Mind the gap: P3,000 stands between living and starving

Haves, have nots: People living in urban areas believe they need P9,000 to survive monthly PIC: BASHI KIKIA
Haves, have nots: People living in urban areas believe they need P9,000 to survive monthly PIC: BASHI KIKIA

How much does one need to survive in the country’s cities or towns? The answer is about P9,000 per month. How much do workers generally earn? The answer is an average of about P6,000. New studies highlight the persistent challenge of income and inequality. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports

Earlier this week, some research emerged from the World Wide Web Foundation, which stirred local debate. The foundation periodically estimates the number of days it would take in different countries to buy the cheapest smartphone in those countries, a sort of gauge of both Internet and technology access as well as incomes.

Botswana, the foundation said, was one of the top-performing countries on its report, taking just two days’ worth of income to purchase a smartphone. But the foundation’s data triggered a debate on just what ‘two days’ worth’ of average income is in Botswana?

The foundation’s researchers estimated that average incomes in Botswana were about P7,400, a figure local commentators poured water on. The cheapest smartphone was about P300, the report said, a figure many agree is matched by reality on the ground.

Statistics Botswana’s last labour report showed that average cash earnings in the fourth quarter of 2020 in the formal sector were P6,014 per month. Specialised professionals on average earned about P20,338 while on the other end of the scale, service and sales workers earned an average of P3,009 per month and ‘elementary workers’ earned an average of P1,320 per month.

Elementary workers, by Statistics Botswana’s own definition, include occupations such as cleaners, labourers, domestic workers and security guards, jobs that “usually do not require that much level of education as most are simple and routine tasks which can be performed using handheld tools”.

Digging deeper into the data shows that service and sales workers, as well as elementary workers, comprise 49.7% of all formal sector employees accounting for nearly 240,000 people. Specialised professionals and managers, whose higher incomes tip the scale when averages are produced, accounted for just eight percent of the formal labour sector. The top earners, specialised professionals, numbered just 2,509 out of a total formal labour sector of 477,714.

So again, what is ‘two days’ worth’ of ‘average’ income?

To add to the riddle, Statistics Botswana’s figures also show that women form the highest proportion of elementary workers and this elementary sector also employs the highest number of women when compared to others. In fact, women account for 52% of the total formal labour sector and nearly half only attained secondary school education.

The data, therefore, suggest that while average incomes are P6,014 the ‘average Motswana’ in the formal sector is a woman working an elementary job and earning just above P1,000 per month. Former British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who famously coined the phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics” would agree that the lived experience of the majority of formal sector workers in the country does not allow the luxury of taking two days to buy a smartphone.

In fact, Statistics Botswana’s own figures show that, at least by 2019, 70% of all employed people in the country earned less than P4,000 per month, while 16.4% of all households worried at least 10 times a month about not having food.

New numbers from the data agency underline the gap in incomes across the formal sector. A random sample survey of 3,240 households across the country done by Statistics Botswana and released last week, shows that in ranking themselves on whether they were rich or poor, 33.9% of the households stated that they were poor, and 13.4% said they were very poor.

Households were also asked about the minimum monthly income that they considered to be necessary for them to have a decent life. The results showed that at the national level, the households indicated that they required an average income of P6,027 per month, with the highest being P8,896 from cities/towns while the lowest was P4,537 from rural areas.

Nearly 40% of households said they felt their living conditions were ‘somewhat poorer’ or ‘less well’ than other households, while 35% said they believed they were at the same level of living as other households. This compares to 26% who felt somewhat poorer and 57% who felt they were living at the same level as others, in 2015-2016.

The Statistics Botswana survey, depending on subjective feelings, goes beyond the raw, debatable data about averages that triggered the reaction to the World Wide Web Foundation’s report. In other words, rather than saying the average worker earns P7,400 or P6,014, Statistics Botswana researchers asked the people themselves how they feel.

But even with this approach, dangers are plenty.

“On the other hand, because subjective welfare questions prompt the respondent to compare themselves with people in the same community, the poor people may consider themselves to be non-poor because they are comparing themselves with other poor people in the same community.

“Similarly those who are considered non-poor by objective measures may consider themselves worse off depending on how they rate their lives in comparison to others in their community,” Statistics Botswana researchers say. The researchers add: “Subjective welfare should be used with caution to complement objective measures of well-being.

“They may also be used to assess whether people are ‘happy’ with their current situation in relation to services they receive and to complement assessments made on whether programmes and projects reach the intended beneficiaries.”

Whatever the research methodology used, inequality clearly remains a major challenge for many of the country’s citizens and a priority government and other actors need to keep an eye on in their policymaking.

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