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Former Save the Children staffers speak out on abusive culture under Justin Forsyth

UNICEF official Justin Forsyth visiting Bangladesh UNICEF
UNICEF official Justin Forsyth visiting Bangladesh

Justin Forsyth, deputy executive director of UNICEF, has resigned, following media revelations about his own past workplace behaviour and handling of a former subordinate’s sexual misconduct.

In a statement, Forsyth said he was leaving to protect UNICEF and Save the Children, his former employer, but not “because of the mistakes I made at Save the Children.” He recently admitted to sending inappropriate messages to female colleagues when he was chief executive of Save the Children. He is also accused of mishandling allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by a close ally and subordinate at Save the Children, Brendan Cox, in 2015.

Save the Children’s current chief executive, Kevin Watkins, has confirmed that three women had complained about Forsyth’s behaviour in 2011 and 2015. Watkins has announced a review of safeguarding and company culture.

In a statement Forsyth said, “I am resigning because of the danger of damaging both UNICEF and Save the Children and our wider cause.’’ He also said his actions at Save “were dealt with through a proper process many years ago. I apologised unreservedly at the time and face to face. I apologise again.”

A former Save the Children employee who asked not to be identified said, “He is not resigning as a hero, he is resigning as a man found out.”

Forsyth’s resignation marks the highest-profile departure in a widening scandal sparked by revelations in the London Times about Oxfam staff engaging in sexual exploitation in Haiti in after the 2010 earthquake. Sexual abuse, use of sex workers and the possibilities of under-age rape have since rocked the charity sector, with allegations made and abuses uncovered in multiple countries and agencies.

In recent interviews, former Save the Children UK staff members said that Forsyth had recruited Cox to head the advocacy department when Cox was still in his mid-thirties. The two, both former advisors to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, brought a forceful management style to the organisation.

Former staff member Dominic Nutt said both had fostered an arrogant, macho, “boys club” culture and led an aggressive drive for increased revenue, influence and market share in the British NGO sector.

Another former staff member, Brie O’Keefe, described a similar culture under Forsyth, one of  fear, bullying and intimidation.

O’Keefe said she was “really, really angry” about the behaviour of Cox and Forsyth and that working for Save the Children during Forsyth’s leadership in London still “haunts” her. A culture of sexual harassment and intimidation was an open secret in the 50-odd-strong advocacy department headed by Cox, she added, describing Cox’s  behaviour and Save the Children’s handling of the situation as  “impunity personified.”

Speaking on Wednesday from northern Canada, O’Keefe, who no longer works in the international development sector, said her time at Save the Children was a “formative career experience,” which contributed to driving her out of the international sector. She and other women in her department were “groomed” by their manager to accept inappropriate workplace liaisons as normal she said.

Inappropriate but consensual relations between Cox and female staff in the department he headed were an “open secret,” O’Keefe said. Although behaviour at the office was generally professional, O’Keefe said she had witnessed “inappropriate behaviour” by Cox at after-hours gatherings, office parties and events.

Junior staff risked being sidelined and excluded from the more prestigious and important projects if they questioned Cox’s behavior, O’Keefe said.  “I myself feel complicit,” she said, adding that she now regrets not speaking up. “We were afraid to speak to Justin… I was often afraid.”

Cox, married at the time, made little effort to conceal his extra-marital relationships with staffers. “It was so brazen it didn’t make sense,” O’Keefe said. Jo Cox, Brendan’s wife, was elected an MP in 2015 but murdered in June 2016 by a right-wing extremist, an event which caused public outrage. Brendan until last week was a director of a charitable foundation formed in her memory to support values of tolerance.

O’Keefe said Cox was reported for a sexual assault on a fellow staff member in 2015. Save the Children suspended him and launched an investigation. The night before a hearing into his alleged misconduct, O’Keefe said, Cox resigned in an email, a copy of which she provided to IRIN. In it he wrote: “apologies to all of you for any times I’ve been unreasonable, overbearing or relentless, it was always with the best of intentions.”

Save the Children has reported no further legal or disciplinary action against Cox. Forsyth left the organisation soon after Cox resigned and later took up a senior role in UNICEF.  

In a recent statement Cox admitted “mistakes” and “causing some women hurt and offence” by his behaviour and said he apologised “deeply and unreservedly.” He also attempted to explain his actions in an interview to the UK’s Mail on Sunday newspaper. He denies, however, allegations made in a police report in the US of a sexual assault on a woman later in 2015, after he had resigned from Save the Children.

Cox’s statement “made me furious,” O’Keefe said, as it implied he didn’t know the impact his actions could have in the workplace. “He analysed power… for a living,” she said. “He’s better than that.” She believes that many women’s careers were “irreversibly affected” by Cox and that his statement doesn’t go far enough.

O’Keefe said she and other Save the Children insiders have kept their silence until the last couple of weeks, some for fear of their careers, to protect the institution or to not worsen the lives of the Cox’s children.

Now, however, after Cox’s own admissions, “I really just want some accountability,” she said.

"He doesn’t see how he himself damaged the sector he professes to love so much"

She noted that in his resignation statement, Forsyth claimed that some media coverage of him was meant to “do serious damage to our cause and the case for aid.”

Forsyth, O’Keefe  said, “may wish to be a martyr to the cause of foreign aid, but he doesn’t see how he himself damaged the sector he professes to love so much.”



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