I have lived and worked in Africa for 20 years and expect to live the rest of my life here. During this time I have spoken to hundreds, maybe even thousands of orphans and vulnerable children and young people who live in unimaginable poverty. How they muster the courage to cope with the odds stacked so heavily against them, I don’t know. I have worked in communities in right across sub-Saharan Africa in countries where families have been devastated by HIV/AIDS and have seen the lack of coordination and cooperation of aid agencies many times first hand.
Last weekend I read Home Truths – Facing the Facts on Children, AIDS and Poverty which summarises two years of research and analysis of AIDS policies, programmes and funding. Addressed mainly to policymakers in ‘heavily burdened’ (poor) countries, it’s also relevant to international donors, children’s agencies, NGOs and civic groups. The report makes a concrete case for redirecting the response to HIV/AIDS to address children’s needs more effectively and keeping orphans and other vulnerable children in community-based settings. It was written by the Joint Learning Initiative on Children and HIV/AIDS (JLICA). JLICA (don’t worry, I will limit my use of acronyms) boasts an impressive list of organisations, sponsors, academics, researchers, policy makers – about 300 contributors in total. Surprisingly business and social entrepreneurs are excluded from the alliance. Surely, we would have roles to play?
Actually, there is very little in the 64 pages that I disagree with. It calls for a long overdue and fundamental shift in international and local responses to the epidemic’s impact on children, families and communities. It acknowledges the funds wasted and the litany of mistakes and failed approaches to help children affected by AIDS and that community responses were misunderstood. It analyses what was unsuccessful and why and sets out a solid framework outlining four streams of future action. Based on evidence and research, it identifies what needs to be done and declares principles to be observed.
Unfortunately, it omits any references to energy poverty, which is central to progress and impacts education, health and social services. It also relies heavily on UN action for implementation. I hope that it will rely on the experience and wisdom of local communities as it promises to.
This is a seminal document, given the depth and severity of the problem for future generations of children. The consequences for not getting approaches right in an age of declining funds and increased competition for funding and investment could be catastrophic.
But what left me feeling wanting is that like so many policy focused documents – it is uninspiring and dry. It uses complicated, confusing words and phrasing when in plain speaking would do. These academic style reports are important to quantify and measure ‘the problem’, but I dislike that anonymous children/poor people are ultimately nameless statistics to monitor going up or down.
What I have also learned is that these children and young people are far more capable, courageous, hard-working, resilient, dignified, earnest and resourceful than they are given credit for. The burden of poverty falls harder on girls than boys. I have seen how heartbreaking and destabilising AIDS is to families. I have spoken with children who feel humiliated because they can’t read money; to girls who have been embarrassed that their clothes are dirty; to young people who cast their eyes self-consciously to the ground because they are too poor to offer you a place to sit down because they have no furniture.
The report assumes that the reader is both highly educated and also understands what it is like to live in extreme poverty. I doubt that they do. The JLICA report speaks of these children, women, families, communities dispassionately throughout.
I’d like to raise my hand for making these parched documents more inspirational and less detached. They’re just too important not to.
Kristine Pearson is the CEO of Lifeline Energy, which works across sub-Saharan Africa with a focus on orphans and other vulnerable children, rural women, refugees and people who are ill.