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Interview: Annie Lennox and Mitch Besser on HIV/AIDS, Mothers, and Philanthropy

January 03, 2013

If you thought HIV/AIDS was under control, think again. Annie Lennox did, in 2003, during a visit to South Africa. Hearing Nelson Mandela talk about HIV/AIDS and how it was affecting women and children, she was ‘outraged, angry, ashamed’. That visit set her on the path of activism, advocacy and philanthropy.

Caroline Hartnell (Editor, Alliance Magazine) met Annie Lennox and her husband Dr Mitchell Besser, who founded mothers2mothers, an organization that helps prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, at the UBS Global Philanthropy Forum, held in late November in Switzerland.

What led you to philanthropy in the first place?
Annie Len
nox Well, philanthropy is the last part of it. The first thing that drew me to the things I do was witnessing injustice towards women and children in circumstances that were so extreme and yet so ignored, both globally and in the countries that these things were happening in. I’m talking about the HIV/AIDS pandemic in southern Africa.

I was one of the artists invited to go to South Africa by 46664, which is Nelson Mandela’s HIV/AIDS foundation, to perform at their launch concert in Cape Town in 2003. The day after the event, Mandela invited us all to join him in the exercise yard of his former prison on Robben Island, where he was to address a gathering of international press to talk about HIV/AIDS and how it was affecting the people of South Africa, mainly women and children. Mandela described the pandemic as genocide, and that is not a word that you can use lightly.

Listening to him, I started to understand things differently. I had thought, like many people in the West, that HIV/AIDS was a problem under control; there were treatments available.  However, in South Africa, and in other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, people weren’t receiving these treatments. The virus was wiping people out in numbers you cannot even begin to imagine. Once I started to realize how this was affecting women and children, it went very deep with me, as a woman and a mother myself. I was outraged, angry, ashamed that I didn’t know more about it and that the international community wasn’t doing more to raise the profile of this issue. At that time, Thabo Mbeki was President of South Africa and taking something called the ‘denialist stance’, claiming that HIV/AIDS doesn’t actually transmit itself into full-blown AIDS – which made it very difficult for people to get access to treatment.

 The issue of HIV/AIDS is very much affected by stigma, silence, shame and fear, and this stigma is one of the reasons we don’t read about it more often; it’s a hard issue for people to face.

I realized that women had a very small voice in all of this, although they were the ones who were most affected. I decided that this was an issue I wanted to get involved with. I wanted to contribute my own voice to creating a bigger platform, in any way that I could. So every time I was invited to perform for Nelson Mandela’s 46664 Foundation, I accepted eagerly. I gave talks and I learned about HIV/AIDS – I really was on a learning curve for several years.

But during that time I began to get quite frustrated; I wanted to be more hands-on. So in 2007 I created my own campaign, called the SING campaign. I’m wearing a T-shirt that says ‘HIV Positive’ because I’m part of that campaigning process. The issue of HIV/AIDS is very much affected by stigma, silence, shame and fear, and this stigma is one of the reasons we don’t read about it more often; it’s a hard issue for people to face. They’d rather put it on the shelf.

So, first of all, I began to speak about the issue. In the role of advocate, I’m a UN AIDS Goodwill Ambassador, I work with Oxfam in the same capacity, I’m a Scottish Envoy for the Scottish Parliament, and I’m an Envoy for London. All these things are under the umbrella of HIV/AIDS; that is what I’m really passionately engaged in. I also began to raise money by giving concerts, and I put it into a foundation, called the Annie Lennox Foundation, in order to formalize how that money was spent.

Do you receive any help or advice with the foundation?
I work with Comic Relief in the UK; we have regular meetings to consider where the money should best go. I see them more as partners than advisers. Sometimes I’ve come across organizations that I was impressed with, and they have subsequently come on board through me. And they do the due diligence.

The SING campaign is separate, although some money from the foundation goes to it. The SING campaign focuses exclusively on HIV/AIDS, whereas the foundation gives to some other things. The campaign involves making films, going to places, finding the stories, finding the people who are being affected and bringing these things to the notice of people who don’t know.

How does this bear on your work with mothers2mothers?

Mitch Besser

Mitch Besser Annie and I met when she came to visit mothers2mothers years ago and she became one of our supporters. As an organization, we benefit from the advocacy she does for the global cause, making people realize that we need to continue to focus on the epidemic, and we are not at a place where we can say we’ve done that already. What she’s been able to do is to continue to bring people’s attention back to the epidemic as something that’s solvable. As an implementing organization, we rely on the campaigners who continue to make sure that people don’t lose interest, and we also rely on the philanthropy. The implementers, the advocates and the philanthropists all have a role to play.

AL What was really impressive about mothers2mothers was that they were specifically doing the work I felt needed to be done. HIV/AIDS is a very complex issue. There are many strands to it, and they’re difficult to disentangle. Maybe there is not one solution; maybe there have to be several kinds of solutions. But if a pregnant mother passes on the virus to her newborn child, that’s simple, and mothers2mothers showed that working to stop that was possible – it was a success story. That’s why I was very inspired by the work that Mitch has been doing with mothers2mothers for the last decade.

And it has been rolled out as an excellent blueprint which might apply to things other than just HIV/AIDS. When you have broken-down healthcare systems that really don’t serve people well, you have a drain on human resources – of trained doctors and nurses going elsewhere – so you have to look at alternative ways of helping the people of those countries get access to healthcare and treatment.

For more of this interview, visit Alliance Magazine.
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