By APCNews MONTREAL, Canada, 14 May 2007
Thanks to an HIV/AIDS knowledge sharing and partnership development project, the AIDS Africa Network (RSA) is the winner of one of the 2007 Harambee awards.
Often, people working in the HIV/AIDS prevention sector struggle to get a complete portrait of the successes and failures of HIV/AIDS programmes in the worst affected countries. Key information on vulnerable populations that have not yet been reached by these programmes is generally missing. The work of the Aids Africa Network, which decided to focus on information and communication technologies (ICTs), is structured around these two central factors. Its 210 member organisations and individuals are now called upon to put their shoulders to the wheel.
APCNews addressed several questions to the network’s secretariat, located in Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo. Chronicle of a fierce fight with the help of ICTs.
APCNews: What ICTs do you use within the framework of your project?
RSA: The ICTs used within the framework of this project are the online database; wikis; blogs; the online events calendar; the online information bulletin, and obviously email.
APCNews: In what way do these ICTs represent added value in relation to traditional networking methods?
RSA: I believe that these ICTs have led to the birth of new economic and social opportunities in Africa. To date, it has been very difficult for us to handle information for over 200 members. The use of an online database will enable us to collect information on the skills, capabilities and fields of activity of the members of the network. And it will be easier to access this information through the web site (http://www.reseausida.org/). Data will also soon be available by country and target group.
The blog will serve to document the history of the project beneficiaries in the field, and to offer informal points of view and critiques coming from members.
The wiki will be a space for member collaboration, a utility that is more internal. Useful resources will be displayed there and everyone will be able to add or modify content.
The online events calendar will enable members to submit information on HIV/AIDS workshops, health conferences or even the network meetings in which they intend to participate.
The discussion forum will enable points of view to be offered and exchanged on important and relevant subjects. For example, we had a discussion on HIV/AIDS prevention, failure or reality. It lasted three months. On this occasion, there were major contributions by members in terms of experiences and testimonies. A report was sent to members who participated in the discussion.
The Harambee award will therefore serve to materialise group networking, and develop it to a new level.
APCNews: Tell me if I am mistaken, but it seems to me that the work you are doing could also be carried out by governments or the private sector… What are you doing that is so different, then?
RSA: In part, maybe, I don’t know. But coordination is on a voluntary basis and for this reason, it would be quite improbable for governments or companies to fully invest in an initiative of this type. Although we have never attempted to collaborate with governmental agencies themselves, there are members of government who appreciate and are encouraging the network’s initiative. The AIDS network includes members who have positions of responsibility in national or international organisations.
In fact, the AIDS Africa Network is a platform for the exchange of information, experiences, resources and specialised training on HIV/ AIDS. Its vision is to facilitate the development of stakeholders fighting against AIDS. More often than not, these stakeholders are not motivated by State rationale or profit-seeking. We maintain fluid communication between NGOs of the same and different countries through the online discussion group.
APCNews: You participated in a workshop on network coordination offered by the Harambee awards programme. Did you learn something concrete?
RSA: Yes. I learnt a new way of coordinating a network, how a coordinator organises him/herself for a healthy network. That includes always seeking feedback from members, contacting members off-list and effectively moderating a discussion list, for example. Also, how to ensure good facilitation within a network: group policy and activities, information management, debate harmonisation, encouraging collaboration, listening to members, creating an enabling environment and mobilising resources. Nor am I forgetting the working sessions with pairs and the importance of creating an identity for the network with the help of visual elements.
APCNews: What limits and challenges are you facing?
RSA: Since its creation in April 2004, the AIDS Africa Network has carried out many activities. However, it has also faced four types of problems:
Firstly, member management. Three new membership requests come to us every week. And then, there is our difficulty with using the current network resources. In other words, we have members with capacities, skills and resources, who are unfortunately under-used. Managing a list where there is at least one new member every day is not easy.
I remember a time when there were no volunteers to lead the moderation of a discussion. Messages were coming from everywhere and I assure you that coordination was not easy.
Collection of grass-roots information, in the field, in the participating countries is certainly another constraint of our size. And when information is collected, we often find ourselves faced with a web site that is not regularly updated.
This time, the site management system will be collaborative. Before, it was on a voluntary basis, but Harambee’s grant will help us to pay a webmaster. Members could then directly put their information on the site, which will facilitate updates.