Gossip and comments about the International Aids Conference

08/09/2010 at 00:55 Leave a comment

Registrations for AIDS 2010 were apparently among the lowest ever and there was scepticism about delegate numbers reaching the projected 20,000. One of the most enduring images of AIDS 2010 is hundreds of vacant seats in session rooms. Conference fatigue, lack of finances, the expense of Vienna and several other reasons were suggested. By the end of the first day everyone was talking about the mountain if unclaimed conference bags still at the registration. By the second it was obvious that a significant number of registered delegates were missing.  By the third rumours were circulating that the museums and coffee shops of Vienna were full of conference delegates during the days and there were complaints about colleagues who had only been sighted at the hotel breakfast each morning.  Perhaps many people come for a particular session or workshop or to do a presentation.

It is hardly surprising that this was not one of the better conferences. The International AIDS Society (IAS) is in disarray and it’s no secret that accusations are flying in all directions. The executive director Robin Gorna and the IAS had inexplicably parted company weeks before the conference and the IAS senior staff were visibly nervous.  This is important because, as Bill Whittaker points out in the Lancet, ‘There is an urgent need to define roles and responsibilities of the governing structures to prevent future clashes, and to ensure the society achieves its potential  In recent years, IAS has become more than a conference convener. It has been moving into the political and advocacy space, becoming a public voice for evidence-based policy making to donors and key partners worldwide.’ (The Lancet, Volume 376, Issue 9738, Page 317, 31 July 2010)

Confusion within the IAS manifested itself in the conference planning process. At the first meeting of the CPC a list of priority populations was developed and agreed but at the same time it was clear that there was an imbalance of sexual minority representatives and representatives of faith/family/orphans/youth/women NGOs   Even if it’s not intended, the shared priorities of these groups means that sexual minorities issues consistently failed to gather enough support to be allocated conference sessions. In the session selection for both non abstract sessions and bridging sessions no session on transgender, sex workers or GLBT was selected.  Sessions on sexual minorities had to be inserted later by the committee chairs.

Perhaps the members of the CPC are representative of civil society but it seems to me that the influence of a decade of US support for abstinence based programmes, faith organisations and opposition to sex workers rights can be felt in their decision making and composition.  A shift in emphasis from ‘affected communities’ to ‘civil society’ has increased the influence of large International NGOs and UN agencies. But at the same time the influence of the CPC on the programme has diminished significantly since I was last on such a committee a decade ago.

Kevin Osborne, of IPPF, says that for too long the global stage has been used as a platform to utter platitudes about what we should do – only for these very politicians and speakers to return to their home countries and regions with very little intention of changing the status quo. This is especially true for those at the forefront of the epidemic in different regions: young women and girls; men who have sex with men; sex workers and their clients and people who use drugs. The conference, he continues, ‘[has] taken its own path, from an inspiring research-based symposium to a multi-million pound behemoth.  At a conservative estimate the conference costs about $27 million to stage plus time and effort in preparation, travel, accommodation cultural programmes, you can see it’s quite a bankable enterprise, and one which the IAC secretariat is understandably reluctant to change. ‘

Then again, can a conference really be said to have credibility when the largest implementer of HIV programmes has been missing in action for the past few years? The US Government made the political decision to effectively withdraw from the conference since 2004, a move interpreted by many AIDS experts as payback for the heckling of the then Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson at the 2002 AIDS conference. (http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2010/07/14/global-conference-0). It remains to be seen if there is a payback for sex workers for demonstrating against Goosby at AIDS 2010

Travel restrictions

Travel to this conference was very difficult for many, particularly people travelling from Ukraine and various African countries. Despite assurances by the Austrian government that although no rules would be waived procedures would be in place to, for example, ensure that people without significant bank balances could obtain visas by presenting evidence that they would be supported during the conference. When the Austrian immigration official said this at a meeting of the JPC black hands shot up all over the room. There were serious doubts that these more helpful procedures would be the reality at the counter in embassies all through Africa. And guess who was right? I said my bit and about sex workers and was proved right by the struggle to get a visa for Galila of Nikat Ethiopia.[1]

The next conference is planned for 2012 in Washington DC. There has not been an AIDS conference in the US for two decades because until very recently the US did not admit people living with HIV. However as Meena Seshu mentioned in the Jonathan Mann Speech it is absurd to consider holding the conference in a country to which sex workers and drug users cannot travel. It raises the question – what on earth were the IAS thinking in rushing in to a deal with the US because they removed the restrictions on people with HIV but no-one else. Well the answer is probably partly covered in the comments above about IAS.


The IAS scholarship team are great people but they are working within a very stale system. The scholarship system has been the same for many years and too many people know how to work it to their advantage.

Scholarships that are meant to go to poor people and affected communities but many scholarships are scooped up by middle level programme staff who have access to computers and information.

This year few scholarships seemed to cover all costs. Most people were offered travel but not accommodation or not food allowance. Trying to fill this gap creates enormous stress and consumes huge amounts of time.  It doesn’t always work and as a result many people go hungry at the conference.

Presumably for budget reasons many scholarship delegates had to leave Vienna on the day of the closing ceremony which meant missing the final session.

And most importantly…FOOD

The food was horrible despite the best efforts of CPC members, several of whom made very impassioned and detailed speeches about the impact of the European sandwich on African/Asian/Latin American sensibilities. Asian sex workers knew what to expect so they had an small noodle shop going on under a display table in their networking space.

People living with HIV had a compulsory meal they could obtain by presenting a voucher that was not issued to any HIV negative delegates. So much for confidentiality. There was scant food in the PLHA lounge which was for some reason at the opposite end of the conference site to the Global Village.

The future of the conference

It is difficult for me to gauge if the call for major reform of the conference is generalised or if it’s just a whisper among my friends and colleagues. I had hoped that a constructive discussion about that would take place under Robin Gorna’s leadership after AIDS 2010.

What is the alternative?  Kevin Osborne believes funds and energies should be directed to the regional conferences that are held on alternative years.  But I am not sure that the geographical grouping is the right way to go. I am not sure how a new conference might look but I think the clue is in the Global Village. Rather than trying to build a better bridge to the ‘scientific’ conference from the Global Village, or eliminating the Global Village as some have suggested, maybe the Global Village needs to expand into a community led conference to which scientists and policy makers are invited.

Useful links

Read about Meena’s presentation on the IAC blog http://blog.aids2010.org/post/2010/07/22/Seshu-The-Reality-of-a-e2809cRights-based-Approache2809d-SANGRAM.aspx

Read a recent feature on Meena which was published in the Lancet http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)61044-6/fulltext

Matt Greenall has blogged about Eric Goosby’s response to queries about PEPFAR at AIDS2010 http://mngreenall.posterous.com/the-pepfar-pledge-goosbys-sex-work-dissemblin

You can view a video of the demonstration against PEPFAR on the NSWP website http://www.nswp.org/

John R Talbot Monumental AIDS Breakthrough — Or Is It? Huffington Post

Citizens News Service coverage of the International AIDS Conference http://www.citizen-news.org/2010/08/cns-coverage-in-lead-up-to-and-on-site.html

Kevin Osborne’s blog is on the rhrealitycheck.org site http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2010/07/14/global-conference-0

[1] This is despite the fact that Nikat won a prestigious Red Ribbon award and were invited to Vienna to attend the ceremony http://content.undp.org/go/newsroom/updates/hiv-www-news/red-ribbon-award-2010-recognizing-exceptional-community-aids-leaders-and-activists-.en?categoryID=349422&lang=en



Entry filed under: health, HIV and AIDS. Tags: , , .

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