Leaked UN staff survey shows fears over whistleblowing, ethical accountability

The United Nations logo. Photo by: Andrew d'Entremont / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — An internal survey among United Nations staff has revealed one-third of workers see “a lack of performance and ethical accountability” within the institution and are afraid to report misconduct due to fears of retaliation. Male and female staff also expressed starkly different perceptions of gender equality and empowerment within the U.N. The findings come as the development and humanitarian sectors, including a number of U.N. agencies, are rocked by allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, both internally at organizations and against beneficiaries of aid.

Devex obtained a copy of the survey, which was conducted in Dec. 2017. It sought to assess staff engagement with U.N. goals, organizational culture, staff pride, energy, optimism about the organization, and the U.N.'s ability to anticipate, respond to, and equip staff to influence change. It also looked at gender and diversity within the organization and progress made against the U.N.’s commitments to support and empower staff.

The survey was completed by 39 percent of staff. While it shows high levels of satisfaction among staff in some aspects — including in relation to gender and diversity, engagement, and alignment — one-quarter of staff expressed negative opinions toward the U.N.’s support for staff’s growth and development and the institution’s agility.

"This survey confirms what U.N. whistleblowers have been saying for some time: There is a systematic institutional failure to protect us and this serves to deter staff from reporting crimes and corruption.”

— Miranda Brown, a U.N. whistleblower

Furthermore, one-third of staff reported they “do not feel comfortable challenging the status quo” and they pointed out “a lack of performance and ethical accountability at U.N.,” according to the report. U.N. staff also “lack confidence that they can report misconduct without retaliation,” with only 45 percent saying they believe whistleblowers will be protected if they report misconduct or cooperate with an investigation.

Lack of whistleblower protection

This lack of trust is significant, as it comes despite Secretary-General António Guterres’ efforts to reform the institution’s internal processes, including whistleblower protection. Within months of taking over in 2016, Guterres launched a new strategy to transform the way the U.N. works to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse among staff. This was followed by an announcement about reforms designed to strengthen the U.N.’s whistleblowing policy to ensure people who come forward to report misconduct are protected from retaliation.

Miranda Brown, a U.N. whistleblower who helped report child sex abuse allegations in the Central African Republic in 2014 after she said the U.N. turned a blind eye, has been campaigning for stronger whistleblower protections. Brown, who was head of east and southern Africa region at the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time, said she has since been blacklisted by the organization.

"This survey confirms what U.N. whistleblowers have been saying for some time: There is a systematic institutional failure to protect us and this serves to deter staff from reporting crimes and corruption,” Brown told Devex. This needs urgent attention by the U.N. and governments, Brown said, since otherwise “staff will not come forward to report abuses, including for heinous crimes such as child rape.”

Peter Gallo — a former U.N. investigator within the Investigations Division of the Office of Internal Oversight Services, and now head of advocacy group Hear Their Cries, which is dedicated to cracking down on child rape and sexual abuse by U.N. personnel — said sexual abuse will continue within the institution unless staff felt safe to report abuse.

“The fear of retaliation in the U.N. is a major reason why staff members will not report sexual harassment or abuse, and the U.N. has deliberately and cynically maintained a fundamentally dysfunctional ‘whistleblower protection’ regime in order to discourage staff members from reporting misconduct,” Gallo said. Hear Their Cries is calling for an independent whistleblowing mechanism, which it hopes will be taken forward as part of the safeguarding summit recently announced by U.K. development minister Penny Mordaunt.

Former DFID Secretary of State Priti Patel made the case for this last year during the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York, saying “[U.N.] agencies must also have robust and credible whistleblowing mechanisms and the U.K. will host an international conference to plan on how we, together, set up, fund, and support such a mechanism.”

“The system actually works perfectly — it's just that its purpose isn't to protect whistleblowers; it's to punish them and cover up any act of misconduct by the U.N.”

— Emma Reilly, a U.N. whistleblower

Emma Reilly is another U.N. whistleblower currently seeking protection from retaliation. Five years ago, she reported that she had been told to give the Chinese government the names of Chinese human rights dissidents, which she believed would put them in danger. Reilly, who is currently on sick leave due to her continued exposure to retatilation from colleagues, said she has been waiting more than a year and a half for a decision from the U.N. ethics office as to whether she is eligible for protection.

“The U.N. addresses every problem by setting up another committee to tweak the rules, but the issue here isn't the policy as written, she said. “The system actually works perfectly — it's just that its purpose isn't to protect whistleblowers; it's to punish them and cover up any act of misconduct by the U.N.”

Divided views on gender and diversity

Questions about gender and diversity within the U.N. showed that 83 percent of staff said they agreed that a diverse range of racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds were respected within their department or mission, which is 24 points higher than the average across other public sector institutions, according to the report.

Furthermore, more than 70 percent of respondents said they thought women and men were treated equally in the workplace and that managers actively empowered women in the workplace. However, closer analysis showed women were significantly less praiseworthy about gender equality at the U.N. than their male colleagues. Some 79 percent of men surveyed thought women were treated equally in the workplace, but that fell to 62 percent among women asked the same question. When asked if their manager actively empowered women in the workplace, 77 percent of men believed that was true, but the number of women agreeing was only 62 percent.

Malayah Harper, head of women’s rights group World YWCA, recently launched a campaign to investigate claims of bullying and sexism within UNAIDS. She says she was sexually assaulted while working for the agency by UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director Luiz Loures, who was cleared of wrongdoing after an internal U.N. investigation. On Friday, Loures said he would step down from his position next month.

Read more Devex coverage on the United Nations.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.