Coordinators Meeting of Regional Community Networks

EuroNPUD were privileged to be asked to attend a three day regional meeting to discuss the Global Fund Regional Platform in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) together with our partners from ENPUD, EHRN, East Europe & Central Asia Union of PLHIV, SWAN, Alliance for Public Health, Eurasian Coalition on Male Health, OSF – Georgia, Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB & Malaria.

It was a really helpful meeting and allowed us to meet with other drug users, key population groups, PLHIV, drug user networks and harm reduction networks from across Eurasia or EECA. We were able to share our thoughts, experiences, the work that we do, our concerns and ideas.

Attendees:

  • Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA)
  • European Network of People Who Use Drugs (EuroNPUD)
  • Eurasian Network of People Who Use Drugs (ENPUD)
  • Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (EHRN)
  • East Europe & Central Asia Union of PLWH
  • Sex Workers Advocacy in CEECA (SWAN)
  • Alliance for Public Health
  • Eurasian Coalition on Male Health (ECOM)
  • Open Society Foundation (OSF) – Georgia
  • Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS
  • The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB & Malaria.

There is currently a particular need to support all networks in the EECA because the Global Fund is moving into transitionary funding arrangements. Meaning that middle to high income countries will no longer be eligible for funding from the Global Fund. The problem being that although capital status has changed this is not yet evident in practical terms in many counties and Governments do not have the ability or political will to take over funding of harm reduction and other key population interventions. We attended the three day partnership meeting to coordinate the regional networks to think about strategies in capacity building and local funding, Myself (Mags Maher – Coordinator of EuroNPUD), Berne Stalenkrantz (Vice Chair of EuroNPUD) and Mat Southwell (Coact Consultant and EuroNPUD Technical Advisor) attended to contribute towards the main aim of the meeting which was to think strategically about this period of transition to domestic funding and secure the voice and contribution of people who use drugs and other key populations. EuroNPUD have an interest and role in EECA because we share responsibility for developing drug user organising in Central Europe alongside EHRN and ENPUD.

Ed Ngoksin works for the Communities Rights and Gender (CRG) Section of the Global Fund and also supports work in communities affected by HIV. He did an excellent job in explaining his role, and the objectives and challenges of the Global Fund CRG. There are clearly challenges ahead given the loss of funding from EECA but Ed helped us understand the transitional funding arrangements and the role the CRG would play with civil society networks trying to survive through these challenging times.

The loss of Global Fund monies is particularly critical in EECA. The Global Fund has been the key investor in harm reduction in a region where Russia and other governments under Russia's influence remain hostile to harm reduction and the health and rights of key populations. As countries in the region move into middle and high income countries so they move outside the eligibility criteria for the Global Fund. This is creating an urgent need for a managed transition and advocacy with governments to domestically contribute to the HIV response. This was a key focus of the meeting. We split up into different groups discussing ways to strengthen and develop Civil Society and initiatives to strengthen community systems. We also discussed how to build the capacity and enhance collaboration among key population networks and how to make use of regional platforms and secure meaningful participation.

We also discussed who we work with, what problems in our society we are currently trying to resolve, we shared examples on how we work and an outline of our network’s structure. Strategic thinking formed a large part of the three-day event and was introduced in many ways. We were asked to collectively think about strategy development, the barriers we are faced when developing a strategy, and models for building consensus regards strategy and developing trust.

Olga Belyeva from EHRN guided us through an exercise exploring negotiation and consensus forming which was enjoyable and drove us nuts at various points and brought much laughter! It involved in the first instance dividing into two separate teams having to think strategically and negotiate with the other team. Those that were overwhelmed by understanding the ‘rules’ went away and sat in a different part of the room disengaging from the others because they felt flabbergasted by the complexity of the task. Others in the team persisted and would not give up that easily constantly trying to pin down the facilitator who we found out later purposely flitted around like a butterfly demonstrating the need to have to sometimes keep on pushing for an answer or for clarification about the rules of engagement.

