MBABANE, 19 April 2011 (PLUSNEWS) - AIDS organizations are struggling to keep afloat in Swaziland's growing financial crisis. Now, the oldest and also one of the biggest support providers, whose programmes reach six out of 10 Swazis in need of such services, is on the brink of closure.
"We have laid off our entire permanent staff of eleven people and we are on the verge of closing down," Vusi Matsebula, National Coordinator of the Swaziland AIDS Support Organisation (SASO), told IRIN/PlusNews.
Matsebula founded SASO in the 1990s, along with Hannie Dlamini, the first Swazi to publicly declare his HIV status. The small group of original members worked hard to put a human face on a disease made worse by stigma.
"In those days it was taboo to admit you have HIV. We were seen as people no longer human and people to be afraid of," said Dlamini.
The need for AIDS organizations like SASO has not abated - Swaziland has the world's highest HIV prevalence rate - 26.1 percent - and one in four Swazis between the ages of 15 and 49 are living with the virus.
SASO has also expanded its role beyond counselling its members to advising a growing number of support groups nationwide.
"We help them set up. We are like consultants now, and our original members have years of experience managing support groups," Matsebula said. "Support groups have gotten very specialized - there are groups for workers, students, women, people belonging to religious organizations, town dwellers and rural residents."
An estimated 600,000 people in a population of roughly one million have benefited from community outreach programmes run by SASO, or support organizations SASO has helped organize.
All this has now come to an end. Unable to pay utilities, rent or staff, Matsebula said SASO may have to deregister the organization. "We can no longer maintain our two cars, and cannot do what we are mandated to do - go out into Swaziland and guide other support groups," he said.
Previous financial benefactors, including the government, have had to cut back or eliminate their assistance in the wake of the global recession and a local government financial crisis.
Revenue from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) - the world's oldest customs union, comprising Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland and South Africa - contributed 76 percent of the Swazi government's income in 2009 but dropped in 2010 and is expected to continue declining over the next decade.
Swaziland's AIDS programme - particularly the free provision of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs - has been largely dependent on external funding. In 2009, the government revealed that dwindling support from external donors meant it had to lower its 2011 treatment coverage target from 60 percent to 50 percent.
Other NGOs are also experiencing the effects of financial cutbacks. Last week, the Swaziland National Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS (SWANNEPHA), the umbrella body with which SASO works closely, announced at a press conference that it was also facing imminent closure if new sources of funding were not found.
SWANNEPHA receives its funding from the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, via Swaziland's National Emergency Response Council on HIV and AIDS (NERCHA), which had its budget reduced from US$130,000 in 2008 to $100,000 in 2009.
"We and SWANNEPHA tried to look into new funding opportunities but it is hard at this time," Matsebula noted.
"We are also facing financial problems; we have also had to retrench valuable staff members who are required to carry out programmes," said Siphiwe Hlope, founder of Swaziland Positive Living, which is dedicated to the welfare of HIV-positive women and their dependants.
Groups like SASO have evolved from being mainly support organizations and are targeting HIV prevention and running community outreach programmes, or "dialogues", that emphasize HIV prevention.
"We said to ourselves, 'Why are we mopping the floor when the tap is still running?' We need to shut off the tap. We must stop new infections," said Matsebula.
The HIV infection rate appears to be levelling off, but public health officials have expressed concern that efforts to reduce HIV infections could falter if long-established AIDS organizations are forced to fold their tents.
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