Nothing About Us Without Us

A word from Eliot Albers, executive director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD)

I would like to draw attention to what for people who use drugs are the key values of harm reduction.

Our long time slogan, as you are all no doubt aware, is ‘nothing about us without us’. This is a great slogan that rolls off many lips, but I would like to unpack it a little bit and ask what it should really look like, and what we, as the population central to all of the debates that we will have over the next few days, expect when we invoke these words.

For us, the centrality of meaningful participation in all of the various, complex debates and issues that impact upon our lives is quite simply non-negotiable.

So, what does it not mean? Meaningful participation of the drug using community is not asking us to ‘endorse’ a document that we have never previously seen, had no role in developing, and not been consulted on. It is not a tick box exercise, a strap line, or an indicator, it is rather a fundamental principle and a value that should lie at the heart of all of your work whether you work in a multilateral agency, in service delivery or in advocacy around drug law reform, harm reduction or human rights.

No process, document or service can be considered to embody this essential principle, a principle that I have no doubt you would all say that you subscribe to, unless our community’s ability to meaningfully input, influence, and shape whatever you are involved in has been built in from the start, and followed through in development, implementation and monitoring.

Often we will have things to say and contribute that you will not like, that you may not agree with, and that you may object to. However, we do not say these things for the sake of being obstreperous or difficult but because the lives, well-being, dignity, and human rights of our community are ultimately what is at stake in everything that you do. Remember that for you this is a job, for us it is quite literally our lives.

Sometimes we are invited to participate in processes and made to feel grateful for the fact that we have been given a place at the table, and made to feel that unless we are ‘on board’ and not ‘difficult’ we will not be invited back. This is exemplary tokenism as the messages that we have to convey are hard, difficult and sometimes unpalatable. I, and some others in this room, have been invited to meetings where we have been told that we are ‘trouble makers’, simply on the basis that we have asked difficult questions and stood up for the principles that guide us.

This brings me to some of the limitations of identity politics. We are not just here because we happen to use particular drugs in a particular way, but because we have a core politics and set of principles to which we adhere and that are non-negotiable. As such, the involvement of one acceptable token drug user in a process is not meaningful participation; we have to be given the time and resources to consult our community, reflect its diversity, refine our messages, and decide for ourselves who is appropriate to represent us.

We are more than aware of the fact that our community is diverse and we need to be able to bring that diversity to the table, albeit a diversity that is rooted in a common ground. The ground from which we are coming is that of being a structurally marginalised, often despised community whose members are subject to systemic violence and human rights abuses on a simply staggering scale as will be more than attested to by speakers from the region in which we now stand.

To conclude, if you are committed to meaningful participation you will find us to be a willing partner. We are here to be part of the solution and not perceived as being the problem. To work with us in a meaningful way will perhaps be difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable or even frustrating, but if you are committed to delivering good services, to producing credible policy statements and research and improving the health and human rights of the most stigmatised, and marginalised members of our community then you have no option but to take the hand that we are offering you in a bid to find peace in the war to which our community is subject.