AIDS2018: UNAIDS LEAKS! Will Amsterdam Be UNAIDS’ Last Stand?

AIDS2018: UNAIDS LEAKS! Will Amsterdam Be UNAIDS’ Last Stand?

According to leaked information about UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe’s correspondence with McKinsey and Company, 2018 will mark the beginning of the end of UNAIDS: the embattled leader has hatched a plot to begin dismantling the agency as soon as this year, writes Paula Donovan.

It’s no secret that the 2018 international AIDS conference this week in

Amsterdam is Michel Sidibe’s last with UNAIDS. His second and final term as

Michel Sidibé. Credit:Wikimedia

Executive Director is officially due to end in January 2020. But according to leaked information about his correspondence with McKinsey and Company, 2018 will also mark the beginning of the end of UNAIDS: the embattled leader has hatched a plot to begin dismantling the agency as soon as this year.

Many people may never have heard of the influential United States-based management consulting firm McKinsey until the company brought itself into disrepute by bilking the South African government of R1.028 billion through an illegal contract with the public utility Eskom. When caught, McKinsey apologized and did penance by repaying some of the funds. But that scandal may never have come to light if South Africa were not a sophisticated democracy, with a Constitution that guarantees the right of access to information “to everyone when that information is required for the exercise or protection of any rights.”

The United Nations is uniquely different. For anyone seeking truth from the United Nations, there is no right to freedom of information. Just the opposite: UN immunity gives the Organisation the right to withhold records and information, releasing them only at the Secretary-General’s discretion. From the deadly cholera epidemic in Haiti, to the sexual assault of children and women in the Central African Republic, to impunity for abuse of authority and sexual harassment enjoyed since the 1940s by countless, mostly male officials throughout the UN system, leaks can be the only hope of justice where freedom of information is denied.

Am I positively sure that what I’m divulging here is 100 per cent accurate? No. Does my experience with UN leaks cause me to believe that this particular information is true? Yes. And do I think that it’s worth taking the risk, given the likelihood that history will repeat itself, that the UN will deny all accusations, that Member States will have no “appetite” to investigate, that there will be ample time to destroy any evidence, and ultimately, that proof may be impossible to authenticate? Yes, it’s worth it; change doesn’t happen unless we take risks.

The distressing leaked information begins with advice given to Michel Sidibe by McKinsey and a very few, very high-level UN officials in New York, just after an internal WHO investigation closed a case of alleged sexual assault made against then-UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director Luiz Loures, and a claim against Sidibe himself, who was accused of interfering and trying to halt the ongoing investigation. The UN officials involved in dispensing advice were none other than Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed and Jan Beagle. Ms Beagle served alongside Sidibe’s dear friend and accused serial sex abuser Luiz Loures as the second Deputy Executive Director of UNAIDS. While she herself was under investigation for harassing staff at UNAIDS, she was promoted by the Secretary-General to the top management and human resource position in the UN system. Not long after, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Gutteres chose her to lead the UN’s task force on—you guessed it—sexual harassment. All three UN officials are savvy enough to use private email accounts that can’t be tracked by UN investigators.

The transcripts of investigators’ interviews in the Loures case and the final reports had been sent to the Code Blue campaign, and under the pressure we caused by exposing the whole process for the sham that it was, the Secretary-General announced his intention to re-open the case — after Loures retired, and without asking the claimant if she wanted to start all over again. She doesn’t.

I share the view that the UN’s internal, hidden “judicial” processes are haphazard, unprofessional, and firmly biased in favor of the accused. For instance, WHO Director-General Tedros, whose investigators did such an appalling job the first time around, has been given the role of judge in round two. In the leaked correspondence, Sidibe asks the Deputy SG to keep him updated about the re-opened investigation. She says yes, I’ll phone you this evening, and he reassures her that he’s spoken with Tedros, who’s in the loop.

As hopeless as it seems, even one future UN leader might behave differently if 0105, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, were to ask just a few questions about the damage-control collusion among Sidibe, McKinsey, and UN headquarters. But will 010S ever ask senior UN officials why they used private email accounts to discuss highly sensitive UN business, knowing that only UN emails can be inspected by 010S? Will Under-Secretary-General for Management Jan Beagle be questioned about her advice to Michel (whom he addresses as “my dear sister”) that he clear the house? Will investigators ever dig into McKinsey’s concurrence—”I agree with Jan”—and their guidance that the problem with a Guardian newspaper partial exposé of the Loures case was “not how to remove the external perception but how to manage your reputation and the impact of the news on you”? Will the Deputy-Secretary-General be asked by 0105 whether, in reference to plans for an expert panel, she’d ever have said to Sidibe, “I would suggest that we make the recommendations of the commission look like they will achieve the way forward” if she’d been using her official UN email? Will anyone be asked how much the UN is paying for advice from McKinsey such as, “Michel, if everything stays as it is, please do not expose yourself further and let the dust settle, including with the SG,” or who prompted Mr Gutteres to play his part by announcing, months ago now, that the Loures case would be reopened — never to be mentioned again?

The leaks jump several weeks ahead to that plan to shut down UNAIDS, which Mr. Sidibe devised with McKinsey for the Secretary-General’s approval, via Amina Mohammed. They show that while he was threatening staff that they must unite behind him and mobilize women living with HIV to do the same, or else UNAIDS would come crashing down, he was simultaneously carving out a role for himself as grand marshal of the demolition. The plan: slash 40 per cent of UNAIDS staff, shovel the remainder into a newly designed “global public health” unit located somewhere within the UN, and —the cherry on top for wealthy, fatigued donor governments — end the AIDS exceptionalism that UNAIDS has championed vocally for over a decade. (After such a cold-blooded betrayal, can tears work again to persuade loyalists that it’s all the fault of others?)

