A sharp drop in life expectancy, with HIV/AIDS the primary driver, has sent Namibia's human development indicators plummeting; gains in other areas will continue to be undermined by the epidemic unless treatment and prevention programmes are stepped up, a new report warns.
"The single greatest threat to the expansion of human capabilities in Namibia today remains the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which, through its impact on mortality, is undermining human development objectives," said 'Trends in Human Development and Human Poverty in Namibia', a report released by the United Nations Development programme (UNDP) on Wednesday.
The report presents recent findings on two main composite indices established by the UNDP for measuring quality of life and social progress: the Human Development Index (HDI) and the Human Poverty Index (HPI). "The analysis showed deterioration in both of the indices over time, reflecting an overall worsening in the essential capabilities of Namibians," the UNDP said.
"What we see happening here is that while two of three dimensions that make up the Human Development Index (HDI), related to income and education, have improved, the positive effect is more than outweighed by the fall in life expectancy, pulling the index down," Sebastian Levine, Senior Economist at UNDP in Namibia, told IRIN.
The real value of the average income of individuals has almost doubled since the early 1990s, from N$5,500 (US$810) to almost N$10,500 (US$ 1,540) in 2004, and educational attainment had also improved.
However, average life expectancy fell by more than 10 years since 1991, "A direct result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which represents the greatest cause of death in the country," the report commented.
"Southern Africa is the epicentre of the epidemic ... Namibia has one of the highest prevalence rates in the world," Levine said. According to UNAIDS, about 23 percent of Namibians aged between 15 and 49 are HIV-positive. The country has a population of 1.8 million.
Levine warned that despite impressive efforts to halt the spread of the epidemic, particularly on the treatment front, "prevention needs to be improved".
A free antiretroviral (ARV) programme, rolled out at government hospitals in 2004, now provides treatment to 33,000 of the 67,500 people in need of it.
An unequal society
"Namibia still ranks amongst the worst in the world in terms of distribution of income," Levine commented. At 0.6, the country has one of the highest Gini Coefficients in the world, he said. The Gini Coefficient uses a measurement between 0 and 1 to determine income distribution - the closer to 1, the more unequal a society; the closer to 0, the more equal a society.
The UNDP study also revealed great disparities in human development, with rural areas generally performing worse than urban areas, and men scoring higher than women.
But the greatest disparity was found among Namibia's language groups, reflecting profound difficulties in overcoming discrimination and exclusion based on ethnicity.
The report indicated that the HDI was highest among households where German and English were the main languages. "At par with levels in some of the most developed countries in the world," Levine said.
The households of the indigenous San people, who are Khoisan speakers, and RuKavango-speakers - a collective name for a number of related languages spoken in northeastern Namibia by about 9.7 percent of the population - ranked lowest, with an HDI comparable to some of the world's most deprived countries.
In a 2004 strategic paper titled 'Vision 2030', Namibia conceptualised its development objectives for improving the quality of life of its people to the level of their counterparts in developed world by the year 2030.
The report concluded that achieving these goals now heavily depended on "the effectiveness with which programmes to treat those with AIDS and prevent new HIV infections are implemented."