Towards Well-being Indicators in Africa: A Case Study from Namibia

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Participants conduct visioning exercises for their community at a Shandumbala Residents Meeting in April 2016.

In Brief

Namibia, like the rest of Africa, wants to industrialize and grow much in the same way as developed countries have. However, the global community is realizing that this development path has brought with it more problems than solutions (including climate change, rampant inequality, waste, food insecurity, land degradation, and more, all of which are interlinked). For Namibia to develop and become a resilient, successful country, success, and the tools to achieve it, need to be redefined. Successful lives involve happiness, health, access, and rights. In 2012, a group of young, passionate Namibians decided to go out and ask the people what a successful Namibia would look like. The group developed domains and indicators (through a review of all existing indices contextualized to Namibia) to measure progress towards well-being. A survey was conducted in various suburbs in of the capital city, Windhoek. It was found that well-being was generally very low, with access and freedoms perceived as the lowest marker in all communities. Working with one community in a former township settlement, the survey responses were presented and actions discussed to improve results in this community. Since then, community groups have formed under priority areas. Interestingly, the priority areas as defined by the community were trust, safety, education, and land right issues. The study aims to expand and integrate the Sustainable Development Goals and Targets into its measures, as well as to work on an aggregate index in the coming year. Working closely with Namibian citizens allows the study to understand deep societal needs and challenges. This work hopes to form part of a greater global community that moves towards solutions for a well-being economy, one that allows humanity to take part in a healthy Earth system.

Key Concepts

  • We must urgently address the systemic crises humanity faces, which ultimately stem from humanity’s environmental, social, and spiritual disconnection in the pursuit of economic growth.

  • Namibia, a southern African country, is at a crossroads in its development path, but is leaning towards a fast-growth model that favors profit over people.

  • A group of Namibians have been working to establish what a successful, resilient, and happy Namibian society would look like and how progress towards this can be measured.

  • Community dialogues and working sessions in the capital of Namibia, Windhoek, are focusing on community-driven action to improve well-being from the ground up.

The current world view is that economic growth is synonymous with human well-being and prosperity. This growth is measured using Gross Domestic Product (GDP). And for many years, the world has followed this path without questioning it. But this path, in fact, has led to some significant challenges.

In the past 100 years or so, humanity has become more and more divided from the ecological, social, and spiritual spheres that are needed for survival, creativity, and happiness. This separation from ecology is causing life support systems to be destroyed. In fact, the development paradigm is driving core planetary boundaries (the safe operating spaces for humanity to exist) into a new state, one that is not conducive to human life nor development.1 Enormous challenges are arising, including water scarcity, food scarcity, soil losses, and air pollution, among many others. These problems will only be further exacerbated by climate change—yet another detrimental result of the development paradigm. In Namibia, populations experienced an absolute water crisis in the capital city of Windhoek, drought, and flooding, all within a few months of one another.

The social system is corroded. Global inequality has reached extremes, to the extent that one percent of the global human population has more wealth than the rest of the world combined, and just 62 individuals have the same wealth as 3.6 billon people. Since 2000, the poorest half of the population has received only one percent of the total increase in global wealth, while half of that increase has gone to the top one percent.2 Wars, gender violence, human slavery, and social disruptions and disconnections are all a product of the current value system. Namibia is no different, with 10 percent earning more than half of the country’s wealth, and social issues like gender violence reaching all-time highs.

Spiritually, humans are more and more disconnected from nature, themselves, and each other. Purpose for and quality of life is being lost. The World Health Organization has reported that a person somewhere in the world commits suicide every 40 seconds.3 Statistically, more people die from committing suicide than from wars and homicides combined.4

Africa is not necessarily faring much better. Despite rapid GDP growth in many African countries, quality of life has not been increasing as would be expected. For instance, in Equatorial Guinea, a country with a fast-growing economy, most people still don’t have access to the most fundamental services, such as clean water and sanitation.5 In fact, the growth seen in recent years is largely the result of a statistical mirage. Most resources in Africa are not renewable, and when natural resource depletion and environmental damage are taken into account, African economies are actually shrinking. The current GDP paradigm sacrifices nature, which must be commoditized to become productive. It also neglects important parts of the real economy, such as the informal sector, which is a significant contributor to most Africans.6

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Community members discuss their top priorities at a Katutura East Action Plan Meeting in September 2016.

