicians recognise their efforts and the people respect them for their strong sense of direction and demonstrated capacities.

There are still challenges. The federation understands that the government's priority is for flushing toilets. Members say it is more important to have a roof they can afford than a toilet. Now the federation's leaders recognise that such differences have to be addressed together.

Importantly, the past 10 months have taught the federation that it cannot rely on the government, even when commitments have been written into a policy and they have had promises of money. 

That's why the federation needs to identify priorities and take action to demonstrate how people's housing needs can be addressed. It must keep building relations with politicians and ensure that the quality and scale of their work to construct affordable mass housing is visible. With this approach, everything is possible.

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

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