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Illustration by Hunter French

Celebrated Rwanda-Based Nonprofit Faces Harrowing Misconduct Accusations

The director was accused of harassment, discrimination, anti-Semitism, and financial impropriety—and stayed on a year after his backers among the great and good were told.
August 13, 2020, 4:49pm

The Sustainable Development Goals Center for Africa launched in 2016 to tremendous fanfare. Boasting a board featuring nine African presidents, Jeffrey Sachs, Aliko Dangote (Africa’s richest man), and other prominent philanthropists and development leaders, the Center was supposed to eschew international development norms and finally show what an organization by Africa, for Africa, and in Africa could do.

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It was founded, according to the organization’s website, to support “governments, civil society, businesses and academic institutions in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa.” The board is chaired by Dangote and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, and the organization’s website claims partnerships with U.N. Women, the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa, and international development agencies from Japan and South Korea, among others. Dr. Belay Begashaw, the founding director of the Columbia Global Centers for Africa and former director of the Millennium Development Goals Center for Eastern and Southern Africa, was tapped for the director-general role by Sachs. With Begashaw’s credentials, the board’s fame, and the organization’s virtuous mission, there was no doubt the SDGCA would excel.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Instead, allegations of employee abuse, harassment, and mismanagement at the hands of Begashaw have rocked the organization, and though the allegations are now being investigated by an outside audit firm, former staff members say that members of the board, like Sachs, took over a year to act after hearing about these issues. A 20-page confidential memo obtained by VICE News details this alleged misconduct in harrowing detail: Largely written by Ashley Hufft, the organization’s then-general counsel, for board members, the memo painstakingly recounts the ways in which, people claim, Begashaw belittled colleagues, harassed young female staff members, misused funds, lied about the center’s progress to donors, and spoke with disdain about Rwandans, Jews, and other groups of people. (Begashaw has not responded to repeated requests for comment from VICE News, nor was he interviewed for the memo.)

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In the multi-page section describing allegations that Begashaw mistreated the staff, the memo says Begashaw sent harassing WhatsApp messages to a female staff member at all hours of the day. He would, the memo says, send her messages on the weekends and be upset when she didn’t respond, saying, “I know you have seen my messages. Why are you ignoring me?” Once, the memo says, “after she had worn a particular dress into the office, he first said to her in person, 'I like the dress you wore, could you bring it to me.' Then the next day he sent her a WhatsApp message and asked her 'I asked you to bring me your dress. Why did you not bring it to me?'"

“I like the dress you wore, could you bring it to me.”

VICE News spoke to former staff members from the Center who say they witnessed similar behavior. One former employee, May Hui, said that incidents like this were not uncommon. When Hui accompanied Begashaw on a business trip to Nairobi, she said, he repeatedly offered his hotel room key to her and told her to go inside to “rest.” Hui had previously worked at the Earth Institute at Columbia, but had never overlapped with Begashaw, though she had heard rumors about his temper. “I didn’t even get the worst of it,” she said. "I would try not to see him by myself."

One former intern, who wished to remain anonymous because she fears retaliation, told VICE News that Begashaw would ask her out to dinner and call her so frequently on the weekends that she eventually would block his number on Friday afternoons and unblock it Monday morning. One weekend, when she forgot to block it, she said, he screamed at her over the phone, asking why she was ignoring him. Despite this, the intern also felt like she never got the worst of it. She said she watched as other people in the office, like her supervisor, were repeatedly yelled at and threatened. “He would insult her, call her incompetent … he would degrade her. I saw her cry many times,” she said. Former employee Lina Henao witnessed this behavior, as did other former employees who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation.

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In meetings and at the office, Begashaw was dismissive and cruel to many of his employees, people who worked with him said. In one meeting, Henao said, Begashaw told her to “be quiet” and “behave” after she raised questions about their job titles and the center’s mission. “And I was apparently a favorite,” Henao told VICE News. “I watched him make so many colleagues cry.” For Africans, said one former staff member who wished to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety, it was worse: “Especially as an African,” they said, “there were double standards in the office. The way he spoke to someone from the United States or Europe … they were treated differently, and with more privilege than those of us that came from the continent … I was very terrified of him.” Others agreed. “He treated Africans poorly because he could,” Hui said. In one incident, several employees said, Begashaw asked a high level Tanzanian staffer if he had purchased his doctorate. Rwandan staff also received significantly lower salaries than expats, a former employee who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation told us.

