Big Interview

UN, govt working to address food security challenges: Niyonzima

The situation is not looking good for the country amid revelations by the United Nations that at least a quarter of the population require food aid from now until March 2020. These figures could increase due to the El-Nino-induced drought. The Lesotho Times (LT) Editor Herbert Moyo this week spoke to the United Nations Resident Coordinator, Salvator Niyonzima (SN), to get a fuller understanding of the crisis and the efforts to mitigate the situation and build Basotho’s ability to respond. Below are excerpts of the interview.

LT: Please provide an overview of the work of the Office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Lesotho. A summary of the key aspects of your work as well as the challenges and achievements. 

SN: My name is Salvator Niyonzima. I’m the UN Resident Coordinator. I actually started in Lesotho in a double capacity. I was UN Resident Coordinator and also UNDP Resident Representative, but as a result of a reform  undertaken by the UN since 2018, those two positions were separated. I am now  a fully dedicated UN Resident Coordinator and another person was appointed UNDP Resident Representative. As a Resident Coordinator I have a team of officers  covering many areas of work:  strategic planning,  communication and advocacy,  monitoring and evaluation,  partnerships, and economics. This pool of technicians and experts support me in my work.  As  the highest UN official in the country, I am responsible for  bringing coherence and cohesion in the work of  the United Nation System. .

Our core business is to support the development of the country. And as you know, from 2015 to 2030, UN Member States endorsed  the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We work together to support governments to make progress towards the SDGs. Lesotho has a national development plan (NSDP) in place. The second NSDP has been finalised and it covers the years 2018/19 to 2023/24.  We have a cooperation framework called the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF). That framework is in line with the government’s priorities. And so, the Resident Coordinator is responsible for the implementation of the cooperation framework, making sure that  projects  and programmes across the agencies  help achieve  the Sustainable Development Goals; bringing  a contribution towards the national development plan. We are obviously always in contact with government and as such, the office of the Resident Coordinator is the first point of call for whatever discussions that need to take place.

We also support the national reforms. We do work in human rights, on gender, on HIV and AIDS and other thematic issues undertaken by specific agencies.

LT: The reforms were recommended by SADC in 2016. There was a timeline to say that by May 2019 Lesotho should have implemented constitutional and security sector reforms. But obviously those timelines have been missed. And when you look at the process and where it is, do you think the government, the opposition and all of the stakeholders are doing enough? If not, what do you think needs to be done to accelerate the process? 

SN: Yes, there is progress. Does that mean that progress was easy? No. And it was never meant that this would  be an easy process. It’s a political process. I think the essence of the progress has been reaching consensus on what is wrong in Lesotho and how to fix it. And for that to happen, it really took a broad-based national dialogue for people to express themselves, to express their views and frustrations but in the end to put a finger on what is not right in Lesotho; what is generating political instability and insecurity. Over the past two years starting in 2017, the United Nations has been working very closely with government and that came from its own  to undertake reforms, based on the SADC recommendations. Last week we had the fourth National Leaders Forum (NLF). The NLF is really a forum of political, civil society, traditional and church leaders because we  want to make sure that whatever has been achieved through the different levels and phases of the national dialogue is  vetted by the leadership of the people.

SADC recommended  that the constitutional and security sector reforms should be  finalized by May 2019  but I think  it was difficult to imagine that in such a short timeline it would have been possible to achieve such a difficult task given the complexity of the   processes involved. And so for me, I believe that it was not very realistic to think that they would be finished by May 2019. Does that mean we don’t need to accelerate? Certainly not, I think we need to. This should also not take an eternity because in the end, the reforms are not an end in themselves. The reforms are a means to an end. The end is working on development, generating jobs for Basotho, providing services-(education,  health, etc.); improving the living conditions of the population. But political instability is an obstacle to any sort of development and so we actually had to work on it. The point I’m trying to make is that while I agree that certain deadlines have not been met, I also have to acknowledge that progress has been made and that we need to work harder and faster to  complete the process  within a reasonable timeline.  There are already some  timelines:  the next stage is  the organization of the 5th National Leaders Forum early November  and  the Second Multi-Stakeholder National Plenary  in the second half of November 2019. After that the implementation of the actual reforms should start.   We hope that when parliament reconvenes (tomorrow) the National Reforms Authority Bill will pass and then stakeholders  can start thinking about establishing that institution  to steer  the implementation of the reforms.

