WFP needs ‘systemic overhaul’ to limit abusive behaviour: external review

A WFP-managed warehouse at the airport in Antigua and Barbuda in 2017
A WFP-managed warehouse at the airport in Antigua and Barbuda in 2017 (Ben Parker/TNH)

An independent report into culture and ethics at the World Food Programme has recommended a “systemic overhaul” of workplace practices after staff returned “startling results” in a survey of sexual harassment, discrimination, and other abuse.

As the external review was compiled, the UN agency revealed that it had dealt with 11 substantiated cases of sexual assault, attempted rape, and rape since 1995, and that one more case – out of a total of 22 complaints – was still pending.

An 8 October email by WFP Executive Director David Beasley – sent to staff and obtained by The New Humanitarian – said disciplinary action against the 11 had been taken.

Attaching the full 70-page review, Beasley urged staff to come forward with reports of misconduct “however long ago” and promised they would be “investigated thoroughly” under a “new policy and robust system” for reporting.

TNH asked WFP for comment and a link to the report. An emailed response said only that the external review had not been made public on the UN agency's website because it was an "internal document".

The past assault revelations came as 28 individuals said in a new staff survey – part of the independent review – that they had experienced “rape, attempted rape or other sexual assault” at some point in their time with WFP. 

WFP is by some measures the world’s largest humanitarian aid agency, supporting over 80 million people and receiving over $7 billion in contributions in 2018.

The “External Review of Workplace Culture and Ethical Climate at World Food Programme”, conducted by the consultancy Willis Towers Watson (WTW), said the gravity of the sexual assault allegations showed “the depth of reform that needs to occur”.

The study, commissioned to review “issues of abusive behaviour and under-reporting within WFP and recommend corrective actions”, was informed by a survey, focus groups, and individual interviews.

Abusive behaviour was tackled under five headings: abuse of authority, harassment, discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation. It also looked at management culture, morale, and motivation.

Five types of ‘abusive behaviour’

  1. 1. Abuse of authority

Abuse of authority was “pervasive” – 35 percent said they had seen or experienced it.

Most commonly cited examples included: favouritism, especially in recruitment and promotion; overbearing supervision; and interference with career opportunities. For those on short-term arrangements, contract renewal was a key lever and “a major problem”. Consultants were “most at risk of being on the receiving end of abusive behaviour… it’s in employees’ best interest to stay on the good side of leaders”.

A quarter of respondents considered it likely that supervisors may negatively interfere with the duties or career opportunities of their subordinates.

  1. 2. Harassment

The survey found that 29 percent of respondents had seen or experienced harassment (excluding sexual harassment).

Examples included: shouting and aggression, critical remarks, and spreading rumours. Bullying and micromanagement were also found, as well as examples of “covert harassment”.

There is a risk that the behaviour becomes entrenched in the organisation’s culture, the report found: “employees are aligning to the abusive behaviour role modelled by leaders, which is further embedding a culture of harassment across the organisation.”

  1. 3. Discrimination

The figure of 23 percent who said they had seen or experienced discrimination is higher than other industry surveys. The Nariobi regional office reported higher levels of race, nationality, or ethnic discrimination compared to other WFP locations.

The type of contract was the number one basis for discrimination, according to the survey. That was followed by nationality/ethnic origin, race, and, in fourth place, sex. 

From focus groups and interviews, the report said: “there is a preference for Americans or Europeans”, and the treatment and respect afforded to nationally recruited staff compared to international staff was the grounds of further reported discrimination. 

  1. 4. Sexual harassment

Among the WFP respondents, eight percent said they had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment. Equivalent industry surveys have returned rates of 12 percent, WTW said. With different definitions and wording, a UN-wide “Safe Space Survey” published this year found a rate of 38 percent.

The examples most cited by WFP respondents were: sexual comments or jokes about sex, unwarranted questions/remarks about marital status/sexual orientation/history etc., repeated requests for ‘a date’, and unwanted touching or kissing.

