By Charmain Mohamed

Charmain Mohamed is Executive Director of Asia Catalyst.

Over the last eight years Asia Catalyst has grown in size and stature to become a leader in curriculum development and advocacy that furthers the right to health for marginalized groups in Asia. The transition has been a remarkable one, not least because it happened within the context of a global recession and a steady decline and re-focus of international HIV funding. Our measure of success however, is not a financial one, nor even one of organizational sustainability, but rather one of impact. Impact for the communities we work with, and impact on addressing some of the worst effects of punitive laws and regulations on HIV, and access to an adequate standard of health for all.

Eight years ago the global number of people dying because of AIDS was at its highest ever. That number has fallen by 35% in the last eight years, mainly because of an increase in access to treatment for people living with HIV. At this year’s AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne, Australia, UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibe, remarked that, if similar progress continued and accelerated, we were “on track to end the epidemic by 2030.” However, with two thirds of people living with HIV still not accessing treatment, lack of vigilance now could see current progress eroded and targets being set back by a decade, if not more. Last year UNAIDS reported an estimated 2.1 million new infections and 1.5 million AIDS related deaths globally. Clearly there is more to be done.

As we’ve seen with this year’s Ebola crisis, strong community involvement in responding to public health emergencies is key to fighting epidemics, as is ensuring non-discriminatory and stigma free access to healthcare. This message is especially true for the community-based organizations (CBOs) we work with, who represent some of the most marginalized groups in the world. Their involvement is even more essential when the behavior of populations they represent is criminalized, or they are marginalized to the extent that government programs are more of a deterrent than a service.

Since Asia Catalyst started we have supported 173 community based organizations in 11 countries across Asia build better institutions, represent their communities more effectively, and successfully advocate for positive change. Their contribution to creating the social, political, legal and financial environment needed to effectively respond to the HIV epidemic cannot be underestimated or undervalued. On this eight year anniversary it is therefore timely to also reflect on the contribution Asia Catalyst has made to facilitate this change.

The most obvious impacts are evident, and partners readily identify improvements in project management, fundraising, and advocacy, to name but a few. Many participants of our programs go on to have remarkable advocacy successes built on knowledge gained at Asia Catalyst workshops and subsequently put into action. Participants have formed cross cutting coalitions through Asia Catalyst facilitation, and their coordinated strategies have made advocacy inroads, particularly around legal advocacy and legislative reform. However, a more nuanced outcome has emerged. While participants recognize that Asia Catalyst capacity building has increased their organizational capacity and performance, they place more emphasis and value on how these capacity improvements have fostered more democratic and independent organizations. Organizations have gained confidence and a sense of independence over their strategic plans and vision, instead of carrying out activities solely based on available project funding or the lead from other organizations. Democratization, independence, confidence, and impact. These are outcomes rarely emphasized in other capacity development projects and ones we are immensely proud of.

As we ponder on the strategic direction of our own organization it is heartening to see these positive outcomes in the countries and areas on which we focus. Asia Catalyst’s long-term objective of aiding strong, independent and effective civil society in Asia is therefore on track, but what of the next eight years? HIV is not the only pressing health issue in Asia and the groups we work with – LGBT, sex workers, people who use drugs and others – have myriad concerns on a spectrum of rights issues, all of which certainly interlink to prevent access on a broad range of healthcare issues. Criminalization, discrimination and stigma remain key barriers to the promotion, protection and fulfillment of the right to health for many of the communities we work with. Over the next eight years and beyond, we look forward to working with more inspiring activists from across Asia who are striving to bring down these barriers every day.

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