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AIDS - Missing The Message? - 2003-12-26


More than twenty years into the HIV/AIDS pandemic, many believe the battle against the disease is still very much in the beginning stages. A recent think tank report questions whether lessons of the past about HIV/AIDS are actually lessons learned.

The report, from the London-based Panos Institute, is entitled: Missing the Message – Twenty Years of Learning from HIV/AIDS. It says, “After years of neglect, more money and political interest are being directed toward AIDS than ever before.” However, it says spending large sums of money in hopes of achieving rapid results has often brought “disappointing or short lived” results.

Tom Scalway is the author of the report.

"When we say lessons haven’t been learned, this means that the total response to HIV isn’t panning out in the way that one would possibly hope that it could."

Mr. Scalway says there are clear reasons why Uganda, Senegal and Thailand have been successful in curbing the spread of the AIDS virus.

"The importance of local leadership, the importance of a civil society response, a vibrant media environment, the importance of local expertise – all these are locally owned and not imposed from outside. It’s not expertise that’s coming from the (United) States or from northern Europe. It’s capacity and its energy that’s within a country."

The report says, “Too little in today’s response to AIDS fosters these dynamics.” Rich nations’ “policy agendas can often overshadow local needs and priorities.”

The Panos Institute report says, “Funding is crucial and still far from adequate.” But it warns against simply throwing money at the problem. “The amounts now being made available,” it says, “may lead to conflict, inefficiency or rushed decision-making unless these allocations are more strategic and consultative.”

"Well, I think donor agencies have a tough time. They have to report to their constituencies. They have to report to congress or to parliament or to the various different bodies to whom they are held to account. And they need to prove that the money they’re spending is well spent, is having impact. They need to prove bang for buck. And if you are trying to do things that are fairly complex – changing gender norms for example – addressing issues of poverty, giving people a long term vision rather than living from a day to day perspective. All these things take time and they’re very complex. And it’s hard to program them in a way that you can say you have achieved change."

Whereas handing out condoms or putting up billboards with AIDS awareness messages are easily measured.

Missing the Message – Twenty Years of Learning from HIV/AIDS lists areas needing more attention, beginning with policy.

"We need to see far more attention given to these more socially rooted driving factors underlying the epidemic. You know, the gender inequity, the poverty, issues around participation and voice. All these approaches require donors to take a far longer-term view – not think they are going to make huge changes in a space of just a few months or a year. The thinking that this response is going to take a good number of years to turn around and to contain. They are going to need to program effectively and accordingly."

The report also says the media must do more than provide accurate information on HIV/AIDS. It recommends they also provide room for public dialogue and debate.

As for civil society, it says successful groups – such as South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign – channel local energy, voices and anger until they gain national attention. It says politicizing issues around HIV/AIDS puts greater pressure on policymakers.

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