After a high-profile and controversial selection process, the United Nations announced the appointment of Winnie Byanyima as the new Executive Director of UNAIDS.1 The former Oxfam Director has a strong background in gender equity and human rights advocacy, and was the only female candidate shortlisted for the Executive Director position.2In light of UNAIDS’ recent high-profile power abuse and sexual assault scandals, the selection of Byanyima as the new Executive Director seems to act as a public declaration of organizational reform.3Upon accepting the Executive Director position, Byanyima stated the following: “The end of AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 is a goal that is within the world’s reach, but I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead. Working with all its partners, UNAIDS must continue to speak up for the people left behind and champion human rights as the only way to end the epidemic.”1 Despite her progressive vision for UNAIDS and her inspirational optimism, Byanyima will likely undergo immediate opposition as she tackles the combinedchallenge of restructuring UNAIDSand coordinating a newglobal response to the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Although the details of Byanyima’s UNAIDS reform strategy have yet to be revealed, her handling of similar power-abuse scandals at Oxfam offers insight into her management style and leadership philosophy. Earlier this year, Oxfam was accused of placing communities at risk to protect its programs and funding.4 In addition to not fully disclosing incidents of sexual exploitation and tolerating poor behavior by senior officials, Oxfam also failed to fill gaps in safeguarding and accountability across its global network.4 In response to the scathing reports, Byanyima (Oxfam’s Director at the time) openly claimed ownership over the failings and vowed to implement swift reform.4 Soon after her statement, Byanyima tripled investments in safeguarding procedures, created a global integrity fund, and hired a full-time Ethics Officer and Culture Lead to help ensure the maintenance of change over time.4While Byanyima’s quick and judicious handling of Oxfam’s scandals received praise from several reporters, the reform required of UNAIDS mayprove more difficult and controversial than that of Oxfam’s. Given the recency of her leadership and the preservation of former UNAIDS Executive Director Michele Sidibe’s leadership team, an attempt by Byanyimato upend the established structures of organizational power may undergo internal resistance from some of the highest ranking UNAIDSofficers. Although Byanyima’s track record with organizational restructuring foreshadowsprogressive change, her successheavily relies on her ability to convincelong-standingUNAIDS staff membersto align with her vision of widespread reform.
In addition to internal restructuring, Byanyima must also develop a new global AIDS strategy that curbs the alarming rise of HIV/AIDS in the global South. Given the growing recognition of the UN’s premature declaration of the likely end of AIDS based almost exclusively on the gradual expansion of antiretroviral treatment access, Byanyima must significantly alter the current global strategy by prioritizing care, prevention and social inclusion for key populations that are often socially and politically marginalized.5Fortunately, Byanyima’s strong human rights background likely predicts a social justice-basedAIDS response – howeverher abilityto cultivate new funding streams in the midst of a global decline in international AIDS investmentremains uncertain. While Byanyima did develop a $21 million cost cutting plan for Oxfam to maximize program effectivenessasfinancial donations waned, the long-term impact of her budgeting strategyhas yet to be realized, and therefore cannot be deemed effective.4
The election of a woman as Executive Director of UNAIDS is a significant step in the right direction, and holds out the potential of moving to dismantle the patriarchal institutional culture that appears to have plagued UNAIDS.6 Furthermore, the choice once again of an Executive Director from the global Southoffers hope that those most impacted by the epidemic are represented in the decision-making processes of the global response. But given the track record of the previous Executive Director, also from the global South, it is clear that while representation is symbolically important, it is not a guarantee of success. While Byanyima is an impressive human rights advocate who is skilled in navigating the international political arena, the challenge of rebuildingUNAIDS’ global credibility during a growing HIV/AIDS crisis has many in the AIDS community questioning the extent to which the organization will be able to recover the prestige it seems to have lost in recent years. Given the complexity of this period in UNAIDS history, the successes and failures of Byayima’s leadership will likely depend on many unknown variables and unforeseen consequences. The selection of Byanmiya as the new Executive Director is a notablestep in the right direction, but it will take much more than one high-level appointment to realize the organization’s ultimate goal of an equitable AIDS-free future.
- UN News. Winnie Byanyima ‘honoured to be joining UNAIDS’ as next Executive Director (2019, August 14) Retrieved from https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/08/1044241
- Ravelo, J. Winnie Byanyima chosen to lead UNAIDS (2019, August 14) Retrieved from https://www.devex.com/news/winnie-byanyima-chosen-to-lead-unaids-95476
- UNAIDS Found in ‘Crisis’ After Sex Harassment Claims. (2018, December 7). Retrieved from https://www.voanews.com/europe/unaids-found-crisis-after-sex-harassment-claims
- Edwards, S. Oxfam: Safeguarding failings laid bare (2019, June 12). Retrieved from https://www.devex.com/news/oxfam-safeguarding-failings-laid-bare-95082
- (2019). Communities at the Centre: Global AIDS Update 2019. Retrieved from https://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/media_asset/2019-global-AIDS-update_en.pdf
6. ABIA. UNAIDS needs a new leader to respond to the AIDS epidemic and dismantle the patriarchy in governance (2019, July 10) Retrieved from http://gapwatch.org/news/articles/unaids-needs-a-new-lider-to-respond-to-the-aids-epidemic-and-dismantle-the-patriarchy-in-governance/1463