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The largest conference ever in Ethiopia is happening this week. Not only is its issue; HIV/AIDS is vital but it is a chance for Ethiopia to show off to the rest of the world that it is ready to hold large scale international events. Could hosting conferences like this lead to huge events like the Olympics coming to Ethiopia? Dr. Yigeremu Abebe President of ICASA 2011 says this ICASA conference will be the best ever because Ethiopia is ready for the world. Dr. Yigeremu is also the country director of Clinton Health Access Initiative in Ethiopia. He worked on HIV/AIDS for the past 25 years.
Capital’s Pawlos Belete sat with him to talk about the preparations for the conference. Excerpts:
Capital: How did the ICASA conference get started? What’s the purpose? And why in Africa?
Dr. Yigeremu Abebe: Twenty five years ago people wanted to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. So stakeholders, people who were touched personally by the disease; those who were working in prevention or treatment of the virus and policy makers came together under one roof to share their experiences and knowledge. By meeting like this they hoped to put their brains together and come up with creative ideas and strategies to fight the epidemic and then to take those ideas and apply them to their own countries and cultures.
In the last 25 years, 15 countries have hosted ICASA. The last one, the 15th ICASA was held in Dakar, Senegal.
Capital: How long have you been participating?
Dr. Yigeremu: This will be my second conference. Ten years ago I attended the one in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. And I did follow up on what happened at every conference.
Capital: How have preparations in Ethiopia gone so far?
Dr. Yigeremu: We have reviewed the strengths and challenges of every conference and this conference will be the best ever. We worked hard to build on the strengths and avoid the failures. This is the largest conference Ethiopia has held. We have almost ten thousand people from around the world coming. There were a lot of issues to deal with in Dakar last year and we worked to address those first. We built a venue that can accommodate over 20 thousand people. We joined hands with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Addis Ababa Municipality Trade and Tourism Bureau as well as the Associations of Hotel Owners and Managers and Cartel Associates, a professional event organizing company. We worked hard to make sure people can find accommodations and transportation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is facilitating entry visas for delegates. And we will continue to do all of this until the conference ends. We are making sure there are visas, accommodation, transportation is available for delegates. Compared to other ICASAs we feel we are doing an excellent job.
Capital: What about security?
Dr. Yigeremu: We have a good track record with security. Ethiopia has been conducting many international conferences including the African Union meeting of Head of States. Essentially all the concerned government bodies engaged in ensuring peace and security have all the necessary information about the delegates in a bid to enable them to provide the maximum security needed for the conference. We are providing them enough information about the conference and the delegates without affecting their privacy.
Capital: One hundred days before the conference there were five thousand tourist class beds in Addis. Now the number has gone up to 10,800 how did that happen?
Dr. Yigeremu: We are going to make use of not only hotels but also institutional hostels like the ones in Addis Ababa University Akaki Campus, Civil Service University College, and Red Cross Training Center. We also plan to make use of guest houses. When we add up all these together it is well over 10 thousand. We will not have any accommodation problems. Three months ago we were entirely focusing on hotels. The data we found from the Culture and Tourism Bureau and the Ministry at the time was not up to date. Through the assistance provided to us by our international event organizing and managing partner, we have managed to refine our data properly. We have updated the inventory of hotels.
Capital: Can you tell us more about the opening ceremony of the event to be hosted by Addis Ababa City Government?
Dr. Yigeremu: There will be an opening ceremony in the afternoon where high level delegates will be participating. And then there will be a reception in the evening which will be hosted at the Sheraton Addis Hotel and Resorts. There was a plan to make a very big opening ceremony scheduled to be carried outside either at Meskel Square or the National Stadium. However, that program has been cancelled for various reasons. Now, we have shifted to make it indoors instead of outdoors. The opening ceremony venue will be the Millennium Hall while the reception is at the Sheraton. The ICASA Secretariat and the Ethiopian government arranged both the reception and the opening ceremony not the City Government.
Capital: How did Ethiopia become the host of this year’s event?
Dr. Yigeremu: The most important factor that convinced the society to choose Ethiopia was infrastructure like conference facilities, accommodation, transportation and security. Ethiopia has also made gains in combating the spread of HIV. Ethiopia has a good track record of hosting many international conferences given its position as diplomatic capital of Africa.
