"Weak" civil society hampering efforts to address crises

Twana Dlamini, a person living with HIV/AIDS, lies helpless in bed. The nearest government hospital where she can access treatment is 70 km away, 4 July 2006, Swaziland. About a third of all adults in Swaziland are infected with HIV. Thousands of children
(Kristy Siegfried/IRIN)

An umbrella body of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) says Swaziland's "weak" civil society is hampering efforts to address the humanitarian crisis in the country.

"The country's weak civil society voice, coupled with citizen apathy, made glaring the fact that [in 2006] the Swaziland government and the private sector lacked an effective civil society partner for the country to effectively address these daunting challenges," said the Coordinating Assembly of Non-Governmental Organisations (CANGO) in a recent analysis measuring spending priorities against humanitarian needs in the government budget.

Citing key challenges facing the small, landlocked country in 2007, the CANGO listed poverty, HIV/AIDS, food security, governance, employment, corruption and gender-based violence.

Two-thirds of the country's roughly 1 million people live on US$2 or less day, and the prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS has reached 34.2 percent among people aged 15 to 49, the highest in the world. The eastern Lubombo region, hard hit by drought since 2001, and the underdeveloped Shiselweni region in the south of the country are experiencing food shortages.

The 24-year-old umbrella group's membership of 70 associated NGOs covers the gamut of social issues: child abuse, population control, women's empowerment and the elderly; groups devoted to the welfare of ex-prisoners, traditional healers, youth and orphans; and social service organisations like the Boy Scouts and the Salvation Army.

Unlike Swaziland's trade unions and banned political organisations, the NGOs seek dialogue and partnership rather than confronting the government. Part of the reason for the less-than-flourishing partnership between NGOs, the government and the private sector has been a sense of distrust between the parties, and a lack of capacity in most activist organisations.

"We believe that grassroots groups, which for years have focused on particular social ills, have garnered expertise and experience that would be valuable in national policy-making, and the execution of those policies. But NGOs are frustrated by this feeling - it's more than a feeling, actually - that government does not see them as equal partners," said an official of the Council on Smoking, Alcohol and Drug Dependence (COSAD), a longstanding CANGO member.

According to CANGO Executive Director Emmanuel Ndlangamandla, "A strong and sustained civil society voice is required to address national challenges. Through effective citizen participation in governance, monitoring of national strategies, policies and programmes, and engaging policy and legislation, NGOs and civil society could effectively lobby the government to address challenges."

However, the conservative royal government is suspicious of NGOs, which have been critical of national governance. "Who are these groups? Where do they come from? We know their financing comes from abroad. Some of these groups are foreign organisations working in Swaziland. What is their agenda?" a traditional authority asked IRIN during an interview.

The NGOs have responded that their sole interest is the benefit of Swazis. The problem seems one of defining which constituency takes priority - the commoners or the elite - in a country where 69 percent of the population live in chronic poverty.

In its analysis of the budget, CANGO found that spending priorities were not geared to improving the lives of the impoverished Swazi majority. "National economic policy, particularly the national budget, even though it directly affects the poor, remains the preserve of the elite," said CANGO's Ndlangamandla.

This was borne out during the week, when the nation's elderly were told they would again not receive their monthly pensions, while cabinet officials were granted a four percent pay hike.

"The budget process in Swaziland is shrouded in secrecy, non-participation and lack of information from civil society. The government bases the current allocation on assumptions of what the people's needs and desires are, not their preferences," the CANGO report stated.

Emphasising pro-growth, pro-poor national spending, CANGO called on government to embrace a doctrine of fiscal transparency and accountability, and institute performance audits to ensure ministries were implementing policy decisions. The report pointed to poor infrastructure in rural areas, where 80 percent of Swazis reside, and called for a shift in spending priorities that would include more funds allocated to education and health.

CANGO criticised government for signing international agreements but failing to implement them, such as legislation to ban child labour, and mechanisms to allow a greater role for women in governance.

"The governance situation in Swaziland is wanting. The government has endorsed a number of critical international protocols ... [but] has lost credibility in the national, regional and international arena due to its inability to carry out policy reforms to the end. The institutional framework and legal infrastructure required for good governance are simply not there," the group reported.

Although the government has tacitly ceded the handling of some critical humanitarian situations to civil society, such as the food crisis and tackling HIV/AIDS, NGOs have suffered a drop in donor support, seriously curtailing their operations.

"There has been a general decline in grant aid extended to the country during the last few years. This is despite the continued poor economic performance, high incidence of poverty, recurrence of natural calamities like drought, and the HIV and AIDS scourge," CANGO reported.

"Accessing funds for development has remained a serious challenge for NGOs in Swaziland, as donors continue to shun the country," Ndlangamandla said. "Some of the NGOs have scaled down their programmes, whilst others are closing shop." A lack of democratic reforms, transparency and accountability, and being regarded as a middle-income country have kept many donors away.

CANGO felt a better partnership between civil society and government would allow NGOs and others to press for the implementation of international accords, reassuring donors.

Another thorny issue was the general lack of information, which has hampered humanitarian relief planning efforts, and questions about the credibility of official data. NGOs have vowed to improve data collection in the country. "Evidence-based advocacy is critical, to enable civil society to effectively influence policies," CANGO reported.

The umbrella body has set up a project to conduct research and surveys on pertinent national policy issues, while enhancing the ability of its member NGOs to undertake their own studies.

In 2005 the project delivered two research documents: one analysing the national budget, and a situational analysis, 'Gender Based Violence in Swaziland', commissioned by a partnership of United Nations agencies in collaboration with the Gender Unit of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Although the analysis involved international rather than local humanitarian groups, it demonstrated that similar collaborations between the government and NGOs could be possible.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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