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Wednesday 10 May 2006
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SOUTHERN AFRICA: Fudging the UNGASS report card

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

©  TAC

Civil society organisations are struggling to be heard

JOHANNESBURG, 20 April (PLUSNEWS) - As high-level negotiations get underway in preparation for the UN General Assembly's Special Session on HIV/AIDS (UNGASS), civil society organisations in Southern Africa are struggling to make their voices heard.

The goal of the meeting in New York from 31 May to 2 June is to review progress in implementing the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, adopted by the General Assembly in 2001.

Part of that commitment included working towards greater collaboration between the public and private sectors, yet civil society organisations in the region complain that in the runup to the meeting there has been little consultation with national governments or internationally.

According to Sisonke Msimang of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), which is involved in an international effort to enable delegates to go to New York, about 300 African civil society organisations have successfully applied to attend the UNGASS meeting, but lack of funding will likely mean that fewer than 100 will actually go.

In South Africa, media coverage has been dominated by whether the government would retreat from blocking UNGASS accreditation for the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and its affiliate, the AIDS Law Project (ALP), over concerns that they would use UNGASS as a platform to criticise the allegedly tardy official response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The government of Namibia has blocked accreditation of two local NGOs: the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa and the AIDS Law Unit of the Legal Assistance Centre.

But beyond the issue of which civil society organisations would go to New York, the bigger question of what they would do there has received little attention.

Paul Roux of the Kidzpositive Family Fund, a Cape Town-based NGO, expressed doubts about the value of attending when the agenda appeared to offer few opportunities for civil society participation.

"I think they're inviting us to pay lip service to the idea that they're consulting with civil society," he said. "But it sounds like the vast majority of us will be sitting up in a gallery somewhere, watching other people talk."

Mary Ann Torres of the International Council of AIDS Service Organisations (ICASO), part of an international civil society coalition aimed at influencing the UNGASS proceedings, noted that civil society involvement in preparations for the summit was often more important than being present at the meeting.

Msimang agreed: "Essentially, the negotiations about what's going to happen at UNGASS are happening now and African organisations are not in a position to fly to New York now, so by the time they arrive, other than the importance of being on the scene to garner media attention, they're not going to make a difference, other than on a symbolic level."

Only a handful of the South African organisations invited to attend have been involved in pre-meeting preparations. Dawn Cavanagh of the Gender AIDS Forum observed that campaigns run by her organisation have focused on sections of the UNGASS declaration concerning the vulnerability of women and girls to HIV/AIDS.

"We've done quite a bit of work on UNGASS because we recognised it as a key political space for us to advance our agenda," Cavanagh noted. "We have managed to inform a core group of organisations about the UNGASS process, but the truth is that most organisations have not really engaged with the process."

According to the UNGASS guidelines, one of the key opportunities for civil society engagement is in compiling the report on each country's progress. But several prominent South African NGOs have complained that they did not have the opportunity to comment on their government's progress report before it was submitted, and the TAC has described it as "an inaccurate, rosy view of South Africa's response to the HIV epidemic."

A civil society forum monitoring South Africa's official response to HIV/AIDS wrote to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week rejecting the progress report on the grounds that it excluded important data on HIV mortality rates, prevalence and incidence; that budget figures were inaccurate; and alleged that "it does not truthfully reflect the current views of all major stakeholders in South Africa".

Local NGOs in several countries, including South Africa, have submitted 'shadow' country reports, sponsored by ICASO, aimed at giving what they regard as a more balanced view of national progress on the UNGASS commitments. The South African report identifies a number of limitations only mentioned in passing or not at all in the official one, such as the lack of a plan to address the shortage of healthcare workers; weak prevention programmes; an inadequate nutritional assistance programme; and an unrepresentative and allegedly ineffective National AIDS Council.

As part of a regional effort by African NGOs to pressure governments to scale up implementation of the UNGASS Declaration, as well as the Abuja Declaration on HIV/AIDS adopted by African leaders in 2001, over 80 representatives from African civil society met last week in Abuja, the Nigerian capital.

In a statement issued at the end of the meeting, participants noted their disappointment at the lack of a sustained effort to meaningfully involve civil society, and drew attention to a number of key targets in the two declarations that African governments have failed to meet.

The biggest failings have been in the area of prevention: no African country has met the UNGASS goals of reducing HIV prevalence among young people by 25 percent; ensured 90 percent access to HIV/AIDS information and education; or reduced mother-to-child HIV transmission by 20 percent.

"Our targets were very low for UNGASS," said Msimang. "For example, we know how to reduce mother-to-child transmission but we're not even committing to that. I wish civil society had been allowed into the space to say that treatment, care and support, and prevention are equally important."


AIDS voices least heard - study,  7/May/06
Migrants find sex trade a dead end street,  19/Apr/06
IRIN PlusNews Weekly Issue 279, 14 April 2006,  14/Apr/06
Leaders commit to stepping up HIV/AIDS prevention,  11/Apr/06
Lewis "frantic" over slow AIDS response for women,  20/Mar/06
· AIDS Media Center
· The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
· International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS
· International HIV/AIDS Alliance

PlusNews does not take responsibility for info in links supplied.

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