Making a difference: UNAIDS in Ethiopia

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Making a difference: UNAIDS in Ethiopia

08 February 2008

UNAIDS has provided technical assistance
in developing the National plan of action
for the forthcoming years.

Continuing with the web special series “Making a difference”, which focuses on the work of UNAIDS staff at country level, talks to UNAIDS Country Coordinator in Ethiopia, Roger Salla Ntounga, his role, his motivations and how one document is making history in the AIDS response.

Roger has been the UNAIDS Country Coordinator in Ethiopia for over a year now. He manages an office of 22 staff members who help him provide services at country-level and coordination among government, civil society and the ever growing number of stakeholders involved in the AIDS response in the country.

The response to the AIDS epidemic remains a priority issue on Ethiopia’s development agenda. UNAIDS helped the HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Office (HAPCO) – which is the equivalent of the National AIDS Commission of the Ethiopian government -  to put in practice the ‘Three Ones’ principles. UNAIDS has also provided technical assistance in developing the National plan of action for the forthcoming years. “We had meetings with the Head of the HAPCO office almost every day, to go chapter by chapter. And now that the document is finished, it has come back to us for editing, printing and distribution. All partners coming to Ethiopia will have to develop their programmes based on this document,” says Dr Salla Ntounga.

“It’s a good document. Partners and donors are happy, everybody is happy with it. It will improve the AIDS response because it gives a kind of road map to everyone. It will reduce duplication of efforts and increase complementarily, which is to the benefit of the people”.

Special emphasis is required on
strengthening the capacity of civil society.

In the past two years, strong leadership on the part of the Ministry of Health has resulted in visible strengthening of the response to AIDS, in particular within the health sector. However, Special emphasis is required on strengthening the capacity of civil society. “This is a country with a very strong government and old administration where the space for civil society is not so easy, so we do everything we can to reinforce them and make sure that they are the beginning and the end of everything we do.”

Roger meets every 15 days with the network of people living with AIDS to try to point out the problems they are facing, regarding the legislation or access to resources, or building a regional network. “We are making good progress. We are recognised as really giving a voice to civil society and we have a lot of respect from a broad range of civil society members. They see us as doing very concrete things, like for example helping them to complete a plan of action or making sure that the network of people living with HIV is organised”.  UNAIDS also tries to strengthen the capacity of the civil society at all levels to plan, manage and implement AIDS responses. “We have also organised training on resource mobilisation, negotiation and leadership skills. So we try to organise targeted training to improve the capacity of those who are working on AIDS”.

One of the major challenges still remaining in Ethiopia is scaling up services and reducing stigma and discrimination in rural areas. “Last week I went to the Somali region, which is far from the capital and they really benefit from outside help. I was able to talk to the two associations of women living with AIDS, and I was really able to see how hard their lives are”.

“It is a region where there is still a lot of denial, and coming out is a kind of social death. These women are openly positive about their status in a region where the traditional leaders are saying ‘it is not possible in this region for anyone to be HIV positive’. So they are really very courageous”.

Sentinel surveillance data indicate that in
rural areas, where about 85% of Ethiopians
live, the epidemic is on the rise.

Sentinel surveillance data indicate that while in urban areas the epidemic appears to have been stabilized, in rural areas, where about 85% of Ethiopians live, the epidemic is on the rise. Girls are especially likely to be exposed to HIV, due to harmful traditional practices, early marriage (often cross-generational and often ending in divorce), female genital mutilation, abduction and violence.

 “We had supported one of the groups with an income-generating activity. They had bought a laundry machine, but when people realised that it was operated by people living with HIV they stopped going to the laundry. People did not even come back to fetch their clothes”.

UNAIDS is also a member of the Donors’ HIV/AIDS Forum, a subforum of the National Partnership Forum, that is instrumental in ensuring donor coordination. “I have a regular meeting here with the Donors’ HIV/AIDS Forum, which meets every 15 days. We have to be there to make sure there is harmonisation and alignment of all the donors, and there are many here, towards the government’s national plan”.

Despite the many challenges still remaining, UNAIDS has played a crucial role in supporting the coordination of the AIDS response in the country. “I think our greatest achievement is the confidence we have been able to create about this office. It is really considered by all partners as reliable, in helping them to get access to technical support and knowledge”.

“I like working in the country office because it makes you much closer to people living with HIV, and you really see why you are involved. For example when I go to Somali region and meet those young women who have been able to come out in a very, very hostile environment, I see their courage, I see their eyes— and I also see their tears. This shows me that we still have a very long way to go!”

All photo credit: UNAIDS/P.Virot