Making sure the poor get SADC's attention

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Activists say not enough is being done about one of the major issues affecting approximately 277-million citizens of the 15 SADC countries.

Vendors sell fish at a market in the eastern Congolese city of Goma in July 2012. Plans are under way to create indices to measure poverty indicators using the same yardstick across all SADC countries. (Photo: Reuters/James Akena)

African Development Community (SADC) will meet in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, in August, following the election of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe to head SADC for a year after the summit. 

The high-level meeting will be an opportunity for Zimbabwe to showcase its prime holiday spot (according to local media renovations are in full swing to ready the facilities for up to 200 delegates) and for the region’s leaders to talk about free trade, infrastructure projects and politics.

However, activists say not enough is being done about one of the major issues affecting approximately 277-million citizens of the 15 SADC countries: poverty.

Figures indicate that about 45% of the 277-million people live on less than $1 a day, yet poverty eradication is not prioritised at heads of state meetings, such as their annual summit. Analysts lament the “worrying disconnect” between the growth in gross domestic product (GDP) and rising poverty levels, as is the case in other parts of Africa.

“Development and economic growth have been happening, even in Zimbabwe, in the last five years, but people are getting poorer,” says Dr Jesiman Chipika, Zimbabwean economist and independent expert for the SADC Regional Poverty Observatory Committee. 

However, in Zimbabwe the figures of extreme poverty as measured by the United Nations Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) have decreased. 

And thanks partly to huge donor assistance, healthcare and education have improved following the economic implosion of the country in 2008. Chipika says analysts and activists should help policymakers to “bridge the disconnect” between development projects and making a real difference to the lives of ordinary citizens.

SADC has a regional poverty reduction framework that was adopted in 2008, but some say the organisation has been too focused on big development schemes. Glenn Fareed, programme manager: poverty and development at the SADC Council of Non Governmental Organisations, says: “Alleviating poverty is one of the central issues in the SADC Treaty (the organisation’s founding document), but it is not high enough on the agenda for heads of state.” 

He adds that the SADC Treaty enjoins not only states but also people, and while “mega-projects” such as trans-frontier parks, hydro-electric schemes or big infrastructure networks are often the most talked-about regional initiatives, shared expertise and resources on eradicating poverty will have a direct benefit on the lives of citizens. 

 “What use is a highway if it runs past a village with no clinic or no school?” he asks. 

Tougher measures

Following the adoption of the regional framework, SADC states agreed to set up a Regional Poverty Observatory (SADC RPO) that brings together government officials and representatives of business, labour, civil society, and gender- and faith-based organisations to discuss policies and share expertise about alleviating poverty. International partners and independent experts are also invited to the RPO meetings.

“The framework calls for a more robust intervention on alleviating poverty and for the active participation of civil society for SADC to develop ‘pro-poor’ and ‘pro-people’ strategies,” says Fareed. 

So far, the RPO secretariat, based at the SADC headquarters in Botswana, has organised a series of meetings and workshops to facilitate the discussion between state and non-state members of the RPO. Most countries have set up national RPO focal points that facilitate the regional process.

One of the first priorities of the organisation is to draw up clear guidelines to measure poverty and to compile credible indexes of indicators across SADC. The multi-stakeholder Poverty Observatory in Mozambique, which has been functioning successfully for some time, inspired the idea of a RPO. “If Mozambique can do it, so can the rest of the SADC states,” says Fareed. 

Various other countries have similar initiatives, such as Zambia’s Poverty Indaba, which regularly brings together faith-based organisations, civil society and government. Invariably, experts and activists agree that a regional approach to poverty alleviation will be beneficial. 

Implementing strategies

Rajendra Kumar Reedha, speaking on behalf of the Mauritius Council of Social Services, says that, for Mauritius, being part of SADC means that it can also share good practices in terms of poverty reduction and programmes for long-term economic sustainability. 

The country has a range of programmes for poverty eradication and for the creation of sustainable employment.  “We share a lot with other countries and we can learn from them.”

Reedha says Mauritius has fared well to achieve the MDGs, but “we don’t have the full recipe of success”. While many frameworks and plans exist on a national and regional level, the real challenge lies in the implementation. 

“For us the creation of sustainable employment and access to resources through education is important,” he says.

