‘This is the human face of what your taxes provide’

Aid worker Pete Spink, from Gosport, is helping families in Zimbabwe. Picture: DFID.
Aid worker Pete Spink, from Gosport, is helping families in Zimbabwe. Picture: DFID.

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A young girl not yet out of her teenage years stands up and answers the question Pete Spink has just posed.

She’s at a community garden that was set up using funding for a project that he helps oversee.

Aid worker Pete Spink, from Gosport, is helping families in Zimbabwe. Picture: DFID.

Aid worker Pete Spink, from Gosport, is helping families in Zimbabwe. Picture: DFID.

And after asking her what the garden has done for her, he’s left stunned by her response.

‘She got up and said “I can say that rather than be a prostitute, I’m going to be a teacher”,’ says Pete from his base in Zimbabwe.

With no money, the girl’s family could no longer pay her school fees and she was contemplating a future selling her body for sex just to put food on their table.

Thanks to the communal garden, her family has food and produce to sell, allowing the girl to take her exams and start a teacher training programme.

‘It takes your breath away,’ adds Pete.

‘This is the human face of what your taxes are providing. I don’t see how anyone can argue against it.’

As an aid worker for the Department for International Development (DFID), Pete works with some of Zimbabwe’s poorest people.

The 38-year-old grew up in Gosport but now lives in Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare, with his wife Jeaniene and their children Lawrence, almost four, and Stella, one.

His parents, Gordon and Pat, still live in the town and Pete gets back at least once a year.

He took up his post with DFID in January after spending more than six years working for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Afghanistan.

In Zimbabwe, only 46 per cent of the population has access to clean drinking water and 1.6 million are living with HIV/AIDS. Just surviving childhood is a struggle – 94 of every 1,000 children born there will die before their fifth birthday.

Pete helps poor farmers in Zimbabwe to introduce an alternative way of farming that makes better use of low rainfall and recycles nutrients in the soil. Based on the principles of conservation agriculture, it’s involved persuading rural farmers to change many of their habits of a lifetime.

Farmers also receive good quality maize seed and fertilisers. That can double the amount of maize poor smallholders can produce and Pete can spot the farms that have adopted this technique because their maize plants stand two or three times taller than those on other farms.

Last year, 1.6 million Zimbabweans needed emergency food aid.

Pete recently met Gogo Kerina, a woman in her 70s. She is the sole carer of her grandchildren and told him how the new farming method has made life better for them all as she no longer runs out of food before the end of the year. She also has a surplus which she can sell to buy essentials and pay the children’s school fees.

‘They just don’t have enough food to feed themselves and their families,’ explains Pete.

‘We provide them with the availability to get seeds and fertilisers. We also provide them with training.’

In March, the UK government announced that its foreign aid budget would increase from £7bn to £11bn by 2015. While funding to 16 countries was pulled, foreign aid was one of only two budgets to be ring-fenced.

Because of the political situation in Zimbabwe, DFID works through NGOs and international organisations, such as the UN. The UK government does not give any aid direct to the Zimbabwean government.

Pete became an aid worker after graduating from university and went to Afghanistan in early 2002, just after the fall of the Taliban.

He and Jeaniene – who works for the United Nations – stayed there for five years and Pete returned on his own after the birth of their first child.

‘When I went back at the beginning of 2009, things had got a lot worse,’ he adds.

‘Whereas before, you never really thought about security too much, it was something that we really did consider. For example, the supermarket where I would go to buy my groceries got blown up.

‘When you start thinking “If I go out there now am I going to come back?” it’s hard for everyone – especially when you’ve got young children.

‘It’s nice not being there any more. But that said, it’s a very challenging environment and there was a lot of positive work going on.’

In Afghanistan, Pete was involved in projects that spent DFID money. Now he’s seeing things from the other side of the fence and directing where DFID’s money should go.

And he says that it’s been a steep learning curve because the emphasis is now on proving to people back home that UK money isn’t being wasted abroad.

‘People are now asking questions as to where we should be spending money.

‘I have spoken to friends and said “How do you feel about this additional funding?”

‘What I’ve found is quite interesting. I was expecting to get a lot of arguments from people who don’t think this money should be spent but the majority view is that we believe, as a country, that this is the right thing to do.’

He adds: ‘Amongst people I have spoken to, there is a sense of pride that the UK does its duty as a developed country.

‘The view is that these are difficult times here, but we know that in comparison to Zimbabwe, things are so much more difficult there.

‘They are not questioning why this money should be spent.’