Grassroots projects growing in western Zambia

News Stories, 4 March 2004

© UNHCR/K.Shimo
Students in Ngundi have received desks and chairs as part of efforts to upgrade school facilities under the Zambia Initiative.

KAOMA, Zambia (UNHCR) A little initiative goes a long way in western Zambia, where a rural development programme is making students sit up and listen, helping farmers reap better harvests, and improving health among their livestock.

Starting last April under a joint government/UNHCR project with support from various donors, the Zambia Initiative has been working steadily to reduce poverty and promote development among refugees and their host community in the country's Western province. The area is one of the least developed parts of Zambia, and hosts the biggest number of refugees (some 150,000), mostly from Angola.

"This initiative heralds a new phase in the relationship between host communities and refugees," said UNHCR Regional Representative in Zambia, Ahmed Gubartalla. It does so by encouraging both communities to work together on agriculture, livestock, education and health projects managed by local development committees with technical support from the government.

The UN refugee agency is playing a cathartic role in assisting the Zambian government to obtain the necessary funding, which may come through UNHCR or through bilateral aid to the government of Zambia. For instance, the Danish government has pumped in $9.7 million to the Zambia Initiative through bilateral investment, in addition to funding school construction. The United States government has contributed $1 million in seed funds through UNHCR to support agriculture, education and health.

The Japanese government donated two ambulances worth $54,000 to hospitals in Western province's districts of Kaoma and Senanga. Through the UN Human Security Trust Fund, it also recently contributed about $1.2 million to support various projects under the Zambia Initiative.

The Swedish embassy contributed $130,000 to the programme towards HIV/AIDS intervention, and to support the construction of a reproductive health centre in Senanga under the YMCA.

"The projects have started to make a difference in the lives of refugees and ourselves, the host community," said Kenny Mbonena, a local headman and chairman of the Mushwala B local development committee in Kaoma district, near Mayukwayukwa refugee settlement in Western province.

In the agriculture sector, one project is currently supporting farmers in Kaoma, Senanga and Shan'gombo districts by providing them with farming inputs like improved seed varieties and fertilisers on credit. This has enabled refugees and local villagers to cultivate large plots of land that are expected to yield better harvests. The farmers repay the loan after harvest, and the money is put into a revolving bank account to invest in the next farming season. The accounts are managed by the local committees while funds are administered by the bank.

"Before this, we had no inputs, but now we have them and with good rains we are expecting a good harvest," said Mbonena hopefully.

In the province's drought-prone areas, the Zambia Initiative has brought hand-dug communal wells to ensure supplementary water supply to the refugees and local villagers, enabling them to cultivate large areas even off-season.

Small-scale farmers battling crop-damaging pests in several villages have been introduced to improved storage bins and silos so that they can market surplus stored grains. All of this has worked to give the area's residents an improved level of food security.

Livestock owners have also received help to keep their animals healthy. "It was hard for me to access veterinary help before the Zambia Initiative," said refugee Antonio Fernando. "But now I've managed to vaccinate my eight head of cattle."

By giving refugees access to small loans, the programme has also improved their economic status and that of their host communities. In addition, refugees and Zambians have been mobilised and organised to work together on various construction projects. This has helped the two groups to exchange skills and share a common goal.

Currently, a high school funded by the US government is being constructed in Mayukwayukwa refugee settlement to cater for both refugees and their host community. This will reduce pressure on the settlement's existing schools and allow more youngsters to study.

Two other schools are being constructed and expanded in Mushwala B and Ngundi, funded by the Danish embassy in Lusaka. "Our children used to sit on the floor during lessons," said Inonge Situmbeko of Ngundi. "But with the construction of this modern school, they are now able to learn in a conducive atmosphere."

Beyond basic education, the initiative is also funding the renovation of Senanga Trades School. Once completed, it will enable refugees and Zambians throughout Western province to acquire technical skills in various professions.

The initiative represents a positive input of skills and resources in refugee and host communities alike, and its impact will continue to be felt, even though many refugees have already returned or are intending to return to Angola this year. Skills such as carpentry and brick laying will prove useful to refugees who choose to go home.

On the other hand, many young refugees who were born in Zambia, or others who have been in exile for over 30 years, may opt to remain in Zambia. The initiative will continue to assist them and their hosts through agencies involved in long-term development aid.

UNHCR's Gubartalla is optimistic that this programme will receive the necessary support from various stakeholders because Zambians deserve help for their hospitality to refugees. "Donor interest in the Zambia Initiative has continued to abound, with ongoing missions by various donor embassies to visit projects under this programme," he said.

To review the Zambia Initiative's progress so far, the first meeting of national and local authorities, donors and UNHCR was held in Lusaka last December. The parties agreed to strengthen their coordination and improve the monitoring of activities in the field.

Welcoming the Zambia Initiative, Jacob Mphepo, Commissioner for Refugees in the Zambian Ministry of Home Affairs, said the strategy ensured that refugee-impacted areas could reconstruct their communities. The Zambian government has remained committed to the initiative, regarding it as an instrument of its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper.

According to Maswabi Maimbolwa, the Permanent Secretary of Zambia's Western province, the programme is the biggest development project in his province, fully involving government departments and local communities in its implementation.

"The programme has been well placed in the regional development plan of the province," he said. With more funding expected from donors, the Zambia Initiative, coordinated by UNHCR as a bridge between relief and development and for the local integration of refugees, stands to break more ground for refugees and their hosts who have learnt to live together.