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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Unicef executive faces questions over past behaviour

Briton Justin Forsyth apologised to several women in the latest damaging revelations for the UK charity sector

UN children's fund director Anthony Lake (2nd R) gestures as he visits Syrian refugee children with Justin Forsyth, then CEO of Save the Children, at a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valey in March 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo
UN children's fund director Anthony Lake (2nd R) gestures as he visits Syrian refugee children with Justin Forsyth, then CEO of Save the Children, at a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valey in March 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

A senior United Nations executive faces questions over his conduct after it emerged that he apologised to female colleagues for inappropriate behaviour while working at a UK-based charity.

Three women came forward to complain about Justin Forsyth, the deputy executive director of the UN Children's Fund, in 2011 and 2015 while he was running Save The Children UK, the British charity confirmed. Mr Forsyth was accused of sending inappropriate texts and commenting on what young female staff were wearing, according to the BBC.

The episode is just the latest controversy to have wracked the charity sector in the UK amid a continuing debate about whether aid agencies should be held to higher moral standards than other sectors.

Save the Children said that it had not followed proper procedure and was launching a review of its actions. Mr Forsyth, based in New York, told the broadcaster that his apologies for “unsuitable and thoughtless conversations” had been accepted and he believed the issue had been closed.

Unicef said that it welcomed the executive’s decision to acknowledge his past mistakes, but told the BBC they were “discussing this matter with Mr Forsyth and his former employer so we can take appropriate action”.

In a statement, Unicef said it was not aware of the complaints against Mr Forsyth at the time of his recruitment. "We understand that informal mediation is confidential," it said. "There have been no such complaints at Unicef. Mr Forsyth is a passionate and effective advocate for children.”

Unicef has this week taken a strong moral stance about mass casualties among children in Ghouta and Damascus issuing a largely blank condemnation of the attacks saying had “no words” to describe its outrage.

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Read more:

Oxfam hit by new misconduct claims

Save the Children and IRC dragged into Oxfam abuse scandal

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The apology made by Mr Forsyth came to light after days of damaging headlines triggered by reports in The Times that highlighted how senior aid workers for Oxfam had paid sex workers in Haiti during reconstruction efforts after devastating 2010 earthquake. Seven people were sacked or resigned including the country head, who since went on to work with another charity in a senior position.

The issue has broadened beyond individual acts of wrongdoing to encompass the UK’s attitude towards aid giving – after thousands of people ended regular payments – and the people who carry out the work.

A prominent British historian and classicist, Mary Beard, triggered a backlash after defending aid workers in a tweet in which she questioned “how hard it must be to sustain ‘civilised’ values in a disaster zone”.

She has taken a temporary break from the messaging platform after receiving abusive replies and claims that she was a “nasty colonialist”. “I just wish we were not so confident of our moral rectitude,” she wrote in response.

Aid workers said that the Cambridge University academic was wrong. “We shouldn’t get into that moral relativism debate - the key issue is one of power,” a former senior aid worker told The National on condition of anonymity. “It seems to me wrong that we should in any way bargain away our morals because of an extreme set of circumstances.”

Dominic Nutt, a former aid worker and veteran of 35 humanitarian emergencies, said: “Because you’re in that environment, you have to hold yourself to a higher moral code. It’s not a conscious thing, it’s just how it is.”

The UK’s charity regulator has also been criticised for failing to probe more deeply into the problems at Oxfam. It suffered a fresh blow to its credibility on Wednesday after MPs in a non-binding recommendation refused to sign-off the appointment of a new head. MPs said the ruling party politician lacked the experience, knowledge and vision for the role.