Leaks. Concerns about alienating President Donald Trump. Allegations about conflicts of interest. All of those reasons factored in to a surprise decision today by the board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to restart its search for a new executive director.
“Due to issues encountered in the recruitment process, the Board felt they were unable to bring the process to conclusion,” reads a statement issued by the Global Fund, which is based in Geneva, Switzerland.
Since its launch in 2002, the Global Fund has given mainly poor countries more than $30 billion to fight public health threats. Donors to the fund include governments, foundations, and private industry, with the United States contributing about one-third of the total. Mark Dybul, the current head of the Global Fund, plans to step down at the end of May, and the group was expected today to select his successor from three candidates identified during a search this winter.
Global Fund officials have asked its board members not to publicly discuss details of today’s decision to relaunch the search. The Global Fund’s spokesperson did not respond to an email. The Lancet published a story today about the flap, and ScienceInsider has spoken with several people close to the proceedings.
They say the trouble first surfaced when a Global Fund committee overseeing the nominations for the job wrote a report that ranked the top three candidates. The New York Times obtained a copy of the report, submitted to the Board 13 February, and ran a story 2 days later that said one candidate, former Nigerian Health Minister Muhammad Ali Pate, “has used Twitter posts to call Mr. Trump a fascist, saying he has much in common with ISIS for his anti-Muslim stance.” The story also said that “American officials may look askance” at a second candidate, Subhanu Saxena, who formerly headed the generic drug company Cipla, which has sold large volumes of drugs to the Global Fund. The third candidate was Helen Clark, head of the United Nations Development Program and previously a prime minister of New Zealand. According to the Times, Clark’s background raised concerns because the Trump administration “has expressed hostility toward United Nations programs.”
According to one insider, the Board’s report on the candidates leaked to Clark early. She removed herself from the running, sending a statement to the Board that said she had concerns with the process.
In an email, Pate stated that he has no plans to reapply for the job, noting that he was told the process was merit based and that he was the first-ranked candidate in the report. “The Global Fund Board’s decision is unfair and unjustified,” Pate wrote. He charges that during the vetting process, “several efforts were made to question my candidacy on the basis that I was a Muslim, or that I am of Nigerian origin,” which he complained “smacks heavily of racism and Islamophobia that is now finding its roots in a respectable Global Health partnership of the Global Fund.” He wrote that it is “sad to see the Global Fund Board lacking the courage to stand up against discrimination.”
Contrary to what the Times reported, Pate did not call Trump a fascist or suggest he had much in common with the Islamic State group. The Times story did later explain that Pate was forwarding Tweets from others that made these claims, one of which was a New Yorker article and the other a headline from Time magazine.
People familiar with the board’s deliberation today told ScienceInsider that there was little hope of reaching consensus about the two remaining candidates, and the participants generally agreed that the search process, conducted over the past 3 months—which included the holiday in December 2016—had been rushed. “And there were real concerns that because of the leaks, the process wasn’t fair,” says one. “The Global Fund is a well-functioning machine. This is one of the major global health entities in the world, and it has a vision and a strategy but needs a leader to inspire confidence, especially to the donors.”