Exclusive: New Global Fund chief Sands eyes disease elimination as goal

Peter Sands, the new executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Photo by: Monika Flueckiger / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

MANILA — Peter Sands, the new executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, wants his organization to be more technologically savvy, learn more from its past experiences, and learn from them quickly. That’s how he believes the Global Fund will build on its previous work tackling its targeted diseases and, in the foreseeable future, eliminating them.

“By 2022, when we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Global Fund, we want to be saying: We are on track for an irreversible, decisive victory over AIDS, TB, and malaria, and that we cannot just celebrate the millions of lives that have been saved, which is absolutely, hugely important, but also the fact that we have eliminations firmly in our sights,” Sands told Devex in a one-on-one phone interview just a few hours after the Global Fund board announced his appointment as the new executive director on Tuesday. 

“I’m not pretending I’m a clinician or an epidemiologist. But my expertise in economics, finance, and management I think is very relevant to the challenges that the Global Fund faces in the next phase of its development — wrestling with issues like transition, sustainability, where we want to use technology and data to make the impacts of investments even greater.”

— Peter Sands, new executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria

Sands admitted that his first duty of business is understanding how things work at the Global Fund. “I would be looking to understand very quickly where the organization has gotten to and where there are opportunities to take it further,” Sands added.

Sands, considered the frontrunner in the race, had earlier raised doubts about his candidacy. On Friday, three days before the board was scheduled to enter the voting process, the former Standard Chartered CEO and current Harvard Kennedy School fellow withdrew from the race, citing “personal reasons” that he says were mainly about whether being based in Geneva would work for his family.

But in a dramatic turn of events, Sands then asked the board on Monday to reconsider his candidacy and let him back into the election process. To some observers’ surprise, the board not only allowed him back in, but also voted to give him one of the most high-profile jobs in global development.

“I realize it’s not the most elegant way of doing things, but sometimes you do make the wrong call and the best thing to do is recognize that and reverse that,” he said.

Devex asked Sands what happened in the days leading to the vote, what he thinks of the process, and his vision for the fund, including how he plans to sustain donor support in a challenging geopolitical environment, and keeping the fund’s financial assets in order. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you think was your edge over the other candidates?

To be honest, I have not focused too much on my attributing qualities relative to the other candidates, who I don’t know. But on paper all seemed to be very impressive.

All I think I would say is that what I bring is a combination of a proven ability to build and lead a complex international organization, a long-standing personal commitment to tackling global health issues, a demonstrated capacity to build networks and deliver impact in the global health arena. I’ve got extensive experience in relationships across many of the countries where the Global Fund operates.

I’m not pretending I’m a clinician or an epidemiologist. But my expertise in economics, finance, and management I think is very relevant to the challenges that the Global Fund faces in the next phase of its development — wrestling with issues like transition, sustainability, where we want to use technology and data to make the impacts of investments even greater.

These are things where I can bring a significant amount of experience, both from having been CEO of one of the largest international banks in the world, being a finance director of that bank, but also having been a senior partner at McKinsey.

On Friday, you withdrew your candidacy, and two days after, you asked the board if you could get back in the race. Can you tell us and our readers, who are mostly baffled by the recent turn of events, what happened there?

Well, it’s actually not very exciting. From the start, I was somewhat concerned on whether being based in Geneva would work for my family. And it was that consideration that prompted my decision to withdraw from the process.

But sometimes when you make that decision, you almost immediately feel you’ve made the wrong call. And this was one of those cases. I am making a decision, which made me realize how much I wanted to do the job. My wife and I talked about it, and so I decided to get back into the process.

I realize it’s not the most elegant way of doing things, but sometimes you do make the wrong call and the best thing to do is recognize that and reverse that.

Is there any particular event or any particular person you spoke to that made you realize you wanted to go back there and take this job?

I really only talked to my family.

You were considered a frontrunner by many in this race. Did that also become a factor?

As the prospect of it happening became all the more real, the family considerations and sort of the practicalities of making it happen became more prominent in my mind. But, as I was saying, in some ways this is sort of straightforward, if not elegant. I was worried about the impacts on my family, so I thought I should withdraw. I withdrew. And then I felt this is a really good job that I’m incredibly excited about doing. And as I talked it through with my wife, we decided we can make it work.

Will your family be going with you to Geneva?

We’ll be sort of splitting our time between Geneva and London. Because my wife runs a business in London, so she can’t completely disentangle herself. So we’ll be splitting our time between the two.

“The more effectively we deploy the resources, the better the case we can make to attract them.”

The process through which you were selected as the new executive director has been deemed by some in the global health space as lacking transparency. How do you plan to address this issue, for future elections?

Well, obviously it’s up to the board rather than the executive director to determine the process.

