STOPAIDS quarterly meeting: how is the UK championing harm reduction?

On Wednesday 22nd January, colleagues from across the STOPAIDS network joined us at our quarterly meeting on Harm Reduction, organised in collaboration with Harm Reduction International. Lord Fowler chaired a panel discussion with Jean-Félix Savary (GREA), Eliot Albers (INPUD), Will Niblett (Head of AIDS and Reproductive Health Team, DFID), Susie McLean (International HIV/AIDS Alliance) and Damon Barrett (Deputy Director, Harm Reduction International).


Empowerment is something the UN places great value on but often places barriers in the way of”.

Eliot (INPUD) highlighted the importance of peer-led harm reduction programmes, noting that the UN has recently given backing to peer-led sex work programmes, as they are “best-delivered and most effective when led and delivered by peers”. He went on to highlight the vital role played by the UK in championing harm reduction programmes on a global level, especially the vital role DFID can play leading up to the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, the first since 1998.

The importance of the role of the police in ensuring and/or impeding access to harm reduction programmes was mentioned by three panellists (Jean-Félix, Susie and Eliot): Eliot highlighted that police policies to arrest people in possession of sterile injecting equipment presents another barrier to access to and adherence of harm reduction programmes, and Jean-Félix and Susie both noted that police can act as powerful advocates for harm reduction programmes from a policy and public interest perspective.


Jean-Félix presented a case study of the Swiss drug policy and approach to harm reduction, in relation to the global situation: by viewing drug use as a problem affecting ‘public order’ as well as health, they were able to introduce a new, more effective model. By taking a ‘local’ approach across Switzerland’s 26 municipalities, they were able to reach consensus in the correct approach in terms of policy, practice and language among harm reduction advocates, public servants and service providers. Download Jean-Félix’s presentation here.



Susie McLean outlined the International HIV/AIDS Alliance’s current work on harm reduction and some of the challenges these have faced. She highlighted Ukraine in particular, the site of the Alliance’s largest harm reduction programme, and the threat presented by the deepening political crisis: “If you can’t have civil society, you can’t have harm reduction“. She went on to voice fears about potential future changes to the funding model at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, that the tightening of restrictions around funding for middle income countries would have a profound effect on harm reduction programmes around the world.

“Our story remains the same. We stick with evidence-based policy that Lord Fowler promoted in the 80s”
Will Niblett (DFID) praised the UK’s resilience to maintain evidence-based policies on harm reduction throughout a change of government, noting that harm reduction has one of the strongest evidence bases within HIV work. However, the struggle to convince governments to adhere to this evidence remains a challenge. He encouraged civil society participation in the 2014 Commission on Narcotic Drugs and leading up to the 2016 UNGASS.

I don’t understand this pathological need for consensus on an issue where there is none

Damon Barrett mentioned the 2008 UN commission on narcotic drugs as the first with a specific commitment on human rights, a resolution on civil society participation, and on HIV. However he noted that the resolution on human rights was let down firstly by the use of ‘war on drugs’ language, and secondly by the amendment that harm reduction programmes should be introduced as long as they’re in compliance with national legislation – leaving Russia, for example, free to rule them out. He, along with other attendees and panellists noted the absence of the Home Office, encouraging DFID to ‘muscle in’ on harm reduction and drug policy issues.

STOPAIDS, in partnership with Harm Reduction International, launched a factsheet on harm reduction at the quarterly meeting, which you can download here.