Overall, I think that it is actually exciting that this much progress has been achieved. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work harder and faster on this. We should and we are. Looking at the difficulty and the complexity of the process, I think one has to acknowledge that we have come a long way. There are more challenges to come, but they will be addressed step by step.

LT: Parliament is supposed to reopen tomorrow and obviously the national reforms authority is one of the issues that need to be dealt with. But there is another competing issue brought on by the infighting within the All Basotho Convention (ABC). There is talk about the no confidence vote. Have you, as the UN tried to speak to the parties about the possible implications of the no confidence vote and the instability in the government on the reforms process? 

SN: Yes, we have because as we deal with the consecutive steps of the reforms process, we are working from Lesotho so we know what is happening in Lesotho. We heard about the challenges that ABC, the main political party in the  coalition government,  faced and so as we interact  with  all stakeholders, both political and non-political, we stress the need for stability. For us, it is clear that  some immediate stability is necessary to build longer term stability. Everyone is definitely aware of the issues and if there is more instability in the country that will work against the reforms agenda. The overall goal for us is working and facilitating a process that would keep political actors together and keep them aware of the implications of these issues on the reforms themselves.

Last week when we attended the NLF, I  made it clear that this is the time when the political actors will have to come together. They will have to come to an agreement that reforms are in their interest. Whether they (political leaders) are in government or outside, the reforms are in their interest because they are in the interest of the country, they are in the interest of  their constituencies and their voters. If I look back two years ago at the difficulties of bringing stakeholders together and then look at what has been achieved  so far, I think there has been a clear increase in the interest on the reforms. But that interest has to translate into something tangible. It is normal in any democracy that those who are in government and those who are in opposition may not always agree and in fact, they tend to disagree on a number of issues. We have seen the initial disagreements that were keeping people apart decrease and actors come  together and I think that is important.

At this juncture,  they need to come closer together, because when it comes to making the actual changes, the actual reforms, that’s where the crux of the matter will be because that’s when people will have to let go of this and change that and make  difficult choices that may go against their own personal and political interests.

LT: One of the things that you mentioned right from the beginning is that the UN, in terms of its work, looks to spearhead development and for any country, there are the fundamentals, the basics that need to be taken care of, the basic needs of people. One of those is food security. The UN drought report looks at the food situation in the country, food security or the lack of it. Can you please take us report: its major findings about the food situation in the country? 

SN: I’ll take you back to 2018 and tell you that the government has a technical arm called the Disaster Management Authority (DMA) that is responsible for disaster preparedness and management. The DMA therefore undertakes regular assessments as far as food security is concerned. A Lesotho Vulnerability Assessment Committee has been established to that effect and  sits every year.

The result of the LVAC’s work is a  Vulnerability Assessment Report. Based on that report that was published in May 2018, last year, it was established that around 300 000 Basotho would be in need of food security by the end of the year. That was due  the late arrival of rains which discouraged people to plant while those who planted didn’t harvest much..

Based on that report, we as United Nations, decided to take early action and we applied to an internal mechanism that is called the Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF). It’s an emergency fund as the name says. We  received US$5, 5 million to support the 300 000 Basotho already in need of food assistance at the beginning of this year. This amount was planned to last the first six months of 2019. Based on that and because of the need to update the data,  a rapid assessment was done in March and the report was published in April 2019 indicating that the numbers of those needing food aid were actually increasing.

