End of an era

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11 Jun 2014

After 16 years at the helm of NAPWHA, Executive Director Jo Watson bids farewell. Brent Beadle sat down with Jo for a one-on-one Q&A.

Brent Beadle (BB): How has the response to HIV changed since you joined the sector?

Jo Watson (JW): One of the most obvious changes over the years is the response turnaround due to the success of HIV treatments. Over recent years, we’ve seen lives sustained and people living so much better than in the early days. This change has occurred, yes, because of scientific breakthroughs, but also because of an incredibly focused leadership. Australia’s HIV response is a model for health sectors and community development around the world. And the HIV story isn’t over yet — it will continue to show us amazing things into the future.

BB: What kept you in the sector so long?

JW: One of the reasons why a lot of people stay working and contributing and volunteering in this space is because there’s always something to do. If you are, for whatever reason, personally involved and wanting to make a contribution, this is a space like no other. It’s got passion, it’s got emotion, and it’s got cutting-edge science. The sector contains a very diverse community that’s rich with a lot of people’s history and a lot of people’s different motivations. I think that makes it a really interesting area, and it also makes it a really stimulating area — professionally and personally. We’ve seen huge advances and huge achievements.

BB: Is there a specific achievement you’re particularly proud of?

JW: The greatest achievement is that NAPWHA is recognised as an organisation of critical importance to the national — and international — HIV response. NAPWHA is an organisation that is respected and valued by others; it’s an organisation that the membership can quite rightly be proud of. And I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve been part of the story of how that has happened.

BB: You’re leaving at a time of uncertainty for the sector — organisations such as NAPWHA are experiencing job losses and other cost-cutting measures — how does that make you feel?

JW: Two things I want to be very clear about: I decided not to continue with NAPWHA because my contract was coming up for renewal and I felt it was probably time to call it a day rather than negotiate the next term. I think that should be understood as a very personal decision — it’s got nothing to do with the current environment or the funding pressures.

The second point is no-one expected that at this point in time [the first week in June] all the national peak organisations in the blood-borne virus sector would still be without any advice as to funding beyond the 30th of June. It’s unprecedented. It’s incredibly distracting, and it’s incredibly unsettling — especially in a year when Australia hosts the 20th International AIDS Conference.

This is the year when the spotlight will be on Australia and the Australian response to HIV. We are meant to be finalising the new National HIV Strategy — a document mapping the way we respond to HIV in Australia for the next four years, and which identifies NAPWHA as a critical partner to that national response. The fact that could be launched when we have had to make cuts and introduce very significant program interruptions is just extraordinary.

Having said that, I have always tried to be a glass half full sort of person and I believe NAPWHA will prevail. Regardless of which government is in power, NAPWHA has always been a critical ally in the response to HIV. I’m absolutely certain that we will find a way to continue through until such a time we can get firmer funding arrangements resolved and put in place.

BB: What do you think will be the major challenges facing the sector in the future?

JW: HIV has been repositioned in the eyes of funders and government. HIV is no longer seen as a unique health threat. The recent Budget has shown us that the sector is incredibly vulnerable at the moment in terms of a whole range of changes and cuts. There exists immense uncertainty in terms of how this current government intends to reshape the health system. All of this coincides with an ageing population increasingly burdened with chronic illness. It’s a perfect storm. We’re going to be looking at some very hard times for people in terms of health outcomes and also in terms of whether or not we can continue to maintain what have been some pretty amazing success stories. And I think the HIV story is a success story.

BB: How would you like to view your legacy?

JW: NAPWHA has always put an emphasis on maintaining relationships with depth and meaning. Whether across industry, across government, other NGOs, community-based partners, or clinical communities, NAPWHA has shown the value of partnership. Through partnership, NAPWHA has helped the community to mobilise itself and take responsibility for achieving its own outcomes.

I am incredibly honoured that PLHIV have entrusted me to help lead this extraordinary organisation. I walk away knowing people recognise that NAPWHA makes positive lives count. I’ve wanted members and representatives to feel that they could walk into a room and be very proud of the fact that they represent the National Association of People with HIV Australia — and what all of that stands for. I think people do have that pride, and that makes me proud, too.