Thinking politically about HIV – UNAIDS workshop

I’m looking out onto steamy Bangkok, about to attend the second day of this UNAIDS-sponsored conference on the politics of responding to the AIDS pandemic.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the workshop is that it’s being held in the first place! UNAIDS is being fairly explicit that in order to respond effectively to a problem with deep social and political roots, it is necessary to understand country and local  politics. The mantra is, “Know your epidemic, know your politics.” (NB: ee are operating under “Chatham House Rules,” so no attribution is allowed.) I think they’re being pretty bold in being so frank.

A challenge for the workshop is whether the insights from political science scholars can be made usable to political actors in this sector. On the one hand, many actors here (and elsewhere) highlight that politics is an “art,” not amenable to theory or systematic analysis, but on the other, those same people describe patterns they see in their own countries and across the developing world. One commentator said, “naming and shaming” of politicians is a bad strategy; another said it is a good strategy. My view is that the role of political (and other social) scientists is merely to specify the logic of such claims, to examine which seem to be better models of reality, including if they are both true, but just under different conditions.

From a global political perspective, I think one of the great challenges for these actors is whether to describe the response to date as a “success” — look at all of the people on treatment and the degree to which even greater disaster has been averted; or as a “failure” — look at how many new infections occur each day; how drug users, sex workers, and homosexuality are criminalized in so may places, etc. The reality, of course, is a mix, but if one emphasizes too much success, those with the purse strings may say, “problem solved,” let’s move on; if one emphasizes too much failure, it would be tempting to say, ok, after all these years, this is intractable.

The other issue worth mentioning, which I addressed in my  remarks, is the question of political leaders — specifically, do they “lead” or “follow?” I argued that it is worth trying to disentangle the degree to which politicians develop policy preferences based on the characteristics of their constituents, or do they make decisions based on their own individual world views? My research on municipal councilors in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa finds that for the most part, the individual characteristics of leaders are better predictors of how they think about HIV/AIDS, and this may provide some information about who are likely to be the most committed leaders for what is still a critical problem.

Off to UNAIDS workshop in Bangkok

Tomorrow morning I head off to Bangkok for a two-day workshop on “Thinking Politically About HIV.” Kent Buse from UNAIDS and Dennis Altman from Latrobe university in Australia are bringing together a bunch of political scientists,  policy scholars who write about politics, and several political actors, especially regional directors of UNAIDS, to discuss how various political forces have shaped responses to the epidemic.

I am looking forward to the meeting. Lately, I’ve found myself writing about a lot of dismal stories on African development, and while the AIDS pandemic is still a monumental challenge, there’s actually a great deal of good news, including increases in risk-conscious behavior, greater treatment access, and lowered HIV incidence in many countries. The theme of the workshop is how to harness politics for good, and indeed, political activism has played a very positive role in the global response to AIDS. In the next couple of days, I will try to write about some of the key themes or findings, assuming the discussions are not embargoed. In any case, I’ll post some of my comments… which I need to finish on the plane-ride over… which will attempt to define the ambiguous terms “political will” and “political commitment,” and to share some of my research on municipal councilors in South Africa.

I am not looking forward to the TRIP, however. There are no longer direct flights from New York, so I’ll fly to Tokyo and then connect to Bangkok — I leave at 3pm, arrive close to midnight the next day, wake up and do two days of workshopping, then depart for the airport at around 330am to catch a 6am flight back to Narita, and then back home. I am hoping this trip will be so quick I won’t have time to feel the jetlag…