HIV :: Lessons learned highlighted as global politics of HIV/AIDS examined in new research

Even as the world commemorated World Aids Day 10 days ago, scholars are still coming to grips with the complex politics that have characterized the response of states and societies across the world to the HIV/AIDS pandemic since 1981. Compelling new assessments of the politics of HIV/AIDS in seven countries appear as a research symposium in the December issue of Perspectives on Politics, a journal of the American Political Science Association (APSA).

In her introduction to the symposium, available online at,Andrea Densham (Densham Consulting) notes that “inadequate societal and political responses to HIV have caused immense human misery, evident not only in loss of life, but also in the impact of the disease on social structures, economic potential, and political stability.” Despite this urgent challenge, its costs, and direct implications for political institutions and societies across the globe, political scientists have largely been silent on this topic. This symposium breaks that silence by offering the first empirical and theoretical claims by political scientists on the pandemic in seven years.

The symposium emphasizes three main findings: the role of the state (what governments can and should do, and when and why they fail to act); the potential of civil society in light of the limits of state authority and tools; and the consequences of state avoidance or its failure to act for broader society. These themes are addressed across national and social contexts and analytical approaches by the four symposium articles:

In “Written in Blood: AIDS Prevention and the Politics of Failure in France” Michael Bosia (St. Michael?s College) examines the French government?s slow response to the growing HIV epidemic in the 1980s. By failing to secure the national blood supply quickly enough, laboring under misconceptions regarding HIV/AIDS, and privileging market-based models over public health at a time when state action was crucial, Bosia concludes the French government was unable to translate its high level of state capacity into meaningful action in the short run. As a result, early French prevention policies were a failure?a notable and instructive outcome for an advanced industrial society.

Patricia Siplon and Jamila Headley (St. Michael?s College) employ a different approach and context for examining state action in their contribution entitled “Roadblocks to the Road to Treatment: Lessons from Barbados and Brazil.” The authors focus on the importance of civil societal mobilization?in widely differing national contexts such as Barbados and Brazil?in spurring and supporting state action regarding access to treatment for HIV/AIDS victims. They conclude the key factors in enabling effective treatment access in both countries were (a) sufficient political will and (b) the recognition of health care as a human right. What most clearly differentiates the two cases has been the relative engagement of civil society, and especially of people living with HIV/AIDS themselves, in enforcing these factors.

Linkages between the state and civil society are also emphasized in Krista Johnson?s article “Framing AIDS Mobilization and Human Rights in Post-apartheid South Africa,” which sheds light on the way activists frame messages and tailor their approaches to contest state and business interests. Johnson (Agnes Scott College) examines how South African activists effectively deployed the rights enshrined in the post-apartheid constitution to develop an approach that to counter state and corporate interests. She points to the resulting adversarial relationship that in turn has hindered an effective response to the pandemic in South Africa, where prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS exceed 20% of the population.

The final article, “Rejection as Freedom” HIV/AIDS Organizations and Identity” by Meredith Weiss (East-West Center), considers civil societal mobilization in the absence of state engagement in Singapore and Malaysia. In both countries civil society is highly controlled and the lack of state action regarding the pandemic created new “free spaces” for HIV/AIDS organizations to mobilize and foster new identities and networks among the highest-risk communities such as the gay population and sex workers.

The themes considered in this symposium represent only some of the ways in which the social science of HIV/AIDS can be approached. All four articles provide greater insight into crucial dynamics in the politics of HIV/AIDS such as mobilization and marginalization of different groups from a range of analytical perspectives?global, local, state, grassroots, activist, and that of beneficiaries. The significance of the new research found here, Densham observes, also lies in the fact that it brings together a remarkable group of scholars to help illuminate “the diverse and lasting impact that HIV/AIDS has had, not only on the health and wellbeing of so many world citizens, but also on relationships between states and citizens and among corporations, governments, and civil society.”

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