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Press Release: Archbishop warns of "short-termism" in HIV and food security responses

1. March 2012

    Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury summarized a high-level discussion forum held yesterday in Geneva on HIV, Food and Human Rights by noting a shared anxiety about “short-termism” in responses to these major world challenges and related issues such as climate change.


    Representatives from the United Nations, private sector companies, the diplomatic community and civil society and faith-based organizations analyzed some of the current challenges in tackling chronic hunger and the HIV pandemic and identified key structural issues – from a ‘broken’ food system to pervasive HIV-related stigma and discrimination. Dr Williams framed the challenges, such as the need to address transboundary diseases affecting both health and agriculture, by emphasizing that sustainable responses will require collaboration beyond single nation states.


    Yet opportunities to confront these challenges were also identified, specifically in highlighting the development of partnerships across sectors that are essential in addressing the complex social, political and economic drivers of HIV and food insecurity. Dr Debrework Zewdie, Deputy General Manager of the Global Fund highlighted the necessity of public-private partnerships to both fund and implement a concerted response to HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.


    And there was strong affirmation – and encouragement – of the role that faith communities play in the response both as international advocates for justice and implementers at community levels. Jon Pender, Vice President of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) noted the importance of faith communities to act as their “conscience” and question the status quo. “Faith-based organizations can help us ensure we consider neglected communities rather than just neglected diseases,” he stated. Alanna Armitage, Director of UNFPA Geneva Office spoke from her experience to affirm that faith-based communities are capable of “unparalleled social mobilization”.


    Participants agreed that at all levels we need to develop and prioritize sustainable responses that have at their center people and communities, such as prioritizing support for smallholder farmers. Dr David Nabarro, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General for Food Security and Nutrition, stated, “We need to reexamine the narrative around food security. It is fundamentally about people. It sounds simple but it is the absolute centerpiece of what we need to achieve.”


    The relevance of human rights returned repeatedly to the discussion. A renewed approach to human rights was proposed by the Archbishop who reiterated a key message from his public lecture delivered the evening before at the World Council of Churches, that human rights “are not an arbitrary set of individual claims but about belonging and mutual recognition”. While noting that the legal dimension of human rights is not in any sense optional, Dr Williams stated that for laws “to have traction they must be rooted in social practice”. He suggested that the language of human rights “needs to be turned around” so that the emphasis is not only on the role of the state in looking after its people but also the shared rights and responsibilities implied in “citizenship”.


    Winnie Sseruma, Advocacy and Networks Officer at Christian Aid, welcomed the new language. Speaking from her own perspective as a person living with HIV, she emphasized that “we need to talk about citizenship, the rights of every person” as the language of human rights is difficult in many countries of the South. In using new terms, she suggested, “We have to lower our voice in the North or the governments in the South will stop listening.”


    Speaking specifically on the right to food, Dr Ana María Suarez Franco, Permanent representative of FIAN in Geneva, cautioned against dividing the question of nutrition from the question of access to resources. The right to food includes a “social and cultural dimension”, and in analyzing the impact and strategic view of nutritional programmes, people in the communities “must be at the centre”.


    The enormity of the HIV pandemic and global food insecurity was emphasized as needing continued priority for investment and response. Dr Tesfai Tecle, special advisor to Kofi Annan in his capacity as chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) emphasized that, “We need to see the magnitude of the problem now. There is enough food in the world now to at least meet the caloric needs of every person, but there are still almost one billion people who are chronically hungry.” He also emphasized the millions of people who overeat and their related health problems. “Between those two, almost 3 billion of the world’s 7 billion people experience ‘malnutrition’.”


    Jon Pender also acknowledged that for HIV, although half of the people needing treatment were receiving it, that perhaps those are the “easy half” and the hard work is yet to be done in reaching all communities.


    Stating that “for many, fulfillment of right to life depends on medicines”, Ellen t'Hoen, Executive Director of the Medicine Patent Pool Foundation emphasized that “We must move beyond conflicts around patents to a collaborative mechanism to increase access to HIV medicines.” She also welcomed the opportunity that this forum had created for further discussion with GSK, the major shareholder in ViiV – one of 6 pharmaceutical companies currently in formal negotiations regarding their potential contributions to the patent pool.

        Rev. Johan Vilhelm Eltvik, General Secretary of the World Alliance of YMCAs challenged all participants to incorporate young people more strongly in our responses, not just as receivers of programmes but developers and implementers of them. Young people, he noted, “struggle to get from subjects to citizens”.


    Dr Williams concluded the discussion by emphasizing the important role faith communities can and should play in building community resilience in addressing the issues: “I would hope that, given faith communities are in place before, during and after crises, that they are included and given the help they need to overcome barriers and be key levers”.


    The forum was convened by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA) together with its members Brot für Alle, Caritas Internationalis, Lutheran World Federation, World Alliance of YMCAs, World Student Christian Federation, World Vision International and World YWCA, and in collaboration with the World Council of Churches and the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom.


    In his opening remarks to the forum, EAA Executive Director Peter Prove highlighted that discussion on human rights and human dignity is, from the perspective of the EAA, “a rather fundamental reflection”.


    By convening the discussion forum, he stated, “we are seeking to promote a conversation … to inform and deepen the perspectives of all participants” and that would help to explore the challenges and opportunities in the operational contexts of HIV and food from a rights-based perspective, and in connection with the role of faith and religious communities.


    For more information contact: Sara Speicher, sspeicher@e-alliance.ch, +44 7821 860 723.


The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance is a broad international network of churches and Christian organizations cooperating in advocacy on food and HIV and AIDS. The Alliance is based in Geneva, Switzerland. For more information, see http://www.e-alliance.ch/

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