UN employees have mixed response after WFP tells staff not to participate in women's marches

World Food Program's food distribution in Bosso, Niger. Photo by: EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie

The World Food Program has asked staff not to attend Saturday’s Global Women’s March as it would be against international civil services codes of conduct, Devex has learned.

In an email sent to the agency’s staff seen by Devex, an ethics office at the WFP said the marches — which are being held around the world to highlight issues that impact women — were “conceived as a reaction to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States,” and thus not appropriate for staff to attend.

Thousands of protesters are predicted to take to the streets in Washington, D.C., for the Women’s March on the capital scheduled for the day after Trump’s inauguration, and an estimated 370 global sister marches are set to take place around the world. The march movement, according to the official website, is “not a U.S. election-specific protest per se,” but intended to rally people to “defend women’s rights and those of others in response to the rising rhetoric of far-right populism around the world.”

Former and current United Nations employees, and others working in the development sector, have reacted strongly to the WFP email. While some, commenting on a closed Facebook group for aid workers, said they support the U.N. agency’s position of neutrality, others called the move “cowardly” and said that as humanitarian workers it is their duty to march to promote women’s rights. Others have questioned whether taking part in the marches actually constitutes political action considering the march organizers’ claims to be nonpolitical.

The email from WFP — sent by Bonnie Green, director and chief ethics officer — said it is “not appropriate” for staff to participate in the women’s march in Rome, where WFP is headquartered, or in any other marches linked to the Global Women’s March, as it would contravene the Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service, a document signed by all U.N. permanent staff. The standards are intended to serve as guidance for staff and do not have the force of law.

“Whereas our personal political convictions remain inviolate, while we work for WFP, we do not have the freedom of private persons to take sides or express personal political views publicly, either individually or as members of a group,” the email said.

WFP, which received more than 30 percent of its $5.9 billion budget from the U.S. in 2016, confirmed to Devex it sent the email directing staff not to take part in the march. However, it is not clear whether other U.N. agencies have sent similar messages.  

A number of aid workers who are part of a closed group on Facebook said they had not received instructions from their agencies, including U.N. Development Program, World Health Organization and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.  

In contrast, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights emailed staff saying it had “no objection” to their participation in the women’s march taking place in Geneva in a personal capacity since the organizers of the march have “clearly identified themselves” as addressing women's rights, protecting the rights of minorities, and promoting dignity. Marching for these issues is deemed “compatible” with a person’s status as an international civil servant, the email said.

A current WFP employee, who wishes to remain anonymous for professional reasons, said she was shocked by her own organization’s directive and would still take part in the march.

“I find it cowardly and frankly obscene that WFP would tell staff, as individual people, with individual rights, not to march for something that the organisation, in theory, claims to stand for. It is a global march for women’s rights, something staff in U.N. humanitarian agencies in 2017 should — must — care about,” she said.

While she was cognizant of the U.N.’s role and the need for advocacy “to be done carefully,” the employee said she could not understand why WFP sought to bar staff from marching “as individuals” in their personal time and not wearing WFP branding.

Taking part in the march should be an “obligation of every international civil servant,” according to Seb Kratzer, who works for UNDP in Sudan. He questioned whether the code of conduct applied to the march since the rules prohibit civil servants from discrediting governments. “Mr. Trump is not the American government and has acted disrespectfully against women as an individual,” he said.

“Moreover, I for my part take these rules as a protection of fundamental rights against abuse by international civil servants and their interfering in the internal affairs of a state. Protecting and promoting universal human rights however, including the most basic rights of women, is a greater (moral) obligation and for me in line with standards set for international civil servants,” he said.

However, other aid workers disagree, saying U.N. staff should expect to be “apolitical,” even though this may be frustrating at times.
“Working for the U.N. is the same as working for a government — they expect you to lower your voice so that it does not affect theirs. It isn't done to control people, it is done to maintain a-political advocacy that fights for the cause not the polítics,” according to Pip Bennett, a youth coordinator and former UNICEF consultant.

A UNDP employee, who also wished to remain anonymous for professional reasons, said that while he agreed with WFP’s overall position regarding the march, the “formal prohibition” from the agency seemed “heavy-handed.” Discussing staff questions at an all-staff meeting would have been a better approach, he said.

A manager at UNOCHA pointed out that WFP’s approach may go against the U.N.’s Rights Up Front Approach, an initiative designed to bring about “cultural change” within the U.N. system. The initiative “encourages staff to take a principled stance and to act with moral courage to prevent serious and large-scale violations, and pledges headquarters support for those who do so.”

While the WFP response may reflect a desire within the U.N. to remain neutral U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has already been outspoken in his criticism of Trump, calling him “dangerous” and a “nationalist demagogue.”

A WFP spokesperson confirmed the email had been sent to staff in response to questions about attending the march.

“The email was sent to staff at WFP's Rome headquarters by WFP's Ethics Office in response to inquiries from staff members. The Ethics Office consulted with other Ethics Offices of the U.N. Funds and Programmes and gave guidance according to the Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service, which state that “international civil servants do not have the freedom of private persons to take sides or to express their convictions publicly on controversial matters,” they said.

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About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    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.