The World Food Program may be receiving millions of more donations from the Trump administration than under past presidencies, but its management is skidding around amid complaints of sexual harassment, retaliation, abuse of authority and, most startling, rape, according to a new external survey.
Under the leadership of David Beasley, a former South Carolina governor, the United Nations agency — a godsend most of all for refugees and migrants worldwide — appears to be reckoning with long-festering internal problems as it concentrates on keeping money flowing into its sprawling operations.
As the new survey summed up, respondents indicated that leadership is “the most important area for improvement at World Food Program.” Weeks after the survey was released to staff members, nothing has been done to change the situation, some people say, regretting that although the agency’s outside work is highly respected, its inner life is sorely lacking.
The money for the agency’s annual budget comes mainly from governments and related bodies, its website says. The US is consistently at the top, followed by European countries and the European Commission. The agency has also attracted increased donations under Beasley from two major bombers in the Yemen war, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Beasley claimed to this reporter recently that he has doubled contributions from the US government under his leadership, but those figures do not bear out.
Beasley is a friend of Nikki Haley, the ex-United States ambassador to the UN and former governor of South Carolina. She nominated him for the UN job in early 2017, recommending him to Secretary-General António Guterres. She praised Beasley’s management, fund-raising and communications skills while he was in elected office in South Carolina.
If put in charge of the UN agency, Haley wrote, Beasley would “reform the management and operations of the WFP to serve more people with existing resources” and would “cast a wider net and diversify the donor base. . . .”
Beasley started the job at the Rome headquarters that spring. He may have arrived with important connections in Washington, D.C., such as Senator Lindsey Graham, a fellow Republican from South Carolina, but Beasley had no experience running a huge humanitarian operation or working in the developing world. He has since traveled to dozens of World Food Program sites, tending to dip in and out of countries without staying long.
He has concentrated the agency’s fund-raising on the US, having called European donations “chump change,” according to a person who heard Beasley say so in a meeting. In addition, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have vastly increased their contributions under Beasley. These countries’ fighting in Yemen has contributed to the world’s worst human catastrophe. The UN has accused all warring parties of committing war crimes in Yemen.
The World Food Program, like many UN entities, has no independent source of money, so it must seek handouts from governments, corporations and other partners. For the World Food Program, that includes religious institutions, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Some people in the agency are uneasy with it taking money from religious sources.
A recent article in the Deseret News, based in Salt Lake City, where the Mormons are based, said, “The World Food Programme helps the church gain easier access to help people in places where it does not have members, such as Yemen and Somalia.” In 2016, it gave $3 million to the agency.
The agency is now brainstorming ways to expand financial donations from the Trump administration by curtailing migration from the “dry corridor” in Central America — El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras. The agency senses a potential in tapping US funds to meet government policy goals. The strategy could prove fruitful as the Trump administration just reopened aid flows to this region.
In agency documents on funding ideas in Central America, Beasley is quoted as saying, “If WFP wants to receive significant funding for the Dry Corridor, the United States is a key donor that must be targeted.”
As one person familiar with the agency said: “WFP follows the money. Like anyone else.”
Donations from governments
As of Oct. 20, 2019, the latest numbers posted on the agency’s website, total government contributions, including from the European Commission, for the year are $4.3 billion. But a spokesperson, Gary Karr, told PassBlue that as of Oct. 13, the agency has received a total of $6.2 billion in “confirmed contributions.”
The US, like many previous years, is by far the largest contributor, with $2.68 billion, followed by Germany, $659 million; the European Commission, $520 million; and Britain, $471 million. Other big donors include the United Arab Emirates ($271 million), and Saudi Arabia ($120 million), who are giving much more than in the recent past.
Karr said that the agency expected to receive more contributions in the final quarter. “Overall in 2019, we anticipate that contributions will exceed $7.4 billion,” he noted.
That amount, if it materializes, is close to the $7.5 billion the agency received from government sources in 2018. In 2017 and 2016, it received a total of about $6 billion each year.
In 2018, the US led with about $2.6 billion, followed by the European Commission ($1.1 billion); Germany ($849 million); Britain ($617 million). Saudi Arabia gave $248 million; the United Arab Emirates, $226 million. The two Arab countries upped their combined contributions in 2019 but switched roles as to who gave more.
In 2017, the US gave the UN agency $2.5 billion, followed by Germany, $925 million; Britain, $588 million; European Commission, $376 million; Saudis, $8.3 million; Emirates, $5.1 million. (Germany said in an email from Berlin that it gave more in 2017 to address famines in Yemen, the Horn of Africa, northeast Nigeria and South Sudan.)
In 2016, before Beasley came on board, the US government topped the list with $2 billion in donations, followed by European Commission ($894 million); Germany ($884 million); and Britain ($355 million).
The US donation in 2019 – so far – is an increase of nearly $700 million in the last two years. When Beasley was spotted by this reporter at the UN in September and asked how his agency was faring under the Trump administration’s cuts to foreign aid, he said he had doubled the amount the US has given to the World Food Program, thanks to his contacts in Washington, adding that the “fake news” did not report this information. The numbers do not add up, however, to a doubling.
