In the face of the #metoo crisis in the Aid sector, the ONE Campaign, a leading global organization purporting to fight poverty and preventable disease in Africa, has yet to come forward and apologize for the hypocrisy of campaigning for women’s empowerment yet systematically creating a day to day work environment that is hostile to women and persistently harassing and humiliating Africans and women. African women have borne the worst of the brunt of this hypocrisy.
My experience at ONE saw inappropriate conduct by top management and widespread ill treatment of professional women across the organization, particularly senior women in the executive management team. ONE is an organization in which every woman reaches a breaking point or in my case the point where you #icantbreath and so a number of these brilliant women leaders at ONE left the organization in part because they couldn’t take the subtle and open hostility they faced from from speaking truth to power or believing that African perspectives should be central to the organization as Africa was where the organization’s work is focused. They were labelled “disasters”, “bad people” and “worse leaders” especially once they’d left. I had my own special derogatory labels… The queen of Africa, snob, arrogant, and no doubt the b word.
ONE does not handle rejection well and like a scorned lover, trashes people through the mud for choosing to move on “without their permission”. The talented Molly Kinder, Lisa Gibby and Eloise Todd are cases in point. ONE of them had the temerity to tell the ONE board the truth about ONE management. And in typical ONE fashion the victims are turned into villains by the magical powers of misdirection that ONE has so perfectly honed. A quick look at Glassdoor.com reviews and feedback by ONE European and American employees, exposes ONE as an organization that is run by white men in London and DC claiming to be working for Africa and with no respect for women.
Being an African at ONE is to be inferior. Nothing therefore offends the sensibilities of the white saviour complex of ONE leadership in DC and London than an African attempting to have a point of view about development or poverty. I can speak more openly about Dambisa Moyo because their attacks on her were more public, with all the resources and voices they could mobilize to discredit her following the publishing of her NYT best seller Dead Aid in 2009. They were offended to their messianic core that an African woman (more educated than the average northern citizen) could dare to add her voice to the debate on Africa’s development and the direction it should be taking. And so ONE launched an aggressive and sys tematic smear campaign, at times unfortunately using unsuspecting “credible” African voices to discredit Dambisa.
I fell out of favor with the powers that be quite early in my employment there for the audacity of refusing to publish any criticism of Dambisa or Dead Aid by way of media articles. That I could even talk back as they were trying to shove down my throat the argument that Dambisa’s work was analytically weak, shallow on evidence and altogether factually wrong; and challenging them with a response which became my refrain could only be equated to blasphemy. My line was “with all due respect to Jeffrey Sachs and the good work he is doing in the name of Africa, you would need to convince me that a white man cares more or is even capable of caring more for and about Africa and its people than an African woman!” This refrain never failed to turn faces red but I felt strongly that it was my duty to defend Dambisa’s professional, intellectual and moral integrity when it comes to Africa’s development if for no other reason than the fact that she was an African woman speaking truth to power. Besides, I never heard a compelling argument from her opponents other than the usual patronizing equivalent of africans will be extinct without aid.
Furthermore, as I was setting up ONE’s presence in Africa I thought it was a good idea to set up a policy advisory board again in an effort to ensure that we were systematically bringing authentic African voices and perspective to the global organization as well as to the Board of directors. I was grateful that DC and London agreed for me to set this up. Populating it with the best African minds was easy given my previous two decades of experience as a development expert having lived in 10 countries working for the major multilateral development agencies which meant that I had a formidable Rolodex of African intellectuals in my orbit.
What I had not anticipated was the narrow hidden agenda by the management in agreeing to an Africa policy advisory board, which was to finish their unsettled score with Dambisa Moyo as opposed to my foolish idealism of helping to deepen ONEs engagement with Africa. This approach to them made sense since I had, much to the chagrin of my then new bosses in London and DC, categorically refused to lead their campaign to discredit Dr Moyo.
