Cindy McCain, the executive director of the World Food Program (WFP), has been accused by her Middle East staffers of displaying pro-Israeli bias in the Gaza war that has led to the deaths of thousands of Palestinians.
McCain faced off virtually with the staffers who criticized her for being tone-deaf to staff concerns, Senior Global Reporter Colum Lynch wrote on Devex, an independent news organization covering global development. New York Times also reported about the development.
The exchange exposed the gulf between the American leader of the Nobel Prize-winning food agency and those on the front lines of the humanitarian effort to save lives in Gaza.
Colum Lynch’s account is based on leaked video of the session, and copies of the formal statements delivered to McCain during the meeting.
In a sign of growing anger with McCain’s leadership, WFP staffers in Gaza boycotted the session, while other employees of the agency walked out in the middle of the meeting. “We are not here today because you were not here for us,” a statement read on behalf of the Gaza office stated. “With all due respect, you have failed us,” Colum Lynch wrote.
“For 54 days, your staff, our teams, have been living through hell to stand behind our organizations’ mandate to save lives and leave no one behind,” the staffer, who fought back tears, told McCain, who sat stiffly in an office in Jordan.
“Through unspeakable horrors — bloodshed, bombs, checkpoints, displacement — Palestine CO [country office] staff have showed up and we promise that we will continue to show up for the people we serve, for ourselves, our families, and for humanity. But where were you Mrs. executive director? We had neither your presence, nor action, and not even your voice for Gaza.”
In response, McCain said, “I’m sorry if you don’t think I’ve done enough or I’m not doing enough, but I’m doing absolutely everything I can to see an end to this and see a country, a place once again where they can live freely and live with their families.”
McCain said that she has “spent countless days” and “countless hours” in the region trying to secure access to WFP supplies, trucks, and food being flown into El Arish International Airport, destined for Gaza. “I don’t know what else I could do,” she said. “I’m here now.”
A representative for WFP’s Cairo office followed up with a searing rebuke of McCain, accusing her of failing to press for a cease-fire and neglecting to express “alarm at the potential use of food as a weapon of war,” saying that her predecessor, David Beasley, had raised similar concerns over the conduct of Russian forces in Ukraine.
The staffer also called on McCain to apologize for her conduct at the Halifax International Security Forum, where she attended a ceremony for the John McCain Leadership in Public Service award, given to an active reserve officer in the Israel Defense Forces on behalf of the people of Israel. “Your attendance was a clear breach of neutrality, a principle that is enshrined in the international civil service and WFP’s code of conduct.”
New York Times reported that she was introduced in her official UN capacity and sat next to Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel. The John McCain Leadership in Public Service award is an annual prize in public service named after her late husband, Senator John McCain.
“Your actions have caused the public, our partners, and our beneficiaries to question the integrity of WFP, putting our reputation, safety, and humanitarian access at risk,” the official said. “To cause additional distress, your choice not to attend the minute of silence in HQ for our and your 108 UN colleagues killed in Gaza, the largest number of U.N. staff killed in a single crisis, despite your presence in the building is inexcusable.”
McCain defended her actions, saying that she attended the Halifax conference to deliver a speech as the head of WFP about the food crisis in Ukraine, had “sat on the sidelines” of the award ceremony, and played no role in choosing the awardees. “I was there merely as a woman who was married to my late husband for forty years and who supports his legacy. That is all. I remain neutral.”
McCain denied that she had not shown up at the November 13 observance of silence at WFP’s peace garden. “You said also that I didn’t go to the moment of silence. You’re wrong. I did … I chose to do the minute of silence by the wall, which is the place that I’ve gone every other time I’ve been there to commemorate and look and think about the people who have given their lives to WFP.”
Several WFP staffers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that wasn’t true. A WFP spokesperson was unable to provide a formal comment on the situation, noting that it is late at night in Rome, WFP’s headquarters. “She didn’t show up,” said one WFP staffer who attended the observance, Colum Lynch wrote.
McCain also denied charges that she had never called for a cease-fire, noting that she had participated in joint calls for humanitarian cease-fires by other senior U.N. officials and relief officials. “I did sign the cease-fire. I was with everyone else, all the other U.N. agencies,” she said.
WFP staffers noted that while McCain had twice previously participated in joint cease-fire appeals, she has never done so individually on behalf of WFP.
In response to the charge that she failed to protest the issue of starvation as a weapon of war, she said: “That’s not something the secretary-general has addressed yet, with regard to this issue and it is also something that we as an organization are not going to address right now,” she said. “What I do is remain neutral as I have my entire life in the humanitarian world.”
Toward the end of the session, McCain interrupted the final speaker from WFP’s Jordan office who was reiterating staff complaints about her perceived lack of neutrality and her involvement in the Halifax forum.
“Can I stop you right there sir,” she said.
“I’d like you to let me say something if you wouldn’t mind. I will always support the legacy of my husband,” she said, holding back tears. “No one will ever take that away from me. So if you disagree with where I went to Halifax or you disagree with me supporting my husband then that’s a disagreement we’re going to have. But I will never, ever not support my husband,” McCain said.
When the speaker tried to explain the issue was not her support for her husband but the awarding of a prize to an Israeli officer, she answered that she played no role in selecting the winner: “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.”
McCain’s advisor then announced the meeting over as the staffer tried, unsuccessfully, to finish his statement.