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The wrong World AIDS Day Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Nico, Canada Dec 4, 2008
Health , HIV/AIDS , Globalization   Opinions
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The wrong World AIDS Day I would like to share some thoughts about World AIDS Day. The day has come and gone, and I sit wondering how the festivities went in Zambia, a place I once called home. I've never heard anyone discussing the other side of this day, the side that is not mentioned at all in countless NGO webpages, videos, news clips or documentaries. The truth, I have come to realize, is that World AIDS Day or the Big Show, in Southern African communities, has become a primary marketing tool by which organizations and programs prove themselves.

The idea that NGOs and governmental organizations were businesses was a difficult one to wrap my head around as a young volunteer from Canada. I had the idealistic view that development organizations were devoted only to helping people. Truthfully, many are, but I neglected to realize that money is the major component that keeps these organizations going.

A business needs to attract clients, needs income to support its programs, staff, vehicles and offices. Therefore it has to prove its work at some point. On top of that, there are only a few pieces of pie, major funders, who supply the thousands of NGOs. These NGOs have to spend a lot of time writing proposals and wooing big donor organizations and countries. Well-intentioned HIV education and treatment programs need to show the goods; if they do a really great job those pictures of “Fight AIDS” mass marches may increase funding for future well-intentioned programs.

Traveling through Lusaka, Zambia, between 2003 and 2008, one sees 4 or 5 individuals wearing HIV awareness t-shirts with slogans akin to "Fight AIDS, keep the promise." On the Great East Road in Lusaka, more than a dozen different groups of people march up or down the road. Lusaka is the capital of Zambia and the stronghold of the AIDS-related organizations.

The “Fight AIDS” marches feature organizations that are Catholic-based, Danish-funded, USAID-coordinated, national government-supported, or UN-managed, as well as local civil-based groups. The groups take part in the week-long World AIDS Day festivities. Throughout the week, different groups of people, supported by the various organizations, wear signs that proclaim messages such as, “My friend with HIV is still my friend”. The participants get t-shirts and food and hear speeches. Meanwhile, their experiences are recorded, later to be transferred to parent organizations and media outlets as pictures and videos.

The messages are strong. I would never suggest ending World AIDS Day because I believe that no one should ever forget what is going on. But look at what is happening behind the scenes: a major part of these organizations’ budgets go towards the Day. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent. These activities end up making up a major part of the organizations’ yearly budget. On top of that, as much as people want to show their support for those affected with HIV, many people will not volunteer their time without some benefits. Therefore they are given t-shirts, full meals, prizes and transport as enticements.

What are the organizations’ motivations when they do this? They need to prove that large numbers of people work with their programs and that they are active in the field, as these are the claims they make on their original proposals to funders. In addition, funders tend to give large amounts of money for World AIDS Day. As this money is allocated solely for the day itself, any money left over cannot be used for other expenses. This results in organizations believing that they should spend every last bit of money that they receive on the Big Show.

Unfortunately, this creates a sense of dependency and it raises the expectations of community members to unrealistic highs. If you are given a bunch of free stuff for marching down the road, you will expect that throughout the year, and of course you will expect it to happen again the following World AIDS Day. As community members’ expectations rise, more money is thrown into the Big Show. When the day comes, the organization with the biggest show will attract more funders and government attention.

Clearly, World AIDS Day is the day to market your organization, not only to other organizations, but also to the world media. The actual effectiveness of your organization’s HIV/ AIDS treatment or education programs is not important on this day. “Too much” cooperation with other organizations is even assumed to dilute your program’s apparent effectiveness.

Other than encouraging further cooperation, I do not have a great solution to this problem. The challenge is not with the players, but with the game itself. We, the donors and the well-off people who want to help fight HIV in Southern Africa, also want control. We want to see results; we want to know that our money is going to whatever was agreed upon. However we are only satisfied with obvious results. It is easier to see success in large crowds and singing children with signs than it is to understand how the long-term AIDS education and treatment programs work.

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Adanna Chigbo | Dec 19th, 2011
I never knew NGO funders do not allow for the carry-over of "retained gains" (e.g you mentioned that leftover monies from the AIDS event become lost funding to the company... that's good information to know for the future. Concerning the content of this post: Wow, the fact that they do not volunteer without some form of recompense is a measure of how desperate (moeny-wise) the people must be. Tres triste. I, however, have nothing against the NGOs providing them with things as a way of saying thank you especially when you mention that the money is reserved by the funders just for that event in the first place. I don't even have a problem with the fact that the most active NGOs (or those that seem so) get the most funding because unfortunately, every charity act and almost every so-called socially conscious company is motivated by what would attract them the most attention in that field and make them "seem' like they care for these people. What I do have a problem with is the fact that when they are given this money, they don;t have much to show for it. The HIV/AIDS "awareness" day therefore comes across as some sort of celebration parade to show off who is better than others (in terms of activeness) instead of being used as a day to actually go village to village reaching out to people. What is the point of a big affair with politicians voicing (on TV usually... a medium that most poor people that actually need to become aware of HIV/AIDS have no access to)or reading off what their opinions are on the subject - practically regurgiatting the same thing year after year. I have nothing against rewarding NGOs who are actively going round making sure people are aware of HIV/AIDS and helping te infected, but I would rather the funders look beyond teh face value of who "seems" active and spend their money wisely on those who actually make a difference. Maybe even consider allocating less money to host a lavish celebration and focus more on helping the small communities that they might have neglected in the past.

