Staff at the WHO, World Health Organization office in Syria claim that their boss wasted millions of dollars, lavished presents on government officials (including laptops, gold coins, and cars), and acted carelessly as COVID-19 swept the country.
The Associated Press obtained more than 100 confidential documents, messages, and other materials from WHO officials who told investigators that the agency’s Syria representative, Dr. Akjemal Magtymova, engaged in abusive behaviour, pressured WHO staff to sign contracts with high-ranking Syrian government politicians, and consistently misappropriated WHO and donor funds.
Magtymova refused to comment on the claims, claiming that she was “forbidden” from releasing information “due to (her) duty as a WHO employee member.” She called the allegations “defamatory.”
According to staffers involved in the investigation, complaints from at least a dozen personnel spurred one of the largest internal WHO investigations in years, involving more than 20 investigators at times.
WHO acknowledged in a statement that it is evaluating the charges brought against Magtymova and has requested the assistance of external investigators.
“It has been a lengthy and complex study, with the circumstances in the country and the challenges of securing proper access while assuring staff protection adding further complications,” WHO added. The agency stated that it has made progress in analyzing Magtymova’s concerns and obtaining relevant material in recent months.
“Given the security circumstances, confidentiality and due process do not permit us to comment further on the particular claims,” WHO added. There was no indication of when the probe will be concluded.
WHO workers were mistreated
Last year, WHO’s Syria office had a budget of roughly $115 million to address health issues in a war-torn country where almost 90% of the population lives in poverty and more than half critically needs humanitarian aid. For several months, investigators have been looking into claims that Syrians were mistreated and WHO workers were mistreated:
— According to financial documents, Magtymova once gave a $10,000 party at WHO’s expense, primarily to commemorate her own successes at a time when the country was struggling to procure coronavirus vaccines.
— In December 2020, in the midst of the outbreak, she entrusted the country’s more than 100 WHO workers with learning a flash mob dance and filming themselves performing the rehearsed steps for a United Nations celebration, according to recordings and communications obtained by The Associated Press.
— Six Syrian WHO public health experts alleged Magtymova repeatedly labelled personnel “cowards” and “retarded.” Worryingly, officials told agency investigators that Magtymova “offered favours” to key Syrian regime lawmakers and met secretly with the Russian military, potentially violating WHO’s neutrality as a U.N. entity. The employees preferred not to be identified for fear of retaliation, and three have quit WHO.
A Syria-based staffer complained to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in May that Magtymova employed incompetent relatives of regime officials, including individuals guilty of “countless human rights crimes.”
“Dr. Akjemal’s aggressive and abusive actions are negatively impacting WHO’s performance in supporting Syrian people,” the staffer wrote, adding that “vulnerable Syrian people are losing a lot due to favouritism, frauds, and scandals instigated and supported by Dr. Akjemal, which is breaking all trust (and) driving donors away.”
Tedros did not reply to the allegation of the staffer. After Magtymova was placed on leave, WHO’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean nominated an acting representative in Syria in May. However, she is still designated as the agency’s Syria representative in its staff directory and is paid at the director level.
Covid-19 relief in Hampered in Syria
Magtymova, a Turkmen national, has previously worked as the agency’s envoy to Oman and as the emergency coordinator in Yemen. She arrived in Syria in May 2020, just as COVID was sweeping the globe.
“What we do (at WHO) is honourable,” she said in a statement announcing her appointment. “We earn respect via our competence, professionalism, and the outcomes we achieve.”
Numerous WHO personnel in Syria have informed investigators that Magtymova underestimated the severity of the pandemic in Syria, endangering the lives of millions.
“The situation in Syria was horrible during COVID-19,” one former WHO employee claimed. “However, the WHO was not giving sufficient relief to Syrians.” Medical supplies were “typically concentrated on Damascus solely, and not addressing other locations in Syria,” where drugs and equipment were in short supply.
Syria’s health-care system has been destroyed by more than a decade of conflict, and the country has relied nearly entirely on international health assistance for many years. The presence of WHO in government-controlled areas has frequently sparked claims that its help is directed by Damascus, which is sanctioned by the US and the EU.
The war has displaced about 7 million people within Syria, with the majority living in tented camps in places outside of government authority.
Employees also questioned some of Magtymova’s own behaviour and directions to staff as coronavirus infections increased globally – even as WHO’s chief stated that the entire organization was working “tirelessly” to stop COVID-19.
Magtymova violated COVID-19 guidelines
At least five WHO employees told investigators that Magtymova violated WHO’s own COVID-19 guidelines. They claimed she discouraged remote working, came to work after catching COVID, and held meetings in public. Four WHO employees claimed she contaminated others.
Magtymova directed the Syria office to learn a flash mob dance popularized by a social media challenge for a year-end United Nations function in December 2020, deep in the first year of the epidemic. Senior WHO officials in Geneva were recommending governments at the time to implement coronavirus safeguards, including the cancellation of any non-essential events.
“Kindly note that we want you to listen to the song, practice the moves, and shoot you dancing over the music to be part of our worldwide flash mob dance video,” said Rafik Alhabbal, a WHO communications worker, in an email to all Syria personnel. Magtymova also gave a link to a YouTube website that she characterized as having “the best tutorial.”
Several films show personnel, some wearing WHO vests or jackets, executing “the Jerusalema challenge” dance at medical supply offices and warehouses. Magtymova commended “extremely nice looking and gorgeous individuals” in footage shot in Aleppo and Latakia.
