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The façade is sad

A Filipino HIV advocate attends an international conference, and he, inadvertently and somewhat sadly, ended up realizing that real progress is not necessarily made in the confines of these gatherings. He now writes a blistering commentary on what he sees as the failure of the system.

By Dain Ray

For one who works with and for the community, participation in the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) may be considered as an important part and parcel in working for the HIV and AIDS advocacy. And so it was for me. I was glad that I was able to participate in high level discussions. I was able to learn firsthand the current situation of HIV and AIDS in the region. I was able to meet relevant people in the advocacy. I was able to witness the gathering of big organizations, big personalities, scholars and groups in one room.

But all these led to disappointing personal observations.

In this advocacy, scholars and academe worked very hard with grassroots to gather data and analyze the same to pinpoint the exact areas where the problems and the solutions to deal with this epidemic lie. They all deserve the credits and the attestations. But I noted that, also in this advocacy, giving credit where it’s due is not always the case.  There are the big organizations that keep these data and that continue to discuss the appropriate and effective measures to address the scholars’ findings. And here’s where the disappointment lies.

Please send me an email (c/o if you wish to rebut, but the way I saw it, these “discussions” in these gatherings were the finish lines. They are just discussions. Period. Nothing follows. Because if there are truly efforts that go beyond these “discussions”, then we would have discussed more the applicability of the findings post-congress.

For the past couple of years in this advocacy, I was hearing “we have to build capacity”, “we have to create a good environment”, “we have to fund more organizations”, “we have to halt the epidemic” and other “we-have-to-do-this and we-have-to-do-that”. Surprisingly, these were also still talked about during the recently held international congress. I had to recheck if I was on the right era because I thought we already tackled these in the past. I couldn’t help but think: What have we been doing all these years, with all these gatherings, year in and year out?

Sadly for me (and again based on my personal experience of it), a big gathering like ICAAP seemed to only mirror how the international groups and governments work, operating based on high level players, high level papers, discussions and… politics. And yet, these are the bodies that set the guidelines on how the community should work.

In contrast, we do things differently in the community/from the community. We do things WITH the community. We operate to influence changes and not just create impressions.

And so I was saddened.

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The thematic guideline to capacitate organizations, in reality, incapacitates many community organizations. These precepts, if not protocols, only spots the light to organizations in the capitals. They, in turn, are expected to replicate the model to the number of local communities, but are failing to do so for reasons I cannot comprehend.

As it stands, the grassroots community serves for the data but the data does not serve them. The quote “Data is power” is applicable only to big organizations, governments, and some few personalities.

Let’s take the Philippines as an example. One cannot count the number of volunteers who spend their own personal hard-earned money to mobilize an HIV awareness campaign, to advocate for the passage of an anti-discrimination ordinance, to create baseline data on local MSMs and transgenders, or to document human rights violations against LGBT people. They spend their own money not because they are willing to, but because they have to. What is worse, a few capacitated people from the capital swoop down like vultures to these communities, grab the data, flies back to capital, use the data as their own, and get exclusive funding.

Not surprisingly, in the end, nothing happens on the ground.

And then the problem surfaces again when the next big gathering happens.

Disheartening, yes?

If there is a benefit I can take from the whole week of the congress, it is the realization that a single thing has barely been done. Then I can start doing again. I do not know about the others.

Before messing things up, I must say that I am writing this in my personal capacity – one who has worked with the community. I do not write as a staff or a board of any organization. I am saying this based on my personal observations and reflections. I am saying these as if these matter.

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