From the 300 000 we were going above 400 000. Then the vulnerability assessment committee undertook a more in depth annual assessment in June 2019 and that’s where we got the current data that we have. Unfortunately, the findings are that 430 410 Basotho people are currently in need of food assistance in the rural areas and 74 000 in the urban areas. That takes us to about 508 000 Basotho in need of life-saving interventions  between now and December 2019. And those numbers are expected to rise as we go into the lean season and the beginning of 2020.

AT the end of 2018 and the beginning of this 2019, the most affected  districts were  Mafeteng, Mohale’s Hoek, Quthing, Qacha’s Nek and Maseru.

As we speak, the whole country’s 10 districts are converting to IPC phase three category which means there is a food crisis.

That is the overall picture. Basically what we are saying is that we have passed the mark of 500 000 Basotho in need of food assistance and other life-saving interventions.  That is approximately one quarter of the total population. If you look at the number of people in need of food assistance in the rural areas, that is already 30 percent of the total rural population.

That also means that the water tables are very, very low and so access to drinking water for people, for livestock is going to be problematic.

We should have had already some rain but I don’t see any and that means that there are threats to the livelihoods of people. They are not able to plant and harvest, not able to keep their livestock, not able to get what they usually get out of their livestock. The ability of the animals to produce good wool and good mohair will decrease if there’s no water for them. That is the overall picture and it is definitely a worrying picture.

LT: In the report you specifically mentioned the situation of women and girls. We’ve seen the world over, not just in Lesotho, in any place where there’s conflict and crisis that the vulnerability levels of women and girls increase. There’s talk about the possibility of sexual abuse and exploitation in exchange for food and even the possibility of some of the girls dropping out of school and the rise in child marriages as well. Whatever gains the country has made in terms of the empowerment of women will be lost if such situations that directly affect them are not addressed. Is there anything specific to women and girls in terms of your intervention? 

SN: I will answer that question by referring to what we have done already using the central emergency relief funds (CERF). Our intervention addressed agriculture and food security,  health and nutrition,  as well as WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) and protection.

The protection includes child protection;  protection against gender based violence (GBV) and  migration-related protection. What we have done, specifically targeting women and girls, is to first protect the girl child by giving them food so they can stay in school. There are also programmes to  fight child marriages and different stakeholders are involved. It is clear that the most vulnerable get even more vulnerable when there is food insecurity. We have heard stories  of people who were  sexually abused on their way to fetching water,  looking for firewood or back from school. In this report we indicate that about 47, 3 percent of households in Lesotho are headed by women and girls. And those that have been hit by the drought get abused.

And so in our intervention we have come up with programmes, first of all, to share information and to sensitise people, in this case not only women and girls, but also men. Our communications colleagues have gone to deliver messages about gender based violence and about sexual abuse. A portion of the US$5, 5 million funding has been targeted to achieve this.

The other element is on migration protection. Lesotho is  surrounded by South Africa and some Basotho have decided to drop out of school and go to South Africa to look for work so that they can buy food. In some cases, parents have married off their young girls in the hope that those who would be marrying wealthier husbands would get some money. The problem is, in some cases, those who have decided to run away to South Africa sometimes find themselves  in difficult situations. Some have fallen prey to human trafficking because unscrupulous people take advantage of them because they know they don’t have any recourse. They are illegal migrants and therefore they cannot go to the police because if they do they will have to face their status of illegal migrants first.

Our protection team was basically giving them the information and also the tools to try and address or report the issues when they happen. There is also  a health risk in particular HIV because of risky sexual behaviours that people are pushed into. Even our food distribution is actually targeting a lot of women because 47.3 percent of the rural households are headed by women and girls. And so by bringing food and some money to access other key items, you also decrease the likelihood of women taking those risks and finding themselves in those situations. That’s what I can say regarding the interventions targeting women and girls.

LT: You said that the numbers of the food insecure people may increase. How much would be required in total to address food security issues? 

SN: The government is in the process of finalising a National Drought Response plan with our contribution and the contribution of other development partners. The estimates are that a total amount of US$36, 6 million will be needed to address the current food needs of the population.

These are huge amounts that need a lot of effort to mobilise because these are not amounts that the government or the UN has.

