What to spot at the International AIDS Conference


As the international HIV/AIDS community pack their bags and head to Durban for the International AIDS Conference next week, I’ve put together a list of things to look out for at the conference. PILI won’t be finished until the end of August so expect a MEGA screening to take place at the next conference in 2018 (hello Amsterdam!), until then here are some top spots and why they’re relevant to the themes in the film.

1. Politics

This is the first and hardest thing to spot at the Conference. No-one will present research on Politics or really say the word at the Conference, but everyone will be discussing it. Politics is often a dirty word in global health, something that no-one likes to mention as it’s the messy space of power relations between states, donors, civil society movements and people living with HIV but of course it is everywhere in the International AIDS Conference. Does continuing austerity in Europe undermine HIV/AIDS financing? Will US Presidential elections lead to the end of PEPFAR? What does Brexit mean for HIV/AIDS financing?  Is there a general decline in good will towards multilateralism that will impact on the future of the Global Fund?

If people aren’t asking these questions I would start to worry


2. Celebrities

HIV/AIDS pulls in the good celebrities. As one senior global health person once told me, they wish they had a high profile celebrity who cared about tuberculosis (+ AMR, neglected tropical diseases etc etc). Annie Lennox is a given with her visible ‘HIV Positive’ t-shirt. But this year I’m thinking of a new breed of celebrity, really I think everyone is holding out for Lupita Nyong’o. Come on UNAIDS, try your best.


3. Biomedical breakthroughs

The International AIDS Conference cannot exist without some sort of biomedical breakthrough or new innovation in science that is going to ‘change the game’ of prevention or treatment. In the recent past PrEP and male circumcision have been some of the big take homes. This year expect more on PrEP and gene-editing.


4. Normative Claims aka ‘we must do/act/demand X, Y, Z’

The International AIDS Conference is in part all about the sharing of science and knowledge on HIV and AIDS but it is also about advocacy and mobilisation. This is a time when intergovernmental organisations, civil society organisations and people living with HIV/AIDS get together and share their fears, hopes and plans for the future. On the surface this is all good, everyone comes together and agrees sustained and further action on HIV/AIDS is needed, however there are of course asymmetries in power here. Some civil society groups and people living with HIV shout louder than others or say what donors and intergovernmental organisations want to hear: it is these groups that will get the international attention.

Despite these asymmetries expect a lot of ‘must act’ ‘call to action’ ‘time is now’ ‘collaborate for action’ rhetoric filling your Twitter timelines.


5. Praise the host country

Everything is awesome! International conferences are an opportunity for the host country to showcase what it has been doing on the subject of the conference. This is a big one for South Africa. President Zuma will be looking to put the legacy of showergate behind him, and the ANC will be highlighting the more positive aspects of their action on AIDS. The organisers of the IAC will of course reciprocate with praise for these efforts, highlighting progress made while glossing over any of the negative bits with the simple ‘not be complacent’ ‘work together to capitalise on progress’ narratives.

If there is one rule of conferencing, the organisers will always praise the hosts. I mean, no-one likes a party-goer who criticizes the snacks.


6. Per diem posse

My favourite bunch at any big international conference is the per diem posse. The posse includes people up for a bit of travel and excitement in a new city. This is not a criticism, personally I have not attended conferences in the past because the location did not interest me (hello ISA Atlanta, but I was also in Tanzania making PILI at the time) and have been happy to visit San Francisco twice for conferences. The per diem posse not only have their expenses covered, but cream a little off the top in extra pay, and get a badge of international legitimacy by having their photos taken by the Conference banners. They often attend the high profile speeches but will be a rare spot in the poster hall.


7. Posters need your love

If you want to find out something new, interesting or exciting, go and see the posters. Posters often have a lower status at conferences and tend to be where early career researchers or community groups are placed. For this reason, this is definitely worth a stop as you’ll see some insights that you don’t necessarily get on the bigger plenary platforms. Also I had a friend who had to make a poster in Tanzania to take to a past IAC and it was such a faff making it that I hope people recognise this and show the love.


8. Community nod

You cannot have an HIV/AIDS get together without a nod to social networks, activists, community groups, people living with HIV, marginalised groups, and vulnerable populations. All presentations will involve such a nod and be as broadly encompassing as possible so as not to leave anyone out. The more obscure community group you can mention the better.


9. Fringe meetings

Big decisions and big ideas are more likely to take place at the fringe meetings and events than the conference itself, so get an invite or failing that: gatecrash. These are happening now so get organised and go along. You can also spot those who attend the fringe meetings as they are already burnt out on coffee, biscuits and institutional dinners by the time the main event kicks off.


10. People like Pili won’t be in Durban

The International AIDS Conference does go to lengths to be as inclusive as possible and have representation from the broad community of people living with HIV/AIDS. However those on the margins, the conspicuously invisible women living with HIV in rural Tanzania, like the character of Pili, won’t be there. They won’t know the conference is happening, any outcomes, or the potential impact on their lives until 3 or 5 years later as the science breakthroughs and policy initiatives begin to be rolled out. The Pilis of the world may be the subject of discussion but they most likely won’t be a part of the discussion.


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