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The courage of difficult women

What happened at Save the Children is a symptom of a wider problem in our society which urgently needs to be addressed. The women who have spoken up are the real heroes, not the men who have had the ‘courage’ to admit their mistakes.

Justin Forsyth, ex-CEO of Save the Children UK. Credit: By DFID - UK Department for International Development, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It is now acknowledged that in relation to allegations of sexual harassment involving staff at Save the Children-UK’s Headquarters in London, the agency’s own “Human Resource processes had not been followed in every aspect” at the time the complaints were made. Justin Forsyth, the former CEO, and Brendan Cox, his former number two, have both admitted that they made mistakes. But this stems from a crisis that culminated in 2015. Why is it only being acknowledged now? Why didn’t anyone speak up?

Well, that’s the thing. Some did speak up but their voices didn’t reach far enough. What happened at Save the Children UK wasn’t a just a ‘mistake:’ achieving change for children, went the argument, needed Save the Children to be firmly led by powerful charismatic leaders who ruffled feathers and who should be followed obediently by staff.  

When staff started complaining about the alleged bullying culture that was brought in by former Number 10 special advisors Forsyth and Cox, they were derided as moaners. Everyone learned that it was ‘their way or the highway.’ So when several women alleged that they suffered repeated mistreatment, this was dealt with by leadership as part of the price of being an ‘effective organization’—and staff felt that it was dangerous to complain as a number of them later told the BBC.

Many kept their mouths shut, or at least complained to their peers through informal channels because they had no faith in the formal ones. The alleged bullying and mistreatment was the worst kept secret in the development community. A great many NGO people knew about the behavior of Cox, and Save the Children-UK, as is now becoming known, “failed in its obligations to adequately deal with issues raised in respect of inappropriate behaviour through its disciplinary procedures.” People were reluctant to come forward. Nevertheless, some did.

Some of the women affected allegedly felt that the Chair of SCF-UK’s Trustees at the time, Sir Alan Parker, discouraged them from speaking out (Parker contests this), and that this had contributed to their trauma. Both Cox and Forsyth left SCF-UK quietly—Forsyth to become number two at UNICEF in New York until his resignation on February 22.

The victims of Cox and Forsyth didn’t stop at telling peers, senior management and trustees about what was happening. They also went to the media. You might be wondering  why all these stories of harassment and abuse are being broken by the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph—it was the Mail that originally covered Cox’s departure from the charity back in 2015. Why didn’t the complainants go to somewhere like the Guardian? They did.

These victims are not typical Mail and Telegraph readers and they understood that a story about an alleged lack of accountability in an aid organization will likely be followed in those newspapers by calls for less foreign aid. None of the victims support that goal. What they want is aid plus accountability.  

Almost all of the complainants went to the Guardian first. Different Guardian journalists were contacted, but all went quiet. One told me: “I just wanted to say I haven't forgotten about this. Unfortunately the decision to work on the story or not is above my station, so I'm just waiting for a decision either way…” Later, when I asked if they had heard back the same journalist said: “I haven’t unfortunately. It was passed onto powers that be. At the moment it’s looking like it’s not going to run... I presume after some weighing of pros and cons.”

Not only did the Guardian not run a piece about Cox and Forsyth, they actually ran a piece by Cox. This was three months ago. Still I and others kept pressing them. To those affected it looks like some senior media people protect those who are also their personal friends—both the BBC’s Andrew Marr and Sky’s Adam Boulton have publically spoken up for the two men. Perhaps they also think that they are protecting Save the Children, but you don’t protect charities by covering up the behavior of allegedly predatory men, only by helping them free themselves from them, and if you leave it to outlets like the Daily Mail then the story gets turned into another reason to cut support for charities.

So this has been a massive disservice, and also a shocking approach to the news, as though women allegedly being harassed by powerful men should not be reported on if those men are ‘one of us.’ When the Guardian sat on the story a subsection of the whistleblowers went to the Mail and the Telegraph, who ran it with many fewer sources. The Mail ran a new story about Cox’s behavior on February 17 2018 and the Telegraph followed suit the next day. Neither mentioned Forsyth.  But on February 20 the fuller story of the SCF-UK scandal was broken by Radio 4’s PM programme by a dedicated journalist who cited three complaints by female SCF-UK staff members about threatening text messages and other behaviour. SCF-UK has admitted that “there were significant omissions and failures in HR response to historic informal complaints around behavior.”

Just a few hours before the PM programme, Kevin Watkins, the current CEO of Save the Children-UK and a former trustee who was one of the people supposed to be ‘governing’ Forsyth, appeared before MPs on the International Development Committee as a leader on transparency and accountability. He wasn’t asked a single question about Cox or Forsyth, or the role of Parker, or his own previous role on SCF-UK’s Board.

What made Cox so dangerous was his power, but politicians, journalists, staff who kept quiet either out of fear of their careers or fear of hurting Save the Children, and ‘feminist leaders’ including Labour MPs like Lucy Powell and Jess Phillips who publically praised Cox after his confession could have spoken out. 

But now it looks like all these silencers will be defeated by the persistence and courage of a few difficult women. One of them is Brie O’Keefe, who served under Cox and whose experience at Save the Children left her feeling broken. She spoke yesterday on the record and said this: “If you look at where I am right now I am in a town called Yellowknife in Northern Canada and I am so far away from it, and I am still afraid to speak out. But I am going to do it anyways.” 

When Save the Children does reform and return to its values and becomes a safer place for women, let’s not rewrite it as a story of how Cox and Forsyth ‘took responsibility’ and how Save the Children’s new leadership brought in a new approach. They were failing to disclose key aspects of that story even yesterday—and still haven’t released the key documents prepared for the hearing that never happened because Cox resigned, nor those that look back and examine the whole crisis (SCF-UK has promised to release these documents later in 2018).

Remember instead the real heroes, the whistleblowers. Justin Forsyth remained the deputy director of UNICEF until February 22 2018. Sir Alan Parker remained the chair of Save the Children International until April 19 2018. Kevin Watkins, a trustee at the time of the scandal, succeeded Forsyth as CEO of SCF-UK and now insists that he has zero-tolerance of sexual harassment. Brie, meanwhile, lives in fear in a small town in Northern Canada. She and others like her are the real leaders of Save the Children. 

This story has been updated to reflect the resignation of Justin Forsyth from his position at UNICEF on February 22 2018 and Sir Alan Parker as Chair of SCF-International on April 19 2018, and amended on 28th February 2018 after openDemocracy received letters via Save the Children’s lawyers. It was further amended on May 25 2018.

Statement from openDemocracy.

In relation to the handling of allegations of sexual harassment at Save the Children UK, Save the Children-UK’s lawyers have asked us to point out that their client did not act to cover up or ‘silence’ complaints against Justin Forsyth and/or Brendan Cox; has policies in place to protect its workforce; and did not seek to discourage people from speaking out. Furthermore, that when the Justin Forsyth matters were raised with the Chair, he instructed HR to manage the process overseen by a Trustee. The complaints made in relation to Mr Forsyth were resolved at the time on a confidential and informal basis, with the approval of the complainants; and that when management became aware of an alleged incident involving Mr Cox at a Summer party in 2015 SCF-UK took immediate action to investigate the matter, and as part of the investigation Mr Cox was suspended and not allowed back into the client’s office.


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