Winnie Byanyima will be the new UNAIDS executive director. Photo by: REUTERS / Andrew Kelly

MANILA — Winnie Byanyima will soon take the helm of UNAIDS as its new executive director, it was announced Wednesday, concluding a months-long selection process to find a new leader for the embattled agency.

“I am honoured to be joining UNAIDS as the Executive Director at such a critical time in the response to HIV,” Byanyima said in a statement published by UNAIDS announcing the appointment. “The end of AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 is a goal that is within the world’s reach, but I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead.”

Byanyima, who is currently executive director of Oxfam International, was appointed to the post by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, following a recommendation by the UNAIDS Committee of Cosponsoring Organizations.

She was the only woman shortlisted for the position and was chosen over four other candidates: Chris Beyrer, Salim Abdool Karim, Bernard Haufiku, and Sani Aliyu.

Congratulations on her appointment poured in following the announcement.

The high-profile charity chief has been the subject of particular attention since her inclusion on the shortlist was made public in mid-June. She received both praise and scrutiny from the development community as she vied for the post.

Her handling of the sexual abuse scandal at Oxfam, and a major restructuring effort at the charity, have received mixed reactions. One insider called it “messy,” while another said they respected her leadership in the midst of the crisis.

As the only nonphysician among the leadership contenders, there were questions from members of the global health community about her fit for a job that some argue requires a leader with strong technical expertise. While Byanyima has experience running a large and complex institution and knowledge of the inner workings of politics — having served as an ambassador and a member of parliament of Uganda — she does not have an obvious track record in working on HIV and AIDS.

But this didn’t seem to concern other members of the NGO community, with several saying Byanyima would be an “excellent” choice for the job.

The tasks ahead

Amid the celebratory remarks, several organizations also reminded the outgoing Oxfam chief of the challenges ahead.

The future of UNAIDS

Here’s a look at the leadership crisis at UNAIDS earlier this year, following a report on sexual abuse, bullying, and abuse of power at the institution.

Byanyima has some serious internal governance issues to contend with as she takes the helm. UNAIDS’ leadership and organizational culture were put under the spotlight by a damning report in December, which described how the agency’s leaders, including former executive director Michel Sidibé, failed to prevent and respond to harassment allegations.

“Ms. Byanyima must ensure that Sidibé-era members of the leadership team are no longer able to influence the institutional culture of UNAIDS,” said international advocacy organization AIDS-Free World in a statement shared with Devex.

Central to Byanyima’s success, the group said, would be her immediate implementation of the report’s recommendations, which include establishing 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.”

In an email sent to members of the UNAIDS Program Coordinating Board in June, and seen by Devex, a UNAIDS staff member writing on behalf of colleagues voiced “serious concerns about the transparency, accountability and relevance of WHO and UN investigations.”

The email raised questions about the capability of the U.N. to “execute solutions against unacceptable ... behaviors,” mentioning several ongoing cases that the author claimed are yet to be resolved after up to three years of investigations.

“We firmly request PCB members press the Secretary General and leadership of WHO and UNAIDS to urgently bring these cases to resolution as a matter of decency towards staff, before the arrival of a new Executive Director at UNAIDS,” the staff member concluded.

Challenges also await Byanyima in the fight against HIV and AIDS, with recent data showing an increase in new HIV infections in several countries and declining donor support for the AIDS response.

“AIDS is inarguably a global crisis. Winnie Byanyima is stepping up to the plate during a do-or-die period,” said Jamila Headley, managing director of advocacy organization Health GAP, in a statement.

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.