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Zimbabwe: no war, but major role for ICRC

11-01-2008 Interview

Although at peace, Zimbabwe faces many difficulties. Zoran Jovanovic, the ICRC’s head of delegation in Harare, describes the challenges and what the ICRC is doing to meet them.


  Zoran Jovanovic    

 What is the current situation in Zimbabwe, from a humanitarian point of view?  

It’s rather complicated, for many reasons. The first is t hat Zimbabwe was for many years the breadbasket of southern Africa, and one of the consequences of the agrarian reform carried out since 2000 has been a sharp drop in productivity. Among the other reasons for the complicated situation is the impact that AIDS and associated diseases have on the population, especially in rural areas. Clearly, it can be very difficult for someone who is HIV positive and not receiving treatment to carry on with highly physical and exhausting work in the fields.

A further reason is that many people have fled, mainly for economic reasons, to South Africa, England, Zambia, Botswana or Namibia. From 3.5 to 4 million Zimbabweans are now estimated to have left the country, out of a population of 12 or 13 million. The consequences of the 2005 Operation Murambatsvina , in which the government took vigorous action against structures it perceived to be illegal, should also be mentioned. Several hundred thousand people were displaced without any possibility of being rehoused.

Another aspect is the isolation currently being endured by Zimbabwe, one of the consequences of which is a lack of funding for development projects. Money is available for humanitarian programmes, which although needed do not obviate the need for development aid. Nowadays such aid is no longer being provided.

It should be recalled that health and education in Zimbabwe used to be models for all of Africa. This is no longer the case, despite the valuable work still being performed by staff in very difficult conditions. We are witnessing what one Zimbabwean diplomat has described as “meltdown.” A gradual disintegration is under way, in which the State remains strong, State structures remain intact, and infrastructure is still remarkable compared with that in other countries of the region, but the country’s problems are enormous.

 How is the ICRC’s work different from that of other humanitarian organizations?  

We want it to be different. First of all, it has to be mentioned that the context in Zimbabwe is different from that in which the ICRC traditionally works. The country is not in the midst of an armed conflict. It is at peace, but struggling with problems such as population displacement sometimes afflicting countries at war. Our programmes may be modest, but they are having a real impact on the people we are trying to help.

We started the only primary health-care programme ever undertaken in Zimbabwe. We selected 16 medical centres in three districts of three different provinces. The ICRC’s medical aid is combined with aid in the area of water supply and sanitation so as to ensure that the centres have access to drinking water. At the same time, the ICRC provides spare parts at no charge for the communities around the health-care centres to enable them to restore to working order the manual water pumps installed in the villages. This is one part of our activities.

We are currently in the process of expanding these activities in the city of Harare, mainly in the area of water supply and sanitation, in order to help the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) to distribute ample amounts of good-quality water. ZINWA still has very professional staff, but triple-digit inflation has whittled away its resources.

Next year we will decide whether we want to press on down this path and possibly attempt to do something for other cities, such as Bulawayo, the second-largest in the country, which also has major water-supply and water-quality problems.

 Can you tell us more about the ICRC’s work in the area of health care and about cooperation with the health ministry?  

The aim is to h elp existing facilities. The ICRC is not launching a medical programme where there are no medical facilities. On the contrary, it is relying on the support of existing facilities and qualified personnel. I would like to say that the personnel working in the field deserve more respect than they are receiving. To appreciate their commitment, you have to take into account the conditions in which they are working and their salaries in real terms. We are attempting to provide support for the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, which is responsible for managing the health-care system in Zimbabwe.

The ICRC would like to do more, but we need to be realistic and take into account the fact that important elections will soon take place in Zimbabwe. It is very difficult to accomplish anything there before such an event.

 Why is the ICRC actively promoting international humanitarian law among Zimbabwean military personnel and especially in youth camps?  

It is important to point out that the Zimbabwean armed forces are among the most advanced in southern Africa in terms of studying and assimilating international humanitarian law, both at the level of senior officers and among younger officers having the rank of captain or major. The Zimbabwe Defence Forces have the political will and the institutional focus to ensure that their personnel are acquainted with international law and know when and how to apply it. The ICRC is regularly invited to take part in training courses, seminars and workshops organized for the armed forces. Our goal consists mainly in lending support to these efforts by the Zimbabwean armed forces to assimilate international humanitarian law. A secondary aim is to take advantage of the opportunity to meet military personnel occupying an important position in a country that has been independent for only 27 years.

The visits to the youth camps should not be misinterpreted. The ICRC’s purpose in going to the camps is to make contact with young people who will certainly be playing an important role in Zimbabwean society in a few years’ time. For us, this is an excellent way of letting them know who we are and of presenting the Movement, the ICRC and the minimum standards that must be upheld in crisis situations.

Even though Zimbabwe does not currently find itself in an armed-conflict situation – this cannot be repeated too often – it is nevertheless very important to speak to young people there who, depending on the circumstances, may be called upon by the authorities to take action in contexts such as elections. We would like to sidestep the controversy surrounding the youth camps and establish a long-term dialogue. It is important to note that the ICRC is the only organization that has been given access to the camps.