Going beyond emergency HIV response: Australia Awards Alumna contributes to Zambia’s transforming public health sector

It has been more than 20 years since Mpongwe Ndebele Shawa completed a Masters in Business Administration at Curtin University in Perth, yet she says her studies in Australia still have a significant impact on her current role as Program Manager for the HIV Integration into Local Ownership (HILO) program run by the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ). “Learning how to develop strategic plans, budget effectively, collect data, manage information analysis, reporting and dissemination through my Business Administration and Management degree at Curtin University has enabled me to effectively manage and guide the implementation of a health program with many facets.”

Mpongwe’s Masters, and subsequent professional development courses in various aspects of management, monitoring and evaluation and effective leadership, has allowed her to contribute to building local capacity in the public health sector – a critical area of her country’s development agenda over the last two decades. Though HIV/AIDS and related diseases are still the leading cause of death in Zambia, there was a 60% reduction in HIV deaths between 2005 and 2013 and the rate of new HIV infections decreased by 41% between 2009 and 2013. With the decline in infections, the Zambian government is now focusing on integrating HIV care and treatment into a more holistic healthcare system that goes beyond an emergency response. Mpongwe clarifies that the HILO program is aligned to support Zambia’s strategic response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “Our longstanding engagement with local communities and their health systems enable us to support Zambian priorities efficiently, holistically and respectfully. Partnering with the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Community Development Mother and Child Health, we integrate HIV programs into primary healthcare settings.”

Mpongwe explains that Zambia’s rapid scale-up of HIV prevention, care and treatment services has been among the most successful programs in Africa and CIDRZ has been privileged to serve as a key technical and implementing partner in this response. By June 2014, over 400,000 Zambian men, women and children in 336 CIDRZ supported clinics were enrolled in long-term HIV Anti Retroviral Treatment (ART) care. “Significant progress has been made in the fight to tackle HIV and we are now within reach of an AIDS-free generation: access to life-saving ART has been expanded, new infections are being averted, and decline in life expectancy has begun to reverse. In light of these advances, the HILO Program has shifted focus from an emergency scale-up of HIV services towards a more comprehensive approach of health service delivery by building a well-trained and healthy workforce that functions within a well-supplied and sustainable healthcare system that is Zambia owned and Zambia driven.”

In collaboration with the program team, Mpongwe’s core responsibilities involve providing administrative and management oversight of HILO projects, allowing for smooth implementation and coordination of work efforts by project teams to achieve program outputs and targets in a timely manner. “I spearhead the identification of annual operational initiatives under each HILO project and prepare the program budget and operational work plans, guide program implementation, data collection and progress reporting.” Her business knowledge gained through her MBA comes to the fore when ensuring that program objectives meet donor requirements. “As Program Manager I am responsible for the strategic and operational planning of the program. This also involves attending to relationship management and meeting the terms and conditions of collaborative agreements.”

The HILO program mainly supports health facilities in four provinces of Zambia and aims to ensure that Zambian nationals are availed quality public health care in a non-discriminatory environment, wherever they may be based. The results have led to the program being seen as a practical model within the sector that allows local benefit and ownership. “Our work in the Zambian health sector has proved it is possible to treat large numbers of people for HIV successfully in areas with weaker health systems. The program’s approaches have been admired and replicated by other partners working in the area of HIV/AIDS management,” Mpongwe says.

For Mpongwe, being part of an organization that is involved in improving every day health and conducting cutting-edge research to improve programs is a unique opportunity. “CIDRZ is at the bedside, in the community, on the motorcycle, in the lab pipetting samples, at the computer working on spreadsheets for public health planning, dealing with systems issues and broader implementation policies, in classrooms training the emerging healthcare workforce, and in the District, Provincial and Ministry offices collaborating with and supporting government colleagues.”

A crucial aspect of Australia Awards is creating the capacity for Alumni to become change agents – transforming their organisations and sectors by taking on leadership roles, building technical capacity and knowledge sharing. The results of the HILO project are reflective of Mpongwe’s impact on her organization and on the Zambian public health system. “The qualification I got from Curtin University has surely enabled me to play a catalytic role in ensuring that I manage the program and resources entrusted to us in the most responsible fashion whilst achieving the desired results.”

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