Posted by: davidjolson | 07/21/2010

AIDS activists need new tactics to win friends

VIENNA, Austria — In the history of AIDS, the activists deserve a place of honor for their persistence in pushing governments and donors to do more than they would have done on their own — or not done as fast — to the great benefit of the poor and vulnerable of the world. But the new generation of activists don’t seem to be winning over the rest of us here at the XVIII International AIDS Conference. And they could benefit from some communications training.

At the opening ceremony on Sunday, they annoyed a majority of the audience — many of whom had arrived early to secure good seats — by disrupting the screening of a film produced by the Global Fund to shout for more funding and, in the process, prolonging the already-long program of 16 speakers. They seemed clueless that the whole point of the Global Fund film was to raise awareness about the need for more funding in this, the third round of Global Fund replenishment. The Global Fund film makes this point more eloquently and convincingly than the protestors. But I know that only because I had seen the film previously, without disruptions; the audience could not hear the film over the continuous chanting.

It was ironic that the official speakers at the podium continually agreed with the protestors, and agreed with great patience and politeness. But even those speakers were shouted down by the less articulate and more impolite activists. When the protesters finally left the stage after an interminable period of time, the audience applauded, not in support, but for gratitude that they were finally leaving.

Yesterday in the Media Centre, I witnessed another disruption, this one even more strident. A couple dozen demonstrators were allowed into the Media Centre — I’m not quite sure how the normally super alert security staff allowed them in when they don’t normally anyone, however inoffensive, to enter without media credentials — to disrupt a PSI press conference on male circumcision. Now the demonstrators had no beef with PSI, nor with male circumcision. They were offended by the presence of U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby, who was on the panel and who they blame for “the ongoing harm of PEPFAR’s anti-prostitution pledge requirement.”

Their indignation over the requirement is justified; their tactics are not. They were aggressive, they were rude. One or two of them sounded hysterical, screaming at Goosby, for 10-15 minutes.

This is the same Eric Goosby to whom former President Bill Clinton gave a huge shout-out in the opening plenary on Monday: “This man is your friend. He’s been working on AIDS since before the youngest people in this room were born. He is a good man.” Apparently, the demonstrators did not get the message. The journalists working in the Media Centre were not impressed and mainly just ignored them, and deservedly so.

They need to find a more effective way of making their point, which is actually a point Clinton made in his speech: “You have two options here. You can demonstrate and call the President names or we can go get some more votes in Congress to get some money. My experience is that the second choice is a better one with a far better payoff.”

Yesterday, in the Media Center, the activists won no friends; they might have lost a few.

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