22 May 2011
Swaziland must cut spending: World Bank
MBABANE — Swaziland may be forced to devalue its currency unless the crisis-hit southern African kingdom can urgently cut government spending, a World Bank economist warned.
"It is getting to the point of reckoning -- when Swaziland will no longer be able to sustain its deficit," visiting World Bank economist Jean van Houtte told AFP, ahead of a meeting here Monday (23 May 2011) organised by the lender on the crisis.
"We have said if you need a little time to get your house in order you can re-peg at a different level."
Swaziland's currency, the lilangeni, is pegged at one-to-one with the South African rand.
But pressure to devalue is growing as the country faces a fiscal crisis brought on by a 60 percent drop last year in revenues from a regional customs union, the government's main source of income.
The country has been paying civil servants by drawing down its foreign reserves, but as the crisis deepens the kingdom's cash is running out.
Finance Minister Majozi Sithole warned on state radio last week that it would be "difficult" for the government to pay May salaries, adding: "I do not even want to mention June" -- a bombshell he later retracted, promising the government would find a way.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Swaziland's central bank had to issue an emergency loan for the government to pay salaries in February.
The IMF says Swaziland has one of the world's highest wage bills -- almost half of government spending -- and a deficit that stood at 13 percent of GDP at the end of March, nearly double that of the previous year.
The global lender on Wednesday gave Swaziland's financial reform programme a harsh review, a major blow to its urgent attempts to secure international loans.
"A large fiscal adjustment is needed to bring the programme back on track and reduce the fiscal deficit in line with available financing," said mission head Joannes Mongardini in a statement at the end of an IMF visit.
In March, cabinet members agreed to take a 10 percent pay cut, but negotiations to get public-sector workers to accept a 4.5 percent wage cut have failed.
The government's moves to slash its wage bill sparked large protests in April that were forcefully put down by King Mswati III's regime. Police beat, detained and tear-gassed protesters, drawing condemnation from international human rights groups.
A finance ministry source told AFP the government is determined not to devalue the currency and will try to get through the next two months by drawing down reserves.
The country's commercial banks are not buying government bonds, limiting the state's capacity to borrow domestically.
The World Bank has agreed to loan Swaziland $20 million (14 million euros), but the money will only be available in September. Even coupled with a potential $150-million loan from the African Development Bank, van Houtte warned, "they are not close to closing their financial gap".
The government's 2011 budget deficit is expected to hit $565 million.
The government is now in a position where it will have to take "unilateral action" to force through salary cuts, he said.
Some 70 percent of Swazis live on less than a dollar a day and face growing strain from rising food and transport costs.
Van Houtte warned that if the currency peg is scrapped, income distribution could become more unequal, hitting civil servants especially hard.
"You would have an immediate impoverishment of civil servants at the same level of depreciation," he said.
"That is because most goods they buy are imported from South Africa."
IMF WARNS OF 30 PERCENT PAY CUTS