Capital: How will this promote Ethiopia’s image to the world, particularly as a tourist destination?
Dr. Yigeremu: The Tourism ministry has been working very closely with us from the beginning of the initiative to host the conference. We have been making use of different video clips to inform potential delegates who may come to Ethiopia some other time as tourists, during our promotions that have been carried out both at home and internationally. We have made use of international media such as DStv, Aljazeera and so on. Now, we have very big stand in the venue to demonstrate about the socio-economic situation in Ethiopia in a bid to inform and attract more people. Since this conference is the best venue for Ethiopia to attract conference tourism against its stiff competitors like South Africa and Kenya, the ministry is very keen to make use of every possible avenue to carry its messages across different sects of delegates. I think, since we began working as a team, they have been working effectively to communicate their ideals across the board in every possible avenue in promoting the country.
Capital: Seventy percent of HIV/AIDS cases around the world are found in Sub-Saharan Africa. This part of Africa also represents only 10 percent of the world’s population. Why do you think that this part of the globe has suffered more than others?
Dr. Yigeremu: Apparently, this part of Africa is burdened not only with HIV/AIDS but also Malaria and Tuberculosis. The reasons are many but poverty is number one. This by itself affects a lot other factors like the ability to eat a balanced diet. Programs and strategies have a difficult time achieving their desired goals in such situations. Since poverty is widely prevalent in this part of Africa, it is a cross cutting challenge for many African countries. There are also other cultural situations. The issue of low levels of good governance has made the situation worse. Without accountability, responsiveness, effectiveness and efficiency, HIV/ AIDS will not be controlled. There should also be the issue of ownership in the fight against the epidemic. That is why the theme of this year’s ICASA became ‘Own, Scale Up And Sustain’.
We own the problem but not the resources to fight against it. Resources must be owned. When we say owned, it means at political leadership level, there should be accountability. The fight against the epidemic should be included in the policies, programs and strategies. We need resources but we can’t control external funding. The prevention of the epidemic should be owned and funded by the people concerned. The response should be implemented in a way that is accountable. They can assist but not own the program to fight the epidemic. The sad reality is that the budget allotted by most respective governments of SSA are below average in terms of the promised targets. Although there has been improvement over the years, a lot remains to be done.
Capital: Even after so much work has been done over the years to educate people about HIV/AIDS there are still a lot of misconceptions and rumors about the disease.
Dr. Yigeremu: Studies show that there is an origin and evolution of the epidemic.
Capital: Why is the US the largest single donor for funds targeting HIV/AIDS prevention and control and voluntary counseling and testing?
Dr. Yigeremu: Actually the US is not only the single most contributors for HIV/AIDS prevention and control schemes but also one of the largest contributor for Malaria and Tuberculosis in Africa and other part of poor countries around the world for a long time even before the emergence of HIV/AIDS. The US is contributing a large amount of fund for HIV/AIDS prevention and control following the decision of former president of US, George W. Bush. During his tenure, he decided to give funds through PEPFAR [President Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief] in a bid to contribute sizable amount of money to help solve the problem of HIV/AIDS. Since the problem of both the epidemic and lack of resource is very serious for poor countries, and the US is the biggest economy in our world today, its responsibility also matches its economy.
Capital: What do you think about the genesis of HIV/AIDS? Is it natural or man-made?
Dr. Yigeremu: Actually, as any disease that strains the world, HIV/AIDS occurred naturally. It is not man-made. That is more of a political issue which was raised in the early days of HIV/AIDS epidemic, when it was reported in Africa some 30 years back. That kind of argument is no more acceptable at present. Because, first it is not true and second it has no value for the effort being undertaken to prevent and control the spread of the disease at present. Studies show that there is an origin and evolution of the epidemic. There are also scientific evidences that the epidemic is a naturally occurring disease. Diseases can occur naturally from time to time in the history of human society. Therefore, HIV/AIDS is one of the new diseases that have occurred in the past three decades. There is of course the so called biological war, but HIV/AIDS is not brought for biological war purpose. It was not cooked in the lab, it occurred naturally. I don’t buy such a story.