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Elizabeth Mataka appointed UN AIDS Special Envoy

A beacon of hope for Africa: Elizabeth Mataka appointed Special Envoy for AIDS

by Father Michael J. Kelly, Zambia

The recent appointment of Elizabeth Mataka as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's new Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa is a first in many ways.

Elizabeth Mataka is the first African to be appointed as a Special Envoy. She is the first woman to be appointed at so high a level to respond to the challenge of HIV in Africa. She is also the first national of Botswana to be called to such an elevated post, and the first individual to move directly from civil society to such an esteemed and responsible position.

This appointment is a singular honour for Africa and Botswana. But more important than the honour, the appointment signals the Secretary-General's commitment to making HIV a system-wide priority for the United Nations.

More than five months have passed since Stephen Lewis retired, after years of battling to keep the epidemic high on the global and UN agendas. Some years ago, Stephen himself expressed concern about the "curious and distressing lull in the battle [against the epidemic] … a cumulative feeling of inertia rather than energy, of marking time". Recent months have witnessed something similar, a phony war instead of a vigorous confrontation with the epidemic and its fundamental drivers.

Many in Africa hope that the appointment of Elizabeth Mataka is one indication that the lull is over. The Secretary-General intimated as much when he told the UN on 21st May that we should make no mistake about the fact that "in some way or another, we all live with HIV. We are all affected by it. We all need to take responsibility for the response."

That the new Ambassador is from Africa marks real progress in responding to HIV. For more than a decade, a cardinal principle of the response has been the greater involvement of people living with HIV and AIDS (GIPA). The appointment of a person from Botswana suggests the introduction of a new principle - the 'GICA' principle, the greater involvement of countries living with HIV and AIDS. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a movement that will see HIV-related policies and actions originating, not in Geneva, Washington, Paris, New York, London or other northern capitals, but in the countries that are reeling under the impacts of the epidemic and that know from their daily experience just what it means to live with it.

Elizabeth Mataka's work will be lightened because she has been part and parcel of the civil society response for so many years. She knows from personal experience the extent of this response and is singularly well placed to promote it even further. Having headed an organization (the Zambia National AIDS Network, ZNAN) that channels Global Fund resources to civil society entities in Zambia, she knows what these bodies can do. She also understands the significance of funding in forwarding their work in the areas of prevention, treatment, care and support. The integrity, effectiveness and efficiency of ZNAN will greatly support her efforts to do even more in promoting the civil society response and in encouraging a more harmonious and synergistic relationship between civil society and governments.

This is a great appointment of a woman of substance, experience and commitment. Many in the African countries ravaged by the epidemic see it as a bright light shining in the darkness of the HIV epidemic. We rely on you, Liz, to lead us steadily into ever brighter light.


[Father Michael J. Kelly is an HDN Key Correspondent, Jesuit priest and journalist, internationally renowned for his distinguished work as an educator and an AIDS activist. Father Kelly has lived and worked in Zambia for over 50 years. Website:, email:]

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