Winnie Byanyima, executive director at UNAIDS. Photo by: Roxana Bravo /IMF / CC BY-NC-ND

MANILA — Within the past six months, UNAIDS has appointed a staff counselor for mental health and well-being, created a standalone office for ethics, and enlisted the help of a feminist organization from India to advance the organization’s internal change agenda, according to the organization’s Executive Director Winnie Byanyima.

These efforts are part of the Management Action Plan developed in 2019 in response to serious governance issues at UNAIDS. The plan is meant to assist the organization in transforming its workplace culture, which had been beset with allegations of abuse of power, harassment, and bullying by senior officials.

“The Management Action Plan remains the framework for transforming our workplace culture so that the safety and dignity of all our staff is guaranteed. I want to see all staff inspired and motivated by their work and the positive difference they make for people living with and affected by HIV,” Byanyima told the board at its 46th meeting in June.

COVID-19 has allowed the organization to demonstrate its role of duty of care for staff and, she believes, helped rebuild trust within the organization. But there have been some challenges as well.

Byanyima talked to Devex of the internal work that has been done to date to address issues that have plagued the organization for so long, and some of her priorities in the months ahead, including negotiating a service level agreement with the World Health Organization to improve on UNAIDS’ justice system.

“That whole judicial system doesn't work in our organization,” she said. “We have a flawed justice system that doesn't take care of the victim. That is just about the rules, and the rules are not fairly weighed in the interest of the justice of somebody who has suffered abuse of power. So [there’s] a big piece to do there.”

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

There have been several new appointments and internal initiatives that UNAIDS has started and is planning to roll out. How has COVID affected that?

In the month of March, when we saw that there was a huge risk to our staff, we had then [decided] to put our staff on telecommuting and close the offices.

It was hard, but we had to mobilize and try to provide support for this transition. That in itself pushed us further in, first of all, taking seriously our role of duty of care, but also being creative in finding solutions for people. We had to bring in very quickly our well-being officer because we now knew there was going to be a lot of mental stress. We had to counsel our managers about being realistic and adjusting work plans for their staff.

“You need to be able to bring principles of equality, of dignity, of transparency, of inclusion through all the systems, from the way you recruit, the way you induct people, the way you appraise them.”

— Winnie Byanyima, executive director, UNAIDS

So the positive thing is that when people went to work at home, now we’re on the case of every manager. We had a crisis committee meeting daily. I was meeting my cabinet daily and we were asking: Are you in touch with your team? When did you last speak with your teams? I was doing town halls every two, three weeks. So caring for our people, being close to them, was so important. And that's also helped us now to build on our relationships.

One of the biggest problems of the organization was trust was destroyed. The trust is so low between staff and managers, between staff themselves. So this closeness brought about a rebuilding of trust. And I know this because we've been doing surveys, and some of our surveys were so uplifting. Staff were ... giving us high scores for being there for them, for managers listening and working through problems. They give us a high score [for] adapting. So those are the positives. Then people learned that you can achieve your work from anywhere. One of the biggest problems here is that there was inflexibility, and the power at the top was being used to crush people who don't have the power because of inflexibility.

On the negative side, we wanted of course to move our agenda quickly on culture change. I brought in a group of feminists from the South. It's an organization [that] is global, but based in India, of feminists who do organizational development work. They know how to trigger change, and question power in organizations, and build feminist principles in organizational management.

Their work was supposed to start beginning of March, but they've been delayed by almost two months. They couldn't meet staff. They couldn't organize themselves. But I have to say that the culture change program itself, although it didn't kick off with the consultants, continued because we appointed an internal leader. She started building on the self-starter groups, which already exist. We have people called dignity advisers; we've got a gender group. We've got groups that are involved in transformative work. She's mobilized them. So it's not all time lost.

We managed to hold our board meeting online, and I can tell you I'm proud because we were more successful than many of the other agencies here. We were better prepared for the board than even when it would have been face to face. So there are gains in how COVID challenged us.

Our crisis team was very cohesive and very efficient. It worked very closely with the staff association. So there's also something that has grown between the staff association and management, better relations.

Then, first of all, I could not understand how an organization in crisis could not be with [an] internal communication function. So one of the first things I did was create an internal communications team who very quickly rolled out a virtual platform for staff to talk to each other.

