Swazi crisis hits poorest hardest

By Richard Lee | March 16th, 2012
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UN report says financial woes have worsened poverty

For months, analysts have been talking about the impact of Swaziland's financial and economic crisis on the country's poorest, assuming that they must be suffering the most. And a UN report has now backed up this assumption, clearly indicating that the crisis has worsened poverty by putting an additional  strain on the poorest households, especially families affected by HIV and AIDS and young people.

Based on a nationwide survey of 1334 households in November 2011, the report warned that delays and reductions in government spending in the social sector as well as cuts in labour income threaten the country’s progress towards reaching the Millennium Development Goals in health, education and food security.

The findings of the assessment suggest that one in four households suffered shocks such as rising food prices and loss in labour income and that households adopted severe coping strategies in response to the shocks such as cutting food consumption - with some families skipping meals for an entire day.

Swaziland entered the crisis with major social challenges, including the highest HIV rate in the world,  high unemployment (29 percent of the labour force in 2010), widespread poverty (63 percent of the population) and acute food insecurity (29 percent of the population). At more than half of the labour force, youth unemployment is also alarmingly high and needs to be addressed.

The country’s fiscal crisis, worsened by a dramatic drop in the South African Customs Revenue, and the global economic crisis, has significantly reduced government spending, especially in social sector programmes already targeting the poorest.  In 2011, social grants including the Elderly grant, Child welfare grant, Orphan and vulnerable child education grant, as well as public assistance grant, were suspended or delayed. By August, only about one third of primary school fees for orphans and vulnerable children - part of the government’s commitment to roll out free primary schooling - had been paid. In the health sector, some maternal health services were interrupted and a national HIV prevention campaign was put on hold due to a lack of funds.

To mitigate the impact of the fiscal crisis on the poorest people, the report argues for urgent measures to be implemented including strengthening public sector management to increase transparency and accountability in public budgeting and expenditure, develop an independent private sector, as well as the formulation of a national policy on employment and prioritise youth employment and entrepreneurship.

In addition, the report emphasises the need for strong commitment to social protection schemes, especially to reduce inequalities, mitigate risks and build livelihoods.  These could include development of social protection schemes against livelihood risks, such as public works programmes and improved food security. 

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