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Where have the poor people gone?

Sigombeni Clinic
Two-thirds of Swaziland's people live in chronic poverty (James Hall/PlusNews)

There are fewer poor people in Swaziland today than a decade ago, according to data from a new household economic survey. The government has hailed the report as proof that its poverty-reduction efforts are working, but social welfare organizations say the real reason is the high death rate among the poor.

The Swaziland Household Income and Expenditure Survey, called "Poverty in a Decade of Slow Economic Growth: Swaziland in the 2000s", published by the Central Statistics Office of the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development on 24 February, revealed that "the proportion of the population of Swaziland defined as poor fell from 69 percent in 2000/2001 to 63 percent in 2009/2010."

The report says that not only is the proportion of Swazis living in poverty lower, but also the absolute numbers of the poor. This "modest but still significant" decline meant that 641,000 individuals were living on less than US$2 per day - the international benchmark for poverty - in 2009/10, compared to around 678,500 in 2000/02.

"The numbers don't add up. The birth rate has remained high throughout the decade compared to economic growth,” an actuary at an insurance brokerage in the capital, Mbabane, told IRIN.

“The Central Bank reports every year that this gap [between economic and population growth] represents a deterioration of the standard of living for the average Swazi. All economic indicators have been declining for the past 10 years, so how could the poor have advanced?"

Between 2003 and 2010 Swaziland's annual birth rate was 28.25 percent, while GDP growth averaged around 2 percent, according to the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development. Officially, unemployment jumped from 26 percent to 40 percent during the past decade.

The 37,500 fewer people defined as poor at decade's end could be attributed to households bucking national trends and raising their standard of living, but the country's high birth rate should also have led to an increased number of poor.

Swaziland's population reached 1,083,289 in 2000. Based on the average birth rate, it was expected to grow to about 1,390,000 by 2010, but the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated Swaziland's current population at 1.2 million, and official 2009 census data put it at 1,018,449, which is lower than the 2000 figure.

"We seem to be short about a quarter million people," said Alicia Simelane, a social welfare worker in Swaziland’s second city, Manzini, who has been following population trends since the 1990s.

"I wish we could say that 6 percent less of the population is no longer poor because they've managed to improve their lives economically, but sadly it is because we have a third fewer people than we were projected to have at this time, and it is because of AIDS and the inability of the poor to access health care to prevent infant deaths," Simelane said.

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With an adult HIV prevalence of 26 percent, according to UNAIDS, Swaziland has the highest infection rate in the world. Because stigma associated with the virus often prevents families from acknowledging that relatives have died of AIDS-related illnesses, there are no statistics on the number of such deaths. However, there is little doubt that HIV is responsible for a rise in Swaziland's annual death rate from about 22 per 1,000 persons in 2003 to 31 by the end of the decade.

While AIDS has claimed lives across the economic spectrum, health officials say the death toll has mostly struck the economically disadvantaged.

Mandla Luphondvo, Communications and Marketing Manager at World Vision in Swaziland, said poverty alleviation efforts have not been sufficient, considering "the multiplicity of challenges that communities and households need to deal with every day."

Rather than lauding poverty reduction measures, the household economic survey itself notes that "nearly three in 10 persons fall short of meeting their daily nutritional needs and the situation remains the same as at the beginning of the decade."


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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