The US’ commitment to the people of Zim won’t change

USAID has a new country director, Arthur Brown . Reporter Tatira Zwinoira (TZ) had an exclusive interview with Brown (AB) to discuss his vision for USAid Zimbabwe, which is the largest humanitarian aid donor of the United States government in the country.

TZ: Welcome to Zimbabwe. Is this your first time visiting the country?

AB: It is very nice to meet you and a pleasure to be here in Zimbabwe. I visited Zimbabwe 20 years ago when I was living next door in Botswana, and since that short trip two decades ago I knew I would come back to Zimbabwe. It is a place I have always wanted to live, work, and explore.

Zimbabwe is a great nation with a lot to offer and wonderful people who make it a fantastic place to be.

TZ: Have you had a chance to travel? If so, what is your personal view of the country?

AB: I recently completed the required 21-day quarantine, and I can already see that Zimbabwe is a very beautiful country with warm, friendly, and talented people.

All I can say for now is that it is easy to see Zimbabwe’s potential to be an economic powerhouse within the region and the continent, just as it used to be. You have tourism, natural resources, fertile agricultural lands, and, most importantly, very talented human capital. I think that we are living in complicated times.

I know I come to Zimbabwe at a very critical stage, when Covid-19 cases are beginning to escalate. Zimbabwe has over 7 388 cases and over 218 deaths, and unfortunately, we will most likely continue to see an upward trajectory for a while. I am proud of our efforts, so far, to respond to Covid-19, with a total of US$19,3 million to train healthcare workers to better respond to cases, address the increasingly dire humanitarian situation in the urban areas, improve water and sanitation, and provide life-saving information to millions of Zimbabweans.

TZ: Zimbabwe is plagued with many problems from economic to social to climate change. What is your focus on helping deal with these issues during your tenure in the short to medium to long term?

AB: USAid and its partners continue to address food insecurity and take on new efforts to address Covid-19. I am encouraged to see how our annual investments in health care, food security, and emergency preparedness have laid the foundation for the Covid-19 response today.

Our promise to the people of Zimbabwe has not changed. We stand by the commitments that we made to the people of Zimbabwe at its Independence in 1980: to work together to promote democratic institutions, equitable economic growth, public health, and food security. I am not sure if you are aware of this: USAid’s total 2020 budget is currently over US$310 million, with the bulk of this funding to address pressing health and humanitarian assistance needs.

On the economic front, our activities help smallholder farmers reduce their vulnerability to economic and climatic shocks and stresses through climate-smart agriculture and better linking them to viable markets, so they can earn higher incomes. Just before my arrival, USAid announced a new five-year, US$19,8 million programme called Fostering Agribusiness for Resilient Markets (FARM) to bolster agriculture in Zimbabwe. Through facilitating climate-smart approaches to crop and livestock development, FARM will help increase smallholder productivity, bolster crop and livestock sales, and improve their household nutrition and incomes.

Our programmes are also affected by Covid-19 and we continue to prioritise the safety, security, and well-being of our beneficiaries, our partners. At least 4 million vulnerable Zimbabweans face challenges accessing primary health care and visits to healthcare providers have dropped sharply in the last month.

Our staff is focusing on ensuring that people living with HIV have an uninterrupted supply of life-saving antiretroviral (ARV) medicines and continuing to provide food assistance during the lean season when rural families face the challenge of depleted household food stocks. We have been working tirelessly with our health and humanitarian partners to accomplish these goals. With regard to climate change, while we are committed to providing emergency food assistance, our activities also help vulnerable Zimbabweans transition from food aid to food security and self-reliance.

USAid Zimbabwe continues building on its work that increases the resilience of communities to shocks and stresses and ultimately reduces the need for humanitarian assistance. I have read many success stories highlighting the impact of USAid’s work. For example, over the last seven years, we have helped communities transition from food aid to sustainable development by tackling the root causes of food insecurity and poverty and strengthening resilience for generations to come.

Since 2011 more than 1 700 of these community assets have been built or rehabilitated, which includes creating and repairing dams, irrigation systems, and dip tanks throughout the country.

TZ: The current US President Donald Trump has spoken many times about cutting what he calls ‘unnecessary’ expenditure. He has already started by cutting support to the UN.

Considering how the USA is getting battered by the effects of Covid-19 will such cuts affect USAid’s work in Zimbabwe? If so, how and by how much?

AB: The US remains committed to our humanitarian assistance. In fact, since the outbreak of Covid-19, the US has provided more than US$20,5 billion worldwide to help fight the pandemic.

In Zimbabwe, our total Covid-19 contributions are over US$19,3 million. In addition, the US has built the foundation upon which the global health system is based, contributing more than US$140 billion in global health assistance in the 21st century alone.

As the largest bilateral donor to humanitarian assistance in Zimbabwe, we partner with the World Food Programme (WFP) and other organisations to carry out our work. The US has not cut funding to the United Nations here in Zimbabwe. As a matter of fact, we have provided over US$70 million in funding through World Food Programme (WFP) to provide emergency assistance to over one million food insecure Zimbabweans in both rural and urban areas.