Namibia depends heavily on mining for economic growth, although tourism is also becoming a fast-growing contributor to GDP. Namibia’s real GDP growth for 2016 was estimated at 4.1 percent.7 But there is significant pressure for fast growth, leading to unsustainable development. Massive conference centers and golf courses are being built in desert areas where water is scarce, phosphate mining is being expanded into the country’s waters, and uranium mining is being advanced in national parks. Karas, a region which has been home to diamond mining for more than 100 years, remains among the poorest regions in Namibia, despite diamonds having contributed significantly the country’s economic growth. Namibia has adopted several national plans and policies which guide long term development, among these the Vision 2030 and its five-year national development plans, as well as the recent Harambee Prosperity Plan, which is meant to fast-track what has been mostly slow progress towards Vision 2030.

The Vision aims to industrialize Namibia, supposedly through sustainable means and with the ultimate goal of improving quality of life in the country.8 The plan is to raise the standard of living for everyone through rapid industrialization, essentially following the same development plan as the West. But following this path will only serve a few, while keeping the majority of the population poor.

One cannot argue with the aims of the Vision 2030, to improve quality of life and to promote peace and prosperity. But Namibians have not yet defined what prosperity actually means to them, never mind how to get there, or what markers by which to measure progress.

Cognizant of the fact that rapid consumption and production will only serve a few individuals at the cost of the environment, researchers embarked on a journey to find entry points in which to more holistically measure progress towards well-being in Namibia.

In 2012, a small group of young professionals gathered to discuss these issues, and how they could be part of changing the trajectory towards a possible well-being economy. They realized that the way things were being measured was not actually depicting an accurate picture. Just because Namibia shows GDP growth does not mean that life is improving for all Namibians. At the same time, this growth is used as an excuse to pollute the spaces that people need to live and prosper in. What did Namibians really want? What was important to them? What does success mean to citizens, and Namibian society? How should we measure progress? These questions drove the initial research.

A small committee was formed during that year to develop and implement a study to explore well-being indicators for Namibia, starting with Windhoek. The committee was comprised entirely of a small group of young professional volunteers. Based on reviews and mentorships with various international experts on well-being economy indicators, the survey was adapted from previous country studies on similar work, with modifications according to the Namibian context. Much of the work was aligned to the Gross National Happiness domains of Bhutan.

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One of the Community Elders, Lazarus Mambo, gives his opinion on priority actions to improve the results of the survey in Shandumbala.

It is with this in mind that the For Progress Namibia research project was born in 2012. The aim of the initial study was to establish more holistic measures of Namibia’s success. An experimental survey was conducted with a sample of Windhoek residents to take the first steps toward this goal.

Volunteers were brought on through youth networks to help conduct surveys in four suburbs within Windhoek. The chosen suburbs were selected along an income line, of which 600 people were surveyed in five suburbs ranging from ‘rich’ (the top one percent) to ‘poor’ (the bottom one percent). Nine domains and 30 indicators were chosen for the study, and a questionnaire was developed to gauge the sufficiency (above sufficiency meant satisfactory, below sufficiency meant unsatisfactory) of each individual. All suburbs were analyzed both collectively and individually. The domains included: (1) state of mind; (2) health; (3) education, recreation, and culture; (4) community strength; (5) good governance and political freedom; (6) area and environment; (7) time balance; (8) material well-being; and, (9) work.

The overall sufficiency of all suburbs was 46 percent, with sufficiency reached in only 12 indicators and two domains, namely health (67 percent) and state of mind (66 percent). In the suburb of Okuryangava, sufficiency was also reached in education, recreation, and culture (58 percent) and material well-being (53 percent). In Windhoek West, a middle-income area, sufficiency in area and environment was achieved (51 percent), and in Ludwigsdorf, material well-being (51 percent) and work satisfaction (68 percent) were above sufficiency. Hakahana, the poorest community, achieved sufficiency in the least indicators and had the lowest sufficiency overall. Meanwhile Okuryangava, the second poorest community, had the highest sufficiency (52 percent).

Community strength and a sense of belonging to a community are immensely important components of well-being in human society. According to the study, sense of community strength was lowest in the highest income area, Ludwigsdorf, and highest in the Katutura suburbs in general (e.g. Shandumbala, Okuryangava, and Hakahana). Sense of security and safety was lowest in Hakahana, possibly linked to lack of trust, low income, and high poverty rates resulting in desperation leading to crime.

