South to north and back

Published: 30 May 2005 0:00 CET

Åsta Ytre

"Testing positive for HIV changed my life, but it did not break me,” explains a young Jamaican woman to a group of Red Cross youth volunteers. “Now I tell my story to help others,” she adds.

In Trondheim, Norway, a middle-aged man speaks to another group of youth volunteers. “It is hard to live with HIV,” he says. “I am happy you want to join me in the fight to make it easier!” Despite the geographical distance, these two groups of Red Cross volunteers are being trained to lead similar peer-education programmes on HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The programme of the Jamaica Red Cross, “Together We Can”, started in 1992 and has reached over 20,000 young people. It employs a participatory peer-education approach. By using creative activities and discussions, it trains young volunteers to teach their peers the basic facts about the prevention and transmission of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

The Norwegian Red Cross programme, “Active Choice”, launched in 2001, uses a similar approach. The number of youth delegates taking part in this initiative increases each year.

While both programmes are committed to fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS, there is another bond between them. Together We Can inspired Active Choice, as a result of the youth delegate exchange programme run by the Norwegian Red Cross (NRC). Started in 2000, the programme gives young people a chance to work in another National Society.

The main goals of the programme are reciprocal learning and organizational development. The youth delegates have a steep learning curve during their exchange, and also receive a great deal of training before starting.

Learning and developing

Today, the youth delegate exchange programme is in its fourth year, with participants from Armenia, Lebanon, Kenya and Norway. Jamaican, Sudanese and Azerbaijani Red Cross and Red Crescent youth volunteers have taken part in the exchange. Some 45 young people between the ages of 20 and 28 have participated in the programme, with great benefits both personally and for the National Societies involved.

Organized by the NRC, with some basic assistance from the International Federation, the programme is partly sponsored by the Norwegian development agency, Fredskorpset.

This organization assists various institutions in Norway and developing countries wanting to participate in two-way exchanges. Founded in 1963, the organization originally facilitated one-way exchanges from Norway to developing countries, but this changed in 2000.

“The idea has changed,” says Hans Inge Corneliussen of Fredskorpset. “Earlier it was all about Norwegians going out to assist the less developed world, but now the thought is that both sides have a lot to contribute. The youth delegate programme of Norwegian Red Cross is a great example of people from Norway and developing countries learning from each other.”

Sharing successes

Since Active Choice was launched, its knowledge-sharing component has proved successful. Other programmes are in the start-up phase in several National Societies, such as Smiley Club, a club for refugee children in Armenia. Initially, an Armenian youth delegate established it to help refugee children in Norway. The delegate later raised funds before returning to Armenia and duplicating the project there.

“We have experienced a number of benefits,” says Lois Hue, deputy director general of the Jamaica Red Cross. “First, we learned how things operate outside our realm, second we gained some additional personnel with extra skills and finally, our people have had an opportunity to learn new things and to share their skills.”

She says that in addition to the increased international cooperation, the opportunity to share their success stories was one reason to participate in the exchange. “It is hard to find ways to share information and successes,” she says, “especially from the developing to the developed world.”

When Jamaica and the other partners were chosen, NRC had to consider several things, says Erling Kvernevik of the NRC, the first programme coordinator of the NRC’s youth delegate exchange. Fredskorpset requires that all developing countries be on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s list of countries eligible for developmental assistance. In addition, the NRC looked at existing cooperation programmes and contacts in the targeted countries.

Active Choice got started when Marvin Gunter, a Jamaica Red Cross youth volunteer, went to Norway in 2000. He knew something valuable would come from his stay, but he did not expect it to be such an important contribution.

“I expected a cultural exchange, good networking and other results,” he says. “I did not expect Active Choice to be a child of the youth delegate programme.”

Gunter says it all started when he and a colleague did a weekend training course on.
Together We Can “because it was something we did well”. Kvernevik explains that the first set of youth delegates had a lot of say when it came to deciding their tasks.

“The programme was not yet consolidated, and the youth delegates decided to a much greater extent what they would work on,” he says. “It was natural that they did things they knew already, and for Marvin this was HIV prevention.”

Going forward

Once the first exchange was completed, the Norwegian youth delegates who had been in Jamaica picked up the process. Together with the next set of youth delegates from Jamaica, and with assistance from the Lebanese and Azeri youth delegates during the second year of the exchange, Rilito Povea, a former youth delegate now working with the NRC, and his colleague joined efforts with Norwegian youth volunteers to adjust the programme to the Norwegian culture, and trained facilitators to go out and talk to young people about HIV/ AIDS and other STDs.

Rilito and his colleague facilitated several sessions similar to Together We Can in Norway before starting to work with the Red Cross youth volunteers and the new youth delegates to transform the programme into Active Choice.

He says there are slight differences in the approach of the two programmes; one thing is that the Norwegian programme has a higher focus on other STDs, as these are more prevalent than HIV, but there are also other adjustments to be made.

“Attitudes and values are not the same in Jamaica and Norway. The way people talk about sex and sexuality differs. To change behaviours it is very important that we discuss these subjects in such a way that the participants can relate to them.”

In addition, Rilito insists that the Jamaica Red Cross programme is relevant despite the different context in Norway. “We have a responsibility to be involved, even with the low prevalence of HIV in Norway, because of the situation in the world and particularly in our neighbouring countries,” he says. “This subject should not be distant to us!”

Though Active Choice is still in the early stages of development, there are six regional training courses scheduled for early 2005 and a youth coordinator is currently working on the project. Although he sees room for improvement, Rilito is pleased with the evolution.

“It is great that the youth delegates from Jamaica and Norway, as well as from other countries, have contributed their experiences to the development of this programme,” he says. “And with the enthusiasm of the youth volunteers, the project is moving forward.”

This article first appeared in Red Cross Red Crescent magazine