This post on behalf of REPSSI originally appeared on A View from the Cave.

The first and most challenging exercise of the day when I took a seminar from The OpEd Project required me to fill in the following blanks and share with the group:

Hello, my name is________________________________.

I am an expert in_________________________________.

I am expert because_______________________________.

I delivered specific and clear answers to these questions. But when praised by the facilitators, I minimized my success by stating to everyone that I would surely fail later in the day. I wasn’t the only one in the room who struggled. Every other woman and one man of color who was participating that day, all of whom were highly accomplished in their fields, fumbled.

Many of us have trouble claiming our “expertise” in any one area, let alone claiming our voice, our space, or our rights. But do you know who doesn’t? It shouldn’t surprise you. Most of the “expert” voices we hear in the media are from an extremely narrow group—mostly western, white, privileged, Christian, and overwhelmingly male.

This certainly happens in the fields of international development and global health as well.

An estimated 25,000 participants from more than 185 countries will assemble in my city of Washington D.C. next week for the XIX International AIDS Conference. I wonder of those 25,000 experts, how many have actual “on-the-ground” expertise?

What is undeniable to me during my decade of service in the HIV sector in Africa is that most families are getting by not because of sweeping national-level policy protections or major internationally-funded programs. Rather, those who survive and thrive do so because of the local efforts of people who organize their communities to extend support and services to children not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies.

A study for the Joint Learning Initiative on Children and AIDS at Harvard in 2007 revealed that the prevalence of community-level initiatives for children affected by HIV/AIDS in Uganda was one per 1,300 people. In another example, a UNICEF-sponsored mapping exercise identified over 1,800 of these groups in Malawi (Network of Organizations serving Vulnerable and Orphaned Children o..., 2005).

Clearly these are folks whose knowledge, expertise, and local efforts are invaluable to the multi-billion dollar (though shrinking) fight against HIV and AIDS.

Robert Chambers of the Institute of Development Studies talks about the strong centripetal forces that draw resources and educated people into the ‘core’ where there is mutual attraction and reinforcement of power, prestige, resources, professionals, and the training to generate and disseminate information.

What happens to the periphery then, when it’s those vulnerable children in the periphery that we are trying to serve? When a privileged few frame the conversation about fighting AIDS or reducing poverty or addressing climate change, remedies from above are imposed on the excluded. Yet it’s those on the ground who have the most important knowledge, ideas, and resources to deal with the immense and complex problems associated with vulnerable children in Africa.

REPSSI has reached “front-line” service providers—community volunteers, teachers, police officers, social workers, traditional leaders, and others—like Pamela Dlwande of Kenya (pictured) for the past decade. REPSSI’s innovative distance-learning course in community-based work with children and youth is the first accredited course of its kind in Africa. Graduates now number 494 and there are currently over 1000 enrollees in the course.

(You can watch a video about REPSSI’s distance learning course in community-based work with children and youth on YouTube here.)

This year REPSSI conducted phone interviews with 309 of its graduates from the first certificate cycle in 2009 (64%) and found that REPSSI is reaching the “right kinds of people” with this course—those who work directly with children, which they estimated at approximately 130 children per graduate. Most importantly perhaps, REPSSI found that 18 months after graduation, 70% of REPSSI’s graduates remained in their communities. This indicates the strength of a situated, supported distance learning program. More than two-thirds of graduates were leading psychosocial support initiatives in their agencies and organizations throughout southern and east Africa.

Certainly the International AIDS Conference organizers have made great strides in recent years to include more participants from marginalized communities and developing nations. However, even though grassroots leaders are a crucial part of the "last mile," they continue to be under-represented at the table and under-valued, less understood, and thus overlooked in funding flows and influence.

Of those 25,000+ experts gathered in Washington D.C. next week for the XIX International AIDS Conference, how many of them have cared for a dying neighbor or comforted a grieving child?

This year’s conference theme is “turning the tide together.” Thus we have to ask—what is the cost to all of us when so many of the best minds and perspectives from the community-level are left out?

Here is where we clearly need all the help we can get—on-the-ground experts welcome.

***

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Comment by Rituu B. Nanda on July 21, 2012 at 7:52pm

 

Rituu Competence How should face-to-face events be organised that they are useful and meaningful

Anand Chaudhuri ‎@ Rituu.let so called experts give of their time, skills and experience through facilitating on-site learnings especially in developing country sites...one or two expert's (travel, stay and expertise) costs will empower and skill thousands of frontline service providers and their supervisors, govt. functionaries in charge of such programmes and others who are currently fence sitters and are preventing enabling environment for evidence based programming.....the thousands of dollars spent on international jumborees certainly does not contribute...the nexus between pontificaters speaking at such forums, pharma with dubious stakes and others needs to end with rational goal setting if we are to halt and reverse the epidemic...

