JOHANNESBURG, 29 December 2011 (IRIN) - In 2011 the global economic crisis combined with poor governance, financial mismanagement and unpredictable rainfall to push several southern African countries to the point of crisis. Others responded to rising unemployment and increased pressure on national budgets by hardening their attitude towards immigrants and closing their borders to asylum-seekers. IRIN covered developments from all over the region, but the following stories consistently grabbed headlines:
Swaziland's financial meltdown - As early as January, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was warning that drastic measures were needed to stave off a financial crisis in the tiny mountain kingdom of Swaziland. The IMF's recommendations were largely ignored and the country's economic freefall continued with the main losers being the elderly whose pensions were suspended, orphans and vulnerable children whose school fees went unpaid, people living with HIV who faced an uncertain supply of antiretroviral drugs, and subsistence farmers who stopped receiving government support. The outlook for 2012 does not look any better with officials already predicting an increase in food insecurity for most Swazis.
Malawi's escalating political and economic crisis - Concerns about human rights and economic mismanagement saw Malawi fall out of favour with Western donors who had provided 40 percent of the country's budget. The withdrawal of UK aid to the country in June hit the healthcare sector particularly hard. President Bingu wa Mutharika's increasingly autocratic rule, together with rising food prices and fuel shortages, contributed to widespread protests in July. The security forces' heavy-handed response, which left at least 18 people dead, did nothing to restore donor confidence in the government. Poverty looks set to worsen in rural areas where many smallholder farmers are no longer benefiting from a reduced Farm Input Subsidy Programme and in urban areas where a slew of price increases are already taking their toll on the poor.
Deepening poverty in Madagascar - Two years after a coup which deposed President Marc Ravalomanana, Madagascar's political crisis remains unresolved and sanctions which froze all but emergency donor aid remain in place. IRIN's coverage tracked how the country's political stalemate has made an already poor country, even poorer with the demise of free primary school education, a severely under-funded health sector and increasing levels of food insecurity made worse by a shortage of rain followed by flooding. In one impoverished town, IRIN followed a group of girls who had abandoned school to pan for a few flecks of gold. Signs that the country might finally be moving towards the restoration of democracy have not been enough to lift the sanctions, but donors have continued to find ways to deliver desperately needed aid.
Continuing political instability in Zimbabwe - Zimbabwe's unity government remains far from unified and incidents of political violence escalated following President Robert Mugabe's call for elections. Despite some improvements in the dire state of affairs at public health facilities and more assistance to orphans and vulnerable children, mainly due to donor programmes, many Zimbabweans still faced economic hardship in 2011. Dry weather in the country's southern provinces caused crops to fail and put an estimated one million rural Zimbabweans in need of food assistance by the end of the year. In urban areas, a shortage of clean water and sanitation caused an outbreak of typhoid and created the conditions for a potential resurgence of cholera.
South Africa’s borders - The region's most developed nation is a magnet for migrants, but economic pressures fuelled continuing attacks on foreigners in 2011, particularly those operating shops in townships. The government's handling of xenophobia was deemed inadequate by civil society groups while changes in policy indicated an official hardening of attitudes towards migrants. A two-year moratorium on deportations of undocumented Zimbabweans came to an end in October, new legislation created more hurdles for asylum-seekers and an unofficial policy of barring migrants from entering the country had a knock-on effect in neighbouring countries.
Flooding and livelihoods - Heavy rain at the beginning of the year brought localized flooding to many parts of the region, decimating crops and testing authorities' disaster preparedness. The floods claimed 104 lives in Namibia and a further 91 in South Africa, washed away the possibility of a harvest for subsistence farmers in Lesotho and threatened the food security of affected populations throughout the region.