The Zambia Initiative Development Programme, which started in the country's Western province in 2002, is now being extended to North-Western province.
The UN refugee agency is supporting the government-led initiative, an integrated rural development programme that relies on the participation of both the refugee community and their local hosts.
"At UNHCR, we recognize voluntary repatriation as the best durable solution for refugees, and development through local integration (DLI) as an alternative in cases where they can't go home," said the refugee agency's regional representative, Ahmed Said Farah.
He described the extension of the Zambia Initiative to North-Western province in mid-July as a new phase in the relationship between host communities and refugees that encourages the two to work together. "UNHCR will continue to play our catalytic role to sensitise the donors, so that more resources are ploughed into this initiative for the benefit of both refugees and the host community," said Farah.
As part of the expansion, the refugee agency has provided US$380,000 in seed funds to start quick-impact projects in North-Western province and $120,000 to fill gaps in the existing programme in Western province.
So far, discussions have been held with provincial administration and government technical staff, UN agencies, implementing partners, chiefs and refugees in North-Western province's Solwezi town. A basic staff structure has already been set up at the provincial level.
"North-Western province has been hosting refugees for about three decades. We are very excited about this initiative," said the province's deputy secretary, Denny Lumbama. He pledged the government's commitment to the projects and called on other partners to assist and ensure their success.
The projects will mainly target identified concerns in the areas of health, education, agriculture, as well as women and income generation.
Of top priority is the rehabilitation of Meheba Refugee Settlement High School, where refugee and local students have been putting up with dilapidated facilities and a lack of electricity. Other projects include improving radio communications and completing a maternity ward at a rural health centre.
Meheba G zone chairman George Banganji added that the settlement is very active in agricultural production and would benefit greatly from marketing assistance provided through the Zambia Initiative.
This has already been proven through existing projects in Western province, the country's poorest province that bears the heaviest refugee burden. Last year, the province experienced a big boost in agriculture. Crop productivity increased from 1.5 to 3.5 metric tons per hectare of land as a result of the inputs, improved seeds and agricultural extension provided through the initiative.
A total of 120,000 refugees and locals benefited in Western province from the credit loans of 2003-2004. They produced adequate food for domestic consumption and sold the surplus, which earned them 140,000 Zambian kwachas (US$30) per month compared to 44,000 kwachas per month before the initiative.
A total of 564 metric tons of maize were sold to the World Food Programme and the proceeds reinvested into additional production of maize, which, for the first time, turned the area's refugees and locals from recipients of food aid into suppliers of food.
Some 1,200 women cattle owners were trained in food processing and were able to produce butter and cheese for domestic consumption.
Health posts were set up in remote areas, and motorcycles and ambulances helped to improve the delivery of health services to outlying areas. Centres for reproductive and mother-and-child health and laboratories for tuberculosis diagnosis were built.
Eleven classrooms were constructed with locally-produced bricks, as were a girls' hostel and teachers' residence, which could help attract qualified and experienced teachers to remote areas.
"Following the successful implementation of the Zambia Initiative in Western province, we have had a lot of demands from government officials, members of parliament and other stakeholders to extend the project to other refugee-hosting areas," said the initiative's national coordinator, Dominic Minyoi.
He said his aim was to eventually extend the initiative, which has a budget of $16 million over a five-year period, to all of Zambia's refugee camps and settlements in four provinces - Mayukwayukwa and Nangweshi in Western province, Meheba in North-Western province, Mwange in Northern province and Kala in Luapula province.
Zambia currently hosts 175,000 refugees from Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Great Lakes region and other countries.
By Kelvin Shimo, UNHCR Zambia