Imagine you are a member of Congress, trying to explain to your constituents why you just voted to send billions of dollars overseas to fight HIV/AIDS. Your constituents are angry. Why send money halfway around the world, they ask, when there are enormous problems right here at home? When thousands of your constituents are themselves battling HIV?
On Friday afternoon, our students left an extraordinary session with Ambassador Mark Dybul, the Bush Administration’s U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, with this challenge ringing in their ears. Earlier in the week, each student went to one of four embassies representing PEPFAR countries: Botswana (our next door neighbor), India (a few blocks away), Uganda (north of us on 16th St.), and Ukraine (in Georgetown, in a house where George Washington and other dignitaries agreed that DC would be the new U.S. Capital). Armed with information from Embassy officials and additional research, they drafted recommendations for future PEPFAR support in each country. (On Tuesday, they also heard from Justin Goforth, Director of Community Health at the Whitman Walker Clinic–DC’s largest HIV/AIDS clinic–who spoke about AIDS in DC, which has reached epidemic proportions. Goforth, himself HIV positive, is also a spokesmodel for a new regional HIV/AIDS awareness campaign.)
For two hours on Friday, Ambassador Dybul–the primary architect and implementer of PEPFAR, President Bush’s global HIV/AIDS strategy–gently grilled students with eye-opening Socractic questions. “Is it better use limited resources to treat orphans or to treat parents so you can avoid more orphans?” “Why should we be spending money in India when they just spend billions on nuclear weapons?” “Where is the additional money you recommend going to come from?” These kinds of questions helped students understand the complexity and challenge of successful policymaking. Our students responded on their feet, and Ambassador Dybul left impressed with the amount of information they had gathered in such a small time. In a short reflection session afterward, one student said, “Even though his questions were tough, they were empowering because they helped me realize how I might go about actually making a difference.” In many ways, this is the essence of SEGL’s academic program: a series of difficult questions that empower students to make positive change.
This week we are studying Afghan women’s rights and reconciliation with the Taliban. We have already met with Melanne Verveer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for women’s rights. More on that case study soon.