Global Fund hits restart button after leadership search falls apart

Instead of announcing its new leader this week, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria is starting over after the initial pool of three candidates failed to impress the board.

“Due to issues encountered in the recruitment process, the board felt they were unable to bring the process to conclusion. While expressing its complete support for the work of the Nominations Committee, the board decided to restart the process,” it announced in a press release on Monday.

In the days since the announcement, it has come to light that the process was a trainwreck. There were leaks, questions of conflicts of interest and a generally disappointed response to the finalists. One candidate withdrew before the board met to make its decision. It leaves only three months to replace current head Mark Dybul before his term is over at the end May.

The search team narrowed down the field to Helen Clark, outgoing administrator of the U.N. Development Program and former New Zealand prime minister; Muhammad Ali Pate, former health minister of Nigeria; and Subhanu Saxena, former chief executive of Indian pharmaceutical company Cipla. Anonymous global health and development leaders expressed misgivings about the finalists to Devex. None was seen as the kind of leader who would advance the global health organization.

The Global Fund serves as a distribution channel to help developing countries address the three target areas of AIDS, TB and malaria. It was founded in 2002 to galvanize public investments to address some of the most deadly diseases in the world. The more than $30 billion spent since its founding goes directly to governments of developing countries.

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Dybul stepped in as leader four years ago after successfully establishing and running the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief during the George W. Bush administration. He said he would serve one term, leading to the search for his replacement starting in fall 2016. The process began to unravel soon after the finalists were named.

An internal report to the board assessing Clark, Pate and Saxena was leaked to the New York Times mid-February. The story focused on the concerns raised about each candidate, particularly relative to how the U.S. would feel about any of the three.

One-third of the roughly $4 billion annual budget comes from the United States. Selecting a leader who might rub the Trump administration the wrong way could harm overall funding. That was a particular concern for Pate who tweeted a New Yorker article critical of Trump in July. An anonymous email sent to the board also accused Pate of possible conflicts of interest because he served on the board for pharmaceutical company Merck’s maternal health program.

There were similar problems for the others. Saxena’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry posed a potential conflict of interest. The Global Fund works with governments and drug-makers to set favorable prices to purchase life-saving drugs.

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Clark, who unsuccessfully vied for the post of U.N. Secretary-General last year, was reportedly ranked third among the finalists. She withdrew her application shortly after the Times story, according to The Lancet. That left only Pate and Saxena when the board met. Ultimately they were not satisfied with their choices.

“The board is committed to a process that adheres to the highest possible standards, and is fair, transparent, merit-based, and conducted with due diligence and professionalism,” board Chairman Norbert Hauser said in a statement.

However, the process is far from transparent. Information about the status of the candidates came to light through leaks, not official releases by the organization. Clark’s withdrawal was in part due to the way the process unfolded. She reportedly raised concerns that the process focused less on qualifications and more on ‘superficialities,’ according to The Lancet.

Now the Global Fund has to start over. Some insiders told Science that the first round was “rushed,” but time is running out to find a replacement for Dybul. In a nod to some of the criticisms, the press release from the board said it is seeking “a new executive director to provide visionary leadership.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.