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The fight for quality of life

Peter McNichol works on HIV education in Zimbabwe, the nation with the world's shortest life expectancy, writes Caitriona Mc Bride. This article is featured in today's Irish Times supplement about Concern and its work.

Dublin may be at the heart of Concern’s operation, but their country directors are responsible for implementing their work abroad. Peter McNichol is the country director in Zimbabwe, where he and his team work on food security programmes and HIV awareness programmes in the country.

“The role of country director is quite broad, as it is a management position and you are also supporting the team here. It’s my job to make sure that we’re doing what Concern set out to do, and that the money is funded into the right areas. I also make sure international policies are implemented, and oversee funding and budgets with Angela O’Neill De Guilio, the regional director. We want to make sure that the money we receive is changing people’s lives.”

Once the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe’s agricultural production has steadily declined since the 1980s after President Robert Mugabe's Zanu PF party ended white rule upon gaining power. Mugabe introduced controversial compulsory land distribution, from almost all white-owned commercial farms to black Zimbabweans, in 2000.

This led to a dramatic decline in the agricultural industry, traditionally the country's leading export. The country has since experienced hyperinflation: Zimbabwe’s Central Statistical Office showed inflation levels reached over 7,000 per cent in July last year.

A recent UN report said that life expectancy in Zimbabwe is the shortest in the world, with women expected to live to 34 and men to 37.

“Economic decline over the last seven years has sadly eroded the standard of living of most Zimbabweans, as well as the average life expectancy,” says McNichol.

“Once boasting one of the best education and health systems in Africa, lack of income has affected standards, delivery of care and ultimately staff morale.

“At the moment, there is a stalemate between the government here and the international community. There is low level investment, and that is putting great strain on the economy, as the internal situation isn’t able to cushion that loss. The civil services, like health, transport and education, have all gone backwards. Until there is an agreement on how to go forward, there will be people falling into poverty.”

McNichol is originally from York in England, and this is his fifth year in Zimbabwe and his 12th in Africa. After qualifying as a nurse, he got his first volunteering position with Concern in 1996.

He went to Angola as a volunteer on a nutritional programme and moved into a paediatric programme. After four years in Angola, he became assistant country

director in Mozambique, where he stayed until 2003 when he became country director in Zimbabwe.

Concern focuses on food security and HIV/Aids awareness programmes in Zimbabwe. One method they use for improving agricultural production is called conservation farming, something that can be practiced by those who can’t access livestock for tillage. It involves better use of land and water, using simple processes that McNichol says are already showing effective results.

Quality seed and fertiliser have also been in very short supply in the country.

Concern has been supporting 25,000 families with the provision of seed and fertiliser

as well as training for communities on how to save their own seed.

Droughts in the last number of years have caused food shortages. After a drought hit last year and drastically reduced the harvest, Concern, in partnership with the World Food Programme, have been providing food to 200,000 people on a monthly basis.

Concern’s HIV programme aims to address the underlying issues of genderbased

violence; harmful traditional practices like wife inheritance, early marriage

and forced marriage; and women’s inequality.

While the rate of HIV infection amongst 15-to-49-year-olds in Zimbabwe has fallen from 24 per cent to 15 per cent over the last few years, the level of infection and rate of new infections is still one of the worst in the world.

“Work is under way with groups of men and women, as well as in schools, in which people examine for themselves the risk factors and come up with their own pans for change, and children are alking about issues themselves and taking messages home to parents as well as to out-of-school children.”

McNichol says that while the role of a country director can be quite difficult at times, his commitment to the work they are doing and the relationship with the regional director and staff is his main focus.

"It can be a lonely position, but the role can be greatly improved by the working relationship with the regional director, and I’m very lucky that Angela and I are both focused on the same goals,” he says.

“We have to have an understanding about the goals we want to achieve in Zimbabwe. I also get on very well with the country team here, and that is very important.

"If you feel you are making progress somewhere, that’s very inspirational. I think to get through the feelings of isolation, you have to be dedicated to what

the organisation is all about.”