Discrimination And Poor Human Resource Practices At The United Nations

On January 17, the Associated Press reported that World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had ordered an internal investigation to address allegations of racism, sexism, and corruption within the organization in response to several anonymous emails sent to the directors of WHO.

According to the Associated Press, which claimed to have obtained copies of these emails, the allegations complained of “systemic racial discrimination” within the organization. They also claimed that some of the money allocated to fighting Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo was misspent. The emails made strong allegations against both European staffers and frontline medical staff, accusing both European-based staffers and doctors on the frontlines of being discriminatory and racist towards African and Middle Eastern staffers. The emails also accused the organization’s directors of attempting to suppress investigations into these problems.

This investigation was initiated in the midst of similar issues within another United Nations (UN) organization, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). They were accused of widespread harassment, discrimination, and poor human resource practices. In December, an independent inquiry on the UNAIDS Secretariat found that the organization’s leaders have “failed to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power.” The final report stated that “the evidence before the Independent Expert Panel of a broken organisational culture is overwhelming.” A survey of UNAIDS staff, consultants, and interns revealed that only 14% of staff who had reported misconduct were satisfied with the action taken to address their complaints. 37% indicated that their report was either not acknowledged or acknowledged but not investigated further.

Three days after the inquiry’s publication, UNAIDS published an official response that prioritized “putting staff at the centre” and “strengthening compliance and standards.” The response stated that they will build active bystander systems, confidential referral systems for counselling, and mechanisms to protect complainants, and work with managers to provide resources and skills to rebuild trust. There was little concrete information about how these systems would be built or how they would ensure accountability. However, it will take time for the organization to develop a comprehensive plan, let alone implement it.

It is worth considering whether UNAIDS and WHO should be working across other UN agencies to develop and implement plans to resolve similar internal issues consistently. The UN cooperates across agencies to post various employment and volunteer opportunities. It may be a possibility for the UN to centralize its human resource management, auditing, and incident reporting systems. A centralized or standardized approach to developing, executing, and monitoring human resource systems and mechanisms could ensure that issues are being dealt with efficiently and consistently. A standardized method of logging and managing incidents and reports could ensure staff are being treated fairly and all complaints and concerns are being addressed. Sharing systems, strategies, and resources could also be a more cost-effective way of developing and implementing the strategies proposed by UNAIDS.

Centralization would be a large undertaking and likely require a complete overhaul of various UN agencies. However, it may help to re-establish trust between the staff and the employers by shifting the responsibility to the broader UN structure. Most importantly, centralized or standardized human resource systems might alleviate certain administrative burdens (e.g. filling out incident reports), providing each agency more time to focus on their priorities.