Sharing knowhow and joining forces towards Health for All

aidsfocus.ch: A model thematic community in the health sector

aidsfocus.ch: A model thematic community in the health sector

Based on the need of its member organizations to share more intensely experience and knowledge on health-related topics, the Medicus Mundi Switzerland (MMS) Network launched in 2003 a platform on HIV/AIDS and international cooperation: aidsfocus.ch.

“It’s the people that make the music!” This is a very appropriate characterization of a community of practice (CoP), which also applies to aidsfocus.ch, the Swiss platform on HIV/AIDS and international cooperation. Committed people who are eager to share and learn are a key element and requirement of a lively thematic platform. Since its inception, platform aidsfocus.ch has developed into a central pivot in international cooperation on issues surrounding HIV and AIDS, winning as partners a representative and growing number of organizations – today numbering 33.

Evaluating and learning from the experiences of the past five years while developing the platform have highlighted five important factors that are relevant to the success of a vital community.

A shared praxis-oriented theme...

With HIV and AIDS, MMS chose a topic that is of concern to any individual or organization working in development cooperation. Such work in Africa and increasingly on other continents is no longer thinkable or doable without dealing with the epidemic. The impact of AIDS extends far beyond the health sector and requires a transversal and multisectoral approach. Organizations specialized in health as well as other NGOs who join the platform as partners share the objectives of improving the effectiveness of HIV prevention, care, treatment and support of people living with HIV and AIDS, and mitigating the impact of the epidemic.

The platform aidsfocus.ch responds to and harnesses the potential of all the organizations participating in international cooperation. The issues that are taken up and discussed at the conferences, meeting points or in the newsletters range from medical and health issues (antiretroviral therapies, vertical mother-child transmission) through psychosocial themes (memory work) to social, political and cultural questions (property and inheritance rights, life insurance).

The annual conference has developed into the most important annual event for knowledge sharing and as a source of inspiration. Annual conference topics are decided by the partner organizations, reflecting the challenges they are faced with in their work in the field and their need for new inputs. The 2005 conference, for example, on integrated HIV treatment and care, which showed that antiretroviral treatment is feasible in resource-limited settings, met with a broad response. It contributed considerably to discussions about and to supporting the acceptance of antiretroviral therapies in Swiss development cooperation. This year’s conference will look at culturally appropriate approaches in the AIDS response, a rather neglected aspect in international programs so far. The thematic anchorage in the field experience of partner organizations, linked with sensitive surveillance of developments in the international debate, are specific qualities of aidsfocus.ch.

… a basic consensus …

With information and experience exchange as a starting point, the platform has worked towards a shared basic understanding of central issues in the area of HIV, AIDS and international collaboration. It was and is a continuous balancing act between clear positioning on current topics – such as access to medication and fighting patenting – and the attempt to function primarily as a broadly accessible exchange platform.

The objective to advocate on behalf of people living with or affected by HIV and AIDS requires more clarity in the positioning of aidsfocus.ch. Platform partners have successfully worked out a shared basic consensus on fundamental issues and set these out in position papers on comprehensive HIV prevention, treatment and care for all. These position papers are much appreciated by various partners as they provide an orientation when an organization is elaborating its own positions and policies. They also give weight to these positions, since more than 30 other organizations stand behind them. However, the development of a shared understanding of advocacy and lobby work remains an ongoing process.

… some use-oriented instruments

To ensure continuous sharing and mutual learning among the partner organizations, the platform provides the following instruments and services: the website, the electronic bulletin aidsfocus.news, the annual conference, the forum, meeting points, working groups and jointly developed products such as the film on memory work.

The memory work project with film, conference and toolkit may serve as a good example of the platform’s working methods und use of instruments. On the initiative of a partner organization, memory work was taken up as a promising approach for the psychosocial support of children affected by HIV and AIDS. A working group was formed which became instrumental in producing the film “Strength from remembering” for sensitization, information and motivation for implementation. Experiences in memory work in the field and the felt need for methodological guidance led to the production of a toolkit on memory work. Today, the film and toolkit are used by many partner organizations and others in projects for awareness raising, sensitization, psychosocial support, and to introduce memory work activities in many countries of the South.

… a lot of commitment by motivated people

Alongside professional expertise, the most important resources for an effective and active platform are those in shortest supply: personal commitment and time. Time-consuming working groups often encounter difficulties but prove their value for short-term objectives, such as the preparation of a conference. aidsfocus.ch keeps experimenting with new forms of sharing and joint learning that involve people and respect their limited time resources, e.g. “Meeting points” or the peer group on mainstreaming.
           
…and proactive and strong facilitation and coordination

Unlike rather informal CoPs, the platform provides formal structures and instruments backed up by a strong coordination to animate and sustain the exchange. The coordination of the aidsfocus.ch project, run by MMS, covers networking, service provision and communication. It identifies and disseminates relevant and new practices from the partner organizations but also provides independent input. The preparation and maintenance of instruments such as events, the website and electronic news allow the different partner organizations to learn about each other's activities and approaches and also provide motivation for collaborations.

Will MMS launch additional thematic platforms? Thematic platforms are definitely effective methods of knowledge management and joint learning, which support the participants in their work in international health cooperation. There are many topics which would benefit from more focused and continuous attention and which could count on the expertise and experience of MMS members. However, as said before, it is the people that make the music, and human resources for facilitation and participation are resources in short supply.

Helena Zweifel, Medicus Mundi Switzerland, in: Medicus Mundi International, Annual Report 2008
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