LT: Do you think the government is doing enough to prioritise food security especially as it is only drawing up a National Drought Response plan now when so many Basotho are already in a desperate situation? 

SN: I think there are two elements to the question: the first one is the timing of the response. I have two comments to make on that. Let me preamble this by clarifying two things. One is that the US$5, 5 million that the UN mobilised was for the first six months of the year. For all practical purposes that money has already been spent.

Secondly we and the government together developed a response plan and we certainly could have  moved a little faster but this plan is almost finished. What is left now is actually starting the response and we are also working with government because it is clear  that, ultimately governments are responsible for the food security of their people. Just like they are responsible for the safety and the security of their citizens, they are also responsible for the services, starting with the basic services for the population. That is clear and the rest of us development partners are coming in to contribute and to support what governments are doing.

We’ve been working closely with government. We are working closely with the Disaster Management Authority to develop this data and have all these numbers and these estimates. We did that in collaboration with the government through DMA, the Disaster Management Authority.

Government made a  first statement in May 2019 regarding the drought. They  express their concerns, and they also thanked the UN and other development partners for supporting. They called on partners to support further because government knew that they would not have enough resources to cover the immediate needs.  The second element of your question talks about  dependency on donor money and priority setting. First of all, I’d like to tell you that what is happening today in Lesotho and with regard to the drought is not only for Lesotho, it’s the whole region. If you look around in South Africa, in Angola, in Namibia, in Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, eSwatini, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, they are all hit by this drought. So it’s not something that is  peculiar to Lesotho. Some of those countries have found it necessary to declare an emergency in order to be able to mobilise the necessary funding.

. It is true that the government is expected to allocate resources to the drought response. The government has done that in the past and I am confident that it will do it  this time around. Unfortunately, government does not have all the resources that are necessary for that. If you look back at the 2015/2016 drought, the government brought in money. I think about M150 million and that is a sizable amount. The tricky part is how do we draw the line between the dependency and the fact that a government doesn’t have enough resources?

For us there is a moral obligation to address the plight of the population. This is a natural disaster. It’s about giving the tools to the population to withstand the shocks when there’s a drought or floods.

LT: Our question is not a criticism of the international partners’ contribution. The Auditor General’s reports indicate that during time you say the government only contributes M150 million to the drought relief effort, the same government diverted M400 million meant for student loans to funding the 2017 elections. If this no confidence motion succeeds, it’s very likely that we are going to have snap elections again. We’ve been having this cycle of elections every two years. Somehow politicians will always find the money to hold elections and that money is far much more than the money they invest in such critical situations like alleviating the drought situation. And when they do that, some would say that they do that out of the knowledge that the UN and other development partners will always feel the moral responsibility to prevent people from starving but the politicians themselves are not taking charge of the situation. As the UN, do you ever speak to governments about getting their priorities right? 

SN:. If you’re talking about the government being responsible for the citizenry, it is true but the citizens also need to hold the government to account because the citizens are the ones voting them into office.

Secondly, as the United Nations, we are not a political actor and some of the questions need to be put to the politicians themselves. But clearly, political instability is not good for development.   For instance, the M400 million  you mentioned could have been invested in development. But this is also a situation that is there and the best would be to act on the causes, not on the effects.

LT: You mentioned the involvement of men in issues to do with the mitigation of abuse of women and children. How has this worked out? How have men responded to this call? 

SN: There are several categories of men. There are the perpetrators who should face justice. Therefore, the role that UN and stakeholders play is to facilitate access to justice for the victims. The second category of men are the men who don’t have the information about abuse. These are given the information and appreciate the need to fight abuse. But there is also a third category of men, at least as far as Lesotho is concerned. These are convinced that certain practices such as wife beating or beating children are not questionable. Such men are harder to convince because in the name of cultural practice or cultural belief, they feel  that this is normal. Such men need much longer and far reaching interventions because they need education to change their beliefs and behaviours.

These issues are much more complicated and complex than they look so it’s not something that we can change with the snap of our fingers.

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