But despite being caught in that “rock and hard place” space where they couldn’t live with me and couldn’t live without me at the same time, we soldiered on for five rock solid years smashing all ONE historical records. So in this love-hate relationships, they liked the success and association with it despite the personal resentment, hate and jealousy by the “leadership” of ONE in DC and London who made it their mission to undermine me at every turn.
I tried not to judge them too harshly. After all, other than a few African ministers or high level African professionals they’d come across but who were not employed by them and therefore could not be patronized by ONE, how would they in their world view ever have known how to interact with an African woman who was not dying of HIV/AIDS under a tree in an African village. Complicating matters even further an African woman whose parents and grandparents were also educated, enlightened, worldly and cultured in ways they could not fathom. They couldn’t possibly know what to do with me, so pity seemed the more appropriate emotion in regarding them than annoyance as I co-existed with my bosses.
To sum it up, Dr. Dambisa Moyo’s rising star and attendant stardom destabilized them in familiar ways that all successful confident Africans destabilize them, as she popularized widely held views on the failure of aid. Specifically, ONE’s top leadership were offended that an African woman could boldly raise her voice against AID rather than be grateful to the aid campaigners and aid givers. To them this was the ultimate taboo and what followed was their special venomous blend of aggressive racism and sexism reserved only for women who look and sound like Dr Dambisa Moyo.
But if Dambisa in her own time ever wants to share her experience about the aggression she suffered driven by ONE attempts to mute her, she will. I can only attest to the ruthlessness of ONE against African women while engaging in their favourite pastime of poverty tourism. There are so many stories of unrelenting emotional and verbal abuse as well as outright incendiary and subliminal bullying of women that I could talk about, but does it matter?
ONE needs to apologise to Africans because there was certainly the appearance that major decisions, campaign priorities and approaches for work in Africa were largely influenced by romantic affairs in the bosses’ office rather than on any rhyme or reason like for example real priorities on the ground in Africa. Africans have been the biggest losers as the campaign justifies its existence and funding on the back of Africa. Attempts to make campaign efforts more African were an exhausting battle for all African ONE staff, as the staff in DC and London always knew better!
But in every treacherous situation one needs strong allies to survive and even thrive like I did. Despite my team and i contending with internal opposition against a genuine Africa focus, the stakes were high for me as an African, as a woman, as a leader and as the Founding Executive Director. ONE Africa simply could not fail on my watch. The A team fought tirelessly to develop an authentic policy advocacy agenda for the continent by bringing to the forefront and strengthening African pers pectives within ONE. To be specific ONE’s Africa membership when I arrived was estimated at about 75,000 members most of who were in Cape Town naturally because the U2 360 degree tour had come to SA and performed in Cape Town. In exactly five years under my leadership we had succeeded in smashing the odometer by growing that number to 3.5 million members – larger than the global membership in Europe and America; this notwithstanding the fact that together the European and American offices wielded over 95% of the ONE annual budget while the Africa office made do on shoe string resources and consistently outperformed targets.
It was in the final analysis, the benevolence of my two excellent colleagues, the global policy director and the global marketing director who believed in our real potential for landscape success in Africa that made it possible for me to succeed against all the odds stacked up against me and my team. Their departments functioned like a support service we could outsource as they bought into our Bono inspired vision for effectively fighting poverty through sensible homegrown policy interventions. I remain proud to share the glory of the ONE Africa success story with those two colleagues and remain grateful for their sincerity.
It became our mutual understanding and not-so-funny inside joke that the only way I could get things done in Africa was by having white male friends in high places to be the voice of my voiceless self where it mattered. But in fact any white male would do even at very low levels because they got more respect from London and DC than the highest ranking African woman in the organization. My white American special assistant on admin was a good case in point – through his voice and racial privilege I was able to unblock a lot of bureaucracy in DC that applied only to Africa and Africans but to no other office in Europe or the UK.