Let me reiterate that our promise to the people of Zimbabwe has not changed. We remain committed to working together with Zimbabweans to realise the promise of a more peaceful, more productive, and more prosperous 21st century Africa.

Among the immediate challenges facing Zimbabwe is hunger caused by climate change and worsened by the declining economy. Describe to me your plan on dealing with these challenges?

AB: Along with our humanitarian assistance programmes that provide a safety net to vulnerable households, we will continue building on our work that increases the resilience of communities to shocks and stresses and ultimately reduces the need for humanitarian assistance.

Over the last seven years, we have helped communities transition from food assistance to sustainable development by tackling the root causes of food insecurity and poverty and strengthening resilience for generations to come. We worked with communities to create and repair over 1 700 dams, irrigation systems, and dip tanks throughout the country. Through these community assets, vulnerable people have water for their cattle which are traditionally a source of income, and they also have water for community gardens to grow vegetables for their nutrition and income.

TZ: Another problem in Zimbabwe is corruption among humanitarian aid whereby certain politicians, government or well-connected people seek kickbacks from organisations such as USAid or steal the support itself. How do you plan on navigating through that problem?

AB: Our assistance does not go through the Zimbabwean government. We have not received reports of abuse of USAid-supported humanitarian assistance, but USAid takes allegations of misuse of US funding very seriously. If we do receive such allegations, USAid takes decisive action to address them.

Depending on how serious the allegations are, we can request an external and independent investigation by the Office of the USAid Inspector-General. USAid works with a variety of partners and organisations, and we consistently adhere to the highest standards of accountability for US taxpayer funds. In general, we have a robust monitoring system in place, through our partners, to ensure that our food assistance goes to the most vulnerable.

TZ: If the US elects former vice-president Joe Biden in November as its new president will your plans and vision for USAid change in any way? Explain.

AB: Again, let me reiterate that our promise to the people of Zimbabwe has not changed. We stand by the commitments that we made to the people of Zimbabwe at its Independence in 1980: to work together to promote democratic institutions, equitable economic growth, public health, and food security.

Since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, with both Democrats and Republicans sitting in the Oval Office, the US has invested nearly US$3,2 billion in Zimbabwe, including initiatives to increase food security, support economic resilience, improve health outcomes, and promote democratic governance.

The US deeply respects the people of Zimbabwe and values its partnerships with them. We remain committed to working together with Zimbabweans to realise the promise of a more peaceful, more productive, and more prosperous 21st Century Africa.

TZ: How important is the media to you in accomplishing the agenda of USAid under your tenure?

AB: Ours is a development agenda and the media is very important in helping us tell the stories of our beneficiaries and the stories of partnership between the American and Zimbabwean people. For journalists to be able to tell Zimbabwe’s story and contribute to the development of this nation, they need an environment where they can freely exercise their rights and basic yet constitutional freedoms of speech and expression.

TZ: What is your plan on dealing with the growing poverty in urban areas caused by the decking economy?

AB: Food insecurity and other humanitarian needs are increasing in high-density urban areas. Poor infrastructure and limited access to essential services make these communities particularly vulnerable to disease outbreaks, as we have seen with cholera and typhoid.

Additionally, urban households often rely on casual jobs in the informal sector, making them particularly vulnerable to the deteriorating economic situation. Cash shortages and high inflation have crippled purchasing power, making it difficult for families to access food.

The nationwide lockdown imposed in an effort to decrease the spread of Covid-19 has further increased vulnerability in urban areas because individuals are unable to work and, in many cases, must stand in long lines for hours to access basic food commodities and water. With our contribution of US$10 million, USAid is collaborating with WFP in response to the increasing food insecurity in urban areas. We are working to ensure that over 103 000 people, in eight urban areas, have access to adequate food between August 2020 and January 2021.

I am proud that USAid and our partners continue to address food insecurity and take on new efforts to address Covid-19.

TZ: USAid was giving cash to vulnerable families in urban areas. Will this continue and if so how much will be given per family?

AB: Yes, we are providing cash transfers to vulnerable families in eight urban areas, including Ruwa, Gokwe Centre, Chegutu, Buhera, Chipinge, Chinhoyi, Redcliff, and Kwekwe.

Since August 2020, we have been responding to the increased food insecurity in the urban areas by providing 21 000 vulnerable urban households, or over 103 000 people, with electronic cash transfers to access food from local markets. Each household will receive US$12 per person per month over six months to buy food. This programme will continue until January 2021.

TZ: In total, how much money has USAid set aside for assisting the humanitarian aid situation in Zimbabwe for 2021? Please provide a breakdown on how that aid will be disbursed.

AB: Of the US$310 million that USAid expects to programme this year, 90% is dedicated to addressing pressing health and humanitarian assistance needs in the country. This includes US$179 million toward our response to HIV, TB, malaria and maternal and child health as well as US$60,55 million toward the World Food Programme’s lean season assistance, along with other emergency response and resilience building activities.