Anand Chaudhuri ‎@ Rituu.let so called experts give of their time, skills and experience through facilitating on-site learnings especially in developing country sites...one or two expert's (travel, stay and expertise) costs will empower and skill thousands of frontline service providers and their supervisors, govt. functionaries in charge of such programmes and others who are currently fence sitters and are preventing enabling environment for evidence based programming.....the thousands of dollars spent on international jumborees certainly does not contribute...the nexus between pontificaters speaking at such forums, pharma with dubious stakes and others needs to end with rational goal setting if we are to halt and reverse the epidemic...

Rituu Competence Here is a blog http://aidscompetence.ning.com/profiles/blogs/the-real-experts Anand Chaudhuri and Giten Khwairakpam

The Real Experts

Anand Chaudhuri Thanks for sharing Rituu, exactly my thoughts and experiences....I would use e-governance / e-learning tools and resource person mixes to address service provision and skills enhancement concerns for vulnerable populations...Also, keeping in mind the need for sutained learning re-inforcement through inter-personal mechanisms would be further developing the concept of identifying mentors and mentoring institutions which are as close to community that is being enabled to address their own issues... the concept of centripetal versus centrifugal forces which we once discussed....

Giten Khwairakpam thanks Anand and Rittu. I like the ideas being shared by Anand here and definitely when this is tried out there has to be an amount of honesty and will to suceed involved. 30 years of the epidemic, where responses on more than half the time were based on community involvement, capacity building, still we struggle to find good organisations- so maybe we lacked the sustained effort to honest building the skills? Also look back all the themes and of the IACs and also the declarations- you will find a sarcastic smile on your face. some striking sentences some people come up with and call it a theme..never looked or considered after the day the conference got close..same with the declarations - how many we have had so far..and how many those people who framed it have relooked at? check facebook RIGHT NOW- It's all about washington, airports, bathrooms, pictures of breakfast- I will not be wrong if i wish people could do the same to update one another on what is happening in their programs now, learning, failures, success- then we would have also acheived what Anand is proposing of e learning and interpersonal mechanisms...

Comment by Rituu B. Nanda on July 21, 2012 at 7:52pm

Hi Jennifer we had a similar discussion in India civil society facebook. I shared your blog with the group. I will post the responses in batches.

Which is more depressing: That 34.2 million people continue to live with HIV or that the HIV epidemic remains $7 billion short in funding?

  • Giten Khwairakpam and yet, we are all jumping around for this so call International AIDS Conference. one delegates registration cost of 1000 USD is a persons 6 years of TDF base once aday pills. IAS generates minimum 25 minllion USD only from registration.. not onlt ARVs but we can also check with N&S cost, methadone, buprenorphine, care and support services etc..not saying IAC is not required at all, but the fancy, frequency and the tourism associated is repulsive...

Anand Chaudhuri well said Giten. I have been mute witness to this. In a virtual world there is definite need for capacity building (by all other means) but not tourism...

Giten Khwairakpam sorry about the spell mistakes above!! This is a conversation which has to go wider and broader. Do we know of one organisation who have programmed, invested differently because of their learning from IAC. I understand the argument of people who says that it's a great networking opportunity. But again, networking opportunity at what cost- those hugs, kisses, goodbye, great to see you?? same old people you are seeing for the last 18 conferences...it's becoming pathetic. AND yet we have 7 billion shortage. we have people either not on treatment or if on treatment, not on the right kind of regimen. In this funding climate where PLHIV from RL countries stands a chance to lose entire treatment programs unless domestic investment increases, which is unlikely, why are we so happy about IAC? great that many people are travelling to the US and clicking pictures infront of the white house!! If someone comes back and shares in this group, what they have learnt from the IAC and use that to improve the life of a second person, i will be the happiest person!

Comment by Jean-Louis Lamboray on July 20, 2012 at 4:29pm

Jennifer, 

Your message is right on. 

How can we encourage people to share their experience with local responses ? Rather than taking the providers’ perspective, and try to solve the  last mile issue,  let us take a development perspective, and learn from those who cover the  first mile.  What makes people stand up, travel (sometimes far, and at their own expenses) and share their experience with members of communities they belong to?  Once we understand people’s motivation to  share in the “real world”, we might be better able to invite them to share  in the virtual one. 

JL

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