This is my last World AIDS Day in the role of UN Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. When I look back on the last five years, the single most intractable dilemma has been the excruciating vulnerability of women, the huge and disproportionate numbers of deaths they face, their overwhelming responsibilities for the sick and orphaned, and the apparent inability of African Governments or the international community to do anything decisive about it.

Therefore, the single most important multilateral initiative during the last five years was the recommendation announced on November 9, by a High-Level Panel on UN reform, to create a new, independent, international agency for women. I see it as an unparalleled step forward in the march against the pandemic.

As soon as this agency really materializes, as soon as it gets the support of the General Assembly — provided that it is given the leadership and resources necessary to perform the job — it will finally do what the United Nations has never done before: it will provide substantive and compelling support to the daily struggles of more than 50 per cent of the world’s population.

Let’s be frank about it: the United Nations’ record on women is abysmal. It’s been abysmal for 60 years. Both internally and externally, the United Nations has continuously failed the women of the world. At long last, change may be in sight.

But that change depends on three factors, all of which were encompassed by the report of the High-Level Reform Panel.

  • First, the new agency must have sufficient resources, commensurate with the urgent, wide-ranging, difficult and universal crises it will address âe¦ in the words of the panel it should be “fully and ambitiously” funded. That means, at minimum, a billion dollars a year. Nothing less will do.

    I note, for purposes of comparison, that even at a billion dollars, its budget would amount to less than one per cent of global Official Development Assistance, and to only half of what UNICEF spends annually.

    Unhappily, amongst some, even amongst some strong, activist women there’s an automatic willingness to settle for much less — something in the vicinity of two hundred million dollars (a figure that was bandied about by the panel and then abandoned for the very good reasons that it a) was preposterously low and b) could be seen as a ceiling).

    Now it’s time for all of us to refuse inadequate funding. It’s high time for everyone who believes in equality between women and men to reject crumbs from the donor table. Either governments will prove serious about this agency or they won’t. But on no account should we capitulate in advance. If we settle for some paltry financing, we can write off the capacity to work at country level, which is exactly what will make it possible to transform, to secure and to save the lives of millions of women.

  • Second, the process of choosing the new Under Secretary-General will begin before the end of this year, and it must be as “transparent and global” as the Reform Panel recommended. Indeed, they went even further to signal that revolutionary change is needed; they made it clear that the choice should be “demonstrably” open to candidates from outside the United Nations as well as to internal candidates.

    There can be no assumption made by anyone, that any particular person is entitled to the job. A huge amount rides on the choice of the incumbent: she will be the first leader of the most powerful women’s agency in the world.

    This cannot be a case of simple bureaucratic elevation. The candidate selected must be the best possible mobilizer, fundraiser, manager and visionary the world has to offer, from any corner of the globe.

  • Third, since gender equality hasn’t been achieved in any nation on earth, the new agency must have a powerful presence at country level. This is the sine qua non for success, and that’s why significant resources are crucial. The new women’s agency must be able to carry out targeted programs for women within countries, and have enough staff and heft to influence and aid government policy, and equally to advise and influence the rest of the UN team within developing countries.

In my experience in Africa, the UN’s support for the needs and rights of women at country level has been little more than a sham. How could it be otherwise, with no staff and no money and such thinly spread expertise?

My closest colleagues and I have, of course, been preoccupied with HIV/AIDS these last several years. We believe real progress is possible: that when this women’s agency comes into being, it will significantly reduce the carnage of the pandemic. It will turn the corner for women at the grassroots by supporting the activist groups in every country, and their participation as partners on policy and programs.

It would confront all the most grievous issues, from sexual violence to onerous burdens of care and the desperate need for facilities to prevent mother-to-child transmission. It would be a growing salvation for the women of Africa, including those whose voices are so seldom heard — the young and the old.

But there’s much more to it than that. The new agency, according to the recommendations of the High-Level Panel, would help to implement the Beijing Platform of Action and give impetus to Resolution 1325, the landmark UN Security Council resolution that — in theory — gave to women their rightful roles in peace talks and peace building.

We’re talking about what could be the most dramatic breakthrough for women in the history of the United Nations. It should galvanize activists around the world. The proposal of an international agency for women is not so much an idea whose time has come, as an idea whose time is 60 years late in coming.