The scheme has Sidibe heading up the “transition” with the aid of an external management consulting firm. McKinsey seems the obvious candidate. And as noted, without leaks, the protective shield of immunity allows the UN to hide the expense of the company’s exorbitantly priced advice. I wish I were surprised by the UN’s lack of concern about the role their crisis-management gurus played in the Eskom scandal in South Africa, or about the public exposure that forced McKinsey to end its $20 million contract with the federal US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, ICE, which is now famous for separating undocumented families crossing the US-Mexico border and locking up their children. In words reminiscent of the UN’s mantra of “zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and abuse,” the company’s Managing Director promised staff that the firm won’t do any more work that “advances or assists policies that are at odds with our values.” McKinsey and UNAIDS may be a perfect match.

It seems that at this point, there are two possible scenarios in play: perhaps UNAIDS and McKinsey consider it a triumph to have waged the world’s single most expensive and far-reaching damage-control campaign ever attempted by one man to discredit the MeToo movement. The student faithfully followed his coaches’ strategies: stay busy; phrase any apology as “if anyone misunderstood or was offended” in order to remain fully in charge; travel the world, whatever the cost, cooking up awards to give out as magnets to draw important people into your personal photographer’s range; meet, greet, and tweet about your one-on-ones with as many world leaders as humanly possible (and in a pinch, tweeting a selfie of yourself with a photo of Queen Elizabeth is second-best); terrorize staff into believing that if the captain goes down, the ship goes with it. At the Amsterdam AIDS conference, scatter employees throughout your audience who’ll jump to their feet and start the applause as soon as their leader takes the stage. Don’t worry unduly about Member States; they don’t want or expect change. As Amina Mohammed knows, the Programme Coordinating Board will be satisfied with a low-energy “review” culminating in easily implemented recommendations, all drawn up by UNAIDS in advance: a survey, a hotline, a series of meetings (same script, different titles: town halls, focus groups, civil society consultations…), a series of posters, a voluntary compact, and a pledge to redouble your efforts to ensure zero tolerance. Of course, two times zero is often the simplest “way forward.”

If one possibility is that McKinsey is declaring Sidibe victorious, another is that the Secretary-General struck a grand bargain: he may have offered a guarantee that he’d offer his full support without a shred of evidence if Sidibe would just devise a “game-changing solution” for the SG’s funding woes. They may have come to a gentleman’s agreement that if sacrificing the UN’s joint programme on AIDS is what it will take to show the US a leaner budget, well, you win some, you lose some.

As reasonable people, we should probably all be depressed about what these leaks reveal, and about the near-certain knowledge that like so many revelations before them, they’ll be repudiated and then ignored. But for the first time since we launched our Code Blue Campaign to end impunity for sexual abuse by UN personnel, we can see women (feminists, that is; not female replicas of the most ruthless male leaders) all over the world calling the shots where sexual conduct is concerned. So I’m actually feeling hopeful. The UN thinks that it’s beating the MeToo movement, but they’re always a generation behind. Everyone else’s day of reckoning is arriving; the UN’s day will come. – The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and not that of Spotlight or the Daily Maverick.

On 24 July, UNAIDS sent the following response via email:
Your article of July 22 on UNAIDS is based on false and fabricated
information. The UNAIDS leadership has not engaged in any
consultations with Mckinsey or United Nations senior staff on the
future of UNAIDS. The value of UNAIDS is clear. The dedicated staff of
UNAIDS are our greatest asset. We have unfinished business as
demonstrated by our recent report “Miles to go”. Together with our
partners, we are focused on delivering on our goals.
Yours sincerely,
Sophie Barton-Knott
Communications Manager
  • Paula Donovan is Co-Director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue Campaign. Donovan has served as senior advisor to the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa from 2003 to 2006.   Between 2000 and 2003, she was posted in Nairobi as UNICEF regional advisor on HIV/AIDS for eastern and southern Africa, and then as UNIFEM’s Africa-wide gender and AIDS advisor.  Donovan worked for UNICEF at its international headquarters throughout the 1990s; she started her work in international relations as director of communications at the US Committee for UNICEF in the late 1980s. Donovan was the first to call for a UN agency devoted to women. UN Women was ultimately established in 2011. Among her accomplishments with AIDS-Free World, Paula Donovan forced the World Health Organization to re-examine the connection between contraceptive injections and the transmission of HIV; forced UNICEF to abandon a dangerous and ill-conceived HIV scheme called “The Mother-Baby Pack”;  successfully demanded UNAIDS, WHO, and UNICEF stop the use of single-dose Nevirapine; championed the quest for justice for Zimbabwean women raped during the elections of 2008; joined the fight to overcome child marriage by making it an issue of child labour; and initiated and led the campaign of eliminating immunity for sexual violence committed by UN peacekeeping personnel.  Donovan co-direct AIDS-Free World with Stephen Lewis.

Editorial note: The views expressed in this article are that of Donovan and does not necessarily reflect the views of Spotlight. The editors of Spotlight are conscious of the seriousness of the allegations made in this article. We are also conscious of the risks taken by those who leaked documents and the need to protect whistle-blowers. While we are not in a position to verify all allegations made in this article, we nevertheless consider the allegations to be credible and the publication of these allegations to be in the public interest. Should Mr Sidibe wish to submit a response to these allegations, we undertake to publish his response on Spotlight.