Looking beyond poverty – what role does economic support play in (re)creating inequality?

Looking beyond poverty - what role does economic support play in (re)creating inequality?
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Namibia’s Sunset Desert (2018)

In the countries of the Global South, social relations often function as channels of support necessary for livelihoods. Research that has developed a comprehensive overview of all forms of welfare benefits that people can receive (e.g Bevan in 2004), recognized these forms of support as informal social protection. Informal because they do not follow a formal written script and therefore differ from the well-defined welfare provisions of governments. Instead, informal support is embedded in social relationships and can take many forms, meanings, and functions in an individual’s life.

Policy-led research has focused much attention on the effectiveness of informal social protection. In this way, informal support is linked to the goals and objectives of government-provided welfare (see, for example, Oduro et al. 2010). This has implications for how informal support is subsequently defined, assessed and valued. This may also explain why informal support is primarily understood in the context of poverty or marginalized communities. These perspectives provide important insights into the role of informal support in sustaining livelihoods and meeting basic needs. However, they do not consider the role that informal support can play in society.

So, looking beyond poverty, what role does informal support, especially economic support, play in (reproducing) inequality?

I married a scientific research Namibia to address this issue. Namibia has one of the most unequal societies in the world. Its society remains divided along racial and ethnic lines inherited from the history of apartheid. This highlights the importance of not only understanding support for the poor, but also how and to what extent it can cross and shape lines of economic and social stratification. In this study, I focus in particular on individuals’ racial identity and educational attainment in an urban context, primarily in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Level of education is important because it can reflect reasoning Black tax which is based on a person’s economic success, because “after studying and finding a job, you send the elevator back (as in support) to bring others.”

In order to obtain a precise overview of the structures and meaning of economic support, I use a mixed method to study social networks. Using both qualitative and quantitative elements, patterns and meaning of the lived reality of support can be linked. Useful network metrics can measure the size of networks and thus the degree to which individuals engage in defined support practices. Questions about the reasons behind giving support and what motivated it, showing the various functions that support can play in a person’s life. Therefore, the study focuses on support practices that are currently applied in people’s lives.

My studio finds that informal support, rather than receding from the lines of socioeconomic stratification, reproduces them, often subtly or covertly. Initially, 83 percent of support goes to someone who is considered to be of the same race identity from the provider’s perspective. This means that only 17 percent of support occurs across racial identities. Looking at those with the highest level of education (tertiary education), black Namibians have larger support networks (on average 33 compared to 27 activities) compared to their white educated peers. In addition, only one-third of aid goes to other black college-educated individuals. This means that the support of about 70 percent of black college-educated individuals reaches those with less education. For whites with a college degree, this applies to only half of their support practices.

There are also significant differences when looking at support that is provided only between family members. In general, support networks with family members decrease with increasing educational attainment. This means that the support networks of highly educated Namibians increasingly include connections outside the family. For black college-educated individuals, only about one-third of the support goes to family members who also have a college degree. Again, this is different from their white peers. Thus, the majority (two-thirds) of aid practices involve a family member with a higher education. This suggests that black families may experience greater inequality. Or to put it another way, they may have greater distribution and diversity in the economic status of different family members.

Peer support related to education was less significant for Black college-educated individuals compared to their White peers. However, it is more noticeable with contacts outside their family. Slightly more than half (56%) of persons not related to the family also have higher education. For white persons with higher education, it is slightly lower – 46 percent. This suggests that education is a slightly stronger predictor of orientation among black Namibians when support is related to non-family members; especially when they reached a higher degree. For example, for individuals with only a primary degree (mostly associated with black Namibians), racial identity is a stronger marker of orientation: 87 percent of their non-familial contacts are with others of the same racial identity. By comparison, this applies to only 37 white college-educated contacts.

The reasons and motivations behind it also vary, especially among different races. A support network for a Black college-educated person titled Becoming a Good Family Supporter illustrates a narrative that reflects a sense of necessity and intergenerational reciprocity (which I also discuss below related research). It also often relies on basic needs being met, whether it’s a school uniform, shelter for a niece whose father is in prison, or money for lunch. The element of reciprocity is usually carried over into the expectation that younger family members will be given economic success so that they can become future supporters.

In contrast, economic necessity is much less prominent in the white college degree holder’s support network. Often, supportive practices include elements that are a “nice to have” or a “logical thing to do” when it comes to the educational trajectory of a younger family member, but this comes without the expectation of future reciprocity. In addition, support that travels across racial lines includes the creation of economic incentives, maintenance of labor relations, or simply non-wasteful second-hand goods that are provided to black workers, including domestic and farm workers or gardeners.

Taken together, network structures and narratives illustrate how understanding informal social protection beyond poverty allows us to mine the dynamics that contribute to the reproduction of inequality. I illustrate that informal social protection is not limited to the poor. In particular, I emphasize that travel across economic stratification (defined here by education) is often supported, but across racial groups and to a lesser extent. This highlights the importance of understanding intra-group practices as a response to the group’s position in society more broadly. In other words, the economic marginalization of black Namibians affects how those who climb the economic ladder provide support to those in their social orbit. Similarly, it shapes white Namibian support practices that evoke narratives of generational support rather than economic deprivation.

More broadly, through this study I illustrate the importance of interdisciplinary research in the context of the global South; especially those that combine economic and sociological perspectives. Looking beyond disciplinary silos can challenge and disrupt the conceptual spaces of the development paradigm and create new perspectives on the social phenomena involved in the formation of inequality in non-Western contexts.


Bevan, Philip. 2004. “In/The Concept of Security Regimes.” To Insecurity and Welfare Regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America, edited by I. Gough and GD Wood, 88–120. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Oduro, Abena D. 2010. “Formal and Informal Social Protection in Sub-Saharan Africa.” European Development Report Framework Document.

Opel, Annalena. 2021. “The need to normalize? Support Networks and Racial Inequality in Namibia’. World development 147 (November): 105649.

———. in 2022 “Exemplars and Lived Realities: Exploring Race and Education in Informal Social Security.” International Journal of Social Welfare, no. n/a

Mhlongo, Niq, J Phelello Mofokeng, Dudu Busani-Dube, Primrose Mrwebi, Fred Khumalo, Clinton Chauke, Bhekisisa Mncube and Lorraine Sithole. in 2019 Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu? Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers.

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