In the last few decades, employment opportunities have shifted from the productive to the service sector, creating the need for people to be multi-skilled.  “Sustainable employment must be revised in view of this. We need to re-skill people,” he says. 

In Mauritius, creating employment for the educated youth is a major priority. “We have one graduate per family and thousands of people with degrees looking for employment.”

Policies are important, but the trick is to bridge the gap between the macro-level and how it affects people’s lives on a daily basis, says Reedha. Sharing knowledge and resources between countries in Southern Africa could also be helpful in many instances, particularly when it comes to migrant labourers. 

Questions the RPO may be able to assist with in future include whether or not mineworkers returning home to Malawi from South Africa receive their pensions regularly, and how their families are supported. While the benefits of the RPO are clear, the process remains slow and laborious, due to various factors. 

A self-sufficient region

Acccording to Tendai Makanza of the Southern Africa Trade Union Co-ordinating Council, the SADC RPO must be understood as part of a greater vision of African integration — not only at the level of governments, but also to bring citizens closer together. 

“I think we must understand it in the framework of the Lagos Plan of Action (adopted by the Organisation of African Unity in 1980) and its inspiring vision to bring countries with a common goal together, to become self-sufficient and to move away from colonialism,” she says.

“The Zimbabwean crisis is a good example of where instability in one country directly affects its neighbours. We have one common challenge and that is alleviating poverty,” says Makanza. “We have to put our minds and our resources together to make it work.”

One of the main problems with the RPO is to go beyond the technical aspect — the meetings and workshops — and the commitments that are on paper only. “The problem is the political will of the SADC leadership. If you don’t have that you can’t move forward,” she says.

Even though the Regional Poverty Reduction Framework exists on paper, it has not yet been implemented and “may not see the light of day” if it is not seen as a priority. “It is not a priority. It is being sidelined and not sufficiently operationalised,” says Makanza. 

She believes that potential champions of the RPO are countries that are doing better, such as Mauritius or the Seychelles, which have been open to the creation of the observatory. 

South Africa, Malawi and Zimbabwe have also actively participated in the meetings and drawing up of strategies. However, a country such as Angola has found it difficult to participate in the regional discussion, she says. 

The real difference between the RPO and previous initiatives to look at poverty on a regional level is that for the first time state and non-state actors are involved. “Our opinion as labour is that now, for the first time, we have everyone around a table and it is a learning curve for everybody.”

One of the major problems is the lack of funding to move beyond just a talk shop. “The representatives of states at the table are coming into it with an open mind, but they don’t have the authority to unlock resources or drive SADC to do so. The RPO has no real funding.”

In theory, states have committed themselves to a regional development fund, but the focus is on big projects rather than on social infrastructure. 

According to Fareed, there is an expectation to share costs down the line, but this is not yet on the cards. “Lesotho, for example, doesn’t have provision for old-age pensions. At some point, states could envisage to share resources for the spreading of benefits,” he says. 

If the RPO functions as planned and indicators are released regularly, it will help NGOs to speak to their governments about short-term intervention and to hold their -decision makers accountable, he says.

Some also believe that in long run, the RPO could be used to name and shame governments that are not keeping to their commitments in uplifting poverty — similar to the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), spearheaded by former South African president Thabo Mbeki. 

Members of the APRM meet bi-annually to look at the report by experts on a range of indicators, including economic development and poverty eradication. However, the process has been hampered by the unwillingness of some states to participate and the tendency to relegate the APRM work to officials, rather than to the level of heads of state of the African Union. One of the advantages of the SADC RPO is that it will be a home-grown solution. 

“Governments can’t say that the figures are from the UN or World Bank, because these would come from multi-stakeholder processes,” says Fareed. 

Governments might not like to be compared with neighbours when it comes to successes and failures of poverty eradication. “It is one thing to gather robust information, but the challenge is what do we do with it,” says Fareed.

While there is a lot of goodwill on ground level between officials and activists to make a success of the RPO, political buy-in on a high-level will be crucial to make the most of the initiative. Fareed says while the MDG reports are “coloured in beautiful language” it actually paints a “devastating and shocking picture” of the state of poverty in the region. 

“It is almost absurd that a country such as South Africa will not meet all the targets. Resources were squandered and we need to test govern-ment’s verbal commitment to alleviating poverty.”

This article forms part of a series that the M&G is publishing in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust, to highlight issues affecting residents of SADC countries. 

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