Swaziland's ability to cope with its ongoing humanitarian crisis will not improve until its under-performing economy picks up, social welfare activists and the government agree.
In a policy speech this week, outlining the government's goals for the year ahead, Prime Minister Themba Dlamini frankly acknowledged the country's economic woes, which are hampering efforts to roll back food shortages, AIDS and poverty.
Citing Swaziland's current problems as "drought, wild fires, issues of orphans and vulnerable children, drug shortages, poverty and slow growth of our economy", the premier said real gross domestic product per capita "still remains the lowest among the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) countries". SACU is a five-member trade organisation.
Economic growth averaged just 2 percent over the past five years, well below the annual population increase of 3.6 percent. Although growth nudged 2.8 percent last year, the Central Bank of Swaziland noted that the performance still represented "an overall decline in the quality of life for the average Swazi".
Even labour is skittish about mounting industrial actions at a time when overall unemployment hovers around 30 percent, and has reached 40 percent for school leavers. After past crackdowns by the authorities there were no significant industrial actions in 2007. Workers ignored a strike call in June by the labour movement to press for political reform.
"There will not be economic improvement until there is a transparent, accountable and democratic government to set economic policy," a source with the Swaziland Federation of Labour told IRIN. "Investors are staying away, but we are faced with a chicken-and-egg situation in the labour movement: workers need to raise their voices and be united, but they are afraid to take a risk because of widespread joblessness."
Swaziland is surrounded by large and affluent South Africa, and a revitalised Mozambique with economic growth in double digits. Foreign direct investors are preferring other regional economies to the small kingdom that has few natural resources, and a declining population of less than a million as a result of AIDS.
"Swaziland's response to our humanitarian crisis is hobbled by lack of money. There's no government revenue because of two reasons: a poor economy and corruption," said Sipiwe Simelane, a director of the HIV support organisation, People For Positive Living.
Government strategy is to pour money into expanding the Matsapha Industrial Estate outside the central commercial hub, Manzini, and the creation of new industrial parks in the far southern and western parts of the country. The approach is: "if we build the facilities, the investors will come", remarked Maxwell Shongwe of the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development.
The Prime Minister seemed to acknowledge foreign investors' lackluster interest in Swaziland in his policy message, and said the government's priority would be to encourage Swazis to start small and medium-sized businesses.
"The problem with this strategy is that local businesses depend on the domestic market for success - these are small traders, not exporters. Because of the economy, there are fewer consumers able to support new businesses," said Charles Mthetfwa, who is struggling to keep his plumbing business afloat in Manzini.
Government may not have cash, but it is flush with policies. On the heels of a new National Health Policy, Dlamini announced cabinet approval this week of a Comprehensive Agricultural Sector Policy and a National Food Security Policy.
"Government also likes to set goals without telling how these are to be achieved. Goals are announced as if they are done deals, and the politicians congratulate themselves, knowing that a few years down the road, when nothing is accomplished, they will be out of government," an economist at a bank in the capital, Mbabane, told IRIN.
The Prime Minister announced a target of halving the poverty rate - estimated at 69 percent of people living on less than one US dollar a day - within seven years, and eliminating poverty altogether by 2022.
"The end of poverty by 2022 was set 10 years ago in a National Development Strategy [NDS], and government still acts like this is destined to happen, simply because the goal is government policy, but there are more people living in poverty today than when the NDS was passed. The goal is worthy, but how is it to be achieved?" the economist wondered.
The government insists that improvements in social welfare are slowly being realised. The number of elderly beneficiaries of government grants, for example, rose by 40 percent last year, from 33,000 to 47,252. But health workers note that problems around accessing pensions and guarding against corruption persist in the system.