Julia Cleves

Aids policy adviser to the UN

Julia Caroline Cleves, international civil servant: born Wolverhampton, Staffordshire 17 June 1959; Chief of the Office of the Executive Director, Unaids, United Nations 1999-2003, Chief of Policy 2003-06; married 1981 David Mosse (two sons; marriage dissolved), 2002 Andrew Cassels; died Cranleigh, Surrey 5 September 2007.

Julia Cleves was a specialist in Aids, gender and development, with a particular focus on India. In her most recent role, as Chief of Policy at the joint United Nations programme on HIV and Aids (Unaids), she raised political and financial support for international action on Aids and established new public-private partnerships for increasing access to Aids medicines at a critical point in the epidemic.

She was born in Wolverhampton in 1959, second of four children and the only daughter of an RAF officer who was a teacher trainer. The family settled in Taunton and after attending first Weirfield then Taunton School, Cleves gained a First in English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Oxford provided the perfect setting for her to expore her Christian faith, her creativity and love of performance as well as to develop her distinctive style (she sat final exams in a lacy cocktail dress). She threw herself into the rapidly developing Christian arts scene through the Oxford Christian Arts and Drama Society – as performer (a beautiful and visionary Joan of Arc in Anouilh's The Lark), director of Eliot's The Cocktail Party and co-writer of a musical morality play, Beelzebub, which toured to the Edinburgh Fringe.

After graduation she married a fellow student, David Mosse (now Professor of Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University). The year they spent in India, in a village in Tamil Nadu, for Mosse's research, was pivotal to Cleves's future work. She experienced "development" first-hand: poverty, caste and gender playing out in the face of the whole gamut of aid instruments, from food aid to missionary healthcare.

Back in the UK in 1983, Cleves took an MLitt, which deepened her engagement with feminism, and had a short but meteoric career in publishing at Blackwells, which spawned her desire to write. A further spell in India, this time with Mosse working for Oxfam, and now with two sons, Jacob and Oliver, produced four books, of which Half the World, Half a Chance; an introduction to gender and development (1993) and India: paths to development (1991) endured as accessible but authoritative introductory texts.

The family returned to Swansea in 1991 and after a further master's degree in population policy and planning from Cardiff University, Cleves launched into full-time research, teaching and consulting in international health at the Centre for Development Studies of Swansea University. In 1994 she was recruited as Health Adviser for the UK's Overseas Development Administration (now DFID – the Department for International Development) to work in New Delhi. This came just as Aids was widely recognised as a threat among some of India's marginalised groups, especially sex workers and long-distance truck drivers; and as the UN consensus on population and development had been reached at Cairo, which promised a shift in emphasis from "population control" towards a more woman-centred reproductive health approach. Cleves worked to establish novel patterns of assistance for health, population and HIV/Aids work throughout India. She developed a significant portfolio of networked programmes and a professional team to help manage them at community and state levels.

In 1998 Cleves came back to the UK and having attained her doctorate in international health policy took on the role of Acting Chief Health and Population Adviser at DFID, before separating from her husband and moving to Geneva in 1999 – initially to lead the executive office of the Unaids Executive Director Peter Piot, then as Unaids' Chief of Policy. At this time, the political profile of Aids was on the rise: a variety of actors was considering how best to respond.

In 2001, with characteristic verve and ability to pull off high-risk ventures, Cleves played a key role in Unaids' efforts to ensure that the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/Aids secured commitment from governments, business, civil society and communities, marking a turning point in the global response to the Aids epidemic.

She was also at the heart of several initiatives to increase the synergy of international Aids assistance to multiply its impact. These included the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the International Partnership against Aids in Africa and the Accelerating Access Initiative sponsored by the UN system, World Bank and pharmaceutical companies. Funding for Aids action increased and drastic (as much as 40-fold) reductions in prices for medicine were negotiated so that anti-Aids drugs became more accessible to millions of people. The landscape of Aids action was changed – irreversibly.

The move to Geneva also cemented her relationship with Dr Andrew Cassels, a director at the World Health Organisation with whom she had worked closely in India.

In the autumn of 2001, Julia Cleves's career was interrupted suddenly by ovarian cancer. During periods of remission, she led new work for Unaids with Shell, using its long-term forecasting techniques to explore how policymakers could confront Aids in the present. In 2002 Julia married Andrew and during this time wrote a novel and poetry, reconnected with her faith, and with Andrew built a beautiful home in Provence which they shared with family and friends. Julia Cleves had vision, humour, and prodigious stamina: and she was endlessly kind. These attributes and her contribution to international Aids, health and development work will be remembered by many – and greatly missed by those fortunate enough to have worked with her.

Elizabeth Smith, Peter Piot and David Nabarro