Today, the World Food Program says it aims to alleviate the world’s 800 to 900 million people in 80 countries who are “still hungry,” but its reach is a mere 10 percent, according to a person familiar with the operations. It was praised to the hilt by the US in a UN Security Council meeting on Yemen this month.
The recent survey on workplace culture, done by an outside consultant, Willis Towers Watson, revealed a range of dissatisfactions and more serious management problems. Respondents called the culture secretive, hierarchical and led by “cowboys.”
The survey was done online, through virtual focus groups and in person, and took place this summer. No timebound limits were used in the questions, so the answers could be referring to any amount of time the employee has worked at the agency, up to 35 years ago. A spokesperson said that a 2018 internal survey asked staff members for the first time if they had experienced sexual harassment in the last 12 months. Five percent of the respondents said they had.
The new survey relayed high notes: employees take great pride in their organization and its purpose, and they work with a strong sense of “cross-cultural collaboration.” Yet “perceptions suggest there is considerable work to do to build a respectful and harmonious workplace,” the survey found, starting with a lack of transparency and communication.
Interactions among and between agency employees appear to be the most problematic, with harassment at the top of the list, concentrated in the headquarters.
Of those who were surveyed on having “either personally experienced or witnessed abusive behaviour in the workplace,” 35 percent reported “abuse of authority”; 29 percent reported “harassment”; 23 percent, “discrimination”; 12 percent, “retaliation”; and 8 percent, “sexual harassment.”
Of people reporting abuse, 36 percent of respondents said they experienced harassment; 26 percent, abuse of authority; 23 percent, sexual harassment; 17 percent, discrimination; and 20 percent, retaliation.
The most common source of abuse was the direct manager or supervisor, with women experiencing or witnessing such behavior more than men. Sexual harassment problems ranged from “suggestive sexual comments or jokes about sex or with a sexual meaning” (top category of abuse cited by respondents) to 3 percent of respondents having experienced or witnessed rape or other sexual assault.
As the survey was leaked to the media, a Rome tabloid, Italian Insider, published allegations of sexual assault by the agency’s deputy executive director, Amir Abdulla. One article, available only behind a pay wall, said in a headline that Abdulla coerced women into having sex.
Abdulla may be the target of a smear campaign because he is considered popular and knows the organization’s operations well, said a person with the agency; while others are shocked by the accusations against him.
Beasley, in an email he wrote to staff members when the new survey was leaked in early October, said that no reference to Abdulla had been made in the survey.
“Let me be clear, as I am writing this email, we have not received even one formal complaint related to any form of sexual harassment or abuse about any member of the Leadership Group, including the Deputy Executive Director, Assistant Executive Directors and Chief of Staff,” Beasley wrote.
Additionally in the survey, leadership was criticized as being “top down”: that the “cowboys” “have their own group of people.”
As one staff member told PassBlue, the atmosphere of “patriarchy” consists of a cabal of Christian religious adherents that make some employees feel excluded. Beasley called himself a “Jesus lover” on his Twitter page in the past. Karr, the press officer, also declared his religious beliefs on his Twitter page. (He told PassBlue that the pages of Beasley and his own are not official platforms.) Karr used to work with Beasley in South Carolina.
“You need to be a Christian man, preferably from the USA,” the staff member put it.
Some agency employees remain unimpressed with the survey and Beasley’s responses. “There’s plenty of skepticism,” a person said, adding that the problems could be swept away or declarations about changes will have no follow-up. A town hall was promised, but nothing has happened for now.
Beasley, in his two emails to staff members about the survey, rued that it was leaked to the media before it could be fully reviewed internally and that the media conveyed “inaccuracies” about it.
One inaccuracy, he wrote, “creates a false perception that sexual harassment and rape happens frequently at WFP. Even one case of rape or any form of sexual abuse is downright criminal. The findings indicated that, over the course of their careers which could, for example, span from several months to 30+ years, 8 percent of employees witnessed or experienced sexual harassment and 28 people have experienced or witnessed sexual assault, attempted rape, or rape.
“I do not take any solace from the fact that our numbers are lower than global norms, and I reaffirm that any allegation of sexual assault will be vigorously investigated and, where substantiated, people will lose their job.”
Beasley added: “We can only act on cases that are reported. Since 1995, WFP has received 22 complaints that have been characterized as sexual assault, attempted rape or rape. Of these, 11 cases have been substantiated, and disciplinary action taken, while one case is pending.
“This is why I have put in place a new policy and robust system that allows everyone in this organization to report misconduct however long ago the incident took place, confident that it will be investigated thoroughly and action will be taken.”
In the other email, also referring to the sexual assault findings in the survey, he wrote that he “will not hesitate to take appropriate steps to refer criminal behaviour to law enforcement authorities.”
He conceded, however, “We are still hearing that women have been put in uncomfortable situations by men making suggestive comments or jokes at work.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.