International AIDS Conference: Next Stop Africa?

International AIDS Conference: Next Stop Africa?

As in years past, this week's biennial International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., has brought together representatives of communities affected by the disease and key experts in the field in order to "translate recent momentous scientific advances into action that will address means to end the epidemic."

The conference’s underlying theme, embodied in its tagline "Turning the Tides Together," is inclusivity, as reflected by the wide variety of people — from national leaders, to representatives of community-based organizations, to people affected by the disease — who have come to the conference to discuss issues surrounding HIV/AIDS. As in years past, the hope is that the conference will serve to catalyze progress in combating the epidemic on the international, regional, country, and local levels.

Indeed, the idea of encouraging "local responses" and "working with communities" to combat the spread of the virus has been garnering a lot of attention and is one of the important themes on a long list of conference objectives.

For those of us at the London-based STARS Foundation, it is exactly this type of approach that we believe to be the most promising in terms of turning the tide in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Through a program of unrestricted funding combined with capacity-building assistance, STARS seeks to empower grassroots and community-based organizations to use their understanding of local situations to create specially-designed programs for their target communities.

One such organization is S.A.F.E., in Kenya, which uses the performing arts to educate, inspire, and deliver social change. S.A.F.E. delivers three programs in three different communities, each of which tackles an issue specific to that community and situation, including HIV/AIDS in and around Mombasa. Although founded by British-born Nick Redding, the organization's programs are locally based and driven. All program staff hail from the community in which they work, conduct any research that is needed in the community, and design and deliver the performances themselves. Because the performances frequently address deeply rooted taboos or issues associated with severe social stigma, the local and contextual understanding of program staff is critical to the organization's success. With that in mind, the shows not only are performed in the local language, they also portray situations that reflect the experiences of the local community as documented in the pre-performance research.

S.A.F.E.'s impressive success is clear proof of the importance of local responses to issues such as HIV/AIDS. But the organizers of the International AIDS Conference have yet to see the benefits of using their event to harness that approach in any of the world's HIV/AIDS hotspots. Consider: According to UNAIDS, there were 33.4 million people living with HIV globally in 2008, of whom 22.4 million lived in sub-Saharan Africa. Contrast that with the 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. in 2009. And yet, a review of the previous eighteen conference locations quickly reveals that the conference has been held in just three developing countries — only one of which was in Africa.

One could be forgiven, of course, for thinking it an excellent idea to hold the conference in the world's richest and most powerful country. There are at least a dozen U.S. cities with the capacity to host such an event, and the U.S. medical research establishment has led the way in unraveling the mysteries of the virus. By the same token, holding the conference in an expensive city in one of the world's most developed countries makes it virtually inaccessible to the poorest members of the global community. Surely, there are very few leaders of community-based organizations in rural sub-Saharan Africa who can afford a week-long trip to Washington, D.C. Yet, these are precisely the leaders — and communities — with the most to gain from the conference.

If one of the objectives of this year's conference is to leverage the attention it generates to help end, once and for all, the epidemic in the United States — a country with more than adequate means to tackle the disease inside its borders without help from others — surely it makes sense to hold future conferences in countries where the need is greatest and resources are scarce. South Africa successfully hosted the World Cup, the most popular sporting event in the world, in 2010. It's time for the organizers of the International Aids Conference to build on that legacy.

Sarah Johnstone is a program assistant for Middle East and Africa at the STARS Foundation, a London-based nongovernmental organization that provides grants to nonprofits working to help disadvantaged children around the world. Its programs include the Impact Awards and STARS Impact Partnerships.