Despite being treated as second class citizen, it was to the surprise and much begrudgery of the mothership that the Africa pilot campaigns succeeded massively. The top bosses had neither expected nor prepared for this success so there was no budgetary plans for Africa. In fact I became the center of a national scandal in ONE nation when I started to recruit a few staff to help run setting up of the office and the daily insults were that I was too important to sweep the floor, make my own tea or book my own flights. How ironic, I told them, that in an organizations where the secretaries in DC and London have secretaries, yet the Africa executive director is not even allowed to a receptionist. Africa’s share of the global budget was 3% and at the height of my success it was 5% yet 80% of the organizations success was being reaped out of Africa.
Since my departure in 2015, without a strong pillar against anti-Africa practises, many young African men and women on staff had their confidence and competence attacked. ONE was also ferocious in seeking to bury any past successes that were 100% ascribable to Africans. While the impact of our campaigns still reverberated outside, it was almost a sacrilege act for staff to talk about any past success on agriculture, SDGs and women’s empowerment campaigns that I led on.
My departure threw the organization into complete disarray for two years as they were gripped by the fear of employing another independent thinking African women. Where the logical thing to do would have been to considering my deputy who was mission oriented and a brilliant leader to succeed me, ONE using its executive prerogative chose to bring in an African male colleague from outside to replace me. In a classic case of double jeopardy, my deputy was not only deprived of the promotion but the organization harassed and undermined her in full view of the junior staff. When she escalated the concerns to ONE HR and the Interim CEO she was told that she needed to go for coaching. She was also told by the Interim CEO that she was exaggerating (imagining) her experiences.
Indeed, it was against the sound advice of experienced board and policy advisory board members that ONE went on to replace me with this external candidate who i have no doubt had an excellent track record in marketing instead of the requisite policy development experience needed to engage African governments and civil society effectively. They set him up for failure – like asking a fish to climb a tree! In a matter of weeks it was clear to all and sundry that this was mission impossible, and he was relieved of his duties barely past his probation. In other words, while the African colleague faced the humiliation of failure, the architect of that failure – i.e. the DC/London based boss remained hidden behind the bushes.
Enter plan B: ONE then resorted to the very calculated act of recruiting an African woman with an impressive CV and an excellent track record to boot, but once again seemingly mismatched skills for the role hence undermining her even before she ever walked in the door. What they want and have arguably accomplished is to be able to carry out the role they’ve always coveted but could not do in my time, which is to tell African leaders directly from London and DC what their priorities should be, while the Africa director remains a figure head. ONE‘s public engagement at the last African Union heads of state summit where the Africa Executive Director was nowhere to be seen is a case in point. To put an end to this, ONE must invest in policy and marketing support for her and the Africa team to run and own genuine African campaigns.
Maligning African leaders is always the first step in nearly all of ONEs relationships with African professionals, thought leaders, captains of industry or development influencers that they are forced to engage with out of an enlightened self interest. I’ve heard and seen them in action poisoning and undermining the good name and contributions to humanity of Africans of global excellence: people like Dambisa Moyo soon after she published Dead Aid; in the case of a former president of the AfDB right after I joined ONE from that institution, the former finance minister of Nigeria when they wanted to rotate her off the ONE Board, the richest black man on the planet (and other African HNWIs) as soon as I insisted that we needed to get African funders for ONE’s work in Africa – This list goes on…
What I learned from all of this is how incurable prejudice is and that the more and better Africans perform or achieve, the more ONE resents them and finds all manner of ways and means to disrepute them.
Case in point: As part of the fanfare of launching the ONE Africa office, I organized our first symposium and the very first meeting of the brand new Africa policy advisory board, riding on the wonderful wave of Bono/ U2 fever as their 360 degree tour had come to South Africa during that same week. As I worked on my speech for the symposium there were unsolicited suggestions and hostile pressure from the leadership to litter my presentation with images of miserable, poor, dying Africans which I respectfully declined while pointing out that African poverty is no worse than the homelessness that lives under the bridges of America. And yet images of homelessness are not forced upon our conscience each time we think of America.
