WHO 'disturbed' by reports Syria director spent million on parties and gifts

Dr Akjemal Magtymova accused of hosting lavish parties and handing regime officials cars and gold, all paid for with agency funds

Akjemal Magtymova, the World Health Organisation's representative in Syria. AP
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The head of the World Health Organisation’s Eastern Mediterranean region told staff he was "very disturbed” by allegations that its Syria director Dr Akjemal Magtymova misspent millions, abused staff and violated Covid-19 protocols as the pandemic hit the country.

In an email message sent to all staff in the Middle East, Dr Ahmed Salim Al Mandhari said “the allegations negatively impact the people of Syria, whom we strive to serve”.

This week, two members of the WHO’s ethics department in Geneva, including its director, are visiting the agency’s Eastern Mediterranean headquarters in Cairo, which oversees Syria.

“The purpose of the visit is to advance awareness through various sessions, on the ethical conduct, principles, values and expectations,” staff were told in the email.

The AP on Thursday published an investigation based on more than 100 confidential UN emails, documents and other materials showing that WHO staffers told investigators that the agency’s Syria representative, Dr Akjemal Magtymova, engaged in abusive behaviour, pressured staff to sign contracts with high-ranking Syrian politicians and plied government officials with gifts.

Ms Magtymova declined to comment and called the allegations “defamatory”.

A former Syrian official said the WHO’s failures could jeopardise Syria’s halting response to the emerging cholera outbreak amid a global shortage of vaccines.

“People care about institutional failure because that affects the lives of millions of people,” said the former health official who worked in opposition-held north-western Syria.

'Weapon of war'

He said UN aid had previously been used “as a weapon of war”, failing to provide timely aid for Syrians because of their political standings or views or because they lived in areas beyond government control. He criticised the WHO for cosying up to Damascus instead of acting in the best interest of all Syrians.

The misconduct claims regarding the WHO’s Syria director from more than a dozen staffers have triggered one of the biggest internal probes in years.

“As the investigation continues, we have already taken mitigating action,” Mr Al Mandhari told the staff, referring to the decision to name an acting Syria representative in May and “proactively” inform their donors.

Still, Ms Magtymova remains in her position and continues to draw a director-level salary.

Karam Shaar, a Syria expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said there had been rumours of UN corruption in Syria for years but the AP report showed that “they are more extreme than we ever thought”.

“What reportedly happened at the WHO Syria office is particularly egregious because at this point in time, Syrians have never been more vulnerable,” Mr Shaar said. “It’s exactly at this time that WHO should be responsible, yet we have never heard as serious allegations from any other UN agency. The charges against WHO are by far the worst.”

A nurse checks on a patient at the Al Rahma Hospital in the Syrian town of Darkush, in January. Syria’s health system has been devastated by more than a decade of war. AFP

Mr Shaar calculated that more than 80 per cent of the WHO’s purchases from Syria, where it spent $39 million between 2016 and 2021, came from suppliers whose identities were hidden. He said it was the highest share of any UN agency working in the country.

Syria’s health system has been devastated by more than a decade of war and for years the country has relied almost exclusively on humanitarian aid. Nearly 90 per cent of the population lives in poverty.

Adam Kamradt-Scott, an expert in global health at the European University Institute in Italy, said because the WHO’s funds come from taxpayers, the agency must prove its spending is warranted.

Financial documents obtained by the AP showed, among other examples, that Ms Magtymova once spent more than $11,000 of WHO funds on a party mostly to honour her own achievements during Covid-19. WHO staffers also alleged that she used WHO funds to buy gifts for Syrian government officials, including gold coins and expensive cars.

“If it were any other context than the UN and there was a misappropriation of funds, you would likely see employees being held criminally responsible,” Mr Kamradt-Scott said.

Updated: October 24, 2022, 4:45 PM
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