Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Commitment - The Key to Change

Clinton Global Initiative Places Change Makers, World Leaders, and Funders Together

Commitment [kuh-mit-muh nt]: involving yourself, pledging support, the most necessary step toward action. A college professor, and long time United Nations insider, once told me the General Assembly opening session speeches are a nice part of the United Nations, but the real work goes on in the small meeting rooms nestled in the nooks and crannies of the famous building. It represents one of the rare opportunities heads of states get to talk national interest agendas and weigh support of foreign policy issues face to face without the media or work up of official state visits. In the professor’s words, “It’s where the ball really gets rolling”.

Bringing these world leaders together is a great benefit unfortunately at times missed by mass media. Some reporters and news outlets focus attention on President Bush and President Ahmadinejad speeches billing the headline as “The Great Showdown”, as if Monday Night Football coverage translated to the diplomacy and international relations arena. These two speeches, though important, and excerpts of interviews with Ahmadinejad were ubiquitous across media channels as the only coverage of the day’s events north of Houston Street in New York City. Nonexistent is coverage for a four day conference this
week that takes advantage of the UN’s high ranking guests and gets the ball rolling on the critical issues that face our world.

“Over 80 former and current heads of state, hundreds of top CEOs and non-profit leaders, major philanthropists, and 10 of the last 16 Nobel Peace Laureates” will attend the Clinton Global Initiative meeting this year and focus on four of the great challenges of our time and world: education, poverty alleviation, global health, and energy & climate change. At this invite only conference leaders of the different sectors gain the ability to meet, view, and discuss concrete opportunities through panels, breakout sessions, and an internet platform that allows for a free flow of ideas, dialogue, and support.

What this conference seeks to build and guarantee is commitment. Since starting in 2005, “CGI members have made nearly 1,000 commitments valued at over $30 billion to improve more than 200 million lives in over 150 countries.” It places together innovative and highly effective change makers and non-profits with the people who are enablers. Nothing gets passed with more success through any government or corporation than a bill the president is moved to create or support. He or She will find the funds when they see results are attainable. Getting these types of members on board, talking, and part of the equation are fundamental to the creating the success the Clinton Foundation strives to develop. Former President Clinton established the CGI to “help turn good intentions in to real action and results.” He understands the essential nature of this link and his post presidential legacy will be cemented through the works and actions of his foundation and centered of the most important word – commitment.

The CGI meeting is viewable by internet. Schedule. Featured Commitments.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Game Changer in HIV Education

Culturally Sensitive and Scientific Approach to HIV Education

My question, “What would the reaction here in India be if schools taught a culturally sensitive science and fact based approach to sex education”. I had asked the question in all five countries to officials, doctors, and the directors of each organization covered. The responses always extolled the great impetus such an approach could have at removing stigma, creating understanding, and empowering a population with life saving knowledge. However what usually follows is the realization that such programs or practices simply do not take place in large scale. The reason is steeped in taboos stemming from culture, religion, or governmental bureaucracy and no example was more palpable then in India.

Although India is the world’s largest democracy and developing at a pace nearly unforeseen, it still has traditions that some interviewed referred to as “backwards”. Whether it is divorced or widowed women completely ostracized from the community, or raped women thought to be worthless and ill suited for proper marriage, women’s rights is a hard fought battle in India. Furthermore, premarital sex is almost unspeakable and “a big No-No”, which comes across slightly innocent given the provocative nature and displays of sexuality in the highly popular Bollywood scene. Of course it was with this reality that I awaited the answer from the director of the Community Care Center (CCC).

The response, “For god’s sake if you even utter sex education they will chase you out and throw you into the river!” Despite the taboos the organization pursues a course of action. “Call it health education or life education and then go in and teach them whatever you’d like. This is what we do and it works.” The need for HIV education is desperately there. In their 2006-7 “Needs Assessment Study” the Gujarat State Network of Positive People (GSNP+) reported 70% of the 766 people living with HIV interviewed knew nothing of HIV before testing positive. How does one protect himself or herself from a virus they have never heard of - let alone understand how it transmits?

It is corporations’ social responsibility programs, such as the CCC, and non governmental organization, like the GSNP+, that are left with much of the responsibility in educating the population on HIV/AIDS. Through awareness outreach, solidarity programs, and advocacy campaigns the state of Gujarat is slowly showing changes in levels of understanding on HIV. However there may be a game-changer. Whereas my question was only hypothetical, it has now become a reality through Stanford University and the hard work of Piya Sorcar. Their model teaches the issues through facts and a culturally sensitive approach. It absorbs the culture and integrates it into the material without sacrificing the essential messages. Their three point mantra is the foundation everything is built on. The HIV virus spreads from only three mediums: sexual fluids, breast milk, and blood. The beauty of the program is the simple and clear language and the utilization of graphics and media works to both engage the audience and reflect culture. Lastly, it even comes in Indian male and Indian female versions to address some of the hesitancies and sensitivities within the various religious orders within India.

