Skip to content

Winnie Byanyima named to lead UNAIDS

Winnie Byanyima, a humanitarian activist who heads Oxfam International, was appointed to serve as executive director of UNAIDS.

GENEVA (AN) — Winnie Byanyima, a humanitarian activist who heads Oxfam International, was appointed on Wednesday to serve as executive director of the Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS, or UNAIDS.

She replaces UNAIDS' embattled leader Michel Sidibé, who left the job early in May due to allegations he improperly handled a sexual harassment scandal involving one of his deputies. He defied the wishes of Sweden, UNAIDS’ second-biggest donor, which had demanded his immediate resignation, but still left the job six months earlier than he had planned.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Byanyima as UNAIDS' executive director, with the rank of a U.N. undersecretary-general, after a selection process using a search committee of UNAIDS board members, who made a final recommendation.

Guterres' spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, announced the appointment, saying she “brings a wealth of experience and commitment in harnessing the power of government, multilateral agencies, the private sector and civil society to end the HIV and AIDS crisis for communities around the world.”

Byanyima, who has a background as a mechanical engineer and is a former parliamentarian in Uganda, said she was honored to join UNAIDS at such a critical time in the world's response to HIV.

“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," she said. "Working with all its partners, UNAIDS must continue to speak up for the people left behind and champion human rights as the only way to end the epidemic.”

She will take over a U.N. agency that an independent panel of experts said is suffering from “failed” leadership and a “broken” work culture. The experts’ 73-page report last year, based on interviews and staff surveys that delve into the organization’s handling of sexual harassment allegations, determined that UNAIDS' managerial crisis “threatens its vital work.”

The board of the United Nations' AIDS agency had said last year that it would begin addressing problems of “harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power” within its Geneva-based secretariat, by setting up a working group to oversee change.

Sidibé denied pressuring UNAIDS staffer Martina Brostrom to drop her allegations that she was sexually harassed by his former deputy, Luiz Loures. Brostrom went public with her allegations earlier this year. Though Sidibé asserted he could still save the agency, the panel’s report cast serious doubt on that. Within days of the report, he announced that within six months he would leave the job he had held since 2009.

Engineer to humanitarian activist

Byanyima completed her university studies in the United Kingdom, obtaining an undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Manchester and an advanced degree in mechanical engineering for energy conservation and the environment from Cranfield Institute of Technology.

After her studies, she served as a parliamentarian in Uganda for 11 years, focused on development and women's issues for international organizations. Her husband, opposition politician Kizza Besigye, unsuccessfully ran four times for president in Uganda.

In 2004, she became director of women and development at the African Union Commission, working on an international human rights instrument to reduce effects of HIV on African women. In 2006, she became director of a gender team within the U.N. Development Program, or UNDP. In 2013, she was appointed executive director of Oxfam International.

Byanyima weathered a recent crisis in her last post. In June, Oxfam International vowed to make improvements after it was sternly reprimanded by a British watchdog agency for having a toxic work culture that led to a sexual abuse and exploitation scandal in Haiti.

The Nairobi-based anti-poverty organization was cited for mismanagement and lack of accountability because of employees using prostitutes, downloading pornography, and bullying and intimidating others. It also was called out for potential child abuse and failing to use enough resources to protect its own staff.

The scandal surfaced in the aid work that Oxfam Great Britain, a member of Oxfam’s international confederation, did for Haitians displaced by the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in January 2010 that killed more than 250,000 people and left 1.5 million people homeless.

Byanyima issued a statement two months ago expressing pain and anger at how some of her colleagues in the organization acted. “As an African woman, I encounter both sexism and racism in many places I go," she said. “We are forcefully challenging such unacceptable behaviors."

In response to the scandal, Haiti’s government last year banned Oxfam GB from operating in the country where it had worked since 1978. The government cited Oxfam GB’s “violation of its laws and serious breach of the principle of human dignity.” The U.K. government’s Charity Commission for England and Wales delivered an official reprimand to Oxfam GB.

Now, Byanyima will direct the U.N.'s multibillion-dollar campaign to end by 2030 a global AIDS epidemic that kills 900,000 people a year and affects more than 37 million people worldwide.

Uganda's main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, congratulated her and said it was "very pleased and not surprised" that she emerged as the top choice for the job. Byanyima was the only woman who made it to the final round, and she was selected over four male candidates.

"A woman of many firsts, Winnie will be the first woman to lead UNAIDS, and rightly so, as HIV is most prevalent in Africa and has a disproportionate effect on African women and girls," the party said. "Winnie will bring to the role a wealth of experience in leveraging the power of governments, multilateral agencies, the private sector and civil society to solve development challenges."