LONDON — The head of an African not-for-profit, which boasts an all-star board including several heads of state and business and development leaders, is on leave pending an independent investigation into allegations that he harassed staff and mismanaged the organization’s funds.
Belay Begashaw, director-general of the Sustainable Development Goals Center for Africa, will remain off work while an independent probe is carried out into his management of the Rwanda-based organization, staff were told in a letter dated July 9 and written on behalf of the board’s co-chairs — Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Nigerian businessman Aliko Dangote, who is Africa’s richest man.
“We emphasize that these are [unconfirmed] allegations … Yet we believe that based on what we have learned that it is timely and necessary to carry out an independent management and financial audit of the SDG Center,” states the letter, which was also signed by board member Jeffrey Sachs.
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The center was set up in 2016 to offer African governments and organizations “technical support, neutral advice and expertise … to accelerate the implementation of the SDG agenda across Africa,” according to its website, which lists partners that include UN Women, UNDP, and the Japanese and Swedish governments.
The move comes after a former senior staff member sent a confidential 27-page memo to the board outlining numerous allegations against Begashaw, who has run the center since it was established.
The document, seen by Devex, was signed by eight other whistleblowers and alleges that Begashaw misused funds, exaggerated the center’s achievements to board members and donors, and harassed and bullied staff, including making sexually inappropriate comments to women.
Begashaw, who previously headed up the Columbia Global Centers for Africa in Nairobi, part of Columbia University, is also accused of making racist remarks in front of staff. His behavior is alleged to have caused as many as 10 of the center’s 20-25 full-time staff to leave the organization in recent years.
The memo also raises questions about Begashaw’s salary and expenses, which accounted for almost 25% of the center’s annual expenditure in 2018, the memo claims. Devex was not able to verify this figure — the center does not have an annual report or accounts on its website, and did not respond to requests for a copy. The director also racked up $64,000 in air tickets in 2018, almost exclusively business class, the memo alleges.
“Given the size and type of the organization and results accomplished to date, the Board should question whether the compensation and use of the Center’s resources by Dr. Begashaw is reasonable, justified, in compliance with donor agreements and organizational policies and procedures and, in addition, ethical,” it states.
Begashaw was recommended for the SDG Center role by Sachs, having previously worked together on the Millennium Development Villages project, where Begashaw was director for the East and Southern Africa program.
Asked by Devex about the year-long delay in launching an investigation — the memo was first sent to the board, specifically to Sachs, in June 2019 — Sachs said the board has acted quickly but faced delays due to COVID-19.
“As I understand the process, the board co-chairs discussed how to proceed, consulted at length with the host government about how best to handle an audit of the Center, and then recommended bringing in an independent audit firm. In the midst of this the major crisis of Covid-19 erupted, which seriously engaged everybody’s attention and severely disrupted travel, work, contracting, and other activities,” Sachs wrote in an email.
The investigation is being led by multinational accountancy firm KPMG.
Devex contacted the SDG Center which confirmed the investigation was ongoing but declined to comment further, saying it was necessary to wait for official announcements.
Begashaw did not respond to requests for comment.