A walk in the park.
This week Renu Chahil-Graf interviewed Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS, the UN agency combating HIV and AIDS. Michel knows about discrimination. The son of a mixed-race marriage in Mali in the 1950s, he is well qualified to fight the discrimination faced by those with HIV. He also knows how to persuade. Once, given only 3 minutes to convince the president of Zaire to vaccinate for polio, he succeeded.
The walk with Michel was more like a sprint through the green rolling countryside outside Geneva. He had to be constantly reminded to slow down and smell the roses – or rather look across the lake and admire Mont Blanc peeking out from behind the wispy clouds covering it.
Michel’s energy and spirit comes from growing up in a family of nearly 30 – grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins, and caregivers. At a time in Bamako, Mali, when people had hardly seen a white person, his father married a white French woman who courageously chose to live all her life in Mali, winning the hearts of all around her with her intelligence, hard work and caring. Even though Michel’s father had the resources to live in a more upscale area of the city, he insisted they stay with the extended family, live like the rest and learn the values of community, resilience and sharing. Little did young Michel know, these very values would prepare him for the challenging position of leading the United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS).
Lessons from the street
Working with people, with communities, with families is an essential thread that runs through the tapestry of UNAIDS, a unique institution that unites the efforts of 11 UN organizations – UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, UNDP, UNFPA, UNODC, UN Women, ILO, UNESCO, WHO and the World Bank – each bringing their particular competence to control this complex epidemic. Discussing the skills needed to manage such a programme, Michel goes back to his own youth, playing soccer barefoot on crowded streets, making their own footballs, creating their own games, but most of all, learning to “equalise” – to ignore economic differences. He used to take off his shoes and put them in his school bag before going to school, just so he could be like the other kids. This is where he earned his degree in life, very different from the university degrees he earned in France. Michel remembers the wise words of his father, “It’s very easy to be arrogant, but hard to be humble.” His parents were his mentors, who above all taught him to fight discrimination, which they experienced as an inter-racial couple.
While the world’s response to the AIDS epidemic is considered the most successful of its kind, massively reducing new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths in the last 15 years, AIDS eradication is still “unfinished business” according to Michel. He explains the “Fast-Track” approach advocated by UNAIDS to reach a set of targets by 2020. Specifically: 90% of all people living with HIV knowing their HIV status, 90% of people who know their status having access to treatment, and 90% of people on treatment having suppressed viral loads. The targets also include reducing new HIV infections by 75% and achieving zero discrimination. Once the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed at the United Nations (UN) last month, world leaders called for accelerated action and smarter investments to fast track the eradication of AIDS and to find new and innovative ways of delivering essential health care.
Victoria Beckham and Charlize Theron on the frontline
While previously set treatment targets had been achieved ahead of time, with more than 15 million people able to access antiretroviral therapy, even more ambitious efforts are now envisaged. Victoria Beckham, international Goodwill Ambassador for UNAIDS, stressed at the UN last month “Now the world has come together and agreed on the new development goals, it is time for everyone, everywhere to do their part for Elijah (a 12 year old HIV infected Kenyan boy) and all the other children and adults living with and affected by HIV…as we strive towards our vision of ending AIDS by 2030″.
Young people worldwide, young women in particular, continue to be most seriously affected. Charlize Theron, Messenger of Peace for the United Nations and founder of the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project, has alerted world leaders. “There is a generation in jeopardy. Young people are falling through the cracks in the AIDS response. But there is reason to hope, we know what works: empowering young people to take care of their health.”
The road to leadership
Michel strongly believes that the broad approach taken by UNAIDS will achieve results. While working with the Tuareg in Mali, he learned some of his earliest and most vital lessons, like the importance of social justice, equity and fair distribution. A local chief taught him to see behind the “obvious” and to learn how crucial decisions can affect people one may never meet. The learning continued at UNICEF in countries such the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Swaziland.
All the people that got me here
As he describes it, different people along his career path gave him opportunities that got him to where he is now. Ludo Welfens, who first recruited him, Jim Grant, the iconic head of UNICEF who challenged him to get the Convention on the Rights of the Child ratified in Swaziland. The UN chief in DRC Alan Doss, who was always ahead of the curve, gave him his earliest lessons on UN reform. Marta Mauras, now Permanent Representative of Chile to the UN in Geneva, assigned him to the UNICEF Africa desk in New York headquarters – a great opportunity, except that it landed him in the middle of a New York winter where English was essential, a major challenge for a francophone African man! Surmounting – or suffering – through those challenges, Michel returned again to his home continent to head UNICEF in Burundi, then Uganda where he watched the AIDS epidemic unfold. It was there that he was spotted by mover and shaker, Peter Piot, the first head of UNAIDS. He brought Michel to the UN’s Geneva headquarters to lead the work supporting countries in 2001. Soon after, Michel had an inspirational meeting in New York with the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The rest is history. Michel was appointed Executive Director of UNAIDS and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2009 and has led the organisation since.
Shining light on the “unseen”
While AIDS is less threatening than in those early years, and people with HIV are living longer healthier lives, there is one issue that has not gone away. That is stigma and discrimination. People are still fearful of touching or interacting with HIV-positive people so they sometimes find themselves ostracised by employers, communities, and even sometimes rejected by families. Michel, drawing on his earliest experiences, passionately pursues a rights agenda with fervour. To help the “unseen”, relate to people of all income levels, to manage diversity, to help others grow and associate with “people without a voice”. He sees the UN’s post 2015 Development agenda as “compelling, a new movement, which gives a voice to civil society and to the private sector… it aims for a healthy planet, now with a greater commitment to take AIDS out of isolation”.
To acknowledge his achievements, Michel Sidibé was named one of 50 personalities of the year by the French newspaper Le Monde in 2009, and one of the 50 most influential Africans by the Africa Report.
As our walk comes to an end, we stroll through the reassuring evening landscape of freshly harvested fields. Now facing the Jura mountains, Michel explains why he chose to receive the French Legion d’Honneur award in Bamako rather than in Paris. To be in the presence of his old soccer buddies, his first teachers… Lastly, he looks intently at his wrist and says contentedly, “we have walked 4 kilometres!” Now we know how the Executive Director of UNAIDS stays so fit. Fitbit by bit!
By Renu Chahil-Graf
Renu is a Geneva-based writer and former international United Nations civil servant.