Begashaw, according to the memo and interviews with employees, also spoke poorly of the Center’s host country. The memo states that “in preparing for the Center’s visit to a [genocide] Memorial site in 2018, Dr. Begashaw made the following statement to a female staff member who was assisting in the preparations: “I hate this week of memorial. It’s so sad. And you know, it’s Rwandan’s fault. They’re stupid. They have no brains. They don’t think.” According to Henao, Begashaw has also called Rwandan President Kagame, one of the board’s co-chairs, “crazy.”

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Hufft alleges in the memo that Begashaw made similar statements about Jews as well. “In February 2019," she writes, "Dr. Begashaw complained to me about the high prices charged by the Kigali Convention Center and the fact that Rwandans were ‘grabbing’ all the conference business. He went on to state to me ‘they [Rwandans] are like the Jews, wanting to grab everything for themselves. That is why Hitler almost finished them.’ He repeated this statement to me twice.”

“He went on to state to me ‘they [Rwandans] are like the Jews, wanting to grab everything for themselves. That is why Hitler almost finished them.’ He repeated this statement to me twice.”

Donor relationships suffered as well. Employees told VICE News of tense meetings with donor partners, and funding relationships that went nowhere due to Begashaw’s brusque demeanor. “It would be embarrassing,” Henao said, adding that he would sometimes just tell them to stop speaking with partners altogether. In one instance, Hui told me, Begashaw spent a whole meeting belittling a regional director from the U.N. Population Fund and a former deputy director from UNFPA Rwanda in front of them and the staff, calling the U.N.’s work “inefficient” and “useless.” In another, Hui and Henao said, he avoided interactions with a Swedish fund, ducking calls from a project manager he called a “bitch” to his staff after announcing she was “evil.”

When the Center searched for an IT firm to help build software for a continent-wide data tracking project, people say, Begashaw ignored advice from staff about using a Rwandan firm. “He really believed Rwandans couldn’t do anything,” Hui said, even though staff members at the Center wanted to work with a company based in their host country.

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“It just felt like an embarrassment to be part of the center with this person at the helm,” Hui said. “It was toxic.”

One former employee who asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation told VICE News, “I went to the Center to do good, to learn. I was enthusiastic. When I left the center, I was jaded about nonprofit work.”

An indication of Begashaw’s attitude towards his colleagues, employees told VICE News, was that he refused to share his elevator with anyone from the office or building. Though there were hundreds of employees from other organizations in the building, there were only two elevators, and Begashaw would force a building security guard to hold the elevator for him and make sure no one else got in. “It was to show that he called the shots,” one former employee speculated. “It was so we knew, everyone knew, who was in charge.”

As a result, former staff told VICE News, employee turnover was incredibly high. Hui stayed at the Center from January 2017 to November 2018, and said, “I had to leave the Center … I felt like a lying car salesman, and I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn't work for an organization and a leader I did not believe in anymore. I no longer thought or believed the Center was going to really help African countries achieve the SDGs as long as Belay was there.”

“I had to leave the Center … I felt like a lying car salesman, and I couldn’t do it anymore.”

According to employees, almost a dozen people (out of 20-25 staff) left the organization in the first two years. “The staff just couldn’t take it,” Henao said. “I’ve never seen turnover like that before.” In the early months at the Center, employees told VICE News, they received little job instruction. “There was no guidance whatsoever,” Hui said. “And Begashaw was never there. He would travel for weeks on end and we wouldn’t see him.” Employees said that much of their work was for naught, as the Center accomplished very little. (The Center did not reply to multiple requests for comment.) In one instance, while applying for funding from a Korean development agency, Hui said, Begashaw took a draft proposal and started filling in random dollar amounts based on no research. “He made up the numbers,” Hui said, “and we didn’t get the money.” The memo shares this incident as well, and states that Begashaw told the board that the Center had already “raised” the funds even before their proposal was denied.

