Report

Popular U.N. Food Agency Roiled by Internal Problems, Survey Finds

Staffers complain of abuse of authority, harassment, and widespread discrimination at the World Food Program.

World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley at the U.N. Office in Geneva.
World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley at the U.N. Office in Geneva on May 15, 2017. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

The senior leadership of the World Food Program—once one of the most highly regarded United Nations agencies—have abused their authority, committed or enabled harassment, discriminated against women and ethnic minorities, and retaliated against those who spoke up in protest, according to a confidential draft survey of staff attitudes.

The survey of more than 8,000 WFP staffers, which was commissioned by the agency’s executive director, David Beasley, did not identify the names of the food agency’s leaders responsible for misconduct. But its findings portrayed work-life at the U.N.’s premier food agency as demoralizing, with some staffers characterizing their bosses as “repressive, authoritarian,” and self-dealing.

Perhaps the most disturbing finding is that 28 WFP staffers said they had experienced an act of “rape, attempted rape or other sexual assault or rape” while working at the food agency.

The survey’s findings represent a blow to a U.N. agency that has long been in favor in Washington, providing a lifeline to hundreds of millions of the world’s hungriest, as well as massive contracts to American farmers and shipping companies.

It also marked a setback for the agency’s executive director, Beasley, who more than 20 months ago outlined a new set of policies designed to “bolster our zero tolerance stance to better protect victims” of sexual harassment and abuse of power.

The survey—which was conducted by Willis Tower Watson, an independent management consultancy—does not include a personal assessment of Beasley’s stewardship of the agency or a timeline detailing when abuses occurred. But it made clear that morale among employees at the U.N. food agency, where more than 17,000 staffers feed more than 90 million people in 83 countries each year, has been troublingly low under his watch.

Nominated to head the agency by the Trump administration in 2017, Beasley, a former South Carolina governor, tried to position WFP as a key partner in the international effort to beat back terrorism and uncontrolled migration, a strategy that helped WFP secure an increase in funds from the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, the European Union, and the United States.

But Beasley has struggled to win over some career staff at the agency’s Rome headquarters, who felt he hewed too closely to U.S. foreign policy and handed out perks, such as business-class flights to Geneva, in violation of WFP policy to members of his inner circle. They also resented the influence of a team of mostly American advisors, some with limited experience running a major humanitarian institution.

In late January 2018, Beasley ordered changes in WFP’s policies against harassment, sexual harassment, and abuse of authority. The new policies were issued a day before the Guardian newspaper published the second of two investigative stories detailing allegations of sexual misconduct in several U.N. agencies, including the World Food Program. Six months later, the New York Times published a piece detailing the tortured effort of a WFP employee serving in Ethiopia to get the agency to take her rape claim seriously.

The new survey found that some 35 percent of the more than 8,000 employees—2,848 people—who responded reported experiencing or witnessing some form of abuse of authority, typically involving the granting of “preferential treatment” for recruitment or promotion of close associates; 29 percent of respondents said they had witnessed or experienced some form of harassment, usually in the form of shouting or yelling. “I’ve seen people throwing shoes and boxes at people,” said one respondent, who was not named.

In addition, some 23 percent of staff encountered discrimination, while 8 percent, 641 people, said they experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, mostly sexually explicit comments or jokes, but in some cases rape and sexual assault.

“So many women colleagues have told me what they have experienced,” recalled a second respondent, who was not identified in the survey. “Propositions, rape, men masturbating, comments on their physical appearance.”

Some 12 percent, 950 staffers, said they experienced or witnessed retaliation for speaking up about abusive practices.

“While many perceived leaders as being committed to taking action on improper behavior and setting the right example, not all employees share this view,” the survey said. “Those employees that have experienced or witnessed abusive behavior identify senior leaders and managers/supervisors as the main perpetrators of this abuse.”

“Women indicate they have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment significantly more than men (13% of women vs 5% of men),” according to the survey.

The draft of the report, whose findings were first reported by the Italian Insider, a Rome-based blog, has been leaked to a handful of news agencies. The food agency accelerated its release of the final report Tuesday to WFP’s executive board, before distributing it to staff. WFP officials said they could not comment on the survey’s findings until that happened.

The World Food Program was established in 1961 at the urging of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to tackle humanitarian crises, from natural disasters to conflict. The United States is its largest donor, and the agency is traditionally led by an American national, who is appointed by the U.N. secretary-general and the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Beasley has sought to assure career staff that he is committed to making WFP a better place to work. Early last year, Beasley appointed a woman, Patricia “Kiko” Harvey, as the agency’s inspector general. During her tenure, the office has increased the number of new investigations from 31 in 2018 to 45 in 2019. In July 2018, Beasley upbraided his senior management after an earlier staff survey found that more than half of WFP employees had experienced or witnessed some form of harassment, according to a recording obtained by Foreign Policy. “This is on you,” he said. “Fix it.”

The findings of the latest survey were not all negative.

Eight out of 10 respondents said they believed WFP is doing a good job educating employees about its culture and values, and that the food agency is “characterized by a culture where employees with diverse backgrounds stand together behind a shared mission.”

But the perception of work at WFP darkened among a smaller group of nearly 200 employees who participated in an online focus group discussing management conduct at WFP.

“When asked to describe the leadership style of senior leaders, the characteristic most often mentioned by focus group participants reconfirm the hierarchical nature of WFP, and suggest a repressive, authoritarian leadership style,” the survey said. “Moreover, it is suggested that leaders aimed to further their own self interest rather than the mission of WFP, and abuse their power to further themselves and their favorites.”

“The problem starts at the top, senior managers—there is a culture of self-promotion of personal interest and favors,” said a third respondent, who was not named. “Merit, experience, and ability play no role in the system.”

The report suggests that staff are likely undercounting the scope of workplace abuses. It noted that a previous 2018 survey found that one in five respondents reporting having experienced or witnessed harassment, while one in 20 witnessed or experienced sexual harassment. Another 9 percent witnessed fraud and or corruption. But fewer than half of those surveyed said they felt “safe to speak up at WFP.”

The results “stand in stark contrast” to the relatively low number of formal harassment complaints received by WFP in 2018, the survey said.

The survey recommends a “systemic overhaul across leadership, talent management, HR [human resources] policies and processes regarding the enforcement of behavioural standards.” The ultimate goal, it added, is “to increase leadership effectiveness, create greater equity, fairness and transparency and most importantly more accountability regarding decisions and behaviour across all levels at WFP.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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