Naomi Burke-Shyne became executive director of Harm Reduction International in September 2018 – a few months before she had to oversee the organising of the largest harm reduction conference on earth. Read our interview below!

DrugreporterI am sure you have attended many harm reduction conferences before but this was the first one you attended as the lead organiser. How was this experience for you? Any lessons learnt?

Naomi Burke-Shyne: The conference (HR19) was a reminder of how inspiring and resilient the global movements for harm reduction, human rights, and drug policy reform are. It is unique to be able to bring together community leaders, healthcare providers, scientists, human rights lawyers, researchers, and activists from around the world.
Our community faces ongoing – and significant – opposition to their everyday work for rights-based, health-based approaches to drug use. The conference is a useful space to remind us of both the pockets of success and the urgency of our work.
We learned plenty of lessons at HR19, and will always strive to improve and ensure the Harm Reduction International Conference is impactful for attendees and local advocacy. Our conference partner this year, APDES, was successful in securing increased national and local political support for harm reduction, particularly with the Mayor of Porto committing in his opening ceremony speech to opening a drug consumption room.
Outside of the domestic, the Portuguese government announced an increase in their pledge to the Global Fund at HR19. We hope that future conferences are able to provide moments like this and bring together years of hard work for harm reduction.

DR: After a decade of growth, funding and support for harm reduction seems to be stagnating or declining in most parts of the world. Why do you think people with power still resist harm reduction so much?

I was shocked by our research findings last year, that there is a nearly 90% gap in funding for harm reduction in low- and middle-income countries. The fact that this funding has stagnated over the past decade, when there is overwhelming evidence of the public health and societal benefits of investing in harm reduction, is nothing short of disgraceful.
I can only hypothesise why political leaders remain resistant to supporting health and social services for people who use drugs, and it certainly varies between countries. An overarching reason is likely to be that harm reduction is still incorrectly seen as controversial. Few leaders are willing to be bold and admit past policy failures, even when faced with evidence that investing in harm reduction would bring innumerable benefits to their communities. It remains politically expedient to continue demonising and criminalising people who use drugs.