A reflection on the arc and impact of UN Cares
At the UN Cares Celebration – 14 August 2019 – New York
Laurie Newell, Global Coordinator, UN Cares
The headline of what I want to say is that we did good work here. And we made a difference.
I did not start the work on HIV in the UN system. UN Cares was built on 15 preceding years of efforts. This included establishing the personnel policy on HIV in 1991; individual agency efforts including those by Mark Hamilton, Nick Fucile and my now mate, Mark Farnsworth, at UNDP in the 90s.
It includes the decision by the Medical Directors to provide PEP for the UN system back in the early 2000s; and Martina Clark and Christine Bendel’s collaboration to co-found Caring for Us for UNICEF and UNFPA, along with similar efforts at UNDP, UNHCR and WFP. And it includes the UN system Learning Strategy on HIV, funded by UNAIDS and led by Alan Silverman, which set the stage for inter-agency collaboration; as well as country-level initiatives, in Kenya, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.
So, much was going on before I showed up in 2005, which made it the right moment to pitch the importance of this work – and to doing together, through an inter-agency approach.
It would have been easy for me to sneak out quietly, as I move to 1st Avenue and the Development Coordination Office. But I wanted to mark the programme’s transition – and to appreciate, uphold and salute everyone who has made this work possible.
Together, we have done amazing things, this tribe of about 1,000 people in about 150 countries, most of them national staff, many involved for more than a decade. Facilitators, advocates, UN Cares Task Force members, HR Network members, UN Medical Directors, security colleagues, staff counsellors, HIV programme colleagues, human rights specialists, administrative professionals, UN Country Team members, operations managers, interns, volunteers, consultants, vendors, staff association representatives – the list of those involved is long.
UN Cares teams are the ones that brought you condoms – and condom demonstrations - in the workplace. And, not just in New York and Geneva – but in Yemen and Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.
We focused on testing – as one example, with the UN Country Team in Belarus all getting voluntarily tested, with a media presence, as a way to encourage staff to do the same.
UN Cares teams created programmes for the children and adolescents of staff – like the theatre project created by youth in Costa Rica, and the leadership and lifeskills summer camps launched in Ethiopia, Nicaragua and elsewhere.
And through the Stigma Fuels HIV campaign in 2011, we made the point that you can’t get to “zero new infections” and “zero AIDS-related deaths” if you don’t achieve “zero discrimination.” I still recall the rumour that Annie Lennox, attending the High-Level Meeting on AIDS, was seen that day wearing one of our stickers.
Through the UN for All project we engaged about 10,000 UN system colleagues in 90 countries in the simple idea that universal human rights are, in fact, universal, including for communities long stigmatized, and even criminalized. The feedback stays with me – comments like, “I couldn’t sleep last night because of what we talked about – but I have to say that you changed my mind.”
Throughout, our collaborations and partnerships with UN Plus and UN-GLOBE were essential to developing effective strategies, approaches, and tools. And, each person who has shared their own story with colleagues – in person or on video, once or dozens of times - has been generous and essential. Many, including some you here today shared experiences as a person living with HIV, a woman having experienced violence, a person with a disability or mental health condition, as a member of the LGBTQI community or an intersection of these things. These stories have been vital to the impact of this work. They are stories that convey challenge and resilience, courage and vulnerability, dignity and the right of each person to be fully respected.
Some colleagues have said that they first decided to get tested for HIV after hearing a UN Plus member speak – and, then, having found themselves to be positive, are alive today because of that testing. In the last week two different people have told me that the UN for All project has changed their lives, at work, and personally.
I could talk about the recognition and appreciation, even awards, that UN Cares and UN for All have gained over the years. But I am moved more to think of the number of people who have entrusted UN Cares – and me – with their stories. I hope both the programme and I have lived up to that trust.
As much as UN Cares has been a work project, it has also been a labour of love and, I think it provided for many a sense of purpose – and community – and belonging. It has certainly done that for me.
Now, in the same way that lessons are being drawn from how HIV has been addressed globally, lessons are being drawn from UN Cares, to inform other UN initiatives – and I hope that continues.
There has been much remembering of the iconic writer Toni Morrison in recent days. She is quoted as having said, “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.’”
Together, I know we have done that. And I thank you for your part in it.