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Fight for the Distressed Fraught with Frustrations
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They came from across the country with their power point presentations. Their aim was to get funds to make HIV/AIDS patients' life better and prevent the spread of the deadly disease. And all the seven presenters were grassroots non-government organizations (NGOs).


Such NGOs are a key force in the fight against the killer virus because most of their volunteers are HIV/AIDS patients and thus know the pain. Even Vice-Minister of Health Wang Longde, who heads the country's AIDS control work, has acknowledged their vital role and vowed to help them in the battle against AIDS.


Thanks to the government's recognition, such NGOs are no longer seen as troublemakers. In fact, they have developed greatly in the past five years, says Chinese Association of STD/AIDS Prevention deputy secretary Luo Mei.


"Despite the progress and a more favorable environment, such NGOs still face a lot of problems. In such a situation, increasing their capability should be on top of their agenda," says Luo, who was part of a five-judge panel in Shenyang, capital of Northeast China's Liaoning Province, to decide which of the seven powerpoint presenters should get the 10,000-yuan (US$1,320) grant. One of China's leading organizations in the field, Beijing-based Ark of Love (ARL), organized the Shenyang workshop last weekend.


An HIV-positive since the early 1980s, ARL director Meng Lin (alias) told the workshop, attended by 100-odd NGO representatives: "Tapping such NGOs' resources is a global phenomenon in the successful battle against AIDS."


"With government help, the grassroots NGOs can fulfill the mission of helping HIV/AIDS patients legally, orderly and strategically," Meng told the largely HIV-positive audience. "And only by improving the capability can such NGOs win more public and government support, both in terms of funds and policy." But unfortunately, most of the AIDS-support programs presented at the workshop lacked variety and innovation.


All the proposals had programs like home visits to increase patients' adherence to drugs, peer education for safe sex, information support hotline and self-help projects such as growing vegetables. "We need a wider choice of programs, and that can be done only by the NGOs," says Humphrey Wou, director of US-based AIDS Relief Fund for China.


Sun Luqing runs the only NGO for HIV/AIDS patients in Heze in East China's Shandong Province. The 34-year-old gay who quit studies after the nine-year compulsory education says: "Most of our 38 members are between 34 and 50 and are farmers who were infected in the 1990s because of a faulty blood 'donation' scheme. That's why making a grant-winning proposal is beyond our capability. Honestly speaking, I had no idea what power point was all about before preparing the proposal for the workshop."


Sun was, however, lucky. He got the help of Zhang Jidong, a local doctor and volunteer, to prepare his power point presentation for a garlic-growing project. The proposal clinched the grant for Sun's NGO.


Another problem plaguing such NGOs is a serious lack of leadership talent, Luo says. The policy constraints encountered by the majority of grassroots NGOs to get registered and their inadequate financial resources and limited influence make the demand for talented leadership all the more important. And only an intelligent leader can fully tap the potential of an NGO.


An NGO can't have legal status or open a bank account if it's not registered. It can't get overseas funds either. "We don't have enough money to carry out even the basic work," says Sun. "How can we NGOs in the countryside hire well-educated people?"


The condition of urban NGOs is a lot better because they get 70 percent of the overseas AIDS care funds every year. The irony is that HIV/AIDS patients in rural areas need such help more than their counterparts in the cities.


But despite all the obstacles, HIV/AIDS patients need to be and can be taught skills such as how to prepare fund-raising proposals, the art of planning and management and the ways to deal with local governments, says Luo.


And then there are NGOs that can't even define their specific mission, let alone their strategies, Luo says. Take Xiao Pang (name changed), of a Shenyang-based community for HIV-positive gays, for example. The third-year journalism student of a Harbin university thinks an NGO should get funds first and talk about how to implement its strategies later. "Without money we can't do anything," he says.


Getting the local government's support for more NGO programs is the biggest problem facing Ren Guoliang, a 26-year-old gay with a college degree in communication. Ren heads Shaanxi Family of Love, an NGO based in Xi'an, China's ancient capital famous for the Terracotta Warriors. The local government doesn't clear a large part of overseas funds especially granted to AIDS care NGOs, he says, calling for a dialogue mechanism with the government.


Ren's problem is not imaginary because despite the overall improvement in policy for AIDS care NGOs, some local governments still don't fully recognize their importance in the battle against the deadly disease, says Jia Ping, a Beijing-based AIDS lawyer.

But the problem has another dimension, too, says Jia. With more and more overseas anti-AIDS funds flowing into China, the conflict of interests among NGOs is beginning to show. The reason is simple: they are seeking the same grants from the same foundations. "That to a great extent leads to a spate of verbal abuses and muckraking among the NGOs. But again this problem is also growing in the rest of the world."


In such a situation, the role of the government is vital. It can create a healthy atmosphere for civil society to help in the fight against AIDS by offering more economic support to NGOs and by improving the policy/legal environment, Jia says. "It can start by devising a fast track for AIDS care NGOs' registration."


Luo Mei says removing discrimination "is the first step towards empowering HIV patients and NGOs because they need a favorable environment to stand up for themselves. AIDS victims and healthy people are equal. Donors have no right to feel superior".


It's important, too, to strengthen communication and cooperation among all AIDS are NGOs, says Meng. China Alliance of People Living with HIV/AIDS, a long-term dialogue mechanism, was set up to unite all such groups so that the maximum number of people could benefit from NGOs' work. The central government has, on its part, set up an HIV/AIDS response mechanism with government leadership, multi-sectional cooperation and social participation.


But a lot more needs to be done to tend to the country's 650,000 HIV/AIDS patients, especially if the government wants to, and there's no doubt it does, arrest the spread of the killer on the prowl.


(China Daily August 8, 2007)

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