Peak PNG AIDS body facing suspension of funding | Pacific Beat

Peak PNG AIDS body facing suspension of funding

Peak PNG AIDS body facing suspension of funding

Updated 11 October 2012, 8:13 AEDT

Australia's overseas aid agency is calling for funding to Papua New Guinea's National AIDS Council Secretariat to be suspended.

The report says the Secretariat is ineffectual and AusAid plans to adopt a zero tolerance approach to corruption in future.

But the director for PNG's Health and HIV AUSAID program, Geoff Clarke, doesn't believe the findings paint an accurate picture of the work that's being done.

Presenter: Geraldine Couts

Speaker: Geoff Clarke, Director of PNG's Health and HIV AUSAID program


CLARKE: No it isn't, I mean I think the report also found that AusAid had been a major driver of PNG's national HIV response, and particularly acknowledged that AusAid's partner with civil societies that deliver HIV services, who provide the lion share of services to people suffering HIV. Also our Australian support had contributed to 260 per cent increase in testing between 2007 and 2009, and access to treatment had been similarly enhanced. And while sure it acknowledges that there have been some difficulties, and one of that is the lack of reliable data in PNG, which adds considerably to the challenge in running any program in Papua New Guinea, not just HIV programs.
COUTTS: Part of it I guess on a similar theme is that HIV AIDS in Papua New Guinea, that the National AIDS Council report is saying that it's difficult to measure the impact and the spread of HIV epidemic, which is part of the problem of actually assessing it?
CLARKE: It is and with better data the 2010 surveillance estimates show that the epidemic was now less than one per cent nationally. It was over one per cent in the Highlands region, but less than one per cent nationally. So by true technical definition there's no generalised epidemic in Papua New Guinea now. And the prevalence, I don't think the prevalence figure is down, what's happening is that with better data and more data we're seeing a truer picture. And I think that what we're seeing is that there has been a significant impact on new infections and I think that by and large is predominately related to the fact that we have been so successful at getting people onto anti-retro viral therapy, which we now know that if someone is on successful anti-retro viral therapy, they're infectivity is reduced by 96 per cent. In actual fact what you will tend to see is that when you are better at treating people with HIV, you often see a slight trend upwards in prevalence, and the only reason for that is not because you're actually not stopping more infections, more people live, because if you think about the number of people in the community with HIV, if you don't treat people, people will die. So prevalence, even if you've got lots of new cases can remain the same. And with HIV because of the very nature of it you never know the incidence of disease or the number of new cases truly, because to do that you'd need everyone in the community to be testing constantly so you'd know when someone became infected. And that's the reason why with HIV campaigns we constantly promote safe sex, get tested if you think you're at risk, better to know and to be on treatment. But it is a complex issue to deal with, particularly in a society like Papua New Guinea where there's a lot of cultural context around sexual behaviour.
COUTTS: Well sort of still trying to find out why this criticism that's been talked about in the AusAid report, is it maybe looking at prevention or from your discussion there you're saying that preventative measures are working?
CLARKE: Well I think one element of prevention, which is now universally accepted as treatment, is prevention. I think we've tried many other prevention methods in the past. We've had general awareness, we've had peer education, we've had village theatre, and I don't think that they've had the impacts that we had hoped they would. That's not just Papua New Guinea, if you look internationally there's a lot of evidence shows that now that a lot of these original campaigns that were run for HIV weren't successful, and I think that PNG suffers from those same criticisms, not because necessarily it was a bad choice, at the time it was what international evidence was saying people should do. But in hindsight it's shown that they've not been very effective in terms of changing people's behaviour.
COUTTS: Well on that note of ineffectual, there's been an allegation levelled at the National AIDS Council Secretariat that it's ineffectual and that the funding to the organisation should be suspended altogether?
CLARKE: Look there have been some extreme difficulties with getting the organisation to function effectively, and to that end Australia has certainly ceased our support to the corporate functions. But we believe a complete withdrawal from NACs, being the nationally appointed body for coordination response, would be counterproductive to our assistance here. So we do still provide targeted support to certain areas, but we certainly do not support the NACs corporate functions, which are the functions that have been heavily criticised.
COUTTS: And why is that, are they just underperforming?
CLARKE: Underperforming and poor management, but there have been some significant major organisational reforms in recent times, and the restructuring is encouraging, their performance is improving and we will continue to look at targeted support, subject to them making satisfactory performance. But certainly the larger general support that we gave to the corporate functions we don't give anymore as a result of reviews.
COUTTS: Now AusAid funding generally has come under the microscope quite a bit in recent times and through the last two years. They've now adopted a zero tolerance approach to corruption. Do you think that more NGOs will be struck off?
CLARKE: Look I don't think so, I think that we're also becoming much sort of tighter with monitoring of programs and we're looking at organisations before we agree to funding with them. But obviously it is difficult to eliminate absolutely all of it and we are aware of that, and taking a zero tolerance approach is one that we need to take because to keep credibility with an aid program. But the reality is that we can never guard against absolutely that there will never be any fraud, but certainly if there is then we deal with the issue and we manage it.
COUTTS: There is a good news story to come from all of this and you're suggesting through the little data that you do have that the epidemic isn't as bad as was first predicted?
CLARKE: No certainly it hasn't reached the levels that was originally predicted, and as I said we have the evidence from the 2010 surveillance figures show that we are now at a national level less than one per cent, which means PNG is no longer regarded globally as having a generalised epidemic.

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