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Shrinking HIV resources, shrinking opportunities?

The sad reality that has hit the HIV and AIDS sector – if we could call it that – is that resources are drastically shrinking at ground-breaking speed.  A colleague was saying last week that as a result of the shrinking resources, the smart ones who have been part of the HIV and AIDS sector have already jumped ship to pursue other interests.  They didn’t wait for their organizations to go belly up before they could leave.  This means this sector will continue to change drastically in size and composition.

Regardless of where your donors are, the truth is that resources that used to be available in prodigal proportions for HIV and AIDS programs are no more.  And that is such a punch in the gut, which however, shouldn’t send any of us into crying spasms.

The implications for this development are more than just programmatic. Yes, HIV and AIDS programs have been the first to take the knocks.  And these are not just your ordinary knocks from garden swings. They are fatal knocks – which threaten to collapse several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that traditionally facilitated some of these great interventions.  They created graciously rewarding job opportunities and provided international exposure too for their staff. 

Donors used to be driven by sentiment in an elaborately scripted way.  They would be moved by need to an extent of emptying part of their savings assisting.  Today, it has become a different ball game.  The terms of engagement are different.  The kind of donors who would throw resources into programs and be content with a post-training report, as evidence of implementation, passed away with the global financial crunch in 2008/9.  Donors now want to see how training has played itself out to bring about change in the participants’ areas of operation.  Value for money is taking over. 

Today, one needs to demonstrate that the resources invested in programs have been used as per the initial intention and in the agreed proportions.  And speaking of proportion, donors do not want to see a bulk of their money going to overhead costs – that is the cost of providing the service.  Donors want to see a bulk of money bringing about the desired change; they want results.  In their shoes, I would want to see in living colour where my money went to.  If the money has changed quality of life for the recipient then I would be happy and also encourage others to assist in the same cause.

The other interesting development is that government is taking over some of the interventions that were traditionally carried out by non-governmental organizations.  This is not government’s plot to knock NGOs off their perch.  At any rate, non-governmental organizations have been, for the whole time, complementing government’s efforts to provide a range of social services.  And I am sure they will continue to be around to do so.

The reality is that like companies, who have to come up with fresh products to stay afloat in business, NGOs have to come up with fresh and creative strategies in the face of the flat-lining of resources.  They have to identify gaps in service delivery and make themselves relevant.  This should be the case not just in the HIV and AIDS sector but also in a range of other service areas.  They have to review their mandate and see where they could feature to make a difference in people’s lives.

An NGO for instance, established to solely provide HIV counseling and testing needs to consider venturing into other areas of the HIV and AIDS response.  HIV testing is not an end in itself – regardless of the results.  There is need to link up clients with a range of other services which needs to be connected to HIV testing. This would include, but not limited to condom distribution for clients, issues around enrollment to antiretroviral therapy (ART) to mention but a few. 

Secondly, research in this country is not as developed as it should be.  The HIV and AIDS response has also been stifled by the absence of data in some pockets where specific interventions need to be delivered with precision.  I am very sure that NGO that would strategically venture into this area would not be in want for support.

Each time there is a challenge in society, on the flipside, there is often an opportunity waiting for the taking.  At a time such as this, we need not be obsessed with the obvious challenge – the flat lining of resources.  Rather, NGOs need to knuckle down to the hard work, look at the opportunities inherently created by the shrinking resources for HIV and AIDS.  They need to assess the challenges that society still experiences, in spite of government’s heightened intervening in people’s difficult circumstances.  They need to explore what kind of interventions would better the quality of life of people.  NGOs that will do this will not run on empty.  For decades, they will continue to be relevant regardless of what happens in their fiscal space.  However, those NGOs who will refuse to annotate their mandate will shrink and sink with the dwindling of HIV and AIDS resources.  Their rich legacy, meticulously harvested over time, will be possibly completely forgotten.