In addition to the allegations of employee mistreatment, the memo also alleges further financial misconduct. The memo stated, and Henao confirmed, that employees were paid late in October 2018 due to issues with funding and payroll. Employees also said no one ever received a raise. “The dire financial situation,” according to the memo, "was not presented to the Board.” Instead, the memo says, “Dr. Begashaw has presented a false picture to the Board about his fundraising activities and the results achieved by the Center.” The memo alleges that Begashaw’s salary and work expenses accounted for almost 25% of the Center’s budget in 2018, and accused Begashaw of pocketing private school subsidies for his children of $25,000 and $26,500 in, respectively, 2017 and 2018, even though they attended public school in New Jersey. The memo also states that Begashaw spent $64,000 on air travel in 2018 for “almost exclusively business class” tickets, and that he never justified his expenses or shared receipts. Additionally, the memo questions the spending of foundation grants. In one instance, it states that a $50,000 grant to the center from U.N. Women was never used for the intended project, and instead, “many of the activities falsely represented as having been achieved or as being ongoing in the September 2018 Board documents are, to this date, still not occurring.”

The memo says that Begashaw pocketed private school subsidies for his children of $25,000 and $26,500 in, respectively, 2017 and 2018, even though they attended public school in New Jersey.

The memo was first sent to Sachs and Zouera Youssoufou, the CEO of the Aliko Dangote Foundation, on June 27, 2019. On February 19, 2020, the memo was sent to more members of the board, and on July 9, 2020, Begshaw was finally put on leave pending an investigation—a full year after the memo was first sent to Sachs and Youssoufou.

In an email to VICE News, Youssoufou said she took action upon receiving the memo. “When we received the memo,” Youssoufou said, “our co-chairs discussed among themselves about how to proceed…..we then discussed with the various authorities within the host government and agreed to bring in an independent audit firm, which we have done. Obviously the Covid-19 pandemic slowed everything down.”

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In a July 9 letter to SDGCA staff signed by Sachs and Youssoufou, employees were told that Begashaw would be investigated by auditing firm KPMG. “We emphasize that these are allegations, not our own conclusions or findings of facts. 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,” says the letter. A spokesperson from the president’s office in Rwanda confirmed to VICE News in an email that “an independent investigation is ongoing and Dr. Belay Begashaw was suspended by the Board of the Sustainable Development Goals Center for Africa pending that.”

The memo, however, wasn’t the board’s first warning. In March 2018, Hui told VICE News, she met with Sonia Sachs, a public health specialist and Jeffrey Sachs’s wife. Hui said she talked with her about problems with Begashaw, and asked why Jeffrey Sachs would keep Begashaw in a position he “wasn’t the right fit for.” Sachs, Hui said, told her, “Jeff doesn’t like to interfere unless it’s on fire.” A former employee added that “Since Begashaw has been at the Center, there have been at least two former staff members who went to Jeff with concerns about Begashaw.  So none of this should have been new or a surprise to Jeff.”

“Jeff doesn’t like to interfere unless it’s on fire.”

Sonia Sachs did not specifically respond to a request for comment about what Hui said occurred in their 2018 meeting, but told VICE News in an email that she “never heard of any of the serious charges raised by Ashley. Jeff emphasized from the moment he heard from Ashley that her complaint needs to be independently investigated.”

In an email to VICE News, Jeffrey Sachs said,

“As soon as the complaint came in, which I took and take very seriously, I suggested to Ms. Ashley Hufft that she contact the co-chairs of the Board, as I am one of twenty or so Board members and was not and am not engaged in day-to-day operations or supervision of the center in any manner … I did not hear back from Ashley Hufft again during 2019 on any single occasion as far as I recall. She did not request any further action on my part nor did she inform me in any manner that matters were not proceeding.  In fact, the next I heard about this, I believe, was in February 2020 when I learned that Ashley had been dismissed by Dr. Begashaw in the Fall of 2019 and was no longer in Rwanda.  I immediately called the representative of the Co-Chair [Youssoufou], who explained to me indeed that as the representative of the Co-Chair that there had been no follow-up action and that she had not tried to reach out to me.  I advised her how important it was to proceed, and how sorry I was that the follow-up had been so much delayed…I urged the co-chairs to hire an outside firm as soon as possible, and the Government of Rwanda confirmed that they would proceed in this manner.  With the Covid-19 disruptions, this took many weeks, probably two months from April to June or thereabouts to make arrangements.”

