Mbabane — A large majority of people in Swaziland go to bed hungry and blame their government for failing to address their food needs, according to findings from the first formal survey to determine how Swazis view their standard of living.
The results from Afrobarometer, an independent research project that measures public attitudes on social, economic and political issues in 35 African countries, reveal a chasm between the daily struggles faced by most Swazis and the ability of government to address persistently high unemployment, chronic food insecurity and poor service delivery.
The government, which received mostly poor or failing grades for service delivery and corruption, has responded frostily to the survey findings released in December 2013.
Respondents gave poor marks all around to the government's economic performance, with 58 percent rating management of the economy as "very bad". Two-thirds said government efforts to improve the lives of the poor and create jobs were "very poor", and 77 percent felt that the authorities had done nothing to narrow the gap between rich and poor.
Participants also expressed disapproval of the job performances of their elected officials, the police and the anti-corruption board, as well as of their Prime Minister, who was appointed by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch.
Government spokesman Percy Simelane, who is employed by the prime minister's office, declined to comment on the survey findings, saying, "We don't know the methodology."
However, the research methodology was published along with the survey findings, explaining that 1,200 adult Swazis had participated and that respondents were equally divided between men and women, with those residing in rural areas outnumbering those living in urban or peri-urban areas by three to one, in keeping with the country's largely rural demographics. The country's four regions were about equally represented.
One of the key questions was: "In the past year, how often have you or your family gone without enough food to eat?" Nineteen percent of respondents answered "always" and 46 percent answered "several times".
Local NGO workers who deal with food security issues commented that the survey findings confirmed their own assessments based on anecdotal evidence. "The polling doesn't tell us anything we don't already know from conditions on the ground, but it does provide a statistical foundation for our observations," said a food distribution manager who works for an international aid organization and asked not to be named.
"We get government officials who say the poverty and hunger situation is exaggerated by NGOs. They deny a problem so they don't have to spend money on it and accuse NGOs of saying things are bad to get more donor funding," the manager said.
Swaziland has sufficient arable land to overcome its chronic food insecurity, but according to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), it lacks the necessary agricultural and land-use policies to empower small-scale farmers.
Two-thirds of Swazis live on communal Swazi Nation Land, which is held in trust by King Mswati. Households are allocated plots by their local chief. Without title deeds, smallholder farmers lack collateral to secure bank loans that would allow them to make their land more productive by purchasing better seeds, fertilizer and irrigation equipment.
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 in 2013, after a better than average rainfall, according to WFP.
"Two out of three Swazis do not get enough to eat. This has been known to government for some time, but government doesn't see this as a systemic problem but something that can be remedied with food aid," said Thabo Nxumalo, an agronomist and agricultural consultant in the Manzini region.
"Food aid is supposed to be a temporary solution to an emergency situation. Government sees food aid as a means to avoid having to put into place policies to put an end to food insecurity," he alleged.
Nxumalo commented that if Swaziland is to overcome its food shortages, in the absence of government willingness to make fundamental changes to the land-use policy, it will be up to international donors to address the problem in the same way that they responded to the HIV/AIDS epidemic by financing improvements to the country's healthcare system.
Donor aid has vastly improved Swaziland's healthcare system, and a majority of the survey respondents said they had benefited from better service at clinics and hospitals.
"It took the AIDS crisis to improve healthcare. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has really boosted the country's health system. The AIDS crisis would be out of control without this assistance," said Valarie Dlamini, a healthcare consultant in Manzini.
The survey revealed that many Swazis also experience frequent water shortages. Nearly a quarter of respondents said they lived without water in their homes - either piped in directly or from a well or borehole on their property - and 29 percent said they seldom have water in their homes, likely because nearby water supplies have dried up.
"That half of Swazis do not have adequate water is surprising because Swaziland's climate is quite rainy most of the year, and the country is crossed by large and small rivers that flow all year round. This is a matter of service delivery. Government is not providing irrigation and water storage facilities," said Amos Ndwandwe, who works with the Ministry of Natural Resources to drill boreholes in rural areas.
Two-thirds of respondents said it was "very difficult" to get water and electricity connected to their homes. But those who had these services said paying for them was also a pressing problem.
Nearly half of those surveyed said their families had gone without an income on one occasion over the past 12 months, and 38 percent said they had gone without an income several times during the past year.
Fifty-six percent of respondents described economic conditions in the country as "very bad", and half considered their own economic situation as "very bad."
Dlamini expressed surprise that this percentage was not higher, considering that two-thirds of Swazis are estimated to live in chronic poverty, existing on less than US$2 per day. "However, the survey was of people's perceptions, and many Swazis are used to the way they have to live," she said.
"In terms of lifestyles, it isn't much different from the way they grew up and their ancestors lived - mud huts without water and sanitation, food security dependant on the rains, and little by way of government services."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]