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Is Social Enterprise The New Cure For AIDS and Poverty?

3p Contributor | Wednesday December 1st, 2010 | 2 Comments

By Peter Glenn

As we commemorate another World AIDS Day, we have some cause for celebration.  UNAIDS reports that new infection rates have decreased 20% over the last 10 years and 56 countries have “stabilized or significantly reduced new infections.”  Also, millions of people living with the virus in the developing world now have access to free life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs.  However, 10 million people living HIV/AIDS are currently in need of access to antiretrovirals to continue living.

We have come along way since scientists first identified AIDS 30 years ago, but with 33.3 million people living with HIV/AIDS today, we need to  rethink our approach.  From my personal experience working with AIDS in East Africa, we won’t put an end to the Pandemic until we address its root causes.

In 2002, I graduated from film school and embarked on a journey to teach TV production at St. Augustine University of Tanzania. During my first two years in Tanzania, I fell in love with African culture, learned how to speak Swahili, and made friends that are still a significant part of my life today. But I also learned about how little we Americans know about the complex reasons that allow HIV/AIDS to spread in Africa at such an alarming rate. With around 7% of the population living with HIV or AIDS, the disease has infected over two million Tanzanians, and I watched many friends and colleagues wither and die of AIDS, often without ever admitting the cause of their illness.

At the university, I taught with a Tanzanian sociologist named Mama Lyimo who believed that for the millions of dollars in aid coming into the country, the fight against AIDS was ineffective because it was out of touch with the situation on the ground.  Before moving back to the U.S., she convinced me to help her make a film to give voice to the lives of Tanzanians most affected by AIDS.

In 2005, I returned to Tanzania to work with Mama Lyimo to make a film we titled “Into the Light.”  For 40 days, a film crew and I followed her across the country to start uncovering the causes of AIDS from the stories of the people she met.  We met with orphans, widows, AIDS organizations, and people still unreached by prevention education.  Ultimately, what I learned is that while AIDS is transmitted by sex, the underlying causes of the disease were rooted in a cycle of poverty, ignorance, gender inequality, and a lack of medical infrastructure.

In the video above, we met with an AIDS widow who hadn’t tested for AIDS because it would have taken four hours to walk to a testing center.  In Bukoba Region, where AIDS first entered Tanzania, we found that there was only one doctor for 70,000 people.  Traveling across the country’s rocky roads for 40 days, the Americans on our crew frequently compared Tanzanian highways to driving on the moon.  With conditions like this, how does anyone expect to Tanzanians have any chance at having access to the HIV testing and prevention education they need to halt the virus?

Another unseen cause of AIDS is the way poverty and lack of schooling influences the lifestyle risks people are willing to take, particularly women. On our journey, we met an orphan named Suzy whose mother had died of AIDS.  In the video below, Suzy articulates how her mom’s lack of education made her overly dependent on men for financial support.  In the long term, this led to her getting infected with HIV.

If we truly want to beat AIDS, we don’t just need the best coordinated public health intervention in human history, we need a socioeconomic revolution in the developing world. Traditional development aid is creating a dangerous dependency on Western donors that may even be detrimental to socioeconomic development.  I believe we need more solutions rooted in sustainable, market-based solutions like social entrepreneurship.

Here are a few social enterprise ideas worth spreading:

  • Increase funding to credible microfinance lenders like Kiva.org, Grameen Foundation, and Pride Tanzania.
  • Support groups like Acumen Fund who invest in business ventures that help end global poverty.
  • Scale access to communication platforms like Ushahidi and Google Trader that allow people in developing countries to exchange information and access markets, despite infrastructure gaps.

Unlike traditional Western aid which ties countries to donor desires, social entrepreneurship unlocks self-sufficiency and creative economic growth within local cultures.  With genuine development, a country like Tanzania would have the capacity to give their citizens access to health care, education, and cultural institutions needed to prevent AIDS without the need for foreign aid.  If we continue fighting AIDS through the traditional paradigm of Western aid, we run the risk that the Pandemic could simply be replaced by the next big opportunistic disease to that finds a way to exploit extreme poverty.  However, if we seize the opportunity to address the root causes of AIDS through social entrepreneurship and other innovative approaches to development, we will have moved beyond the virus to create a more just and sustainable solution to the challenge before us.

What ideas do you have for overcoming AIDS and global poverty?

Peter Glenn is a San Francisco based filmmaker and social entrepreneur.  He is currently earning an MBA in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School.  For more on his AIDS documentary “Into the Light,” visit IntoTheLightFilm.com.


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  • Pone Fallow

    Totally brilliant article. These days it’s hard to have sympathy for adults who get AIDS in the developed world where education has been so prevalent and it really is a personal choice. But people must not forget how utterly destitute and without even the most basic literacy the reality is in many countries, especially in Africa. The ONLY solution is to inspire business, economic growth, the acceptance of women as human beings, and get basic education in place. That is where the money should be going – not drugs. And NOT charity. We should be making micro-investments in Africa and we should expect a return on them – that is the only way that the culture is going to evolve!

    • Peter Glenn

      Pone, I think your points about focusing on economic solutions and education are really valid, but I would add that AIDS drugs play a really vital role in holding societies together. One of the biggest costs of AIDS is the loss of human infrastructure when civic leaders, teachers, and parents die. The 4 million people on antiretrovirals today are the glue holding societies together and parenting their children.

      Also, the real magic of the AIDS medication is that people now have a real incentive to test and live responsibly with HIV. Before the drugs, most people avoided tested because living with HIV was a death warrant that would only result being stigmatized by their families or losing their jobs. Antiretrovirals have been a game changer in the entire ecosystem of AIDS.