I have to say from my perspective, I think it’s been an incredibly thorough process. I have been given the opportunity to interact not just with the board members themselves, but also with the board of constituencies, people who’ve had the opportunity to ask me questions in person and over calls that were structured. So certainly from my experience, I’ve been impressed by the thoroughness of the process.

Tell us more about your vision for the fund. Do you have a to-do list going into the role? What are your top priorities for the Global Fund in the next four years?

My starting point obviously is the strategy that has been set out for 2017 to 2022 by the board, and that sets out very clear ambitions. And underpinning that is the overarching goal in SDG 3 of eliminating AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria as epidemics.

And that’s sort of the big thing as I see it. But I think we should be looking that by 2022, when we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Global Fund. We want to be saying: We are on track for an irreversible, decisive victory over AIDS, TB, and malaria, and that we cannot just celebrate the millions of lives that have been saved, which is absolutely, hugely important, but also the fact that we have eliminations firmly in our sights. That would be the overarching objective.

How do we deliver that? Look, I recognize that I have much to learn, and that I will be wanting to listen to stakeholders, including the technical partners, WHO, UNAIDS, the NGOs, communities, implementing countries, the donors, and looking to how we can both raise resources most effectively, and also deploy them most effectively. Because I see that as a virtuous circle. The more effectively we deploy the resources, the better the case we can make to attract them.

And I’ll be looking at how actually we can strengthen the Global Fund as an organization itself. I’m a strong believer that if you want to deliver sustainable impact, the organization itself has to be performing at a high level, and that’s the way people assesses its work, the technologies used, the way the organization learns from its experiences.

You mentioned mobilizing resources, and this is likely to be a difficult era for raising funds from some of the Global Fund's key donors, particularly the United States. What will be your approach to sustaining support from the fund’s donors, particularly from the U.S. government? 

I think that with all the donors, it is important to make sure that the case is very clearly made in terms of the impact that the funds committed will have, both in terms of lives saved and increasingly, I think we can probably do a better job in terms of the economic benefits of reducing the burdens of AIDS, TB, and malaria. And part of it is going to be — it’s not a new thing — if you can show that the money that’s actually being deployed now is being deployed in a way that delivers great impact. That is the most powerful way of making the case for more resources.

Can you give us a sense of your understanding of where the Global Fund is currently, to help us understand where you’re leading the fund in the next four years as executive director?

“I take a very strong stance on the rigor of financial control, of zero tolerance of corruption, of ensuring we have processes to identify and deal with any issues of misuse or diversion of funds.”

It’s clear that the organization has made significant strides in the quality of its processes, and the governance, the oversight, the ways it’s run in recent years.

I suspect there’s an opportunity to build on that progress, making sure those advantages are fully embedded, but also thinking of ways of using technology more effectively, making it more of a learning organization that can quickly absorb and analyze information on things that are working and things that aren’t working, and use that working with technical partners to inform the next initiatives and grants. I would be looking to understand very quickly where the organization has gotten to and where there are opportunities to take it further.

But my starting point is one of wanting to sit down with staff, listen to them, understand how things work, and then apply my experience to working with the team on how we can make it work even better.

Some of our readers will associate your name with a major settlement Standard Chartered reached with the U.S. government over allegations that Standard Chartered defied U.S. sanctions against Iran. The Global Fund in the past has experienced issues of financial mismanagement. How can you reassure people that the fund's assets will be in good hands under your leadership?

I have been a finance director of a major financial institution for several years, and then the CEO of the same very large financial institution for a number of years. I take a very strong stance on the rigor of financial control, of zero tolerance of corruption, of ensuring we have processes to identify and deal with any issues of misuse or diversion of funds. I think it’s absolutely vital for the Global Fund that we can confidently assert that we have control over the way the resources are deployed, and take decisive action whenever we find evidence of something not happening the way we want it to happen.

International politics are in a different place than they were four, five, six years ago. How do you think the Global Fund needs to adapt?

I think the Global Fund is in an extraordinary position, and it has a demonstrated record of delivering on a hugely important mission of getting three epidemics that have cost so many lives, so much human misery, so much economic damage, of battling them back, saving over 20 million lives in the process, and really making progress on both infection rates and mortality. It’s a fantastic story of what the Global Fund has done, and that’s what’s so exciting, because we have the opportunity to do something incredibly important and special, which is to rid humanity of these epidemics.

I’m not saying that can be done in the next four years, but I think the tide of the battle could be won in the next four years. And when I think about it like that, yes, there will be turbulence in international politics and priorities, but that’s the kind of mission and objective that cut through the day-to-day geopolitics. This is the big, really important goal for mankind: If we can really end the epidemics on AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Michael Igoe contributed reporting.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.