News analysis: Too many cooks in the Aids sector?

A new organisation has ruffled some established feathers amidst fears of duplication, writes Anita Pati.

In last week's edition of Third Sector, Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief, wrote of the "uncomfortable" environment in which more than 840 cancer charities jostle for space in an attempt to provide the best service to beneficiaries.

There is a comparable situation in the HIV/Aids sector, in which, according to the Charity Commission, at least 300 organisations deal with the issue.

Recent developments have shown sensitivities running high.

Another birth

One more charity has recently been founded by Dr Delphine Valette. The new baby, the UK Aids and Human Rights Project, upset its elder siblings when Valette said she believed hers to be the only UK charity to use international human rights legislation to campaign for people with HIV/Aids (Third Sector, 28 September).

Valette said she wanted to avoid duplication in a crowded sector by positioning her new charity, primarily a legal research, information and campaigning organisation, as a human rights body that uses HIV-specific United Nations instruments, rather than UK policy, to lobby government.

In particular, Valette said she wanted to pressure the Government to start complying with the UN Declaration of Commitment on HIV/Aids, which was adopted by all UN member states in 2001.

When the charity was launched, Valette, who used to work at the National Aids Trust and is qualified in EU and human rights law, said: "The National Aids Trust and the Terrence Higgins Trust have been around for years.

Although they are useful, we feel they lack a legal dimension.

"We're using a legal framework rather than a policy framework. While they are saying discrimination is bad because it impacts on public health, we're saying that discrimination is illegal."

But these claims have angered the NAT and the THT, which both contend that they have used and supported international human rights laws for years.

Lisa Power, head of policy at the THT, says it has used UK and European human rights legislation consistently; she prefers it to international declarations because "it had the full force of the law" behind it in the UK.

"We do less work with international 'goodwill' declarations, which don't have a legal standing in British courts," she says. "But we certainly support them and have been involved in helping to formulate them."

Deborah Jack, chief executive of NAT, also refutes Valette's claims.

She says the trust regularly uses international guidelines on HIV/Aids and human rights in its work.

"It's central to the whole range of the work that we do, but we don't concentrate solely on human rights and legal aspects," she says. "Because HIV is so complex, there are issues such as the stigma attached to living with HIV that are not upheld in law."

Not just legal

As well as the human rights angle, Jack says NAT has looked at public health, prevention, discrimination and stigma. "Human rights aren't just legal rights," she says. "They're a broader set of rights."

She adds that NAT is currently working with human rights lawyers on the case of Mohammed Dica, the first person in England to be sent to jail for deliberate HIV transmission.

Faced with these responses, Valette says she in no way meant to undermine the work of other HIV charities, and that NAT and THT were the leading policy organisations in the UK. She also acknowledges that they work on discrimination law such as disability discrimination.

The episode illustrates the difficulties that can arise when charities with the same aims differ in method and jar against each other, sometimes giving the impression of competition or duplication.

To try to streamline the sector, the Charity Commission will soon begin asking new charities seeking registration if they will consider a collaborative working arrangement or merger with other charities working in their area.

The commission plans to create a register of mergers and provide tailored advice and information. To that end, it has already created a job called 'head of collaborative working and mergers'.

Valette's venture is in its infancy and, without the resources that larger charities enjoy, she will need to bank on her drive and commitment to secure its future. No doubt NAT and THT will be watching keenly to see which direction it takes.

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