By Maree Nutt, CEO RESULTS Australia
Even though RESULTS is all about everyday people using their voices to influence political decisions that will bring an end to global poverty, we very rarely get to go out and witness the programs we advocate so strongly for.
And though our main targets for this advocacy are politicians who we write to and meet with regularly, we don’t often get to interact with them outside that precious twenty or thirty minutes we have of their time in their electorate offices or in Canberra. (I have often said I thought all parliamentarians in Canberra should all be issued with roller skates in order to save time and energy getting from meetings, to the chamber and to the countless events in their diaries!)
So to be able to head to Vietnam for five days and visit programs funded by the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria together with seven parliamentarians, some key Global Fund staff plus leading advocates and researchers on these three killer diseases was a ‘the kid in the lolly shop’ moment for a RESULTS advocate like me. (Yes a bit weird, I know…)
So what are some of my lasting memories of the trip? As mentioned in a previous blog post, I was (and remain) very impressed by how the Vietnamese authorities are implementing the largely Global Fund supported programs in hospitals, regional health centres and communities across the country.
But it is the people benefitting from these programs I remember most.
I remember the sex worker I spoke to in Ho Chi Minh City, whose best friend died in her arms from HIVAIDS. She is now a volunteer peer support worker with a local community organisation (funded by the Global Fund) helping to minimise HIV transmission amongst high-risk populations.
I remember the long bus ride to a remote village in the southern province of Tay Ninh, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the capital. Despite the curiosity and playfulness of the children, my impression was that this village was possibly amongst the poorest to be found in Vietnam. I could see how important the community health workers are for distributing a range of health services including life-saving insecticide treated bed nets to people in the village. With Global Fund support, the 4.8 million bed nets delivered to date have helped slash the death rates from malaria in Vietnam. One sprightly old grandmother left us in no doubt about how treasured these bed nets are. When she was a young woman there were no nets and many of the children in village died every year.
As a former physiotherapist and TB advocate, I was most interested to visit Pham Ngoc Thac Hospital (named after a lung specialist and Vietnam’s first Health Minister). However the reality of multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB) hit home when our masked group visited two patients in the ward for those with MDR-TB. Both shared a small room and had been on treatment (at least twelve different medications every day) for the last few months. Guessing that both were probably in their twenties I recalled (from a RESULTS ‘Fact & Action’ sheet) that TB affects people of working age. It made me wonder what financial impact this illness was having on them and their families. Nonetheless both patients seemed very grateful for the opportunity of treatment and hopeful of returning to good health (Vietnam has one of the highest cure rates of any country for MDR-TB). I was also deeply impressed by the dedication of the doctors, one of whom shared with me how his uncle and a number of relatives had died of TB some years ago. For him, the quest to rid Vietnam of TB was a personal one and one inextricably linked at least for the immediate future to the support from the Global Fund.
The impact and importance of the Global Fund to combatting disease and strengthening the health system in Vietnam was a strong theme that ran through each presentation, each hospital visit and each conversation with people affected by HIVAIDS, TB or malaria. Importantly the link between Australian aid and the Global Fund was also not lost on the Parliamentarians. Australia’s contributions to the Global Fund since 2004 total in excess of half a billion dollars, and whilst none of it can be earmarked to a particular country, Australian aid has indirectly contributed to the quarter of a billion dollars disbursed to Vietnam to date.
The parliamentarians I joined on the delegation were, without exception, genuinely interested, engaged, compassionate and discerning about what they saw, heard and experienced. They were also a lot of fun and it was heart-warming to see our Australian politicians get along and bond across party-lines. This trip was a great opportunity to get to know each of them little better.
However, even more important for me and RESULTS is to ensure these parliamentarians share their experiences and speak to the value of Australian aid as delivered through the Global Fund, with their colleagues.
In 2016 the Global Fund will be looking to donors like Australia to step up and support its work across the globe for another three years. As I and my fellow delegates have just witnessed, investing in the Global Fund is a most effective use of Australian aid.