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.
“I like the dress you wore, could you bring it to me.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”
“I had to leave the Center … I felt like a lying car salesman, and I couldn’t do it anymore.”
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.”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 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.
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,
“Jeff doesn’t like to interfere unless it’s on fire.”
“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.”
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,.
Weeks after Begashaw was put on leave, he was named one of Africa’s most reputable figures of 2020.