After a tumultuous year, marked by both arduous challenges and opportunities for growth, the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFEMENA) would like to provide its partners and community with updates about the transformation processes of the organization at this critical juncture. The lessons we learned as an organization and as individuals translated into a massive institutional overhaul at various levels, specifically around good governance, workplace safety, and structure. Our objective was to foster an equitable, safe, supportive, and progressive work environment to ensure the protection of workers’ rights and to better serve the cause and the principles of equity and justice we have committed ourselves to.
As an organization committed to equality and human rights since 2009, we thank every person who came forward and spoke up against abuse; we stand with all survivors of abuse, specifically based on gender, and we encourage more people to speak up. AFEMENA recognizes that the tensions and power dynamics at the workplace might have caused different ex-employees to work under stress and /or in a disturbing environment and thus extends a heartfelt apology to any person who has been affected by this professionally, personally, socially or psychologically and would like to assure all people who came forward that AFEMENA will continue working to better develop and implement its internal policies regarding accountability and conflict resolution.
In this communication, we announce the following:
- Findings of the investigation of allegations of harassment against AFEMENA’s former Executive Director.
- The election of a new Board of Directors and the internal reform of AFEMENA’s by-laws and organizational structure.
- Findings of the investigation of allegations of harassment against AFEMENA’s former Executive Director
Following allegations of harassment in the workplace against AFEMENA’s former Executive Director, Georges Azzi, and being committed to integrity and transparency, and despite not receiving any formal direct complaint, AFEMENA’s former Advisory Board launched an independent investigation into these allegations of harassment. These allegations surfaced in February 2020 in a Facebook post accusing Azzi of “harassment, justification of harassment, verbal abuse, marginalization [of women] and aggressive bullying against women.” The Advisory Board consulted with Title 91 coordinators at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the Lebanese American University (LAU) and retained two professional and renowned experts in harassment issues to investigate.
The investigators issued their findings and conclusions in two separate reports, after conducting intensive and thorough interviews with Azzi—who showed cooperation with the investigators—and with a large number of stakeholders, in addition to current and former employees, under anonymity.
In their conclusions, both reports found no evidence of any form of harassment conducted by Azzi against current or former employees.
One of the reports stated that:
- “the reported incidents do not amount of any type of harassment as they lack any racial, sexual…etc elements”,
- “Azzi is not a bully nor a harasser”, and that
- “prior behaviors or actions [by Azzi] were unprofessional […] such behaviors are not sufficient to meet the definitions of harassment//bullying/abuse of power.”
Both reports clearly mentioned that, despite the fact that Azzi’s behavior doesn’t amount to any type of harassment, other managerial and professional issues surfaced.
- One of the reports stated that: Azzi’s mismanaged conflicts within the institution and took impulsive and emotionally-driven decisions.
- The second report highlighted Azzi’s unprofessional management practices stating that Azzi “has difficulty expressing himself, is an “avoider”, can be impulsive sometimes and can react disproportionally.”
Based on both investigators’ reports, AFEMENA’s Board at the time concluded that Azzi’s management practices may have fueled tensions in the workplace between him and some ex-employees. In retrospect, it was clear that the lack of sound administrative policies was at the heart of the problem, especially that AFEMENA was growing exceptionally. Therefore, Azzi went on administrative leave and delegated his duties to his associate directors in July 2020. In light of the unfolding investigation, AFEMENA hired an external consultant to review and improve its internal governance, policies, human resource mechanism, monitoring and evaluation and management model. This process has been ongoing throughout 2021 and led to the election of a new board. On March 30, 2021, after 10 years of work, Azzi decided to resign from his position as AFEMENA’s Executive Director.
- The election of a new Board of Directors and the internal reform of the organization’s by-laws and organizational structure.
Challenges and mistakes are learning moments and opportunities for growth. That crucial value was the reason why AFEMENA wholeheartedly put to practice the investigators’ recommendations. Its approach was to center equity and representation of all groups, following and being directly committed to feminist values and practices. AFEMENA’s staff worked during the past months to reform the organizational and employment structure and improve its internal policies, including the following:
- Hiring a Human Resource Manager (HR) to incorporate international workplace standards and establish accountability, feedback, and complaint mechanisms guaranteeing the confidentiality and protection of our team members and their fundamental rights.
- Hiring an independent expert in public policy and organizational development and management to conduct a thorough review of our by-laws, present and implement new administrative and financial measures, provide a legal framework to fight corruption, and oversee all aspects of the transition phase.
- Hiring a legal expert to review our policies’ compliance with the applicable laws, reform the by-laws, and establish good governance practices.
- Training AFEMENA staff on the adoption of our new values: “Feminist Ethics,” “Collaboration,” “Passion,” “Continuous learning,” and “Accountability.” These values were the guiding principles for the transition phase.
In light of addressing existing challenges and the urgent need to carry out fundamental infrastructure strengthening, AFEMENA’s General Assembly convened on November 19, 2021, and elected a new Board of Directors composed of four experienced activists and professionals dynamically active in the Lebanese civil society with a regional experience. While representatives of a Lebanon-based organization need to have the Lebanese nationality as per the Lebanese law, AFEMENA’s lawyer is currently working to find legal pathways to allow the representation and participation of non-Lebanese members in the MENA region, especially individuals from North Africa.
We take this opportunity to publicly introduce the new Legal Board of Directors of AFEMENA:
Paola Daher, Senior Global Advocacy Advisor at the Geneva Office of the Center for Reproductive Rights. Her work focuses mainly on advocacy at the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms (UPR and Special Procedures) and on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls affected by conflict.
Myra Abdallah, Global Communications Manager of Women in News program at the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA), and Online Harassment Advisory Board member at the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). Her work focuses on gender rights with a focus on LGBTIQ+ and gender balance in the media industry.
Ayman Assi, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Medicine USJ in Beirut and an invited researcher at Arts et Métiers in Paris. He is a prominent researcher in biomedical and health studies and involved in many scientific societies. He is the co-founder and president of Marsa sexual health center.
Aly Sleem, Executive Director at the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) and a political and social activist, interested in promoting good governance and lobbying against discriminatory laws, including the electoral law, that burden citizens from effective political participation.
We are definitely not alone in the battle for social justice, and we are convinced that our aspirations will never come true without transformative solidarity that galvanizes power and secures impact. AFEMENA is committed to empowering the practices of feminist values within the organization, and to strengthening and expanding the ties with MENA-based organizations and activists
through transparent mechanisms of support and participatory representation, and to creating a safe space for freedom of expression and exchange of knowledge and expertise.
Today, we are able to continue the fight for social justice thanks to the endeavor and motivation of our team, the support of our partners, and the trust of the donor community. We are keen to maintain a relationship of trust and mutual support with our supporters, partners, allies, and community.