Is This a Case of Nepotism at the UN’s World Food Program?

United States Ambassador Nikki Haley with David Beasley, the World Food Program executive director, July 13, 2017. Haley and Beasley are former governors of South Carolina, and Haley nominated Beasley for the UN job in 2017.

A son of David Beasley, the World Food Program executive director, worked briefly this year for the UN agency, but it is not clear what his status was, given original discrepancies. Beasley is a former governor of South Carolina, and the agency’s largest donor is the United States.

Among dozens of names, Beasley is rumored to be a candidate for US ambassador to the UN, succeeding Nikki Haley, who announced this month that she was leaving the job by the end of the year.

Haley had originally nominated Beasley, a fellow ex-governor of South Carolina, for the World Food Program post in 2017, and Beasley has worked for the agency at its base in Rome since March of that year. He has a law degree and was governor of South Carolina from 1995 to 1999, preceding Haley, another Republican.

In September, when reporting for this article began, the LinkedIn page of Beasley’s son Ross said that he had worked as a “Summer Intern,” having spent the month of May in Jordan and Uganda in July. In the LinkedIn page, Ross described his work on “Food distribution and field monitoring” in the “Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps” in Jordan and in “the Karamoja region of Uganda.”

The World Food Program’s human-resources manual says that intern applicants cannot be “sons, daughters, brothers or sisters of WFP employees” to be considered for such a position at the agency.

Gary Karr, the press officer for the World Food Program, said in September that Ross Beasley had not been an intern for the agency but a “volunteer.” After our inquiry with Karr, Ross Beasley changed his LinkedIn page to say he was a “volunteer.”

“The differences between interns and volunteers are significant,” Karr said in an email in September. “WFP posts vacancy announcements to hire interns, and those hired get compensation and a contract. Vacancy announcements are not required for volunteers, who are not compensated and do not get a contract. They can also be children or siblings of WFP employees.”

Karr said in an email that Ross Beasley “received no pay and his airfare and lodging were all paid for with personal funds.” He also cited the wording in the agency’s manual on volunteering: “Any interested person over age 18, including spouses and family of current staff members, may volunteer their services.”

The appearance of Beasley’s son working for a UN agency, regardless of his status, could be perceived as nepotism, given that the elder Beasley is the executive director. Asmiati Malik, a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, recently wrote in The Conversation that studies on nepotism find that it “affects the performance of organisations. However, the lack of research on this topic could potentially mean the impact is far greater than we thought.”

What is difficult, Malik said in a follow-up email, is proving nepotism. He said that it didn’t matter if the son got paid or not but what was important is if he derived a “benefit.” When asked what kind of “benefit” could be achieved, Malik said, “any kind of gain” that doesn’t have to be money. “Open access to one particular job/opportunities also are considered nepotism as it closes others people’s chance.”

He added that the perception of nepotism can have negative implications, but that it depends on the culture of the organization and “how the people inside the organization perceive it.” One World Food Program employee called Beasley’s son working at the agency “demoralizing.”

In an email to a top former official with another large UN agency — peacekeeping — about relatives volunteering for it, the person said, “I don’t know [of] a single case of a senior (or junior) UN official having a close relative volunteering. That’s not to say it didn’t happen but I’m not aware of any. It would have been thru subterfuge if it did happen since it just wouldn’t have been tolerated.”

[This article was updated to include the wording in the World Food Program’s manual on volunteers, per Karr.]

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