[The Activism Blog] We are paying close attention to this Ushahidi sexual harassment scandal

One of Africa’s most famous tech start-ups is involved in a sexual harassment scandal.

Nairobi-based Ushahidi rose to prominence in 2008 when it developed crowd-sourcing software to map incidents of violence in the wake of the disputed 2007 Kenyan election. The information it collected was instrumental in revealing the full extent of the conflict, in which more than 1 000 people died.

But the not-for-profit firm is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Last week, former employee Angela Kabari went public with allegations of sexual harassment against Ushahidi’s executive director Daudi Were.

She said her experiences were not isolated and castigated the Ushahidi board’s failure to deal with her complaint.

In reaction to Ms Kabari’s claims, Ushahidi posted on its website:

We understand that various people are contacting Ushahidi funders and business partners – or tagging our employees or organization on social media – claiming that our board was lax in its handling of a sexual harassment complaint lodged by a former employee.

Clearly, such accusations are of concern to you.

In order that you may satisfy yourselves that we did everything possible to ensure that justice was served, we are providing here as much detail regarding the investigative process followed by the Ushahidi board as we are free to give you.

Specifically, you will wish to know that, by not hesitating to dismiss the most senior person at Ushahidi over his actions, the board has demonstrated that Ushahidi’s zero tolerance for employment rights violations will always be enforced without fear or favour.

If you have any additional queries, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Taking into account the rights of the parties, we will do our best to answer any questions.

The Ushahidi Board

Ushahidi due process in the sexual harassment case brought by Angela Kabari

Angela Kabari, a member of the Making All Voices Count team at Ushahidi, lodged a complaint of sexual harassment against Ushahidi Executive Director, Daudi Were, with the board on 4 May 2017.

As is her right, Ms Kabari chose to lodge the complaint through her lawyers using the established whistleblower policy at Ushahidi. This immediately imposed a formal and very specific process on the investigation into the accusations against Mr Were. Under advice from our lawyers, the board was required to follow certain inflexible procedural steps and all communication among the parties was to be conducted entirely through legal representatives, as agreed upon by all parties.

No personal communications between Ms Kabari and the board – or any member of the Ushahidi leadership team – was permitted. Ms Kabari’s claim, therefore, that the board did not care about her is disingenuous. It is possible that she did not realize that the legal route she had taken would cause such a lack of communication and, therefore, as she viewed it, an apparent lack of compassion for her situation. But, it is a matter of record that, after our board had informed our employees at a meeting that an employee had lodged a complaint and triggered an investigation and that anyone with information or who had experienced anything could come and speak to the board, her lawyers wrote to ours objecting in the strongest terms that we had discussed the case in a public forum. This made it clear to the board that they could not discuss the case or speak with the parties thereafter.

And, Ms Kabari must have realised that communications from the company to her regarding the case would be severely constrained.

Immediately upon receipt of Ms Kabari’s lawyers’ initial letter of complaint on May 4th, the Ushahidi board instituted an investigation into the claim. Our objective at all times was to ensure fairness to both parties and to respect their human rights.

To guarantee that these objectives would be achieved and to eliminate the possibility of internal partisan decisions in a situation that is unprecedented in our nine-year history, we engaged independent legal counsel that specializes in human resources issues and in sexual harassment in particular. Their guidance would ensure that we applied both Kenyan and American law very precisely in the way that the case was handled and in arriving at a conclusion.

Recognizing that victims of sexual harassment suffer trauma and that those who are wrongfully accused suffer equally, we expedited the investigation as far as we were able, in order to minimize additional trauma caused by the investigative process.

The speed at which we could move the case forward was hampered by external issues. On one occasion, Ms Kabari’s lawyer was on leave, delaying the co-ordination of documentation and the obtaining of evidence. Throughout the course of the events, each party had additional travel or personal delays. One party changed legal representatives in the course of preparation for the hearing.

Delays of this kind, for instance, led to the board only receiving an edited version of the recording of the sexual harassment incident some 40 days after we had requested it. Only once we received the evidence were we able to begin to try and schedule the hearing.

Following the 6-hour inquiry conducted by the board, a period of seven working days, as agreed with Ms Kabari’s lawyers, was required for Ushahidi’s independent counsel to review the inquiry itself and all related evidence and to check that our procedures and counsel’s conclusion were aligned with Kenyan and US statute. This ensured that the outcome of the case did indeed serve justice.

Once the review and checks were concluded and Mr Were was informed of the board’s ruling on a reasonable basis for gross misconduct, he was given three days, in accordance with due process under Kenyan employment law, to show cause as to why he should not be terminated for gross misconduct. He did not arrive for his final hearing and the board dismissed him with immediate effect.

At the beginning of the investigation, to obviate further distress to Ms Kabari, we placed Mr Were on leave. At that time, we believed the investigative process would be concluded within a matter of weeks. However, delays of the kind mentioned above meant that Mr Were’s leave had to be extended. This created a number of difficulties in terms of the work he had been leading in respect of monitoring the forthcoming elections in Kenya and in respect of other projects in which parties outside of Ushahidi, including the Kenyan electorate, would have been severely disadvantaged by his summary absence.

We required him to work on only those aspects of the projects that specifically required his input and to do so from home. It was necessary that he attend certain meetings for the projects but, again, we stipulated that he only attend meetings where it was critical for him to conduct a handover to someone else on the team. The two parties never came into contact during this time, and Ms Kabari did not have to report to or speak to Mr Were during this time.

Those outside of Ushahidi who are claiming that the board was biased towards Mr Were or that the board took no action to ensure the safety of its employees are not aware of any of these details and are, therefore, jumping to unfounded conclusions.

Ushahidi’s internal policies are extremely strong. Our whistleblower policy enabled Angela to raise her voice directly to the board and begin this process, which ultimately resulted in the removal of the Executive Director. Our policies are founded on the fact that the company has zero tolerance for violations of human rights of any kind. We are confident as a board that we dealt with the case in an objective way that would protect the rights of all parties.

The inflexibility of the legal process did cut across the culture of Ushahidi. The company is dedicated to helping marginalized communities raise their voice. After all, transparency is one of our core principles.

Being prevented by the legal process from affording comfort to Ms Kabari has been painful for us all. We take solace in the fact that, ultimately, the objectivity of the legal process validates Ms Kabari’s credibility and that the board’s resolute pursuit of justice affords her the comfort of knowing that her voice was, indeed, heard.

It also affords all our employees the comfort of knowing that if ever they were confronted by a violation of their rights, or were accused of violating another person’s rights in the workplace, the board would act with the same objectivity in ensuring that justice is served. And, it assures funders and project partners that Ushahidi continues to hold the line on social justice.

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