DFID needs to keep pushing on AIDS, says HIV-positive MP

Lloyd Russell-Moyle, U.K. Labour MP. Screengrab from Parliamentlive.tv

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s aid department must put more resources into fighting HIV/AIDS or risk seeing global progress backslide, according to politician Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who stood up in the House of Commons and revealed he was HIV positive late last year.

The Labour member of parliament, who sits on the International Development Committee — the parliamentary group that scrutinizes aid spending — said that while his decision to go public about his status was prompted by concerns about HIV treatment in the U.K., he is also worried that tackling the virus overseas is no longer a priority for the country’s aid bosses.

“Social development is the thing that is really getting lost ... [because] it’s easier for the government to focus the aid budget on less controversial issues.”

— Lloyd Russell-Moyle, U.K. Labour MP

He hopes his announcement — the first of its kind in the British parliament — will help destigmatize the disease, he said, and encourage the country to do more globally to end HIV, which is still one of the top causes of death, according to World Health Organization.

“We are at a fork in the road where we could really push forward on ... eradicating transmissions in Britain ... but we [also] need to start looking at how we do that globally and that does require a further push for investment,” Russell-Moyle, who was diagnosed with HIV 10 years ago at age 22, told Devex.

The MP’s comments come as HIV/AIDS experts warn of a backsliding in progress toward eradicating the disease. New infection rates have plateaued across the board and even increased among some groups, notably adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa for whom AIDS is the fourth leading cause of death, according to data from UNAIDS.

Last year, the Department for International Development stopped funding the development of an AIDS vaccine which Russell-Moyle said could have had major benefits for lower-income countries. This is especially concerning for advocates as the United States also recently halted a study that was using fetal tissue to investigate a cure for HIV.

Russell-Moyle sees DFID’s defunding decision as part of a broader shift in U.K. aid policy away from supporting complex, often controversial, long-term development programs in favor of “quick-wins” — a response to attacks on DFID by the media, he suggested. The DFID-funded Girl Effect project in Ethiopia, which used pop music to raise awareness about sexual harassment, family planning, and other issues for girls, is a classic example, he said. The project was lambasted as a waste of aid by the Daily Mail newspaper and subsequently dropped by DFID. Similarly, much HIV/AIDS work revolves around norms change and issues such as sex education and family planning.

“Social development is the thing that is really getting lost ... [because] it’s easier for the government to focus the aid budget on less controversial issues … and do things which get more concrete outcomes, like water projects,” Russell-Moyle told Devex.

But funding tough social challenges could actually be the best use of U.K. aid in terms of value add, he said. As well as questions about value for money, “we also need to be asking … Is this something other funders wouldn’t do for lack of confidence or expertise? …To me there are social issues that we [DFID] are pretty good at and should be pushing forward on,” Russell-Moyle said.

He also wants DFID bosses to see investing in HIV as part of a broader push to deliver universal health care.

“That’s why Britain’s role is really important. We shouldn’t see developing an HIV vaccine, or dealing with HIV, as something which is just about the disease … It is about developing that political will to provide holistic health care for everyone,” the MP said, adding that testing centers and equipment for HIV can also be used for other diseases.

DFID’s role as a champion of long-term, holistic development programming is especially important in the face of growing conservative pressure from countries such as the U.S., where President Donald Trump’s expanded version of the Mexico City policy, or “global gag rule,” is already reported to be affecting HIV services in developing countries, he said. Some American Evangelical churches are also promoting homophobic and abstinence-until-marriage messages instead of condom use in places where they hold influence, he added. Such approaches tend to lead to riskier sex and mean infection rates go up, he said.

Talking about a recent trip to Uganda with fellow members of the International Development Committee, the MP said he witnessed a teacher in a DFID-funded school telling a classroom of 11-year-olds that abstinence is the only way to guard against HIV infection. This marks a shift in attitudes within the country which was previously “very progressive” in its approach to tackling HIV, he said.

“That school ... is getting British money … so we need to be a bit more muscular in our diplomatic efforts to say yes we are ... trying to change ... norms and messages” around HIV, Russell-Moyle said.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.