You currently work for UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS). Could you touch upon your experience prior to joining that organization?
I started in Mali as a junior economist for UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and then worked with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) such as Première Urgence and Handicap International and it completely changed my life. I was covering countries like Mozambique and Mali, and at the time, I also did humanitarian aid working in the Caucasus region. I discovered the real face of the world, the one that we don’t see if we don’t go to these places, if we don’t take the time to sit with these people and listen to what their needs are and how we can help. It had a real impact on me and on what economics was really about: people’s lives, their happiness. I ended up working with NGOs for about 10 years and they were the best years of my life.
Then I worked with the European Commission in Syria, I worked with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cameroon—I was the advisor to the Minister of Health there. In Syria, I was supervising their health reform project with the Ministry of Health, so all my work was linked to health and social economics. Joining UNAIDS was a natural fit with my experience and background as an economist.
And what do you do with UNAIDS?
I’m the senior economist at UNAIDS, based in our headquarter in Geneva. Before that I was in the Middle East region as the regional advisor for the Middle East and North Africa. Working in this field with an international organization is a gift for me because I meet so many people from different cultures and backgrounds and this is really what lifts me up. I don’t see myself working as a civil servant in government for my country only doing and seeing this small environment. I want to see everything, and every day I’m learning.
It seems like you truly love what you do.
Oh, I do. My work with UNAIDS is focusing on the response to HIV and AIDS. We advocate and coordinate the response to it in different countries involving the civil society and 11 other UN organizations, including WHO, UNDP, World Bank, UNICEF—just to name a few.
More precisely, my role is to bring to UNAIDS and to our societal, parliamentarian and government partners strategic information on specific issues. HIV, for us, is not just a disease. It is a way of life, a matter of human rights, a matter of gender equality or inequality—and when I talk about gender I don’t just mean male and female, but also those with differing gender identities—and the economics of it, which is something important but often overlooked.
My recent work, in more general HIV-targeted work, is looking at the cost of ending AIDS and then looking at the economic benefit of ending AIDS. We’ve realized it’s not enough to say countries all around the world need to invest $20 billion a year together to UNAIDS until 2030 to end AIDS. We have to ask, okay, what does it generate? So I build economic models. What I demonstrate is that for each dollar we invest in ending AIDS, we generate 6.6 dollars in terms of benefits. What benefits are these? Well, extended life expectancy, fewer people getting sick, fewer people dying, fewer children being infected because we have fewer mothers transmitting HIV. All of these components together create a long-term benefit for countries that invest in prevention, and in some countries, the economic return is even higher.
So there’s a clear link between discrimination and economics?
Definitely. I work with the economics of homophobia, the economics of discrimination, of stigma due to HIV or sexual orientation or gender identity. These are the topics I’m invested 200% in. It’s difficult. There is no model for this and we’re facing a lack of data, particularly in those countries where the stigma is the highest. But people who suffer from this stigma are not going to wait for us to get perfect data in all countries around the world. We need good arguments and sound economic analysis that can enable political decisions. The policy space is more important than the fiscal space in this context. My research in economics enables leaders and advocates in countries to make the government realize discrimination costs them a lot of money and to effect change.
Do you have an example of a success story? A time when your research led to change?
The summer before last, I was in Harare presenting on the cost of homophobia and I was trying to avoid finger-pointing at certain countries. I didn’t want to make the representatives uncomfortable. But during the Q&A period, it was many of the representatives from Zimbabwe but also West and Central Africa, where the stigma is quite bad, asking the more detailed questions: “What about Burkina Faso, can you tell us about that?” “What about Mali?” And after, they came directly to me wanting to know more about the specific results for each of their countries. They weren’t asking this for no reason. They planned to take the information back to their countries and use it to promote advocacy with their governments. They had a small group, but they wanted to lobby to get certain laws changed.
Before, I would write articles and ask myself, “Who will read this? What is the use of this?” Because I believe that if your writing isn’t useful, it’s useless. But these guys showed me how it can be used. The outcome I’m looking for is having activists, decision-makers, governments, using my research to make things change for the better.
It’s an amazing feeling to know that your work is quite literally changing the world. Which brings me to asking: How did you become involved with the LGBT Foundation?
This has been another gift in my life. I believe what makes a gift a great gift is that it happens when you least expect it. That’s what life is.
I got to know Sean (Howell, co-founder of Hornet Networks, sponsor of the Foundation) first. He came to Geneva because we had invited various dating apps to present what they were doing. It was our goal to convince them to do more prevention awareness for HIV, and Hornet had already been spearheading HIV prevention. Sean loved the idea and immediately put me in contact with other friends of his. We kept in touch, then met again a few months ago doing additional work on the subject of combating homophobia and inequality.
In addition to that, as an economist, I became interested in blockchain technology, specifically a project called Humaniq. The idea is to provide financial services like saving and borrowing to all those 3.5 billion people who are unbanked or underbanked. There are 2.5 billion people around the world with no ID or who lack access to basic financial services. In 2018, this means they can not save, they can not work, they can not earn money, they can not borrow or make a loan—they are kept at the margins of society. I’ve been in the middle of nowhere and people are still producing things. But if you have nowhere to bank, nowhere to keep that money, it only enhances the inequality you face.
So Sean knew of my background and he told me they had a great idea he wanted me to be a part of. He put me in touch with Christof (Wittig, co-founder of Hornet, President LGBT Foundation) and Ben (Kubota, Director LGBT Foundation, Project Lead LGBT Token ICO). I loved the idea of the LGBT Foundation and Token so much because it is ambitious and aims to address three key issues the LGBTQ community faces. So that’s how it started.
What is it that you believe sets the Foundation’s plan for the LGBT Token apart from other proposed cryptocurrencies?
When Christof first described the idea to me, I was already following many crypto projects. What fascinated me about this one in particular is that it’s not just a project on digital identity; it’s not just a project to make a token and get it accepted in the pink economy; it’s not just a foundation for a foundation’s sake. It’s that it collects three key issues facing the LGBT community together. I found it so bold because three big topics equals three times the challenge. I immediately wanted to be a part of it.
I have to say, I‘m so excited to be working with this team. They have the energy, the brains, the passion, everything to make it happen. I’ve read many, many crypto white papers and I have yet to see a single one as bold as this idea, or that speaks to such specific needs of the LGBT community. I really believe in it.