Spreading the light of science

From: Interview released by Doctor Massimo Barra – Melbourne 2004.
Activist Massimo Barra talk about progress within the Red Cross movement over the past year.

A humanitarian activist for most of his life, Massimo Barra of the Italian Red Cross and currently Federation Vice President – Europe, has just completed a one-year term as the northern NGO alternate representative on the board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. His harm reduction work was one of the main reasons he was chosen for that role. We interviewed him at the 2004 International Harm Reduction Conference in Melbourne, Australia about the attitude of the Red Cross towards harm reduction.

HDN: The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was one of the organisations that supported the previous harm reduction conference in 2003. Is it fair to say that your commitment is not so strong this time?
We have a much smaller delegation participating this time, but that is more to do with our needs than the importance of the conference. Last year the Federation passed a new policy affirming harm reduction as a key strategy in scaling up HIV responses, and we used the conference to build momentum for implementation. More than one year needs to pass before we need another large-scale involvement in an international conference.

HDN: What steps have been taken by the Federation since 2003?
The last year has been the fulfilment of a dream for me. I have been involved in Red Cross Red Crescent (RCRC) since I was eight years old, and I founded Villa Maraini Foundation within the Italian Red Cross in 1976. I have attended six International Harm Reduction Conferences. But other than programmes with injecting drug users at the Spanish and French Red Crosses my work has been out of the mainstream.
All of that has changed very quickly. Harm reduction is now acknowledged as core business, and the Federation has become a vocal advocate for a humane approach to injecting drug users. We have published excellent guidelines to help country level implementation in a document called “Spreading the Light of Science” []. We announced our intention to do this work with all governments during our movement’s international conference last year.

HDN: How did governments respond?
Decisions at our international conference are made by consensus, so the agenda for humanitarian action that emerged was endorsed unanimously. The USA delegation was the last to agree to inclusion of language for all countries to consider harm reduction programming, but they did agree. That may not seem much to activists, but it kept the door open, and reinforced the targets of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS. [2001[
Enshrining that standard within our movement in dialogue with all governments is an important basis for country-level implementation, where the nature of the epidemic makes this the appropriate response.

HDN: And what implementation is there?
There are examples detailed in “Spreading the Light of Science” and it is further illustrated in the current “Positive Negative” exhibition by AusAID and the Australian Women’s Weekly magazine – 13 of the photographs show Red Cross work with injecting drug users and sex workers in China and Vietnam. Australian Red Cross also presented its “Save a mate” programme in the Club Health 2004 conference – that is first aid for drug overdose situations. This is a great example of utilising a very traditional Red Cross programme for a modern need.
The Federation is in the final stages of a funding agreement and work plan for Italian Red Cross to act as a reference centre to support national societies to build capacity for harm reduction programming. Belarus, Croatia, Latvia, Russia and Uzbekistan Red Cross societies have started harm reduction programming, and the current plan is expansion to 15 [national] societies.

HDN: Do you really think RCRC “a very conservative organisation linked with government” will do much more than talk about harm reduction?
I will probably be the last person to say the Federation is where it needs to be. However, the harm reduction movement can surely see it as a milestone that a conservative organisation like the Federation has embraced harm reduction.
There are the good examples of RCRC work that saves and improves lives that I have referred to already, but this is only a beginning I hope. This is my life work, and I really think the Federation has turned the corner and opened the way for its humanitarian mandate to be implemented in ways relevant to the big challenges of the 21st century.
I have to add that the Federation is also supporting country level action for HIV treatment delivery “a matter of great importance in keeping alive people already infected with HIV whether they are injecting drug users or not. It is central to the Federation’s mandate to be an advocate for marginalised groups to access treatment as it becomes available” not just the well connected.

HDN: Lastly, why is the Federation’s publication called “Spreading the Light of Science”?
“Spreading the light of science and the warmth of human sympathy” is a quote from the minutes that set up the Federation’s health programming in 1919. It has always been part of our organisational culture to follow scientific evidence, and to provide care to those most in need without discrimination. It seems particularly important at this time to emphasise being guided by evidence, and by our actions to show that the lives of injecting drug users are valued.