JOHANNESBURG, 28 July (IRIN) - A rural development project encouraging refugees and host communities to work together to improve conditions in their areas is set to expand in Zambia.
The Zambia Initiative Development Programme was started in the country's Western province in 2002 and has already boosted crop production, improved health and education facilities, and opened access to markets for thousands of refugees and Zambians.
It will now be expanded to include the remote North-Western province, which borders Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The government-led initiative is supported by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and funded by various donors.
UNHCR spokesman Kelvin Shimo told IRIN the programme had proved such a success in Western province that there were calls for it to cover other provinces hosting refugees.
Zambia currently shelters 175,000 refugees mainly from Angola, DRC, and the Great Lakes region.
"At UNHCR, we recognise voluntary repatriation as the best durable solution for refugees, and development through local integration as an alternative in cases where they can't go home," the agency's regional representative, Ahmed Said Farah, said in a statement.
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, helping to build coexistence.
As part of the expansion, the refugee agency has provided US $380,000 in seed funds to start projects in North-Western province and $120,000 to fill gaps in the existing programme in Western province.
Shimo said there was a perception that ordinary Zambians lagged behind the refugees they were hosting in terms of living standards - this was because the refugees benefited from international humanitarian assistance in the camps, while the Zambians did not. "So that disparity had to be bridged."
"We set up local development committees, comprising refugees and host community representatives, and together they identify various development needs and the committees then present project proposals for funding," he said.
After completion of this process, UNHCR and the government lobbied donors to support the projects.
UNHCR noted that existing projects in Western province - bearing the heaviest refugee burden and also the country's poorest region - had boosted agricultural production.
Crop productivity increased from 1.5 mt per ha to 3.5 mt per ha as a result of inputs such as improved seeds, and agricultural extension services provided by the initiative, while a total of 120,000 refugees and locals benefited from credit loans in 2003/04.
As a result, a total of 564 mt of maize was sold to the World Food Programme and the proceeds reinvested into expanded maize production, turning the area's refugees and locals from recipients of food aid into suppliers of food.
"We estimate that in Western Province about 400,000 people are benefiting from this project as we continue implementation," Shimo said. "We feel there will be a spillover effect and more could benefit directly and indirectly." The province has received about $14 million in funding for development projects.
"So far, for the North-Western Province we have a five-year development plan of $16 million for agriculture, income generation, forestry and other project. We have talked to donors and are waiting for responses ... we're hoping the initiative in North-Western Province will move as smoothly as that in Western Province," Shimo added.
About 150,000 people would benefit from the expanded initiative in the North-Western Province.
A top priority was the rehabilitation of the Meheba Refugee Settlement High School, where refugee and local students studying in dilapidated facilities with a lack of electricity. Other projects include improving radio communications and completing a maternity ward at a rural health centre.
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