Besides India my research has also taken me from the hills of Rwanda to the golden coast of the United States and the heat of Nicaragua to the temples of Thailand. The potential for’s programs can be tweaked and geared toward each of these countries garnering tangible results. Each country has its own culture and that is the beauty of the program; keep the facts and alter the dressing. Experts talk about the two sides of the HIV/AIDS epidemic as treatment and prevention. Both go hand in hand, especially in developing countries where costs of treatment can be a pressing issue for both patient and government. This computer based model can make a great difference in addressing one of the biggest issues concerning HIV – awareness, prevention, and understanding.

For more blogs about the CCC, GSNP+, or India please go to February and for photos see sidebar.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Family Field Trip

Innovative and Interactive Exhibit Shows Future of Health Education

Seated in front of a large screen, my younger siblings grab hold of the controllers and attack the microbes and foreign particles that enter the blood stream. “Look Marco I’m a macrophage” - atypical words flowing from the mouth of a soon to be seven year old. Yet this is the future - both in HIV awareness and our population. Here at the Liberty Science Center’s “Infection Connection” children and teens get a highly interactive and stimulating approach to learn about the body’s immune system, various viruses that attack it, and social issues surrounding particular infections.

The video game lasts several minutes but it’s obvious their interest has been peaked. When the game ends they briefly argue as to whose role was more important – the macrophage who engulfs the pathogen and calls for the T-cell or the T-cell which does the “killing”. As we watch the brief 5 minute HIV video the real winner is revealed. Both children have a sense of how the HIV virus enters the body and can cause AIDS. As we see the T-Cells slowly wiped out, they know that the immune system is losing its “power” and defense mechanisms. The video focuses heavily on the science behind the virus utilizing clear language and visual effects. It also includes important statements which highlight the stark reality behind global HIV – highest percentage of infections worldwide are in sub-Saharan Africa, 11.4 million AIDS orphans in Africa alone, and 1.6 million deaths worldwide in 2007.

The video does not harp on transmission because the audience may be too young for so much at once, but the science behind the virus and some context of global implications seemed to stick with both siblings. Venturing by myself I found several miniature exhibits each one dedicated to noted diseases, such as influenza, lymes, and malaria. Of particular interest was “Bedroom Secrets”, which focused on sexually transmitted infections, condom usage, monogamy, and opening communication lines. Press a button next to one of the pictures and hear a teenager talk about a visit to the doctor’s office. The section uses accessible language, drawings of real life situations, and subtle tones of prevention, awareness, and responsible actions. Tucked away in a corner it gives a sense of privacy to absorb its messages from peers and professionals.

In each of the countries I have participated in awareness work through the organization documented. In India, I played a UNICEF board game geared toward harm reduction and HIV awareness. In Nicaragua, I passed out pamphlets and condoms as clowns gathered an audience for a show on HIV transmission methods. In these endeavors and pursuits the goal is to change the near future by educating and working in the present. The mentality in each location is linear and direct. Increase awareness of how the virus does and does not spread, thereby decreasing stigma, number of new infections, and thus reducing the number of people on treatment.

Discussing and explaining the issues and facts behind HIV in such an interactive and science based approach made the lesson come to life. In place of a lecture, a general understanding of the basic foundation is gained in an engaging and de-stigmatizing manner. I could not help but wonder what effect this type of programming could have in some of the resource poor settings where I have traveled - areas where displays of technology, such as a slideshow or PowerPoint presentation, generate crowds from intrigue or relative limited access. The potential for such programs is far reaching, especially when geared to specific populations and taking into account cultural and social norms. A future blog will be dedicated to one such model developed in the USA being tested in India.

Back at the Liberty Science Center I finish the infectious disease train ride which highlights interviews of people living with TB, Dengue, and HIV in countries of high prevalence. As I exit my train car a clear and powerful message is announced - “choices we make as individuals, communities, and governments weigh heavily on the lives of others. Are you part of the problem or the solution? The future is unwritten”. The future is unwritten and with more interactive and accessible programming and continuing the course of governments, corporations, and NGOs working together the complex problems presented by the global HIV pandemic can be reversed and addressed.