From local projects to global leadership

Welcome to our blog series exploring distributed leadership.

Through the series, we will ask and address some of the key questions around this topic, including: how can we share power and decision-making? How can we support leadership among individuals and organisations? The themes and lessons from this blog series will inform the on-going evolution of the Frontline AIDS partnership and how we co-design new programmes.

Alliance for Public Health (APH) started in 2001, providing HIV prevention services to people who use drugs in Ukraine. Over the years, they have grown from running a few local pilot projects to becoming a global leader on harm reduction.

In the second series of blog posts about distributed leadership, Andriy Klepikov, executive director of APH, reflects on his organisation’s evolution, the importance of nurturing leaders, and his role in making distributed leadership a reality in Frontline AIDS.

From start-up to global leader

We’ve all heard of leaders such as Alexander the Great and Napoleon. Despite global fame, their type of leadership is becoming less relevant to the world we live in today; a world that is not always so black and white, with clear allies and enemies. Some organisations are embracing a new type of leadership which encourages an open and collaborative approach.

So how do these new principles and values translate to organisations working in the field of HIV and AIDS? Here, I share my own experience.

When my organisation, Alliance for Public Health, started out in 2001, we were guided and supported by Frontline AIDS. Our main focus was HIV prevention among people who use drugs, the group most vulnerable to contracting HIV in Ukraine.

Over the years we grew from running a few local pilot projects to delivering services to 220,000 people in over 300 cities and towns throughout Ukraine. Our programme soon became recognised by global players with an interest in harm reduction: for the innovative services we offered; for the sheer scale of our activities; and ultimately, for our impact on the epidemic. By 2010 our programme had led to a decrease in the number of new HIV infections amongst people who inject drugs. We had helped get Ukraine’s HIV epidemic under control.

We started using our learning and experiences to support organisations in other countries to adopt innovative methods to finding new clients, scaling up harm reduction programmes and identifying what services to offer to sub-groups of drug users. Thus, we became recognised experts in harm reduction, not only in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but globally.

South-to-south learning to southern leadership

Frontline AIDS offered me and others throughout the global organisation, the opportunity to attend an International Masters Programme for Managers course as part of its efforts to nurture good leaders. On the programme, I discovered that good ideas often fail through lack of support or resistance. After I graduated in 2008, I was fired up with a greater sense of urgency. I wasn’t going to allow promising ideas that could save lives to fall by the wayside or wallow for years unattended.

Brimming over with ideas and valuing each other in the Frontline AIDS family, several directors from Linking Organisations [Frontline AIDS partner organisations], including myself, initiated the “southern leadership” concept. The aim was to provide a space for Linking Organisations to learn from each other. Of course, we had always learnt from our colleagues in the past, but this marked a turning point for Frontline AIDS. The organisation embraced “south-to-south”, or horizontal, learning as an important part of its culture, mission and strategy.

Frontline AIDS not only recognised the additional value of the “south-to-south” learning model, but they invested in it and made it a fundamental part of the way they operated. The development of Technical Support Hubs and Centres of Practice, which recognised regional and global expertise and leadership in specific programmatic areas, was one expression of this new direction.

This development was managed in a participatory way, engaging all Linking Organisations. Funding decisions were made on a competitive basis using clear selection criteria. Although some Technical Support Hubs and Practice Centres were ultimately found to be financially unsustainable, this was an important part of the southern leadership journey within Frontline AIDS.

Alliance for Public Health leads global programmes and advocacy

Southern leadership led to us taking on the responsibility to manage and be the technical lead on a five-year project, Community Action on Harm Reduction (CAHR), funded by the Dutch Government. Implemented in China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Myanmar and Senegal this was the first time Alliance for Public Health led a truly global programme. The project became recognised for significant breakthroughs, such as introducing harm reduction in Kenya in 2012. This was only possible as a result of our horizontal approach, channelling technical, policy and advocacy support directly from Ukraine to Kenya.

Sharing the management of CAHR with Frontline AIDS was not without its challenges. It threw up questions about roles and responsibilities, budgets and intellectual property. It was a valuable learning experience for all the organisations who participated in the programme about how we can do things differently.

A more recent example of our leadership role includes our efforts to explore and prioritise TB work across the Frontline AIDS partnership. Jointly with the executive director of Cambodian Linking Organisation, Khana, I’m chairing the group to mobilise efforts on TB. TB used to be a marginal issue for the organisation, even though it is the major cause of death amongst people living with HIV.

Our initiative involved mapping TB services, mobilising awareness amongst other organisations, and coordinating programmatic and policy efforts. This resulted in a joint policy statement signed by over 30 organisations on the eve of the High-Level Meeting on TB last year. Over a short time, Frontline AIDS has become highly visible as an effective force leading advocacy on TB.

Distributed leadership: the new model

These initiatives driven by Alliance Public Health were made possible not just by the people generating the ideas, but as a result of support from Frontline AIDS.

Frontline AIDS has taken the initial model of “southern leadership” to a new level, “distributed leadership”. For Frontline AIDS this means “a collaborative, open, decentralised and boundary-less partnership model.” Across Frontline AIDS, we are now working together to evolve our partnership model.

Nurtured ideas and leaders get results

Nurtured, supported and confident leaders become change agents who can make a significant impact, locally, nationally, regionally and globally. Investing in leadership development isn’t just a good thing to do, it delivers tangible results. The Alliance for Public Health has seen a return on the investment in us.

New initiatives such as our public health consultancy and Harm Reduction Academy have expanded the sharing of technical expertise and have ensured our organisation’s sustainability. With each nurtured innovation, systematic change and advocacy victory we contribute to more saved lives and infections averted. This is what really matters, and what our distributed leadership model helps us to deliver.

Other blogs in this series:

The evolution of youth leadership and ever-present challenges

Technical assistance unlocks community leadership

Marginalised groups unite to hold stakeholders to account