Swaziland’s reliance on international donors has averted famine but masked the reality of chronic food shortages and widespread malnutrition and stunting, according to a new study released by the government and the World Food Programme (WFP).
The Cost of Hunger in Africa (COHA) survey, part of the African Union Commission initiative to enable African nations to quantify the human and economic costs of malnutrition within their borders, found that malnutrition follows most Swazis throughout their life.
The COHA study was undertaken by Swaziland’s National Children’s Coordinating Unit in conjunction with the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development, which sought data on the true cost of hunger on the Swaziland economy. The ministries of agriculture, education and finance partnered with WFP to coordinate the first survey of its kind in the country.
“Swaziland is among the first four countries to complete the Cost of Hunger process. Others include Egypt, Ethiopia and Uganda. Eight more have just begun. The Swazi government has been fully supportive of the initiative and a key participant,” Julia Cocchia, a consultant with WFP Swaziland, told IRIN.
Children first to suffer
WFP noted that the high cost of hunger is undermining the impoverished country’s economy and is tied to social and individual regression. “A large proportion of costs related to undernutrition are met by the families themselves as often these children are not provided with proper health care” the report concluded.
The most dangerous time for a Swazi is after birth through a child’s first five years; malnutrition is responsible for 8 percent of child mortalities. Due to Swaziland’s patchy health system, one-third of ill children do not receive medical care, the survey found, while 69 percent of cases of child undernutrition are not treated.
“You can spot the children who have not eaten,” said Thandi Simelane, a fifth-grade teacher in Manzini. “Their eyes droop. They cannot concentrate. They haven’t any energy. Often they have flus because their bodies haven’t the nourishment to fight off viruses. They don’t keep up with their studies. The parents don’t have money to pay school fees just as they don’t have money for food, and we lose these children. It is not that they drop out of school because they cannot study, but it is part of the overall poverty of the family.
“There are some neighbourhood care points where they children can get a meal, but these are mostly pre-school children. There are no government-supported food feeding schemes in Swaziland. What food there is comes from fees paid by parents and donors,” said Simelane.
Life does not improve for the malnourished as they grow older. The effects of undernutrition, the report notes, “exacerbate the problems in social integration and increase or intensify poverty. A vicious cycle is perpetuated as vulnerability to malnutrition grows.”
Forty percent of adult Swazis are stunted, largely due to malnutrition at an early age, with effects that are likely follow them throughout life.
The levels of illness and physical impairment caused by stunting represent a major crisis for the small country of about one million people. The 37 million working hours lost due to malnutrition-related mortalities in 2009 (the period analysed by the survey) cost the country US$40 million, or 1.4 percent of its GDP. In addition, about $92 million was lost in 2009 as a result of child undernutrition, equivalent to 3.1 percent of GDP.
Economic Planning Minister Prince Hlangusempi Dlamini, whose ministry was a principal partner in the survey, noted of the survey data: “The saddest thing is that this cycle [of malnutrition] is not limited to the life cycle of each individual, but affect that person’s children, who will pass it on to yet another generation.”
The report noted, “In Swaziland, the results of the study strongly suggest that to achieve sustainable human and economic growth, special attention must be given to addressing nutrition in the early stages of an individual’s life.”
Recommendations put forward by the report call for massive spending on nutritional interventions, but do not acknowledge Swaziland’s inability to finance such interventions without a significant reordering of public spending and international donor help.