A LETTERKENNY man is helping shape the Irish Aid programme, worth around €40 million per year, in Malawi and Mozambique.
Aaron Cunningham (31) works as the desk officer for the Southern African region within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. His work has taken him to Tanzania for four years while he has lived in other locations in Africa including Mozambique and Rwanda.
Aaron is currently undertaking a six-week assignment to relieve staff in the Irish embassy in Maputo who have been unable to get home due to Covid. He arrived at the start of August and had just completed two weeks in quarantine when he spoke to the Donegal News this week.
The eldest son of Ciaran and Margaret Cunningham, Aaron’s father works as Head of IT with the Donegal Education and Training Board while his mother works in Letterkenny University Hospital as a ward clerk.
A former student at St Eunan’s College, Aaron graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree from NUI Galway in 2010. It was a time when Ireland was in recession and there wasn’t too many job opportunities. An email from one of his lecturers sent him on a journey which led to further studies and work placements in Africa and New York.
Aaron takes up the story.
“They were seeking graduates to go to Tanzania for a year to volunteer at a school in a small village in the Kilimanjaro region. I thought this was an ideal way to spend the year, gain a bit of experience and do something worthwhile. While there, I witnessed first-hand many of the development challenges facing Tanzania – water supply scarce, access to electricity limited, education and healthcare adequate. Despite the challenges, I really enjoyed my time there and found the work really fulfilling as you could see the difference being made in people’s lives, so I decided to extend for another year,” he said.
On his return to Ireland, Aaron started his Masters in Development Practice in Trinity College Dublin, a two year course with internship opportunities with the National Institute of Statistics in Rwanda and the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs in New York.
Shortly after graduating in 2015, He travelled back to Tanzania to take up an Irish Aid funded position within the United Nations Development Programme, where he was a programme analyst in the environment and climate change pillar.
“I was based in Dar es Salaam and I loved every minute of it. I was given incredible opportunities to oversee some amazing projects and represented the country office at development partners meetings on energy and environment. There is a lot to do in Tanzania – with Serengeti, Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar just a few of the major tourist attractions. The country is peaceful and relatively safe. After two and a half years away from home, I saw the opportunity to return and was offered a position within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Development Cooperation and Africa Division,” he explained.
“My current job is really interesting and is very different to the work I was doing in Tanzania. I am the desk officer for the Southern African region within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – specifically to providing support to our Embassies in Malawi and Mozambique. My role is wide ranging and covers most aspects of Ireland’s bilateral relations with these countries. Combined, our Embassies in these have a bilateral development cooperation programme, commonly known as the Irish Aid programme, worth around €40 million per year, which I support and oversee,” he said.
Last year, following cyclones Idai and Kenneth that hit central and northern Mozambique, Aaron undertook a six-week temporary assignment to provide additional capacity within the Embassy. This year, with Covid-19 also impacting on the Embassy’s operational capacities, he is currently undertaking another six-week assignment to provide additional relief.
“I will be supporting all aspects of the Embassy’s work – political, consular, development cooperation, cultural etc. I will be taking every precaution to ensure that I am safe with regards to Covid-19,” he said.
Since the first programmes in 1996, the majority of Irish Aid’s funding in Mozambique has been targeted towards improving the social sectors – health, education and social protection.
“While we are seeing massive improvements, we started from a very low baseline as Mozambique endured a long and brutal civil war following independence from Portugal in 1975. Peace has been hard fought – with multiple agreements being signed since 1992. The most recent peace agreement was signed in August 2019 – with Ireland playing a crucial role in its negotiations. The Irish Defence Forces deployed technical assistances and the Irish Embassy funded the Peace Process Secretariat. The implementation of the peace agreement is ongoing and Ireland will continue to support,” he said.
In 2020, Ireland has disbursed over €10 million to support the health sector – ensuring the continuation of essential services during the Covid-19 era.
Schools were closed in March and the Government doesn’t plan to reopen primary or secondary schools until October at the earliest.
“The average Mozambican has just four years of education, so losing a school year due to the pandemic is devastating for the country. One of the problems with reopening the schools is the massive class sizes – it wouldn’t be unusual to have classes in excess of 50 pupils, which doesn’t allow for any kind of physical distancing. The other problem is the lack of hygiene facilities – running water is not common in most schools so it is difficult for kids to wash their hands frequently,” he said.
Neighbouring countries Tanzania and South Africa have taken very different approaches to the pandemic. Tanzania has not reported any cases since April and the country has just turned a blind eye to the pandemic. This is an election year after all, so the Government are keen to avoid anything that might be unpopular. South Africa, on the other hand, has the fifth highest caseload globally and has recorded over 11,000 deaths. There are indication at South Africa is over its peak cases and the country is now planning to restart its economy.
In Mozambique the Government have imposed restrictions on public gatherings – including restaurants, pubs and religious services. One thing Mozambique has in its favour is its youthfulness – over half of the population are under 18.