New Internationalist

Smothered with kindness

December 1979

Lesotho, a tiny land-locked country completely surrounded by South Africa, has become a kind of test laboratory for Western aid donors. Here Brian Murphy looks at the results of such a massive infusion of aid and concludes that the real winner might not be Lesotho’s rural poor but the Republic of South Africa.

The economics of everyday life in Lesotho are dominated by South Africa. From livestock marketing to printing presses, matches to milk, everything comes from outside. The tiny nation has only one resource - labour. Lesotho exports more migrant labour per head than any other nation. Earnings from men working in South African mines are the mainstay of the economy.

In 1976, wages of migrant workers made up 70 per cent of household income. Young men from the rural areas are signed on for specific periods. The migrant workers return as consumers joining a social economy quite different from the feudal subsistence lifestyle of the mountains.

A miner can make $1400 a year. Without a man in the mines, a house­hold will average $90 a year. The poverty line in 1976 was $120. The gap between those on the land and those supported by migrant labour has created a dual economy, where in the words of E.F. Schumacher ‘two ways of life exist side by side … Even the humblest member of one disposes of an income which is a high multiple of the income accruing to even the hardest working member of the other.’

Western aid encourages this condition, maintaining the country as a cheap labour pool for South Africa. Put crudely, Lesotho has become the ‘darling of the developers.’

From Denmark, Canada, Britain, Holland, Switzerland, Ireland, Japan, even Taiwan, and most conspicuously the United States donors are falling over themselves to ‘do something’ in Lesotho. Some say that the ‘neat little population’ appeals to developers looking for an easily quantifiable test area. Others point to the universal guilt complex about the ‘immovable reality’ of the South African Republic which circulates among the international development agencies resulting in a ‘smother-the-victims’ approach. Whatever the case, the increase in funds coming from outside Lesotho has been enough to double the govern­ment’s budget in the last two years and create a fast growing cash economy centered on the capital Maseru.

Projects crop up weekly. They’re aimed at every facet of life from soil erosion control and the building of bridges to the marketing of local handi­crafts. Most of the plans seem first to require an administrative set-up. After offices have been acquired, plans worked out and local assistants to the intern­ational experts hired and housed in the overcrowded capital, aid is chanelled to the mostly rural communities.

There has been a sudden high demand for educated or trainable Basotho. The accent in the offices is on ‘localisation’. But the approach to localisation creates an emerging bureaucratic middle class in the capital which has less and less in common with the 90 per cent in the countryside for whom they administer projects.

Debatable as this development strategy may be, it does not take away from the fact that there is a growing cash economy dispensing incomes that are ‘high multiples’ of those earned by most every­one else in Lesotho, except those migrant labourers returning fresh from work in South Africa.

But it does not stop there. The actual operation of Western projects only encourages the two-tier labour system. Western projects are dependent on South African industry while project planners have created an elite of administrative mandarins’.

The British government has admitted that, upon application, a British aid project in Lesotho can receive a Depart­ment of Trade ‘waiver’ to obtain parts and services in South Africa.

The Canadian International Develop­ment Agency (CIDA) is creating a completely new administrative centre deep in the Drakensberg mountains. New roads are under construction and a new town is being built. The building sub-contractor is South African and houses are constructed complete with ,servants’ quarters’ on the Transvaal model. The administrative centre for the project is in Maseru.

A spokesperson at CIDA in Ottawa has admitted that this project is now considered a very large and costly mis­take. They are re-evaluating their commitment and looking for ways out. Back in the mountains one development worker put it this way: ‘It is the same story over again. When the Americans and the Danes and the Canadians leave, the villagers will continue their marginal farming practices and wait for the mine wages, knowing only that now the taxman lives down the valley rather than in Maseru.’

In Maseru, a town of fifty thousand expanding exponentially, there seems to be no escape; all economic roads lead to South Africa. Sooner or later the ‘special’ problems presented by Lesotho will have to be recognised.

Western aid seems to ignore the economic realities while relying on South African industry to extend its project infrastructures, supplement the life styles of its western workers and create a new urban middle class. The end result is a constant stream of rural poor to staff the mines of South Africa and a privileged urban elite whose position depends on continued aid from the West.

Brian Murphy worked for two years as a journalist in Lesotho and is now based in Scotland.

This feature was published in the December 1979 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 082

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