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Shaping the future of the AIDS Foundation

Mon 20 Nov 2006 In: HIV View at NDHA

Underlying this weekend's AGM of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation are some painful history and contentious issues, It's an attempt by the Board of Trustees to put the turmoil of the past eighteen months to rest and to listen to the wishes of its grass roots membership. Board Chair Jeremy Lambert is certain this year's meeting will be extremely constructive and forward-looking – unlike last year's bunfight. Last year's AGM saw an embattled then-chair Simon Robb struggle to defend the board against vocal anger from some members. At the heart of the problem were constitutional changes which had earlier in the year been interpreted as cut and dried decisions by the board. The most contentious were board membership quotas for HIV positive people and Maori. In the background lurked Treaty of Waitangi provisions and a re-jig of the number of people on the board. An early casualty was the Board's first Maori chair, Clive Aspin, who resigned amidst these controversial 'proposals' and allegations that, addressing an overseas AIDS conference, he bagged the NZAF as a racist organisation. The board staggered on through the year until faced with the full blast of anger and discontent of membership and staff. The new - and by this stage emotionally overwrought - chair, Simon Robb, resigned soon after that AGM and several other board members quietly evaporated in the following months. Lambert, who eventually inherited the chair - which some speculated was instead a poisoned chailce - gives an example of what went wrong. “The board had sent out a proposal which would have seen at least 50% of board positions go to Maori. There were a number of concerns raised by the membership, which initially resulted in the withdrawal of that proposal, he recalls. “[The Board] hadn't done any groundwork with the membership, so they didn't have a very good feel about how the members might feel about the proposal. Lambert says he thinks the board has now learnt its lesson - in that before it proposes major reforms it must talk to its members first. “I think there's been a lot of work done between the board and the members, trying to engage a lot more with the membership in the last 12 months,” he says. The contentious issues, including the fundamental focus of the Foundation, were handed by the Board to an independent group of gay men with extensive history with the Foundation, gay issues and the fight against HIV. Lambert represented the Board in that Constitutional Review group. In a series of meetings held throughout the country over the past winter they canvassed community feedback and have returned to the board a number of proposals to be voted on by the membership at this Saturday night's AGM. GAY-FOCUSED, OR FOR ALL NEW ZEALANDERS? A bound to be contentious vote by members addresses the desired focus of the organisation, and is seen by Lambert as the most important decision of the AGM. “There is significant debate about whether we should provide services for all New Zealanders, or be ‘gay-focused', or perhaps MSM (men who have sex with men) focused - which is broader than being just gay-focused since being gay is about sexual identity rather than sexual behaviour,” he explains. Gay man and past NZAF chair Michael Stevens notes that “...given the strong and deep historical roots of the NZAF in this gay/MSM world, this group does understandably feel a sense of ownership that I think is totally valid.” Wellington counsellor and life member of the NZAF Bill Logan says he is in favour of “a gay-centred, but not gay-exclusive, organisation. "At this time, and in this place, transmission of HIV is overwhelmingly among men who have sex with men, and attention to this population is therefore central to, but not the exclusive focus of, our work.” However, some groups, such as Positive Women Inc., believe HIV does not discriminate, so neither should the NZAF. All New Zealanders are potentially affected by HIV/AIDS, so the NZAF's activities should cover everyone. Kudakwashe Tuwe of the African Health Promotion Programme, a non-gay focussed unit already developing under the NZAF's wing, says the NZAF should be an all-encompassing organisation ready to professionally work with all people from diversified cultures, backgrounds, origins, sexuality and political opinions. THE TREATY OF WAITANGI? The NZAF currently has a clause in its constitution covering responsibilities to the Treaty of Waitangi. But there is some debate over whether the health of HIV/AIDS affected people has nothing explicitly to do with the Treaty. Some believe only a complete adoption of the Treaty in the constitution is acceptable; meaning all actions of the NZAF would require the approval of Maori. Others say it is not the business of the NZAF to “solve the Treaty” and that it is best to just do what is right for the NZAF. BOARD APPOINTMENTS BY SKILLS, OR ELECTION? Currently, membership on the NZAF Board is by appointment only. After advertising vacancies selections of new board members are made by the existing board members according to skills, in an attempt to maintain an effective range and mix of skills. This has historically been seen as the best way to ensure a more competent, effective, and responsive Board. However, a line of thought is resurfacing that the only way to get the right skills mix is through democratic election. This preference also hints that ownership is important – the sense that a Board responsible to 'us' can only be created through elections from amongst 'us'. ACTIVITIES IN THE PACIFIC ISLANDS? Should the NZAF's activities continue to be limited to New Zealand? Our country may be in a position to assume a leadership role in the vulnerable South Pacific region, and perhaps has a moral duty to respond to requests for advice and programme partnership through the NZAF. Last year the NZAF hosted the first Pan Pacific AIDS Conference, an indication of its commitment to regional HIV programmes. In his submission, Chris Sibley, a Foundation member and the NZAF's Gay Men's Health promoter for the Wellington region, notes: “New Zealand is a major tourist destination both regionally and internationally and holds a unique position of respect and prestige within the island nations of the Pacific. These two realities automatically burden the Foundation with the need to maintain professional, collaborative and supportive networks overseas.” On the other hand, maximising the health of Kiwis with HIV is a huge task – and the NZAF was set up by New Zealanders, for New Zealanders. Should managing the HIV epidemic outside our borders be left to the Ministry of Health and other government agencies? Clearly, if the NZAF were to grow into a regional role its MOH funding would have to be increased to address any extra work. AND SO TO THE AGM... While those are some of most contentious issues to be addressed by Saturday's AGM, there are many more items on the agenda seeking to chart the Foundation's future course. And the Foundation's future is of vital importance – as ex NZAF staffer and Foundation member Steve Attwood highlights in his submission to the AGM: “[The NZAF] is an organisation dealing with one of the biggest global epidemics in the history of the world, an epidemic where millions still die," he says. "Even here in New Zealand, blessed with one of the more successful responses to the HIV epidemic in the world, the boundary between a manageable epidemic and an HIV explosion is perilously maintained and continually at risk of blowing out.” With new HIV infection rates amongst men who have sex with men again soaring year by year it's clear this is not a time for the NZAF, its members, board or staff, to get the basics wrong. After the fireworks of last year most members seem hopeful of a sound and professional approach to the future shape and work of the NZAF. will carry coverage of the AGM in our Daily News section this Saturday evening, with analysis in the days following. Matt Akersten, Jay Bennie - 20th November 2006    

Credit: Matt Akersten, Jay Bennie

First published: Monday, 20th November 2006 - 12:00pm

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