Remarks by U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission William D. Bent at PEPFAR COP23 Regional Planning Meeting U.S. Embassy Kampala | March 6, 2023
(as prepared for delivery at Capital on the Park Hotel, Johannesburg, South Africa)
Hello and a warm welcome to all. This is my first COP [Country Operational Plan] Co-Planning Meeting as the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) of Uganda. I have learned so much over the course of the past year, and my appreciation for the role that each of you play in PEPFAR’s [The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] impact is constantly growing.
Uganda has an incredible PEPFAR program with outstanding team members that help drive our success. That team includes my colleagues in the U.S. government, both in Uganda and in the United States, our international and local development partners, our diverse and critically important network of civil society partners who represent their communities, as well as the strong leadership of the Government of Uganda (GOU). The U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Special Representative for Health Diplomacy, Dr. Nkengasong, has stated that PEPFAR represents three things: hope, impact, and partnership. In my time as DCM, I have seen that firsthand while working with our PEPFAR team and seeing how its work improves the lives of Ugandans. The interactions I have had with our implementing partners, the communities they serve, and Ugandans who depend on PEPFAR services have been some of the most meaningful experiences of my diplomatic career.
Reflecting on the last 20 years of partnership between PEPFAR and Uganda, I see how far we have come together. Currently, we are on the cusp of achieving epidemic control and have our eyes set on ending HIV as a public health threat by 2030. We must remain diligent and focused on this goal, even as we anticipate shrinking budgets and further disruptive health emergencies like COVID and Ebola. We appreciate the GOU’s commitment to supporting the HIV response, and I want to take this opportunity to recognize the government’s tangible step forward toward sustainability by committing to increase funding for essential HIV and TB medications by 50 billion shillings this next fiscal year.
Over the past three years, we have practiced being more flexible as we learned to adapt our programs to disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and Ebola outbreak. Lockdowns, curfews, and travel restrictions greatly affected access to health services at facilities, drop-in centers, safe spaces for people living with HIV and key populations. Despite the many successes, we still have a ways to go.
We recognize that we do not always have the answers and PEPFAR’s efforts to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic cannot be accomplished on its own. We need to do this together through equitable partnership. The leadership of the Government of Uganda and partnerships with civil society are essential for our achievements to truly be sustainable. COP23 has been designed to be a different experience than in the past for these very reasons. COP 23 is supposed to be about working more closely together with all of you, and bringing on board new partners such as the local private sector where PEPFAR has historically had limited engagement. I’m excited about this more robust approach to tackling this problem.
I want to stress how crucial it is to ensure equity in HIV and TB service delivery as we plan for COP23 and beyond. The LGBTQI+ community and female sex workers are among the populations frequently neglected and stigmatized across all levels of society. If we want to end HIV as a public health threat by 2030, we cannot leave these fellow citizens behind. We must include ALL individuals in our response if we hope to achieve our goal, and this can only be done if they are not stigmatized and driven underground.
For long-term sustainability, we must continue to address the societal and structural drivers of HIV and strengthening the capabilities of the government, civil society and local partners to lead and manage the program. Additionally, in COP23, we are looking to leverage PEPFAR investment effectively to make measurable and sustainable gains in public health systems and health security.
We recognize that community leadership, innovation and leading with data, in addition to PEPFAR’s five strategic pillars, are critical to success and program improvement. As the U.S. government, we commit to working closely with all of you to accomplish these objectives and reach the 95-95-95 treatment goals. I look forward to the discussions that will come out of this week, but also look to our future partnership, ensuring we continue to have collaborative data reviews and share best practices while exercising respect, humility, equity, and transparency in all our interactions.