For the first time, staff have somewhere where they can chat about their work, chat about anything, share tools.

What can we expect in the next six months? What plans do you have in place?

With or without COVID, the internal transformation agenda must continue.

“What you value in a staff must not be [just] their technical work, it must also be their soft skills, the way they work in teams, the way they value others.”

It isn't easy to change the culture of an organization because there is the part there where you challenge people's minds about “what are the values that we stand for? What is our mission?” Let's connect our behaviors and our ways of working with our mission and our values.

But you also must drive incentives and disincentives through all of the systems. You need to be able to bring principles of equality, of dignity, of transparency, of inclusion through all the systems, from the way you recruit, the way you induct people, the way you appraise them. What you value in a staff must not be [just] their technical work, it must also be their soft skills, the way they work in teams, the way they value others.

And then you have to transform the way you do cases. If somebody is behaving badly in a team, how does a team deal with that? How would you call out bad behavior? That whole judicial system doesn't work in our organization. It is run for us by WHO. It's not a victim-centric process.

Let me give you an example. This is 2020. I'm a new [executive director, but] even last week ... I received a report on a case that was first reported in 2016. Four years before you get justice. And in this particular case, it was [a dismissal.]

Imagine: You wait four years, you've got a grievance, you report, and you wait four years before you get an answer, and the answer is against you anyway. That's not justice. To wait four years? So we have a flawed justice system that doesn't take care of the victim.

That is just about the rules, and the rules are not fairly weighed in the interest of the justice of somebody who has suffered abuse of power. So [there’s] a big piece to do there.

And there is a big piece to do or to drive new incentives, feminist principles, in the other rules we have. So that's a piece of work that we are hiring some people from that feminist organization to do, but it's going to take some time. But above all, trust, rebuilding trust. Trust doesn't come by talking. Trust is built by doing things together. Trust is built when people see that the rules are working fairly for them. So this would take time, but we are working on it.

We are conscious that we have to earn the trust back. That the failures of those from the past, we have to reverse them by role modeling the right behavior: We as managers making the rules work and changing them quickly so that they are fair and better understood.

One of the new things we've done is opening up a conversation about race.

After the murder of George Floyd, I felt challenged in the organization because people don't complain about race officially, but they talk about it in coffee rooms. They suffer from it, but they don't have the agency to speak up about it.

So I felt challenged and I went and protested. I joined the march in Geneva and I told our staff that if you feel you want to stand in solidarity, please also go. It's not very U.N., but I did it because I felt it's important as U.N. to show that we are anti-racism.

So they came, some staff came. Every individual was allowed to walk. But after that, I said, OK, let every unit open a conversation on race. We even have developed materials to support them because they are delicate conversations.

You can have on the one side people who are not conscious, who have unconscious bias, who's never understood their privilege. So if they meet ... with someone who has suffered racism and speaking angrily, they get shocked, because they don't see it.

So you need to help both. And those who have suffered, [they] can be so angry that if you open a little space, they burst out. You need to have ways to encourage a conversation that is productive, respectful, and that empowers the victim.

In these cases, what is your plan to speed up the process in place? Is that going to happen in six months?

The example I gave you is just a pattern. I have many cases that come like that. I get a case and I have to call someone to give me the history because it's four years old. That's how slow the process is. So that is an area that is very high on my list of priorities.

But we have two sides. One, we have to strengthen our own selves internally. That we have done. We've strengthened our legal team. We now have strong inside capacity on legal issues. But the justice system is managed by WHO. So we are now talking with them and we are asking to have a new agreement with them — a service level agreement. And in this new agreement, we want clear targets.

We want to say that, “if we send you a case, we want a result within six months.” So we are discussing with them how they will deliver service to us. Now it's not easy because WHO is big. We are small. And as a client, they manage their own cases and they manage for others. We're not the only ones. From what I understand, we are only like 10% of their whole business of justice. So even if we can put pressure to ask for our own level and standards, they could easily say, “no, we can't do that. You are just too particular and you are too small anyway.”

But I'm hoping that they will try hard to meet the new standards we want, because it's good for them, and because there is demand even from our board, which is also partly their board, asking us to step up on the justice system. Justice delayed is justice denied.

About the author

  • 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.