I kept going because i believed in what we were doing and I could see how citizen agency could help shape public policy for the benefit the poor. I also believed and was energized by the ONE’s Board’s assessment that we were doing brilliant game changing work. For example, in the words of Larry Summers comments following my board presentation in 2014: “Sipho, let’s assume that you have greatly exaggerated your achievements in Africa during the past one year and for arguments sake if I even conceded that only 20% of what you’ve told us today is what you’ve actually achieved, it is still fantastically mind blowing work that you are doing and I think you your team deserves more resources to keep up the good work”!
In spite of such sterling reviews, expressing an opinion or more truthfully attempting to educate the saviors who were ONE global management was a punishable offense which merited heaps of insults, shouting, undermining and covert smear campaigns within the close, closed and effectively incestuous universe of the ONE world.
We became a target for ending this “pet project” of Bono’s as they saw it and all kinds of survivor challenges were thrown at us – the key one being to find our own money if we wanted to stay alive. However, just as we were about to embark on this fundraising in earnest there were mumblings by the DC and London bosses about the risks of African money being unclean, corrupt, stolen, or maybe even blood money as far as they were concerned. In my usual unrelenting way, I pushed back because some of these African HNWIs especially the ones we were targeting happened to be friends of mine that I felt I could vouch for as the provenance of their wealth was widely and publicly known. But just on the off chance that perhaps their funds were not so clean, I countered that American wealth has its own dark side that can be recounted, ranging from crimes and conspiracies against humanity to banking fraud to violations of anti-trust laws and yet we don’t bat an eyelid or lose sleep when they write us checks.
The evidence showed ONE’s lack of sincerity of purpose in setting up ONE Africa because when I got hired, I was shocked to find that the organization had not attempted to register itself officially with the SA authorities. Upon arrival, I gathered information on some of the governments basic requirements in order for an NGO to operate legally but it took them several years to comply because according to DC “the SA authorities were asking for too much information about the board of directors” which ONE being a typical opaque INGO was not willing to share if they could find a way around it. The personal collateral damage to me came down to emotional, mental and physiological trauma as I essentially was a person of no fixed abode since my status depended on an organization that legally didn’t exist.
Whatever is happening now in the aid sector in the wake of the Oxfam train wreck, where an African woman is cleaning up after some white aid merchants is a good thing as it begins to force good behaviour such as transparency and accountability in the governance of INGOs particularly those that particularly those that use African professionals as window dressing to gain legitimacy or credibility on the continent.
Africa is effectively the last frontier for the survival if not perpetuity of the Neo colonial dead aid agenda, poverty tourism and poverty pornography that they so desperately push in exactly the same shape, form and fashion of the 1970s even in 2018. So what is happening today is a clarion call to other women and to Africans facing the same challenges in other INGOs : know that you are not alone in believing that these malpractises are not acceptable.
As the Africa Executive Director I/my office was always under surveillance in what was an ongoing witch-hunt aimed not only at finding imagined fault and undermining my leadership but most familiar to the invisible hand who’s finger prints are all over this, it was designed to divide and rule Africans as a way of controlling us fully and ensuring a sense of “unsettledness”.
This bad leadership in DC and London created a toxic work environment within the global organization that in particular undermined the Africa operation at all levels. Effectively the role of Executive Director at ONE remains the most dehumanizing experience of my life. But beating ONE at its own game kept the spring in my step. And while I hate to tell tales out of school it must be said for the record that my personal secret weapon was Bono’s support, sincerity and confidence in the rightness of what I was doing. I took my marching orders from his clearly articulated vision which continues to be ahead of the curve from the rest of the industry, ONE included.
That said, the ONE Campaign owes an apology to Africa, to women and to African women in particular. There is a another way for the organization to exist and it is possible, it needs to reboot on a genuine clean slate that is driven by Africans – no longer a foreign hand that minimizes our precious culture, our leaders, our institutions, our poor, our HNWIs, and above all, our women. That is the only way ONE can hope for prosperous future for in Africa.
By Dr. Sipho S. Moyo, former and Founding Executive Director, ONE Campaign Africa
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