brandon agnew | Mar 9th, 2009
Nico, Your contributions as an engaged and adventurous soul serve as great inspiration to those around you. You have gathered much wisdom; exposed to life and living in both worlds. Being aware of the divide is one thing; you have chosen to challenge it. Your fire and disdain with the inner-workings of the 'cause' (in this case, HIV/AIDS) bring to light many frustrating bumps in the NGO's road. When it is allowed to happen, change is often slow to take shape. After all, a global health and social justice issue such as the prominence of HIV/AIDS demands an adjustment in global consciousness above and beyond all else. Perhaps- keeping this in mind - we should allow World AIDS Day festivities to act as celebration for those whose messages and stories and warnings of life with HIV/AIDS deserve to be heard yet so often are not; stigmatized, forgotten and castaway. To give AIDS a platform capable of reaching the global consciousness serves strongly in utility and message. The responsibility is all of ours: to act justly, to provide action, to take to the streets with rally cries and determination, to lobby politicians across the board, to act as engaged global citizens demanding structural adjustments that will allow for a healthier, more ethical and fair reality, to remedy the ailments of Mother Earth. The time is always now. The fight is always worth taking up. Kudos to you Nico. Namaste.

hello nico
Daniella Fanitsa Mickelson | Jan 29th, 2009
I believe your article is quite amazing. It has opened my eyes completely to a new kind of life. yes, i agree it is not right to raise all this money just for a specific day. This money should be used to help research Aids, in order to help people who are living or affected by aids every single day of their lives.

Henry Ekwuruke | Jan 31st, 2009
World AIDS Day afterall is not a bad idea!

great article
racheal kalaba | Jan 31st, 2009
Hai niko its really a great article and well sumed up. trully its heartening to see so much mooney spent on advertising and comemorating the world AIDS day. hence there is need to see to it that people affected or infected get treatement and support that will help and sustain them to live longer and i hope that as we move on we shall see positive change in the way we approach this issue big up

its a reality...
lorence | Feb 4th, 2009
hi niko... for me its relevant, not only for that specific occasion but applies for all projects and programs of NGO's flow of funds... it is a reality that, somehow reflects all the rage diffusion of funds is likely for organization's proposals... hence, for low prevalence countries "world aids day" is a tool to come up with a program to make people aware and soon to empower significant others about hiv/aids..

HIV / AIDS Education..
Michael Gfroerer | Feb 6th, 2009
Thanks for the informative article. I've been involved with many human rights initiatives over the years, and what tends to happen is that the most pressing needs of the subjects are not addressed as many NGOs do what they think is right, rather than asking the subjects what they need. What is really needed, it seems, is education re. prevention of HIV / AIDS, and a strong and brave effort to address the rights of Africa's women-many of whom are treated as chattel which sometimes results in husbands infecting their wives. Another issue is the misinformation of religious groups such as the Roman Catholic Church; an African bishop was telling Africans that they could become HIV infected by using condoms! -Michael Gfroerer Secretary General for North America, the International Lesbian and Gay Cultural Network

Balancing the effort
aykan | Feb 26th, 2009
Hi Nico, I think this is really a great article and I can understand the points you are raising. I won't try to justify spending huge amounts of money just for the day instead of deep education programs. However we should not forget that people need those kinds of days and celebration moments keep focusing on the issue. HIV Day is one big carnival that keeps people's companies' and funders' attention to the subject. You can argue that the money that is spent for July 4th celebration should be invested in the health care system in the US but it is just not the way the system works. You need big moments in time to raise awareness for your cause So what is the solution? I think it is to have a balanced approach, we should focus on the impact of the programs but we should also use big moments in time to celebrate and attract more people and funds to our causes. cheers Aykan

Understanding the Need!
Everistus Olumese | Feb 26th, 2009
Actually, there are some NGOs and FBOs who uses this day to create awareness and to promote HCT. I work for an organisation whose project director is a bishop of the Anglican Church. During the last WAD, he went on television to promote HCT by having his HIV screeening done. He used the opportunity to encourage his clergy and members of the church and public to know their HIV status. The response was overwhelming. He also took the opportunity to promote and endorse the SAVE approach to HIV prevention. This we did with minimal resources, and people are still coming to know their status based on the action the Bishop took during WAD, So WAD is not entirely unbeneficial.

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