Fit for the future with Southern leadership

Christine Stegling became the Executive Director of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance at the start of the year. She discusses a key focus for the Alliance as it moves forwards – developing and supporting Southern leadership. 

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Why is the Alliance currently paying particular attention to its future direction?

All organisations need to keep their strategies under review but this comes at a very particular time; at a turning point in the global response to HIV. The international rhetoric around HIV remains strong – for example, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Fast-Track strategy and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) both embrace the bold aim of ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030. However, in reality HIV funding is dwindling, especially for middle-income countries; there is a lack of evidence-based programming, and poor, uneven treatment, support and prevention coverage for key populations persists. Human rights violations of key populations and people living with HIV and stigma of these groups continue to rage too. 

In this context, a strong Alliance is critical to face the future. We need to respond to these challenges in many ways, but in particular we need to deepen our global partnerships. A significant way in which we can do this is through strengthening our commitment to Southern leadership.

discrimination kills

What is ‘Southern leadership’?

Southern leadership is about power-sharing and it implies collaboration. It recognises that we can’t reach our goals on our own, and that we need to engage at many levels and with many people and groups both within and outside the Alliance – that includes the public and private sectors and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It also implies a bottom-up approach to leadership and putting power closer to the regions and countries where the effects of decisions will be felt.

For the Alliance, this means a leadership approach not focused on our UK-based Secretariat, but rather distributed around the Alliance Linking Organisations, and through global Alliance technical assistance.

The Alliance is not on its own in decentralising in this way. ActionAid, CONCORD and mHealth have all undergone similar processes in recent years and OXFAM will have its global headquarters in Nairobi from 2017/18.

It’s important to point out though that we’re not coming at this from a standing start. The Alliance has always been a partnership and had a commitment to “joint action”, so this is an evolution of our model rather than a radical change. It is about a shift in emphasis.

This is an evolution of our model rather than a radical change. It is about a shift in emphasis.

Is Southern leadership the same as shared leadership?

Our updated strategy speaks of developing our Southern leadership but I also recognise that can be quite a problematic term – not least because some of the Alliance’s Linking Organisations are most definitely located geographically in the North, for example China and Ukraine. Though they are located in the Global South, a political concept widely used in development circles.
Language is really important as the words we use reflect and reinforce dominant ways of thinking that sometimes aren’t welcome or accurate. It’s something we may want to think more about – especially as we seek to become more decentralised. It’s really important though that we remember that in the Alliance we are not about North or South. We are everywhere.

In the Alliance we are not about North or South. We are everywhere.

How in practice will the change to Southern leadership take place?

In many ways, we’ve been striving towards greater Southern leadership and shared responsibility for the past 10 years. For example, all bar one of our Country Offices are now Linking Organisations. In the past 10 years the number of Linking Organisations has grown from 19 to 31, and the percentage of Alliance family funding going direct to Linking Organisations has more than quadrupled.

So we’ll continue in this vein, only we intend to accelerate the trend. We expect to see, for example, more programme and functional management transferring from the secretariat to Linking Organisations, and – importantly – more innovation developing from within Linking Organisations.

How will the Alliance ensure its leadership is ready for this?

We’re committed to offering leadership development as part of our capacity-strengthening programme for Linking Organisations. We carried out a study of Linking Organisation leaders and the initiatives they identified which could benefit them included learning on the job, coaching and mentoring, management exchanges and shadowing, masterclasses, and reflective practice. The Alliance is exploring all of these.

Part of Southern leadership means it is very important that our leaders identify their needs and any solutions themselves, and that any opportunities the Alliance offers don’t become an Alliance HQ-based leadership course – unless of course the leaders present a case for that!

I feel confident that with the right capacity-development in place and a willingness to embrace these changes, Southern leadership will ensure the Alliance is fit to face the challenges ahead.

Christine Stegling will be speaking on ‘Adapt or Fall – is civil society being left behind in the global AIDS response?’ at the 21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016), which takes place on 18-22 July 2016 in Durban, South Africa. Please find the invite here.

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