On June 29th, The Lancet, published a “World Report”1 on the top of five candidates under consideration for the UNAIDS Executive Director position formerly held by Michel Sidibé. With UNAIDS still scrambling from nearly years of high-profile power abuse scandals, the selection of a new Executive Director creates an opportunity for UNAIDS to publicly commit to organizational change.
The change in organizational leadership been overshadowed sexual harassment scandals that came to a head in 2018, when the then Executive Director, Michel Sidibé, allegedly tried to force a former UNAIDS employee to drop sexual assault allegations against his Deputy Executive Director, Luiz Loures.2 Although the investigation ended due to insufficient evidence, Sidibé received scathing criticism for his apathetic management of Loures’ case. This case, along with a growing number of #MeToo inspired cases against the UN,3 resulted in an Independent Expert Panel investigation of UNAIDS’ harassment, bullying, and abuse of power policies.4 The investigation found that, of those surveyed, 4% reported some form of sexual harassment in the past year and 40% reported having suffered some abuse of authority.2 The report characterized the organization as a “vacuum of accountability” with a “work culture of fear, lack of trust, and retaliation.” 4 The expert panel heavily criticized Sidibé and his leadership team for creating a toxic work environment, and concluded the report by stating that they have “no confidence that current leadership can deliver cultural change when that leadership has been largely responsible for the current malaise.”4 The full report was released in December 2018, but Sidibé denied any responsibility, and initially refused to resign – a position that the leadership of the UN mysteriously seemed to accept. Amid on-going heavy internal and external criticism, Sidibé finally agreed to resign mid-2019, and then formalized his departure in May 2019 when he was appointed as Minister of Health and Social Affairs of his native Mali.5
Since Sidibé’s decision to resign, the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board (PCB) formed a Search Committee and engaged in a series of meetings to discuss potential candidates for the Executive Director role. Given the fact that the PCB had essentially failed to effectively intervene during the extended controversy over Sidibé’s conduct as Executive Director, the fact that the search for a new ED was left in its hands was cause for significant concern – concern that was unfortunately reinforced when news of the final short list of candidates became public.6 The five fast-tracked candidates for the position are:
- Salem Abdool Karim – Director of the Center for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA)
- Sani Aliyu – Director General of Nigeria’s National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA)
- Chris Beyrer – Professor of Epidemiology and International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
- Winnie Byanyima – Executive Director of Oxfam International
- Bernard Haufiku – Former Minister of Health and Social Services of Nambia
As the AIDS disease burden continues to be heaviest on countries below the equator, the need for global South participation in international AIDS governance is essential. Fortunately, four out of the five shortlisted candidates (Karim, Aliyu, Byanyima, and Haufiku) come from countries below the equator. With the needs of the global South often beholden to the demands of wealthy countries in the global North, in spite of Michel Sidibé’s controversial record as Executive Director of UNAIDS, it is still crucially important to have leadership from the global South at the helm of the most influential AIDS governing body in order to ensure that Southern needs, perspectives, and concerns with global equity and social justice are prioritized by future AIDS policies.
While UNAIDS PCB Search Committee should be lauded for identifying a significant number of potential candidates from the global South, the relatively closed and secretive selection process raises cause for concern about its outcome and suggests a seemingly arbitrary candidate process. While UNAIDS argues that its closed-door meetings protect candidate confidentiality, UNAIDS’ high-profile power abuse scandals have rightfully casted doubt upon the integrity of all UNAIDS leadership. With the same PCB that perpetuated an almost complete lack of accountability under Sidibé’s leadership engaged in an exclusive selection process, UNAIDS has made little effort to prove that the organization is currently operating in good faith. Furthermore, with only one female candidate (Winnie Byanyima) on the short list of finalists under consideration for the Executive Director position, UNAIDS exposes its complete apathy toward the lack of gender equity within the organization.
In light of the multiple sexual harassment charges exposed at UNAIDS during its recent history – and in the wake of the global #MeToo movement – the lack of more significant efforts aimed at seeking greater gender equity in the short list of candidates for the Executive Director position is striking. Given the widespread power abuse documented by the Independent Expert Panel, UNIADS needs a leader who will not only respond to the AIDS epidemic in the global South, but one who will also dismantle the patriarchy still obviously operating in the governance of UNAIDS.
- Zarocostas, J. (2019). Five candidates in the running to head UNAIDS after Sidibé. The Lancet, 393(10191), e45.
- 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
- Ratcliff, R. Senior UN figures under investigation over alleged sexual harassment. (2018, January 25). Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/jan/25/senior-un-figures-under-investigation-over-alleged-sexual-harassment
- Horton, R. (2018). Offline: How to restore the credibility of UNAIDS. The Lancet, 392(10164), 2536.
- Ravelo, J. Exclusive: UNAIDS executive shortlist (2019, June 21). Retrieved from https://www.devex.com/news/exclusive-unaids-executive-shortlist-95159
- (2019). Process and terms of reference for the search committee for the nomination of UNAIDS executive director. Retrieved from https://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/PCB%20Final%20Terms%20of%20reference%20for%20the%20nomination%20of%20UNAIDS%20ED%20(1).pdf
- Edwards S. & Ravelo J. Meet the UNAIDS Leadership Contenders. (2019, July 10). Retrieved from https://www.devex.com/news/meet-the-unaids-leadership-contenders-95239?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTWpobE1tTXdZV1k0WkRrMCIsInQiOiJcL0xaSjh6UkEwbnFXcWNtWnVrM2FyKzRURzNjRyswdXhmb1wvcUlQUmxLVlFcL1l4RGRuTWV5aTdCbHNDcm1iSGo5ZjlCWGRmSk1FNTVzMmxZQll3cyt4XC9kYkRZb2lnU2taVUJoRjhjRWpEMVh4YldLZFZiVmRCVVNpMjROcThaWHEifQ==&utm_campaign=top&utm_content=title&utm_medium=newswire&utm_source=newsletter
- R. Offline: Who should lead UNAIDS? (2019, July 6). Retrieved from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(19)31563-6/fulltext