“Rape, attempted rape or other sexual assault” was reported by three percent, or 28 people. (That was reported by 1.3 percent of respondents in the UN-wide survey).

Egypt, Italy, and Kenya were the locations that featured top in the WFP sexual harassment allegations. The most common perpetrator was not a manager, but another colleague.

Three quarters of respondents who had not experienced sexual harassment were positive about WFP managers’ behaviour, compared to just 52 percent of respondents who had experienced sexual harassment.

  1. 5. Retaliation

When misconduct or abuse was reported, 12 percent of respondents said they had seen or experienced retaliation against those who blew the whistle.

The consequences might include: change in duties/responsibilities/role without reason, exclusion from meetings and/or communications, or taunting in front of other colleagues.

The report said “retaliation is indicated as the main reason people are reluctant to report abusive behaviour”. The risk of having promotion blocked, of not having a contract renewed, or of demotion were powerful disincentives. The scale of retaliation is “closely linked to abuse of authority”, the review said.

Poor management culture

The report found “startling results concerning the experience of abusive behaviour”, mainly on WFP premises.

It said there had been a significant impact on the psychological, emotional, and physical wellbeing of people affected and stated: “it is not a positive story”. The review recommended extensive reforms in “leadership, talent management, accountability and reporting” to reduce the negative behaviour reported. 

The survey found bullying, poor management, and favouritism and a “task-oriented”, “do what I tell you” management culture. In general, the report said, managers rely on “power and authority”.

Earlier surveys of UNICEF and UNAIDS and one of multiple UN agencies jointly, sparked in part by the MeToo movement, have also come back with poor scores on management culture.

Read more → #AidToo: After Oxfam, what to watch

The results on WFP’s leadership, WTW said, “closely align” with the UNICEF findings. Levels of reported sexual harassment at WFP were consistent, if not better, than surveys of other UN agencies and in other industries, the report stated.

In one result more specific to WFP, the external review found that the extensive use of short-term contracts contributed to abusive behaviour by discouraging whistleblowers and giving managers arbitrary influence.

About half of respondents were working under consultant or service contracts or agreements, which are subject to renewal and do not carry the job security or benefits of full UN employment.

Beasley’s email to staff said the organisation would “strengthen key HR processes” and establish a “true meritocracy”. 

The report questioned the competency of the senior WFP management, pointing out that the top levels are staffed by people who came up through the ranks as “technical experts”. “Leadership,” the review added, “requires a completely different skill set than operational delivery”.

Too scared to come forward?

The main multilingual survey had 8,137 replies – about 46 percent of the staff listing provided to WTW. Another 78 staff who came forward were interviewed individually. About 160 staff joined anonymous online focus groups.

The survey found that these reporting rates were low. Confidence that complaints would be properly handled was similarly low. The report noted in particular that the number of reported harassment cases was low, in “stark contrast” to the one in five staff who said they had witnessed or experienced harassment in a 2018 survey. 

Reporting of the various types of abuse was relatively limited: the majority of abusive behaviour goes unreported, the report said, with reporting rates ranging from 17-36 percent depending on the type of abuse. 

In his email, which also defended senior staff from allegations of sexual misconduct that had been published on a news blog, Beasley called on others to come forward. “I urge you in the strongest possible terms to report it. We all owe it to WFP,” he wrote, adding: “we are a family that supports each other”. 

An earlier WFP 2018 Global Staff Survey found that less than half (48 percent) of WFP staff felt safe in speaking up, while 18 percent raised issues of respect and ethics when asked for their number one priority for WFP to change. 

Only one in three of those who had reported misconduct, on average, were satisfied with WFP’s handling of it. This was a rate lower than that found in the UNAIDS survey.

On the plus side, the report found a “strong cross-cultural collaboration, with immense pride regarding the work that the organisation does as well as the positive contribution it makes to people’s lives.” Employees value the cultural diversity, the shared mission, and international collaboration for the “noble mission”, and feel the organisation is agile and creative, it said.

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