Clifton Cortez, ’89

HIV, Health and Development Practice Team Leader, United Nations Development Program's Asia and the Pacific Regional Center

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Globally, 34 million people are living with HIV. The vast majority are in low- and middle-income countries. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has helped to strengthen responses to HIV and mitigate the impacts of HIV/AIDS.

Clifton Cortez, ’89, has been the Asia and Pacific Regional Practice Leader in HIV, Health, and Development at UNDP since 2010, leading a team that works to improve the policy environment in order to strengthen HIV prevention, care, and treatment responses. The goal is sustainability, ensuring that developing countries have the tools in place to address HIV/AIDS effectively.

UNDP’s role in supporting governments’ broader development responses includes providing policy advice on putting systems in place like social security, social protection, and pensions for widows and people with disabilities. His work ensures that the policies put in place are HIV-sensitive. By protecting and advancing human rights, these policies promote public health and ensure that no group gets left behind.

“If we can get a focus on the most vulnerable and marginalized, including the poorest, and improving their lot, the boat rises for everybody,” Cortez said.

Cortez always felt an obligation to give back to the community. After spending four years in the U.S. Navy, Cortez attended La Salle University as part of his engagement with the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity (sometimes called the Black Trinitarians because of the color of their robes), a house of studies in Philadelphia for young men considering the priesthood.

“La Salle University and the Christian Brothers had exactly the kind of values that were important to me back then and now,” he said. “They promote the philosophy of being thankful for what you have and what you’ve been given and to give back.”

Cortez earned his Bachelor of Arts in philosophy. After determining that he did not have a religious vocation, Cortez attended Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. “I was never interested in practicing law for a big-time law firm,” Cortez said. “Rather, I was interested in the concept of justice and how we use the law and justice systems to effectuate positive change in our society.”

In 1992, during the summer following his first year of law school, Cortez took an unpaid internship at the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative office in Washington, D.C., working with the senior adviser responsible for the HIV agenda and ACLU’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) human rights advocacy efforts. At the time, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was being finalized, and HIV was included as one of the conditions under the definition of disabilities under ADA. Inclusion of HIV within the ADA had been a goal and major effort of the ACLU and others.

He later interned for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and, following his graduation from Georgetown in 1994, he was offered a position with the UNHCR’s program dedicated to simplifying the refugee waiver process. A year later, Cortez took a job with the American Bar Association, where he was the staff attorney responsible for the national bar’s AIDS Committee as well as some of the ABA’s human rights projects.

“I advocated to Congress and the administration about the budget that was allocated to HIV work internationally,” Cortez said. “I was rather forceful in making my ideas known regarding the need for enabling laws and policies that support HIV health system efforts, as part of the U.S. support for the international HIV response.”

From 1997 until 2010, within the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Cortez was dedicated to international development work in HIV from the angle of human rights and policy environments, first with USAID’s Office of HIV in Washington, D.C., and then with USAID’s Regional Development Mission for Asia in Bangkok, Thailand, where he was team leader for all HIV work in the region.

- Janine Monico, ’07