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Public-private powerhouse: how philanthropists are kick-starting the battle against HIV/AIDS

MAC cosmetics is an innovator in more than just its makeup. Its AIDS Fund – which donates every cent of the selling price from its Viva Glam range – has raised $128 million since the family-owned Estee Lauder bought the company from the founders in 1994.

Fundamental to the Fund’s approach is the idea of, as executive director Nancy Mahon puts it, taking “really good outside shots.” The Fund takes risks, funding what others won’t in an effort to call attention to unrecognised needs and catalyse change. They did this with their Caribbean initiative in 2007, and are doing it again with the MAC AIDS Fund Leadership Initiative at Columbia University and UCLA.

A one-year training programme designed to help cultivate emerging leaders in South Africa who will make a major contribution to HIV/AIDS prevention at the local, regional or national levels, the Leadership Initiative provides a structured, supportive programme that enables participants to learn about and engage in the exchange of successful approaches to prevention that can be modified to meet local needs.

“As a US-based foundation, we receive a lot of applications from US-based non-profit organisations to implement HIV/AIDS programmes around the world” said Mahon. “We know that we are not winning the war against HIV infection by using current prevention methods and we also know that an effective way to maximise the impact of our grant-making is to focus our resources on one particular region. Given the current HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa, we decided that this was an important region for us to target our efforts.”

“We wanted to make sure that our work did not duplicate existing efforts, but rather created new models to address the issue. We also felt that it was critical to create a programme that strengthens and nurtures local expertise and builds local leadership and capacity. The goal of the programme is to create prevention leaders and programmes “in-country” rather than transplant US or European models, ensuring that the programmes are culturally relevant and foster local leadership and create programme legacy in country. Without this localised approach, a reversal of the epidemic in South Africa is inconceivable.”

And so the first class of eight fellows was identified through a nationwide selection process. Chosen from among 147 applicants, these eight represented South Africa’s most promising innovators in HIV prevention. They are a diverse group of emerging leaders whose work spans numerous sectors and takes place in a number of different provinces across South Africa. The fellows’ professional backgrounds and focus areas include: primary and secondary education, child rights, treatment related activism, home-based care, journalism, microbicide research and medicine. This year a second class of eight – all women – was selected; to date the MAC AIDS Fund has provided $1.36 million to support the two groups.

During their recent two-month intensive training period, the fellows learned how to: carry out HIV/AIDS prevention programmes (eg, development, implementation, adaptation, and evaluation); develop skills to sustain HIV/AIDS prevention programmes (eg, budgeting, grant-writing); examine the role of policy analysis in understanding the success or failure of prevention strategies; build leadership skills; network with local leaders, advocates, and providers in the field of HIV prevention; develop an HIV/AIDS prevention advocacy plan and build the skills to implement it; and disseminate and mobilise the plan effectively. Their training required a full-time commitment in New York, and involved regularly scheduled prevention seminars and policy meetings, along with meetings with their supportive one-on-one mentors.

At the end of the two-month training period, the Leadership Initiative provides seed money for fellows to launch their HIV/AIDS prevention programmes in South Africa. Ongoing mentoring is provided during the first year of programme implementation and participants can communicate with mentors and each other online.

Anke A Ehrhardt, director of the HIV Center for Clinical & Behavioral Studies at Columbia University, affirmed the importance of that support. “South Africa offers both enormous challenges and opportunities. It is the country with the largest number of people with HIV/AIDS in the world, and still suffers from terrible poverty and gender inequality.

At the same time, South Africa has a vigorous democratic government, a strong commitment to human rights, and a revitalised focus on HIV/AIDS. Within that context, we will continue to provide the fellows with funding, guidance and other types of support both from New York and ‘on the ground’ in South Africa, so that they can both carry out their prevention plans but also take the next step as leaders in HIV prevention.”

That these women are poised for leadership is clear in their descriptions of their proposed programmes, and of the role the Leadership Initiative is playing in bringing them to life.
Romiela Pillay’s programme will focus on building capacity to advocate for, and work with, small and medium-sized companies in the manufacturing and engineering industries.

Pillay explained the need to strategically respond to the HIV and AIDS pandemic as “there is growing empirical and anecdotal evidence that HIV and AIDS is affecting the structure, operations and profits of many companies. The roll-on effect of this to the larger communities is paramount. Getting the public and private sectors to join forces can lead to a more effective approach to beating the pandemic.” She looks forward to bringing a “renewed and inspired energy” home with her, along with “leadership, networking, and advocacy skills.”

Estelle Eleanor Heidman’s prevention plan targets 40 farm workers on two farms near the town of Philippolis, a typical livestock farming community in rural Southern Free State. “I always had a passion to work with people, which explained my choice to become a teacher,” Heidman said. “I particularly enjoyed working with people in disadvantaged settings, and after a few visits to the very rural Southern Free State and surrounding farms I knew that I found my niche.”

She saw a great opportunity to work with farm workers, as “the high incidence of poverty and the low level of education make the farm worker even more vulnerable to the impact of HIV/AIDS.” She’s proud of her Initiative-derived “improved people skills and skills to sustain the HIV/AIDS prevention plan,” such as sophisticated budgeting and prospect research.

These two different projects are being tackled with the same skill set, but two very different training partners joining forces for a common goal. Speaking of MAC and Columbia, Ehrhardt noted that “even though we bring different perspectives to our work – ours is academic, theirs is corporate – we have a shared vision of how to identify, train, and support the crucially needed next generation of leaders in HIV prevention in South Africa.” Mahon concurred, stating that she and her team members “work closely with Columbia and UCLA to ensure that the fellows’ experience is diverse, meaningful, and relevant, empowering them with the resources to implement their projects.”

Fundamentally, that’s what this collaboration is all about – recognising the real power of real women to make meaningful change. Mahon put it best: “The fellows are all incredibly inspiring. Their vision, passion and commitment are motivating and give me great hope for the future of South Africa. South Africans, not foreigners, will save South Africans from HIV.”

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