Our ‘Dual Focus PhD’ series tracks the working lives of our part-time PhD fellows. Many work at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally, including for other parts of the UN system. They come to Maastricht for our unique PhD Dual Career Training Programme in Governance and Policy Analysis (GPAC²). This time Dr. Mindel van de Laar speaks to Ali Safarnejad at the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
On Thursday 23 November, you will defend your PhD dissertation “Prioritizing the HIV Response: A multi-criteria decision analysis”. Can you briefly describe what your study is about?
Nearly 35 years since the discovery of the virus that causes AIDS, the political and financial momentum that saw rapid progress in increasing treatment coverage and reductions of new infections is showing signs of slowing down.
The reduction in donor funding for HIV response in transition economies like Viet Nam, and the ensuing integration of HIV programmes into the health sector, require a rational, transparent, and fair prioritisation so that no one will be left behind. My study is about the applicability of such a prioritisation process to national HIV programmes structured around the multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) framework.
Your study on HIV response directly relates to your work as an evaluation advisor at the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). Did your day job guide you to the question?
Indeed, the evaluation lens toward decision analysis provided useful insights into the study questions. A major part of my work at UNAIDS has been catalysing country-level programme and thematic evaluations, to generate the evidence needed for an informed HIV response.
Another area of my work has been facilitating multi-stakeholder processes and knowledge networks, including civil society, government, and development partners, in evaluation of national programmes. Evidence and participation are critical elements of focus in the MCDA framework, and in my dissertation.
Will UNAIDS or other organisations use your findings? If so, how, and would you have any particular recommendations?
There are a number of areas where the lessons from my study have been useful in guiding national prioritisation processes. Recently I took part as a member of the advisory panel to the National Authority for HIV/AIDS Control in Viet Nam, to develop the HIV research agenda for the 2015-2020 period. Based on my advice, founded on studying the applicability of the multi-criteria decision analysis framework to prioritisation of the HIV response, the National AIDS Authority introduced decision analysis steps of reviewing and considering the relevant criteria of stakeholders for evaluating and prioritising the research needs.
My study findings have also helped clarify the areas of concurrence between civil society and government about important criteria for prioritisation of Viet Nam’s HIV response, which facilitates further dialogue and inclusiveness in the decision-making around HIV programmes.
Born in Iran, with Iranian and US nationality, working in Geneva, studying an Asian case in a PhD programme in Maastricht – all this brings a lot of cultural influences together! Was that an element to consider in starting this PhD programmeme? How was your cultural integration in the GPAC2 programme?
We accumulate a variety of experiences in life, and the challenge is to find the meaning in them. In my work on HIV response in Viet Nam, and my research on prioritisation in the country, I made some surprising findings that didn’t conform to my notions of what are considered “important” criteria in other countries.
My conversations with my advisors, and their experience researching health systems in former socialist countries, have helped me to clarify how the similar social-political histories of these countries may influence consideration of important criteria for prioritisation.
This diversity of the experience of advisers and the GPAC2 cohort was critical to generalising my findings, beyond the confines of the place, time, and topic, and to test the external validity of my ideas. I do believe that this sharing of experiences and critical thought brings mutual benefits to the research fellows and forms a sense of community among them.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / Herman Pijpers; UN Photo / Evan Schneider