WFP reverses course on Global Women's March

Protesters at the Global Women’s March in San Diego, California. Photo by: Bonzo McGrue / CC BY

The World Food Programme has reversed course and said its staff can attend tomorrow’s Global Women’s March, after previously saying it was “not appropriate” for them to take part.

Executive Director Ertharin Cousin wrote in an email to employees that she had “no objection” to them taking part in the Rome March in particular and also other sister marches, so long as they participate in their “personal capacity” and not as WFP representatives, and ensure the platform of a local march is “compatible” with their status as international civil servants.

This is in sharp contrast to a previous message from the ethics office at WFP saying that staff should not take part in the marches, as reported by Devex yesterday.

The women’s marches, which are being held around the world to highlight issues that impact women, were deemed inappropriate because they were “conceived as a reaction to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States,” according to the original email. They were thus in contravention of the Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service, a document signed by all U.N. permanent staff, which bar staff from expressing “personal political views publicly,” the email said.

Former and current employees at the U.N., and other development workers, interviewed by Devex gave mixed reactions to the initial email, with some saying they supported the U.N. agency’s bid for neutrality, while others called the move cowardly and maintained the marches were not political in nature.

Cousin’s email, seen by Devex, said the change of heart was due to pressure from staff and an acknowledgment that the marches’ message is about “respect for democracy, women's rights, dignity, justice and diversity, and calls on all human rights defenders to join in.”

“As many of you have reminded me in the last few days, being a WFP employee does not mean that you have to give up your personal political views or national perspectives. I therefore have no objection to your participation in the March,” Cousins said.

The executive director added that staff should remember their “commitment to impartiality” and “exercise tact and discretion” while attending the marches.

Thousands of protesters are expected to take to the streets in Washington, D.C., for the Women’s March on Washington scheduled for Saturday, 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.”

It is not clear whether WFP — which received more than 30 percent of its $5.9 billion budget from the U.S. in 2016 — was alone in its initial message telling staff not to take part in the march. Staff at U.N. Development Program, World Health Organization and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, all told Devex they had not received injunctions.

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, Devex learned.

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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.