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Zimbabwe: keeping up with evolving humanitarian needs

28-10-2011 Interview

The outgoing head of the ICRC regional delegation in Harare, Thomas Merkelbach started his assignment at a time when violence plagued Zimbabwe following the March 2008 elections, the economy was overwhelmed by hyperinflation and access to essential services was difficult. Three years on, he assesses the results achieved in Zimbabwe and the region and the challenges ahead.

What was the humanitarian situation when you arrived in Zimbabwe?

Due to the violence following the elections in March 2008, people were displaced and had their homes and possessions destroyed. The situation was so difficult for them that we had to deliver food and basic items such as blankets to over 5,000 people across the country.

When the violence stopped, families gradually returned home. In late 2008 and early 2009, we supported 13,000 farmers including their families and their communities in four districts in Mashonaland Central and Mashonaland East provinces of Zimbabwe by providing them with training on conservation agriculture techniques, seeds, fertilizers and agricultural tools so that they could rebuild their lives. Although there were significant needs in many districts, we chose to focus on these areas because the regions that had faced regular problems of food security in the past were hit by the violence in a particularly harsh way.

The persistence of hyperinflation that made health services unobtainable for many and the emergence of the cholera epidemic in 2008 led us to increase our support to a total of 25 clinics in urban and rural areas, in charge of delivering medical care for over 1.2 million people.

Has the situation changed since then?

The environment in Zimbabwe is more stable, especially now that the economy has picked up. This generally allows people to live better, whilst service providers have more means to plan and invest to improve the availability of essential public services. As a result, we have handed over our support to rural health clinics and the rural water board (District Development Fund) to the authorities. However, huge expectations from the public for things to improve quickly are perhaps the biggest challenge, demonstrating a level of hope and resilience that is very encouraging and humbling.

What were ICRC's major achievements over the last few years?

The Government of Zimbabwe gave us access to Ministry of Justice-run prisons in 2009. For two years now, we have been able to visit inmates and support food security in detention places. Today, technical and financial resources provided by the Government to Zimbabwe Prison Services (ZPS) have increased.

A joint ZPS-ICRC steering committee is closely monitoring the handover process of ICRC food assistance to ensure that the welfare of the inmates is not compromised. If necessary, the committee can make appropriate adjustments. However, capacity-building activities in the area of food production, but also rehabilitation of critical infrastructure and ICRC support for prison health services will continue in 2012.

What activities does the ICRC pursue in Malawi, Zambia and Namibia?

One of the roles of national societies is to take action in favour of the wounded during violent events. This is why Malawi Red Cross volunteers provided emergency first aid to people injured during violent protests in July 2011 and Zambia Red Cross volunteers responded to incidents of violence during the September 2011 general elections. To support its two partners, the ICRC provided them with first aid kits, vehicles, training and also of an ICRC team on the ground in Zambia.

Among our activities with the national societies the region, we also run a family visit program with the Namibia Red Cross Society. We facilitate the travel of families of inmates detained following the events in the Caprivi region in 1999 to the places of detention twice a year. This  has a great positive impact as some of the families live over 1000 km away from the prisons where their loved ones are being held and cannot regularly visit them.

We also work with all national Red Cross Societies in the region assisting people displaced by the conflicts to restore and maintain contact with their families. Those receiving assistance come from a variety of countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Somalia. This is done through Red Cross messages but increasingly through modern technology such as e-mail whenever possible.

What kind of relations does the ICRC have with the Southern African Development Community?

We have a long-standing collaboration with the Southern African Development Community (SADC), in particular through our partnership with the SADC Regional Peacekeeping Training Centre. We regularly address senior policymakers, police and military officials on the role of international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles in peace support operations.

What are the challenges ahead?

Throughout the region, there are a number of common humanitarian challenges – outbreaks of violence relating to elections or protests, displacement and migration due to conflicts from all over the African continent, recurrent major natural disasters and threats to economic security.

Where there are outbreaks of violence, we will continue to closely monitor developments and deploy our teams and resources to help people in need or support initiatives of the national Red Cross Societies in line with our mission. Together with our partners from the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, we are ready to step up in favour of the most vulnerable when needed.

The warm welcome and generosity I personally and the organization continue to receive throughout the region reflects the deep roots that the ICRC has established in southern Africa through over 50 years of humanitarian action. I hope that we can continue to make a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of people across the region.


Thomas Merkelbach 

Thomas Merkelbach

Zimbabwe, 2010. A mother with her baby at Glenview polyclinic, in for a regular check-up and vaccination 

Zimbabwe, 2010. A mother with her baby at Glenview polyclinic, in for a regular check-up and vaccination
© ICRC / O. Moeckli

Zimbabwe, Anju Prison Farm, 2011. Inmates separate foreign particles from sugar bean seeds before packaging them into 50 kg bags.  

Zimbabwe, Anju Prison Farm, 2011. Inmates separate foreign particles from sugar bean seeds before packaging them into 50 kg bags.
© ICRC / D. Hove

Zimbabwe, Anju Prison Farm, 2011. Inmates work together to package sugar beans into bags 

Zimbabwe, Anju Prison Farm, 2011. Inmates work together to package sugar beans into bags
© ICRC / D. Hove