Under the new leadership of Executive Director Byanyima, UNAIDS has taken visible steps toward repairing the organization’s ineffective and elitist reputation by pressing for a more community-oriented HIV response. Early allusions to this new approach appeared in UNAIDS’ mid-September announcement of support for the grassroots HIV2020 conference – but, the full shift in strategy was made unmistakably clear when UNAIDS launched its 2019 World AIDS Day campaign in mid-November.1,2 In addition to promoting the theme “Communities Make the Difference,” UNAIDS’ 2019 World AIDS Day campaign also included a series of publications acknowledging community as “the lifeblood of the HIV movement.”2,3,4,5 UNAIDS’ new community-led approach serves as a meaningful step toward a more effective and equitable HIV strategy – however, as the world approaches the end of the fourth decade of the epidemic, this well-crafted rhetoric will quickly become empty discourse if not immediately backed by significant action.
Although UNAIDS’ new-found commitment to community creates hope for many of those who have been at the forefront of the HIV response for the past 38 years – UNAIDS must not so quickly be absolved of its prior role in undermining community-led responses across the world. UNAIDS’ overblown promises of the imminent end of the HIV epidemic has led many national governments and donors to de-prioritize HIV, and thereby withdraw funding and political support for many community-led organizations that UNAIDS now claims to prize. UNAIDS’ recent recognition of communities as the necessary leaders of the global HIV response is a judicious, albeit long-overdue, decision – however, given the organization’s current rebranding aims, the motive behind UNAIDS’ conveniently egalitarian message of “Power to the People” is reasonably suspicious.5
UNAIDS’ World AIDS Day reports offers many inspiring examples of successful community-led initiatives, but the organization’s sweeping praise of all “community-led” responses, unfortunately, overlooks the diverse set of values upheld by different types of community organizations. Although UNAIDS seeks to project a popular message of inclusion, generalizing support to all “community-led organizations” wrongfully reinforces the work of many NGOs and CBOs that operate under conservative and religious values that are truly harmful to the HIV response (ex. abstinence-only sex education, death penalty advocacy for gays and lesbians, defense of the rights of traditional families, etc.). Given the rise of conservativism and the precarity of human rights worldwide, UNAIDS must be precise in their praise of “community” and should strictly reserve support for organizations that are truly promoting a rights-based HIV agenda.
UNAIDS’ 2019 World AIDS Day campaign ended on December 1st with the release of a final press statement by UNAIDS’ Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima.6 The statement highlighted community successes in responding to HIV, admitted to UNAIDS’ historic failure in neglecting “community,” and ended with an explicit reminder to governments of their commitment to having “at least 30% of HIV services be community-led” and having “6% of all HIV funding go to community mobilization.”6 The statement released by Executive Director Byanyima expressed conviction in holding governments accountable to their funding commitments, but offered little in terms of a monitoring plan that would guarantee progress toward important objectives – let alone a strategic plan for national governments to actually meet their stated goals.3,5 Equally problematic, Byanyima’s statement neglected to address a longstanding UNAIDS failure in ensuring true community representation on the organization’s Programme Coordinating Board (PCB). Although UNAIDS has long commended itself for including NGO leaders on its PCB, the closed-door selection of each NGO representative excludes civil society participation in the selection process.
UNAIDS’ vague “community-led” plan falls short of the necessary detail required to genuinely support the civil society organizations that have sustained the rights-based HIV response for decades. In many LMICs, particularly in the global South, the rise of populist authoritarian leaders has led to an attempted silencing of many civil society organizations. This existential political struggle threatens the existence of civil society participation in many countries, and has unfortunately been exacerbated by an HIV funding environment that grows increasingly dominated by profit-driven interests of commercial corporations and pharmaceutical industry. With so many combined forces working to weaken the civil society’s rights-based HIV response, UNAIDS needs to elaborate upon their claimed support of “community,” and address their role in protecting civil society and democracy from a wave of populist and authoritarian-rulers.
Under the new leadership of Executive Director Byanyima, there is reason for hope that UNAIDS may have rediscovered the importance of local communities (and of civil society) in leading effective responses to the HIV epidemic – however, only time will tell if their animated words will truly manifest into meaningful action and legitimate global leadership.
- UNAIDS Expresses Support for HIV2020 Conference. (2019, September 6). Retrieved from https://mpactglobal.org/unaids-expresses-support-for-hiv2020-conference/
- (2019, November). Retrieved from https://www.unaids.org/en/resources/campaigns/WAD_2019
- World AIDS Day 2019: Communities Make the Difference. (2019, November). [pdf]
- World AIDS Day 2019: What is a Community-Led Organization?. (2019, November). [pdf]
- World AIDS Day 2019 Report: Power to the People. (2019, November 26). Retrieved from https://www.unaids.org/en/20191226_WAD2019_report_power_people
- World AIDS Day 2019 message from UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima. (2019, December 1. Retrieved from https://www.unaids.org/en/resources/presscentre/pressreleaseandstatementarchive/2019/december/world-aids-day-2019-message-from-executive-director-winnie-byanyima