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DEVELOPMENT-SWAZILAND: Aid Initiatives Not to Be Taken on Faith

James Hall

MBABANE, Apr 10 2006 (IPS) - Faith-based organisations that wish to succeed with humanitarian projects in Swaziland have been advised to take into consideration the views and sensibilities of indigenous populations, even if the benefactors believe they are on a mission from God and know what is best for the local people.

“What is neo-colonialism, but rich and powerful Westerners imposing their ways on us? The fact that the imposers are church groups makes no difference, especially when you consider the history of Western religious groups during the colonial era,” said Thandi Dlamini, a community aid worker in rural Siphofaneni, 120 kms southeast of the capital, Mbabane.

“Africans haven’t forgotten the Church agenda of destroying local faiths and cultures, and imposing Christianity with the claim that God only recognises christians,” she added.

Dlamini does not dislike faith-based charitable groups. In fact, she works with one, World Vision. The international donor organisation has operated in Swaziland for nearly 15 years, helping to raise standards of living for a largely impoverished population.

She simply contrasts ways of achieving results. These boil down to whether a benefactor is more concerned with a personal mission than the real needs of beneficiaries.

World Vision’s public information officer, Mandla Luphondvo, explained his organisation’s success at delivering assistance to Swaziland’s poor: “It’s because we are community-based. In order to communicate, you have to be part of the community. You have to be one of them. You can’t be an ‘aid tourist’.”

Not all, but many of the World Vision staff on the ground are community members who distribute food aid to drought victims and the poor, engage in education programmes for children and youth, push abstinence in a country with the world’s highest HIV prevalence rate (42.6 percent), and assist in medical schemes by ensuring that beneficiaries receive treatment.

“Our vision is to raise the standard of living for everybody. You are accepted by the people if they know you,” says Sylvia Khumalo, another Siphofaneni community volunteer.

World Vision has contributed 15 million dollars in services to Swaziland annually, with little local publicity. Beneficiaries are unaware that the money comes from World Vision groups in the U.S., Austria, Australia, Thailand, Germany and Hong Kong. All that Swaziland’s rural poor see are neighbours attached to World Vision.

These volunteers demonstrate by example the message of Christian charity by providing home-based care to people living with AIDS, distributing food relief, and by running Neighbourhood Care Points in conjunction with the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF), to feed and educate orphans and other vulnerable children.

Their approach contrasts markedly with the methods of an American initiative, Dream for Africa, which did not fare well.

In 2004, Reverend Bruce Wilkinson came to Swaziland to announce that God had come to him in a dream, and had ordered the amiable and charismatic church leader to end hunger in Africa.

“As worthy as the goal was, no Swazi received instructions from God through a dream or any other medium instructing them to essentially turn over the country to the American. When he and his team arrived, they did not consult with Swazis, but stayed in luxury hotels to plan for us what they wanted us to do for them,” said Reverend Jabulani Dube.

Wilkinson’s American team of enthusiastic, mostly middle-aged and white volunteers descended on small rural homes, and planted small vegetable gardens. Permission was not sought from the homeowners, because the teams told them he had the approval of traditional authorities.

“I doubt if any of the Americans would like it if strangers showed up at their homes and said they had the town mayor’s approval to plant rose bushes at every house, and they start digging up the front lawn,” said Dube.

“Their target was unrealistic. They said within a year there would be no household that would go to bed on an empty stomach, just because of the house gardens. But the gardens were far too small,” said World Vision’s Luphondvo.

Members of Parliament (MPs) complained that the volunteers were taking photos of people’s kitchens, and that after the teams left, the gardens withered in drought-prone areas. Some households dug up the gardens, fearing they were infected with AIDS.

“The volunteers wore gardening gloves. The only gloves the residents had ever seen were worn by medical workers as protection against AIDS. The people made the connection, and there was no one around to explain the difference,” said Dlamini.

But Wilkinson’s Dream for Africa had ambitions far beyond household gardens. He wanted the government to give him the nation’s two largest game parks for commercial exploitation, 13,000 acres of communal Swazi Nation Land, which thousands of Swazis called their ancestral home, and the government-built factory shells in the eastern provincial capital, Siteki.

In return for receiving five percent of this small country’s landmass for free (with a guaranteed 99-year lease on his holdings), Wilkinson promised to build a village to house 60,000 orphans. UNICEF has estimated that Swaziland can anticipate an orphan population of 120,000 by 2010, over one-fifth of the population of a little more than a million, depending on AIDS deaths.

Noting that such an institution would have the same population as Mbabane, Alan Brody, UNICEF’s country representative for Swaziland, said, “Taking African children out of their communities and placing them in an ‘orphan city’, separating them from roots of family, community, nation and name, goes against fundamental and valuable African values and traditions of inclusiveness, of family, and of collective responsibility for children of the clan.”

One MP feared that the housing project contained “the seeds of future alienation and loss of identity for the children, and of conflict for the society.”

Wilkinson said the children would be taught jobs in the tourism and service industry. His plan was to build a business conference centre and luxury hotel.

The views of Swazi orphans on careers as waiters and chambermaids were never solicited. As for the local conservationists who had battled for four decades to establish game parks in the country, they were simply to be pushed aside to make way for Dream for Africa.

At the end of last year, Enterprise and Employment Minister Lutfo Dlamini made government’s decision known. “We pointed out that their approach to the problem was too radical for us to understand,” he said.

Meanwhile, organisations like World Vision continued to expand their efforts in Swaziland, introducing medicine delivery and an extended child health plan this year. Caritas, the Catholic relief organisation, has spearheaded refugee relief operations since 1976, but has vastly expanded its programmes in response to requests from a growing circle of beneficiaries.

“Wherever there is a need, we work to meet it. We are all Swazis here, and we know what we must do to assist people living with AIDS, AIDS orphans, people who don’t have enough to eat or adequate medical care, and the elderly. We have separate operations for all these needs,” said Gloria Musi, director of a Caritas initiative that focuses on home-based care.

She agreed with World Vision’s Luphondvo. “Assistance must be a cooperative venture, and not imposed. Outsiders may be motivated by charity, but they do not know what beneficiaries need more than the beneficiaries themselves, she said.

The lesson, faith-based aid workers in Swaziland noted, is that before aid operations can be accepted by beneficiaries, trust and mutual respect must be established first.

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