The following October, during one of the country’s worst COVID outbreaks, Magtymova engaged a choreographer and film studio to create a movie of personnel performing another dance to commemorate United Nations Day. There was no social separation during Magtymova’s celebration for dozens of uncovered people, which featured a “cake-eating ceremonial,” according to photos and video.
Magtymova shared one of the dance videos on WHO Syria’s social media sites, but it drew so much backlash that her bosses asked her to take it down. According to Anas al-Abdah, a major Syrian opposition politician, the movie was “disgraceful.” “The organization should have (rather) captured the horrible plight of our people and sought justice,” he said.
Magtymova, on the other hand, was unapologetic.
“My message here is to not be discouraged,” she told the staff. “We have a big job to do and a big obligation to people, therefore we did something very out of (the) box: we dared to shine.”
Internal records, emails, and texts also raise major concerns about how WHO’s taxpayer-funded money were utilized under Magtymova, with colleagues charging she frequently misappropriated restricted donor monies meant to help the more than 12 million Syrians in desperate need of medical assistance.
Among the occurrences being investigated is a reception Magtymova hosted last May after receiving a leadership award from her alma mater, Tufts University. The party, held at Damascus’ elite Four Seasons hotel, had a guest list of roughly 50 people, at a period when less than 1% of the Syrian population had received a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
According to a hotel invoice, the reception menu included Singaporean-style beef satay, fried goat cheese with truffle oil croquettes, and sriracha chicken sliders, as well as a variety of seasonal mocktails. According to an internal WHO report, a production company was engaged to film the event and create a promotional video.
The evening’s itinerary included speeches from Syria’s health minister, followed by a reception and over two hours of live music. According to WHO documents, while the event was billed as a celebration of WHO’s designation of 2021 as the Year of the Health and Care Worker, the evening was devoted to Magtymova rather than health workers. According to a spreadsheet, the total cost is more than $11,000.
Officials were concerned
Magtymova, like many other United Nations expatriate personnel in Syria, slept at Damascus’ ornately designed Four Seasons hotel. But, unlike the rest of the workers, she elected to remain in a multi-room suite with two bathrooms and a panoramic view of the city.
According to U.N. documentation, she stayed in the suite from October 2020 to this past May at a discounted rate of roughly $450 per night, more than four times the price of comparable U.N. employee accommodations. According to a hotel employee, similar suites typically cost around $940 per night.
The hotel was sanctioned by the United States and the United Kingdom due to its owner’s participation in financing Bashar Assad’s dictatorship; the United Nations is estimated to have spent $70 million there since 2014.
Other WHO officials were concerned about the organization’s inability to track its assistance to health facilities in Syria. In January, workers wrote about a concerning “spot check” performed on a health project in northern Syria, citing disparities between what WHO paid for and what was discovered.
The following flaws were identified: “the medicines quantities checked did not match the bills,” the employees lacked medical knowledge, there were missing equipment such as wheelchairs, crutches, and hearing aids, and the majority of the building rented to store such things was empty.
Dr. Ahmed Al-Mandari, WHO’s eastern Mediterranean regional director and Magtymova’s boss, also criticized her for the Syria office’s failure to account for its spending.
He notified her in an email last October that there were numerous unsolved audit and compliance issues. Magtymova, according to Al-Mandari, had not completed multiple long-overdue reports showing how money was spent in Syria that required “urgent attention.” Donors had little indication that Syria and WHO were using their monies as planned without these reports.
Magtymova spent WHO funding on gifts
Three WHO procurement officials informed investigators that Magtymova was involved in multiple problematic contracts, including a transportation arrangement worth millions of dollars to a supplier with whom she had personal relationships.
Another staffer connected to Magtymova apparently received $20,000 in cash to acquire pharmaceuticals, despite the lack of a request from the Syrian government, which is generally required to trigger such a purchase.
At least five employees reportedly complained that Magtymova spent WHO funding on gifts for the Ministry of Health and others, such as “very fine servers and computers,” gold coins, and costly cars. The Associated Press was unable to verify their claims. Several WHO employees claimed they were pressured to arrange deals with top members of the Syrian government for essential supplies such as petrol at inflated costs, and that if they did not, they were demoted.
The allegations against WHO’s top representative in Syria follow a string of complaints against the UN health agency in recent years.
The Associated Press revealed in May that senior WHO management was aware of sex assault during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in Congo but did little to stop it; a panel later discovered that more than 80 staff under WHO’s supervision sexually exploited women.
In January, the Associated Press reported that Dr. Takeshi Kasai, the director of WHO’s Western Pacific office, used racial language to berate colleagues and unlawfully shared confidential coronavirus vaccine material with his home nation, Japan. After an early inquiry confirmed some of the charges, WHO suspended Kasai from his position indefinitely in August.
The fresh allegations against WHO’s Magtymova are “very alarming,” according to Javier Guzman, director of global health at the Center for Global Development in Washington.
“Clearly, this is a systematic issue,” Guzman added. “These kinds of charges are occurring not only in one of WHO’s offices, but across numerous regions.”
Although Tedros is seen by some as the world’s moral conscience during COVID-19, having consistently criticized vaccine inequities and asked for governments to act in solidarity, he claims that charges of misbehaviour have badly harmed the agency’s credibility. Guzman demanded that any inquiry report regarding Magtymova and the Syria office be made public.
According to WHO, probe reports are “usually not public papers,” but “aggregated, anonymised data” are shared with the organization’s Executive Board and made public.
Source: The Associated Press