Generally, well-being seemed to correlate along the income line, with the exception of Okuryangava. It would be expected that in a developing country with a high income gap, increasing income would have a positive linear relationship with well-being. However, the exception of Okuryangava having the highest state of well-being is surprising, given it was rated among the poorest communities. Okuryangava is an informal settlement, and has a relatively high rate of poverty. Discussions with residents of the community after these results were found yielded suggestions that perhaps, due to the historic demographic of the suburb as an older community, residents are satisfied in comparison to the little freedom they had pre-independence and during the apartheid regime of South Africa.

Figure 1: Percentage above sufficiency for each domain according to suburb of Windhoek, Namibia

Based on the results, the committee embarked on a pilot action study in the beginning of 2016 in one of the suburbs, Shandumbala. Results of the study were shared during an open community meeting in Shandumbala, and during this meeting difficult discussions ensued about how the residents of the community themselves could take small steps to improve aspects of well-being in their suburb. As part of this meeting, an action plan was developed that aimed to focus on the agency of the community to improve prioritized result areas. By the second meeting, enough interest had been garnered among local politicians that the Councilor of the suburb requested that the project focus on the whole of Katutura East, which includes a much wider area than just Shandumbala. During the second meeting and dialogue, priority areas of the action plan were focused on, namely: community trust, safety, and education, and a land rights issue at Sonderwater. Priority area committees were established with resident volunteers for: (1) community trust; (2) safety; (3) education; and, (4) Sonderwater land rights. Each committee received a small amount of funding and drafted simple action plans for improvement. For example, for community trust, there have been various dialogues hosted in the community to speak openly about trust. Meanwhile, for s

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Residents of Katutura East sign up for committees on priority action areas at the Katutura East Action Plan Meeting in September 2016.

afety, a small neighborhood watch team was put together to work closely with the police.

The research project has also engaged various tiers of government in the process, through Parliamentarian meetings, meetings with the Mayor of the City of Windhoek, and meetings with local government officials in Katutura East. Ongoing meetings with various Ministers attempt to integrate these indicators into decision-making processes.

The research project hopes to spark action-oriented research across Namibia to discover well-being indicators that can support a movement towards a successful, resilient Namibian community. As part of this, the research project has partnered with various other initiatives, such as the Well-being Economy Africa Network and the Well-being Economy Africa Lab (WE-Africa Lab, a think-tank of 28 participants across Africa). Through its work with the WE-Africa Lab, the project intends to host deep dialogue sessions to find a common narrative for Namibia, and ultimately across Africa, of what a successful life, community, country, and continent looks like to citizens.

In addition, the project will be working with the Governance Innovation Institute at the University of Pretoria to connect the Sustainable Development Goals to project indicators and investigate an aggregate index that can motivate and guide the process of Namibian (and global) societal change. This work will be building on previous research carried out by Costanza et al.9

This work has been a testing ground. It is continuously evolving, and hopes to form part of a greater global community that moves towards solutions for a well-being economy, one that allows humanity to take part in a healthy Earth system.


  1. Steffen, W et al. Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347: 736-747 (2015).
  2. An Economy for the 1%: How privilege and power in the economy drive extreme inequality and how this can be stopped. Oxfam Briefing Paper, 210 (2016).
  3. World Health Organization. Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative (WHO, Geneva, 2014).
  4. Suicide huge but preventable public health problem, says WHO. World Health Organization Media Centre [online] (2004).
  5. Braby, J. Personal observation and communication (Equatorial Guinea, 2013).
  6. Fioramonti, L. How moving beyond GDP may help fight poverty in Africa. CROP Poverty Brief [online] (2014).
  7. Economic outlook. Bank of Namibia [online] (July 2015). 04/04922910-1b4c-4fe4-bb3b-88595db1f214.
  8. Vision 2030: Policy Framework for long-term national development. Republic of Namibia [online] (2004).
  9. Constanza, R et al. Modelling and measuring sustainable well-being in connection with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Ecological Economics 130: 350-355 (2016).


Table 1. Domains with indicators and their relative weightings
Table 2. Percentage above sufficiency for all domains and indicators according to suburb in Windhoek, Namibia