Even now, according to former employees, Sachs has tried to distance himself from the board’s lack of action, instead holding the board’s co-chairs, Dangote and Kagame, accountable. Sachs’s responsibility for the Center, however, is not up for debate: As the Center’s signatory for Rwanda’s host country agreement, Sachs is bound to the SDGCA.

In the same email to VICE News, Sachs said, “I absolutely did not know about any of these charges beforehand, nor had anybody told me or my wife about them. I think it’s important to distinguish hearing about personality clashes in organizations, which are frequent, and hearing about serious charges such as in Ashley Hufft’s complaint.  When it comes to personality clashes, it is the responsibility of the manager to help resolve them satisfactorily.  When it is a matter of serious charges, it is the responsibility to investigate them."

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This is not the first time Sachs, and his management style, have faced critique. It’s not even the first time one of his partners has been accused of misconduct: Dr. Prabhjot Singh, a professor at the Mount Sinai Health System, was accused of mistreating and marginalizing women on his staff in an April 2019 lawsuit. (Singh stepped down from his role as director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health as a result, although the suit is ongoing and the medical school has denied allegations of discrimination.) He had co-founded the One Million Community Health Worker Campaign, a group committed to public health in Africa, with Sachs years prior, and had worked with him at Columbia and the Earth Institute. Sachs has written supportively of Singh’s recent book, and the lawsuit against Singh also alleged that he had procured a $1,000,000 per year fellowship at Mount Sinai for Sachs. (Sachs told VICE News in an email that the "claim was false.")

Sachs has been critiqued in the international development sector as well. Though his 2005 book The End of Poverty was praised by many, it has also been called overly simplistic and neocolonial. He has been accused of being a white savior, and the book The Idealist, written by journalist Nina Munk about Sachs’s Millenium Development Villages project—a project Begashaw was involved in as well—contains a cautionary tale about international intervention. The project embodied development hypocrisy at its finest: It supported model villages across Africa to address health care, education, and poverty,  but critics accused the initiative of poor transparency and faulty data. In one unfortunate example, the organization encouraged farmers to plant new crops for an international market that never materialized.

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Yet Sachs is still revered in the development world. He is a world-famous economics professor, an award-winning author, and a sustainable development goals advocate at the UN. Begashaw’s reputation hasn’t taken a hit either: Weeks after Begashaw was put on leave, he was named one of Africa’s most reputable figures of 2020.

Weeks after Begashaw was put on leave, he was named one of Africa’s most reputable figures of 2020.

At this point, some previous employees have given up hope that the investigation will amount to much more than Begashaw’s quiet removal. As of  August 13, no employees from the center have been contacted for an interview, although a July 30 email from Caroline Makasa, the acting director of the center, encouraged current and former employees to reach out to KPMG themselves.

Hufft, the former general counsel, told VICE News, “I stand behind the memo.  While I have not yet heard from the investigation team, I am hopeful there will be a proper and thorough investigation and appropriate remedies put in place towards the issues outlined, not only at the Center but addressing the broader goals of gender equality.”

At the Center itself, a multicolored array of images listing the U.N.’s sustainable development goals sits across from the spare reception area. Other than the goals, only framed photographs adorn the light blue walls, and almost every picture has the same thing in common: Begashaw. In one, he’s shaking hands with Kagame. In another, with Shinichi Kitaoka, the president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency. In yet another, with Jewel Howard-Taylor, the Vice President of Liberia. As the investigation continues, these pictures still decorate the office.

Now, Henao just hopes the investigation leads to justice and permanent change. “The Center was supposed to be good,” she said. “And this is what happened.”

This story has been updated to include a comment from Jeffrey Sachs,.