Founding chair, George Zeidenstein's special anniversary message

George Zeidenstein, founding chair of the Alliance, sent this special message to delegates at the 20th anniversary convention.

Greetings to all of you participating in the 20th Anniversary Convention. I was one of the attendants at the Alliance’s birth in 1994; before that, I participated in its conception and gestation; afterwards, until my retirement from the Board of Trustees in the autumn of 2006, I was active in its post-partum activity and development. I had hoped to be among you during this 20th Anniversary Convention but was not able to manage the travel.

In 1993, when I was first made aware of the Alliance idea, I was freshly retired from the Population Council where I had been President for 17 years. Before that, I had been with the International Division of the Ford Foundation and was its first Resident Representative in newly independent Bangladesh. Earlier, I had been Country-Director of the Peace Corp in Nepal.

HIV was still new and frightening and mysterious in 1993. It was fast-spreading globally, and killing everyone it infected. Ignorance and prejudice about it and its victims was clouding societal responses everywhere and the relevance of past experience with other public health challenges was not clear.

The Alliance began in 1994 to work with local developing country groups. Professionals in donor-country agencies had found there were too few of such groups and the donor agencies themselves were not staffed or organized in ways that supported helpful interaction with them. From the start, those of us developing the Alliance agreed that it must embody several principles to underpin the kinds of local interaction that would be needed.

It must be solidly international. In its funding, staffing, governance, attitude, and operations it must reflect an international character. In this way, it would absorb and integrate and reflect back the diversity of the world and the people with and for whom it would be working.

It must work closely and collegially, on a mutually respectful and non-colonial basis with developing country groups. Years of international development experience had shown repeatedly that receptive attitudes of learning by helpers were vitally necessary to their ability to be helpful.

Its staff and consultants must be a diverse group of women and men all deeply committed to Alliance principles and selected without discrimination. Thus, diversity at the staff level would extend and project the institutional diversity secured by the Alliance’s international identity.

In line with all this, our first Board of Trustees consisted of six substantively qualified persons from an equal number of nations: three from the South and three from the North; three men and three women; as a whole the Board encompassed expertise and experience in health sciences, social sciences, politics, law, philanthropy, bilateral development assistance, nongovernmental organization leadership, and management. Subsequently, we increased the Board to ten Trustees, continuing as before to pay close attention to the maintenance of international and gender diversity plus substantive qualification, including the experience of living with HIV infection.

Our first Executive Director was Jeffrey O’Malley, a young Canadian who had worked intensively and successfully with Dr. Jonathan Mann, the great pioneer in combatting HIV/AIDS and a tireless advocate for health services as human rights.

Jeff’s abundant and creative energy, his strong and magnetic personality, and his brilliant training with Mann proved to be just the right combination of qualities needed at the time; Jeff led the Alliance thrillingly through its early years, all of them urgent and hectically demanding, full of institutional and environmental surprises.

Our good fortune in recruiting persisted when the Alliance hired Alvaro Bermejo to succeed Jeff after he felt ready to take on different challenges. You all know Alvaro and his huge talents for innovation and organization…but you may not know (even he probably does not know) that I was one anxious Chairman as we sifted through the numerous candidates - and one hugely relieved Chairman when we identified Alvaro and he accepted our offer.

From its beginning, when it was incorporated as a UK charity on Christmas Eve in 1993, the Alliance has had a sense of urgency in its work. And it has had a dedicated commitment to learning…quickly and thoroughly learning what it needed to know to improve on its first, often halting steps. I believe it has learned well and remains committed to learning what it needs to know.

It is my understanding that this 20th Anniversary Convention is part of that learningprocess, an opportunity for representatives of the Alliance’s 40 Linking Organizations to be together and to meet donor representatives as well as current and past members of the Alliance staff; to share information about the current state of the epidemic (especially locally) and about local experience with prevention and treatment efforts and progress with monitoring and evaluation activities.

Another element of this Convention that I am particularly sad to be unable to join is suggested in something that Alvaro said to me as we were e-mailing back and forth about his plans for this Convention. Alvaro said: “…much of what keeps the Alliance together nowdays is intangible, it’s about ‘family spirit.’” Although I am not able to demonstrate my ongoing family spirit by presence among you, I still feel it with all the old hopeful emotion and I send my warmest best wishes to all of you.