Success weighs heavy on Namibia

Much significance is attached to the regional and parliamentary elections taking place in Namibia. It is the first time that so-called "free borns" – children born after Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990 – are able to vote. As the 20th anniversary of independence approaches, debate over Namibia's economic and social progress is reaching fever pitch; analyses produced by research institutions and the media compete with party manifestos and impassioned public speeches.

International organisations, for their part, seem to have reached a consensus; in July this year the World Bank upgraded Namibia to upper middle income (UMI) status, alongside countries such as Mexico and Brazil. Namibia was first classified as a lower middle income country in July 1990, triggering the withdrawal of NGOs and the scaling back of Official Development Assistance (ODA). This new upgrade pushes Namibia further into anonymity; the country is known neither for the grinding poverty of much of southern Africa, nor for the impressive gains seen in other parts of the developing world.

Namibia's economic statistics – a pre-credit crunch budget surplus and per capita GDP of $4,278 – disguise huge inequalities crippling this arid and sparsely populated land. The Gini coefficient, a statistical measure of inequality, rates Namibia at 0.74 in a range of 0 to 1 – by far the most unequal society in the world. In the poorest regions, 30% of the population suffer from HIV and Aids, and only a third of children finish high school. Two-thirds of Namibians live in rural areas or informal settlements, and only 20% have access to acceptable sanitation. These statistics seem to fit better with Ethiopia or Sudan, and would make most people expect to see an Oxfam 4x4 barrelling down the dirt track at any moment.

Yet, on the assumption that middle income countries have less need for aid, major development organisations are absent in Namibia. In terms of anti-corruption measures, environmental law and spending on education, Namibia does outshine many of its neighbours. However, these western-friendly reforms do not alter the fact that social and economic indicators, for the majority of the population, are on a par with least developed nations around the world.

Less tangible, yet no less significant for human development, are issues such as gender parity, media access and democracy free from ethnic and cultural bias. Zimbabwe and Swaziland are cautionary tales in this respect; hailed as success stories in the 1970s, then a preoccupation with multi-party elections and corruption control led to neglect of broad-based civil democratisation, paving the way for suppression of democratic and media freedom, and – ultimately – the "failed states" we see today.

Getting the soft infrastructure of social institutions right makes the difference between countries on the path to sustainable growth and those where serious development challenges remain. Addressing these problems requires capacity building and long-term political and civil collaboration – areas where the expertise of development organisations still has an important role to play.

The Government of the Republic of Namibia (GRN) is proud of its middle income status, and of being held up as a "shining example" to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. The classification provides positive publicity, encourages foreign investment and builds confidence in the banking system. But the costs of the label far outweigh the benefits.

Namibia is excluded from trade benefits afforded to "less successful" peers, while labouring under a weak economy prey to external shocks and credit crises. The GRN, anxious to preserve its standing in the international community, is mindful of criticism, and of drawing attention to less than shining aspects of the social, political and economic situation. This compounds the image of Namibia as a country with few pressing problems, and little claim to international concern.

The simple truth is this: Namibia, neither challenging nor challenged, surrounded by stories of greater success, or more heartrending failure, is disabled by its middle income status. Neatly pigeonholed, this classification denies the reality of life for 60% of households, who share in only 37% Namibia's wealth.

The international development community should not be faulted for directing limited resources where need is greatest and results most dramatic. However, desire at a national and international level to file Namibia away as a job well done is both short sighted and counter-productive. The Namibian authorities and the development community must take an honest look at progress made and progress still to come, and decide whether Namibia really is ready to go it alone.

Rose Orlik, a former teacher in Malawi and for the European Commission delegation to Namibia.