Africa: A New Chapter for UNAIDS

Winne Byanyima at a UN event on Women’s Economic Empowerment.
press release

AIDS-Free World extends congratulations to Winnie Byanyima, who was appointed today by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to be the new Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, known as UNAIDS.

Ms. Byanyima is joining UNAIDS at a decisive moment. She has a major internal governance issue to confront in her first months on the job.

  • In December 2018, an Independent Expert Panel (IEP) excoriated the leadership of former UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, who presided over an organizational structure that "failed to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power." But the fault was not Mr. Sidibé's alone. The IEP found "convincing evidence" that "the leadership team at UNAIDS is responsible and accountable for the organizational culture in which such behaviours have been allowed to flourish."


Ms. Byanyima must ensure that Sidibé-era members of the leadership team are no longer able to influence the institutional culture of UNAIDS.

  • Further, and central to Ms. Byanyima's success, will be the prompt implementation of a key recommendation of the IEP. The Panel called for the establishment of an "independent body external to UNAIDS" that would receive complaints of sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power; conduct "safe, confidential" fact-finding investigations with access to "relevant documents and witnesses"; and be empowered to "impose appropriate sanction." External, independent systems and oversight, we have long argued, are essential to mending the UN's broken processes.


The new Executive Director will also be faced with significant external challenges.

  •  In its Global AIDS Update released on July 16, UNAIDS conceded that the fight against the pandemic was far from over. Worryingly, the number of new HIV infections has increased in Latin America, the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe, where the rate has spiked to frighteningly high levels.
  • The number of new infections recorded among adolescent girls and young women has remained virtually unchanged at 6,200 each week. It is simply unacceptable that women and girls remain so shockingly at risk more than thirty years into the pandemic. Ms. Byanyima must ensure that concrete plans are put in place to end this continuing crisis.
  • Of perhaps greatest importance, the new Executive Director will be tasked with reversing a disastrous decrease in funding, which was exacerbated no doubt by UNAIDS' decision to embrace a marketing campaign that trumpeted the impending "end of AIDS" and, as a consequence, inspired complacency among donors. Between 2017 and 2018, the global resources available for the AIDS response declined by a stunning US$1 billion. Ms. Byanyima can start by urging the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, which is holding a replenishment conference in October, to increase its overall target significantly beyond the painfully inadequate US$14 billion to which it is now committed.
  • The challenges are many. The work of UNAIDS remains urgent and necessary.


We wish Ms. Byanyima every success as she launches a herculean effort to improve and save lives and strives to turn UNAIDS into an institution that honors the dignity of its employees.

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