We also had a discussion on the 4 principles of networking by matching our priorities to our network, working together and increasing communication between us, sharing information and expertise, promoting solidarity and ownership and taking responsibility to fully contribute towards the principles of the network – dare to share! We looked at how different levels of democracy and citizen security affects the maintenance of technical support. For this discussion we split into smaller groups and talked about our understanding of technical support, how it works, and its contribution to the functioning of our network. Where there is expertise within the network this can provide a chance for wider contribution of network members to the development of the network. Alternatively, networks can share support with each other with different aspects of technical support. The Global Fund Regional Platform and the CRB also provide access to international technical support consultants which allows local partners to apply for technical support which is the delivered, in the case of the CRG by a pre-selected and approved list of TS providers.

The overall goal of the meeting was to strengthen cooperation and information exchange between civil society and key community groups for effective participation in midterm reviews, national strategic planning and policy processes for HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. I believe that we were able to achieve this.

On the 2nd evening we all went out to a meal and had a wonderful time as we were taken to a traditional Georgian Tavern, the food was excellent as were the professional dancers who literally glided across the floor as they danced. Drug users and other key populations in EECA have suffered so much oppression and hardship under such repressive legal environments. I really felt honoured to have been asked to this meeting because our peers remain proud, have a great sense of humour and know how to enjoy themselves. Georgian food is also delicious!

Given that this was my first experience of working with such a large number of networks at such a high level I was delighted to experience first-hand that EuroNPUD is a robust network, that is establishing a strong repopulation for effective partnership working. EuroNPUD took a strong team into the meeting drawing on the expertise of our technical advisor, our vice chair and myself as coordinator and made a positive contribution to the discussions. I am very proud of our team’s ability to contribute to this networking event and proud that EuroNPUD is gaining such a good reputation.

After the three day meeting I was very fortunate to have visited the Women’s Project in Tbilisi by the name of ASCESO, the morning I arrived about 30 drug users were present ready to discuss local issues and the associated problems.

Eka spent 15 years in prison for drug related charges. She founded and runs a project and they self-fund by selling handmade jewellery, scarves, purses, lamp shades, paintings and many other beautiful creations.

Overdose training and discussions were in place to prepare for the approaching International Overdose Day on 31/08/2016. Everyone in the room was given the opportunity to talk about the number of lives they had been able to save using Naloxone or other techniques. Eka herself has saved 21 lives and a long discussion took place “on how one knows when a person has overdosed or not?”. A paradox exists because Naloxone is available from the chemists however if you are stopped and searched and have Naloxone on you, you are punished as the assumption is that you are a drug user! This is one of the contradictions in the highly criminalised setting of Georgia.

A new trend is developing in Georgia; drug users are reporting that they are now using Efedra which is made from the Efedra plant and grows all over Georgia. Once prepared it has a similar effect to heroin and is replacing the use of krokadil.

Afterwards Eka went on to explain to everyone that an amendment has been made to local policy stating that if an ambulance is called out because someone has overdosed police will not also attend. However, in practice this does not always happen as the police have access to the central communications system so are able to see when a call out for an overdose has been made. There is a very repressive drug policy in Georgia. It is possible for people to be stopped in the street and ordered to attend the police station and undertake a drug test. Those who test positive are fined and have a criminal record. Sentencing for drugs offences is very severe - ten years for a gram of heroin and imprisonment even for the trace of a drug found in a syringe. Initially many families handed in their children into the authorities so they could receive support around drug use. However, when their children were united with them after having served their long prison sentences, the families found they hadn't received help, many of them had still been using drugs in prison and some had now acquired HIV, viral hepatitis or TB. Even sadder was the real fact that both parent and child were almost strangers to each other.

Eka and PWUD’s living in the area are highly motivated and committed to changing drug policy. This fits into a national dialogue about drug policy. Large numbers of people have joined a new drug law reform movement in Georgia and senior figures in the Government have made helpful comments about drug policy. The Government has also been seeking advice from the Czech Republic and Portugal which is another important sign of hope in a country that has imposed incredible hardship on its citizens who use drugs

Overall the experience was a steep learning curve in parts and most definitely worth it. EuroNPUD is very keen to work in solidarity with our partners in Eurasia in a participative and collaborative manner.


Mags MaherMags Maher (Guest blogger)

Mags Maher is the Coordinator of the European Network of People who Use Drugs (EuroNPUD). Mags has a long history as a drug user activist, a trainer and a harm reduction practitioner specialising in young people.

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