Naomi Burke-Shyne became executive director of Harm Reduction International in September 2018 – a few months before she had to oversee the organising of the largest harm reduction conference on earth. Read our interview below!
Drugreporter: I am sure you have attended many harm reduction conferences before but this was the first one you attended as the lead organiser. How was this experience for you? Any lessons learnt?
Naomi Burke-Shyne: The conference (HR19) was a reminder of how inspiring and resilient the global movements for harm reduction, human rights, and drug policy reform are. It is unique to be able to bring together community leaders, healthcare providers, scientists, human rights lawyers, researchers, and activists from around the world.
Our community faces ongoing – and significant – opposition to their everyday work for rights-based, health-based approaches to drug use. The conference is a useful space to remind us of both the pockets of success and the urgency of our work.
We learned plenty of lessons at HR19, and will always strive to improve and ensure the Harm Reduction International Conference is impactful for attendees and local advocacy. Our conference partner this year, APDES, was successful in securing increased national and local political support for harm reduction, particularly with the Mayor of Porto committing in his opening ceremony speech to opening a drug consumption room.
Outside of the domestic, the Portuguese government announced an increase in their pledge to the Global Fund at HR19. We hope that future conferences are able to provide moments like this and bring together years of hard work for harm reduction.
After a decade of growth, funding and support for harm reduction seems to be stagnating or declining in most parts of the world. Why do you think people with power still resist harm reduction so much?
I was shocked by our research findings last year, that there is a nearly 90% gap in funding for harm reduction in low- and middle-income countries. The fact that this funding has stagnated over the past decade, when there is overwhelming evidence of the public health and societal benefits of investing in harm reduction, is nothing short of disgraceful.
I can only hypothesise why political leaders remain resistant to supporting health and social services for people who use drugs, and it certainly varies between countries. An overarching reason is likely to be that harm reduction is still incorrectly seen as controversial. Few leaders are willing to be bold and admit past policy failures, even when faced with evidence that investing in harm reduction would bring innumerable benefits to their communities. It remains politically expedient to continue demonising and criminalising people who use drugs.
HRI has campaigned for governments to redirect 10% of the funding that they currently spend on drug control to lifesaving and cost-effective harm reduction interventions. Do you see any chance that wealthy governments, through the Global Fund, will increase the funding for harm reduction in the next couple of years?
The Global Fund is still securing pledges from governments to reach its target replenishment amount of $14 billion for this year (to be invested from 2020-22). We believe that this figure is insufficient, and recently supported the Global Fund Advocates Network (GFAN) in the call for a replenishment of $18 billion.
It is difficult to gauge right now whether governments will increase funding for the Global Fund – which remains the largest harm reduction donor globally.
It’s important to remember that Global Fund support is not designed to last forever, which is why it’s important for national governments to begin investing in harm reduction and redirecting money away from ineffective drug law enforcement.
Zoe Dodd, an activist from Canada and a speaker at the conference, said harm reduction programs are too often cold, sterile places, designed to serve the interest of politicians, professionals, and researchers. Do you agree? What can we do to change this?
I think this really gets to the heart of what an effective harm reduction response requires – the meaningful involvement of people who use drugs in designing harm reduction services. Some countries and cities are doing this to a degree, but there is room for improvement.
The slogan of the conference was “people before politics”. Luca Stevenson, a sex worker activist said in his speech that we should also say “people should reclaim politics”. Does this slogan resonate with you?
It does. Active political participation is a vital part of pushing forward any social justice issue. With the swing toward populist, right-wing governments in a number of countries around the world, that are so harmful to our cause and societies more broadly, not engaging is not an option.
At the conference, participants took part in a photo-taking exercise to protest against the mass murders in the Philippines. Do you think there is a danger that these aggressive responses can spread to other countries in Asia?
The brutality in the Philippines under President Duterte is far beyond what we could have imagined a few years ago, and there is a threat of this violence becoming normalised.
We’ve seen Bangladesh seek to emulate this strategy, with more than 200 extrajudicial killings reported last year, and praise for Duterte pour in from countries such as Sri Lanka and the United States. It’s important to recognise that the risk of harmful responses to the drug trade spreading is not confined to Asia. They may not be on the scale of the human rights abuses in the Philippines, but they are no less chilling.
And finally, can you reveal the location of the next conference – or at least the region(s) you are thinking about?
We’d love to know the answer to that question! But we’re currently still at the tendering stage for HR21. If organisations think the conference could help advance their local advocacy and are interested in submitting a bid, please do not hesitate to email the conference team at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information can be found here.
Interview by Peter Sarosi
Photo by Nigel Brunsdon