MBABANE, 12 October 2010 (IRIN) - About a quarter of Swaziland's one million people require food assistance - substantially less than the more than 60 percent relying on donor support in 2008 but an uncomfortable reminder of the country's donor dependency.
"No one wants to begrudge people the food they need to keep them alive," Ben Nsibandze, director of Swaziland's National Disaster Management Authority, said.
"What concerns us during this stressful time of growing donor - well, fatigue isn't the word, it's over-extension: trying to do too much with less funding - is that we have to ensure that people who might starve are properly nourished, especially children."
"To do that we must look at ways to wean able-bodied adults off food aid if we can provide an alternative," he said.
The months leading up to the main harvest - especially from October to March - are often hit by dry weather and drought. About 80 percent of Swaziland's people rely on subsistence farming, making them extremely susceptible to the vagaries of weather patterns.
The drought-prone eastern Lubombo region has in recent years received insufficient rainfall for small-scale farmers to cultivate the staple maize, but alternatives to the simple dispensing of food assistance are being sought.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) and Swaziland's Ministry of Agriculture and others have established pilot food for work programmes that could see wider application in other parts of the food insecure country.
"WFP's main focus is on ensuring that social safety nets are incorporated as it gears itself towards providing hunger solutions to the government of Swaziland in line with the UN agency's global shift from food aid to food assistance," Sheila Sisulu, WFP's deputy director for Hunger Solutions, said on a recent visit to Swaziland.
"It hopes to do this in part through the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), whose goal is to help countries accelerate economic growth through agriculture-led development," Sisulu said.
Nsibandze of the Disaster Management Authority said: "Workers on these [food for work] programmes receive food aid [monthly rations of cereals, pulses and vegetable oil] for themselves and their families while they are doing productive work relating to food production, like installing systems to reduce soil erosion."
The projects, which evolved in the aftermath of the 2007 drought, are grouped under various categories such as Food for Assets, Food for Work, Food for Training and Food for Agriculture.
Combating soil erosion
Essau Dube, regional administrator of the Lubombo Region, told IRIN the projects drew on Swazi traditions where "everyone contributes their labour for a community project, from building a chief's kraal to spanning a river with a bridge."
At Malindza in southern Swaziland take-home rations were given to 2,000 food insecure volunteers who built gabions to reclaim land lost from erosion and prevent future degradation, while another 2,000 people worked as caregivers in the county's southern and eastern regions, providing social support and cooked meals for vulnerable children and orphans.
In the 1970s Swaziland was a net exporter of food, but since the onset of dry spells and droughts in the early 1990s, and a waning economy, the country has increasingly been wearing a dependency tag that local media commentators often deride as a result of donor assistance encouraging farmers to live on handouts instead of their labour.
But it is a simple interpretation of a more complex issue, Amos Ndwandwe, a small-scale farmer in the Lubombo region, told IRIN.
"We plant maize every year. Every year the rains are few, and they stop in December, when the plants are still small. Every year I watch the crop die and turn brown in the field," he said.
This year he has decided against even attempting to grow crops, despite an offer from his cousin to use his team of oxen to prepare the fields, a decision taken in part because of previous failures, but also because he risks gambling the little money he has on buying seed.
Ndwandwe said: "They say that this year will see average rainfall. We know what that means from the past - 'average' isn't enough to farm," he said.
WFP forecasts about 256,000 people are expected to require food assistance this year and in early 2011. About 142,000 are deemed "chronically food insecure", while the remaining 114,000 are categorized as "transitorily food insecure".
Should there be no further shocks, the number of "transitorily food insecure" was expected to decrease, but the chronically food insecure numbers were unlikely to change, a WFP spokesman told IRIN.
A WFP statement from its offices in the capital Mbabane said: "The current relief and recovery operation focuses on strengthening livelihoods while meeting the relief needs of a growing number of chronically food-insecure people."