Swazi government sells food aid

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Many smallholder farmers get poor yields because they cannot afford to buy fertilizer and other agricultural inputs © Mujahid Safodien/IRIN

MBABANE, 20 March 2013 (IRIN) - Swaziland’s government has sold maize donated by the Japanese government to feed hungry Swazis for US$3 million and deposited the money in the Central Bank of Swaziland.

The nearly 12,000 metric tons of donated maize was sold by the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development in 2011, but the sale was not made public until an item about the transaction appeared in a performance report the ministry presented to the Swaziland Parliament for review last week.

Swaziland has not produced enough food to feed itself since the 1970s. It depends on international food aid to bridge a gap that varies from year to year, ranging from two-thirds of the country’s 1.2 million people in 2007 to about one-tenth of the population this year, after a better than average rainfall, according to the World Food Programme.

Unanswered questions

The majority of Swazis reside on communal Swazi Nation Land, under the authority of chiefs appointed by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. Lacking title deeds to their ancestral farms, they are unable to secure bank loans to invest in irrigation equipment or farming machinery, relying instead on rainfall to water their crops. However, Swaziland’s climate is becoming increasingly arid and agricultural inputs are growing increasingly unaffordable.

Bertram Stewart, the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development’s principal secretary, acknowledged the sale of the food aid to Swazi media, and said it was not the first time this had been done. According to Stewart, the Japanese government was informed that the maize donation would be sold and that the money would be used to purchase farming inputs for subsistence farmers, but the Japanese government has yet to confirm this assertion.

In fact, government-funded farming inputs were scaled back during the past cropping season, with the Ministry of Agriculture citing a lack of funds.

Members of parliament (MPs) have asked the economic planning minister, Prince Hlangusemphi Dlamini, for an explanation as to why food donations intended for the poor and hungry were being diverted for other uses, but Dlamini, who was appointed to the ministerial position by his brother, the king, has yet to respond.

MPs also pointed out that the government has $50 million in unused funds that could be used to purchase food aid or to implement programmes recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to boost food production.

Economic decline

The government’s profligate spending, coupled with its failure to follow IMF guidelines meant to boost its economy and increase government tax revenue, has led to years of economic decline. Swaziland’s GDP fell by 3 percent last year, and is expected to drop again in 2013. IMF has predicted that, by 2014, the country’s economy will have replaced Somalia’s as the worst performing in the world.

A substantial portion of the government’s budget is provided by revenue from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), which distributes tax revenue from goods entering Southern Africa to its five member states. But revenues from SACU have plummeted in the wake of the global economic slowdown, helping to precipitate a fiscal crisis that has led to job losses and significant cuts in social spending, putting an increased strain on the two-thirds of the population already living in chronic poverty.

“The government is desperate for money and will grab it by hook or by crook, even taking food from the mouths of babies,” said one private sector accountant familiar with the government’s financial situation.

“At the same time, the government is used to the international community rushing in with aid to cover the government’s mismanagement of the economy and the humanitarian crisis here,” he said.

Two NGOs that did not wish to be named, told IRIN they were worried the sale of Japan’s food donation and the lack of a full accounting by government could negatively affect donors’ willingness to support the country.