Swazi civil society has identified a weak economy and a lack of spending priorities as some of the factors holding the kingdom back from achieving its development objectives. The government is expected to present its 2007/08 budget to parliament this week.
"The unemployment situation is dire. If left unabated, it has the potential to plunge the country into a deep social conflict," the Coordinating Assembly for Non-Governmental Organisations (CANGO), an umbrella body of NGOs, said in a report released recently.
Efforts to address Swaziland's humanitarian problems, like AIDS and poverty, were being hampered by a weak economy, CANGO said. "The poverty situation, the glaring disparities in income and wealth are a cause for concern. Integrated policy responses to the hunger situation are wanting."
The 24-year-old umbrella group's membership of 70 associated NGOs covers a range of social issues: child abuse, population control, women's empowerment and the elderly; groups advocating in the interest of ex-prisoners, youth and orphans, and traditional healers; and social service organisations like the Boy Scouts and the Salvation Army.
In his annual address to parliament last week, King Mswati declared 2007 'The Year of Meaningful Action', and commented, "The people's standard of living must be colossally improved."
Two-thirds of the country's roughly 1 million people live on US$2 or less a day, and the prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS has reached 34.2 percent among those aged 15 to 49, the highest in the world.
Education and agriculture, both essential to national development, were being short-changed, said the CANGO report. "The 2006/07 budget makes an allocation of approximately R1.2 billion [a little over $166 million] to education, representing 16.7 percent of the national budget, and was previously 19 percent of the national budget in 2005/06 - there was no increase in real terms," the CANGO report's authors pointed out.
"Moreover, a huge chunk, R770 million [just over $106 million], or 65.7 percent of the Ministry of Education budget, is allocated to personnel - government has failed to meet its obligation to provide free universal primary education because of budgetary constraints, but has continued to declare free universal primary education in a few years' time. Moreover, the orphaned and vulnerable children need more than just an education; they need to lead normal lives," CANGO said.
Mswati reiterated his promise of education for all Swazi children: "We must turn Swaziland into a skills base, so that companies worldwide may be attracted to outsource technical jobs to our country," he said, underlining the need to teach business skills at primary level in schools.
Dumisani Mnisi, an educationist, commented in another report, "As much as the Swaziland government recognises a responsibility to provide educational services for children from early childhood, it still does not cater for the most disadvantaged - those who need it the most."
The eastern Lubombo region, hard hit by drought since 2001, and the underdeveloped Shiselweni region in the south have been experiencing food shortages.
Two-thirds of the population scrape by as subsistence farmers on communal Swazi Nation Land, which is administered by palace-appointed chiefs. Small-scale farmers have been dogged by drought and the high cost of farming implements, with the result that a quarter of the country's inhabitants now depend on international food aid.
"There is a dire need to rethink our agricultural policy and relief programmes. Farm inputs, like fertiliser and seed, have been commercialised and their costs are prohibitively expensive to the rural poor. Policy responses like fertiliser subsidies, provision of [seed] starter packs and bulk purchasing of mostly imported fertiliser should be put on the national agenda," CANGO recommended.
Mswati announced a national agricultural 'indaba' (meeting to discuss important matters), to be held later this year. He said dam construction would alleviate water needs, while the food shortage crisis would be addressed by the agriculture ministry's investigations into cash-generating crops for subsistence farmers.
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