Past Time to Get Serious

June 10, 2018


Last week, a letter sent yesterday to the UN Secretary General from the Board of ICASO, led by the indomitable Marama Mullen and its Executive Director, the tireless MaryAnn Torres. I am a member of ICASO’s Board, and we wrote to the Secretary General, not about the urgent need to revitalize the global AIDS response, but in desperation, calling on him to set up an independent inquiry into UNAIDS’ senior management processes and culture. Amongst other things, these have proved themselves to be abjectly incapable of handling recent investigations into allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace.  

Our letter coincided with a new, exquisitely tone-deaf campaign from UNAIDS called “the UNAIDS Gender Action Plan” which far from addressing growing concerns, reinforces the urgent need for somebody, somewhere to take this collapse in management seriously.  

UNAIDS is unaware of the deeply perilous situation it now finds itself in.  At every opportunity during this sorry tale, UNAIDS has chosen to make things worse, from outdated processes poor communication, insensitive handling of all-staff briefings, to rumors of threats of retaliation if activists don’t publicly support leadership - to name just a few.  

To focus exclusively on calling for UNAIDS' current Executive Director to step down is to miss the point. An organization that has neither the self-awareness nor competency to deal with issues that drive stigma and discrimination in the workplace, has no place leading the global response to an epidemic that thrives on the same stigma and discrimination.  Is it time to ask, should UNAIDS go?

UNAIDS still has much work to do. It is not doing that work because it is paralyzed by crisis. If UNAIDS doesn't change, it will have no future.

I worked for UNAIDS for most of the last decade. UNAIDS changed my life and opened to me a world of amazing opportunities when people of different cultures and background respected and worked together. I had the privilege of working with some outstanding women leaders - from the schedulers in the Executive Director's office, to Directors of programs and strategies. 

This is not about "the End of AIDS". In recent years, I have criticized UNAIDS' sloppy, ill-conceived campaigns, more designed to grab headlines than make real headwind against HIV. They lacked any gravitas and attention to detail and seemed to ignore the growing body of evidence that the damage caused by AIDS (let alone HIV) is far from declining.  I disagree with UNAIDS about tactics, but there has never been any doubt that we are sisters and brothers ultimately committed to the same goals. 

This is not about Michel Sidibe. I have known and worked with Michel since 2000. I have laughed and cried with him, agreed and disagreed with him – often with very great emotion on both sides. At the times I needed support, he stood by me. In his heart you can see the same visceral passion for eliminating HIV as can be found in the hearts of the very best of our leaders in the AIDS movement. Yes, it is getting harder to envisage a scenario where he can remain successfully in his role. But this is bigger than Michel. As an unsavory footnote, I fundamentally disagree with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation's campaign to have him removed - as if this alone, could bring the crisis to an end. Perhaps there may be elements of the campaign that warrant reflection, but you can't help feeling extreme nausea and skepticism at AHF's motives (and by the way, why is a private US purchaser of medicines, weighed down by its own controversial policies and practices, commenting on this in the first place?)  

This is about the failure of the entire leadership structure and how, when faced by crisis, it drowns in the depths of uncompromising and outmoded bureaucracy.   

The UN was midwifed into a post Second World War environment of compromise and imperfection. Despite all the talk of reform (and UNAIDS was supposed to be a model of such reform) the fundamentals have not changed. The UN is absurdly unprepared to meet the demands of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Remember the early 2000s, when just as UNAIDS was calling for all private sector employers to provide HIV treatment to their positive employees, it remained unable to offer the same to its HIV positive employees, because the prehistoric systemic policies across the UN prevented the treatment of pre-existing conditions. To think you could change these policies was considered the upmost folly.   It took determined, relentless, gritted leadership – right from the very top, in Geneva and New York to change things.

And so it is in the era of #MeToo. The UN reveals itself to be paralyzed and firmly on the wrong side of Herstory. UNAIDS cannot pull itself out of the grave it is digging for itself with yet another communications campaign. That it thinks it can do so, shows how deeply entrenched the problems are. That is why it is absolutely right to demand nothing less than a root and branch inquiry into UNAIDS' senior leadership and management processes from the very head of the UN itself.  And for God’s sake get it done quickly:  We have an epidemic to fight.