Thirteen years ago, the small settlement of Matutuine in southern Mozambique was a desolate site, uninhabited and ruined by war.

The 50,000 people who lived there had fled to neighboring South Africa or tiny Swaziland to escape the mayhem and bloodshed during the civil war that raged for 16 years before ending in 1992.

Back then, the ravages of war could be seen in the bullet-pocked walls of bombed buildings. Of the 73 schools in Matutuine when Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in 1975, only half a dozen were left.

But the picture looks different today.

Billions of donor dollars, channeled through non-governmental organizations, are changing the landscape, and the Swiss charity Helvetas has been leading the charge.

Helvetas funded the Pochane primary school for 230 students, one of 14 such facilities built by the Swiss group that serves as a beacon of hope in a district that had virtually been abandoned.

Helvetas is among hundreds of NGOs -- international and Mozambican -- involved in such projects as removing land mines, building schools and hospitals, tackling a growing AIDS epidemic and helping develop commercial agriculture.

"We used to teach under the trees and had few pupils, as the conditions didn't allow for more," said Antonio Simbine, the principal at Pochane. He said poor hygiene and inadequate infrastructure deterred parents from sending their children to school.

"Life improved with the NGOs' help," said Mateus Kalane, a cattle farmer who has built up a herd of 30 head.

Elders say Matutuine had 65,000 cattle at independence, more cows than people. During the war, that number fell to 700. But micro-finance deals organized by NGOs and the government have helped boost the count back to 11,500.

"If we didn't have these organizations, Matutuine would be in an alarming situation. They have helped the district to grow," said Rogerio Capezula, an administrator in the area.

The British charity Oxfam, which aims to help people fend for themselves, set up a micro-credit scheme to promote small businesses. The project, known as Hluvuko, is now run by Mozambicans who used to work for Oxfam. Hluvuko has 1,500 clients from poor communities and $500,000 in credit. Organizers say its bad debt is only 2 percent.

"Hluvuko is a real miracle. It has generated a lot of interest, and our portfolio is growing. We want to increase our services," said Paulo Cuvela, the project's operations director.

NGOs in Mozambique tend to shun major cities, bringing their support directly to poor people in rural areas.

Thanks to foreign aid, Mozambique has turned into one of the continent's success stories, with economic growth averaging 8 percent over the past decade.

Former president Joaquim Chissano worked to open up the economy after the war, winning praise from international institutions and donors. Market reforms in the former Marxist country have attracted big business in mining and energy.

Much of the economic growth has been created by billions of dollars in investment in so-called mega-projects -- an aluminum smelter owned by the Anglo-Australian mining company BHP Billiton and a natural gas project operated by the South African petrochemical firm Sasol.

Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, a Brazilian diversified mining company, is the latest to jump into Mozambique, lining up $1 billion to invest in a coal mining project.

Mozambique's government has been so prudent at managing donor aid that the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and donors such as the United States and Britain channel a chunk of their money directly through the government.

Seventeen major donors fund half Mozambique's state budget and have helped cut poverty -- described by the World Bank as living on less than $1 a day -- to nearly 50 percent from nearly 90 percent in 1990, according to government data.

"Growing the economy is absolutely necessary to keep donor funds flowing into Mozambique. You've got to show that something is made out of the cash offered by lenders," said Carlos Castel-Branco, a senior economic consultant in Maputo.

Castel-Branco said the only complaint was that the success of donor and NGO programs fueled a dependency syndrome among the country's 18 million people.

"External aid must support the end to aid dependency by creating more and better institutions and accessible, affordable quality of services to improve the lives of our people," he said.

Amancio Chilengue, a regional government administrator, said the government would not have been able to deal with the country's needs without the help from NGOs and other donors.

"We basically would still be at zero," he said.

Arminda Nhambe, 22, tends her mother's shop in Matutuine district. The business was funded by credit from an NGO.