Faced with the prospect of a reduced civil service - mainly because of HIV/AIDS - southern African governments have been urged to formulate alternative ways of bolstering social service delivery.
At the launch of the Southern African Capacity Initiative (SACI) in Botswana last week, UN Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Mark Malloch Brown noted that the impact of the pandemic had already been felt in the health, education and food security sectors.
"Fundamentally, what makes the dimensions of the HIV/AIDS crisis so devastating for this region is the way it is intersecting with the challenges of poverty, food insecurity and limited institutional capacity to deliver essential public services, rendering the development challenge the continent faces even more arduous," he said.
The SACI aims to assist the most affected countries in the sub-region in dealing with the erosion of capacity caused by the pandemic.
A key focus of the initiative is the need for further research into how HIV/AIDS is affecting both the supply of and demand for government services.
"While there is a shortage [of teachers], there are, however, also unemployed teachers in the region, because government and parents cannot afford to pay them - so capacity development must be undergirded by both a viable economic strategy to renew the productive base and international financial support, including for recurrent costs such as teachers' salaries," Malloch Brown noted.
One of the ways of reducing government costs while ensuring adequate service delivery was the increased use of information and communication technologies. Education and health services could be improved, for example, through distance learning and telemedicine. Governments were also encouraged to further engage with civil society.
Malloch Brown noted that while a vibrant civil society already existed across the region, authorities should do more to co-opt NGOs "as fully enfranchised partners for the delivery of essential public services".
It was expected that expanded engagement with civil groups would make a considerable difference to service provision.
"It is civil society that can multiply the reach of service delivery, using community-based organisations with much lower cost structures and with incentive systems that don't just depend on salaries, but family and community commitments," he said.
Another key component of the SACI was the emphasis on south-to-south cooperation. It was assumed that developing countries often had more relevant experience in the needs of their peers than traditional donors. UNDP had already facilitated a programme in which Brazil exported its experience in the use of interactive multimedia HIV/AIDS educational strategies in classrooms to Botswana.
UNDP is expected to establish a regional centre in South Africa to spearhead the initiative. The centre, comprising technical experts and policy advisors, is expected to provide advice to governments, civil society organisations and the private sector, and facilitate the sharing of regional experiences.
Southern Africa is home to more than 30 percent of the 40 million people infected with HIV/AIDS worldwide.