By Dario De Quarti
On the 22nd of December, a strongly worded email was sent by GISA to the IHEID student community : “Earlier this month, the GISA Executive Board requested the incumbent President of Welfare Committee to resign from her position. This was due to a serious violation of the Institute’s Student Code of Conduct. The Welfare Committee’s President made several racist remarks in an email addressed to several Board Members and Initiatives…”.
As the student press, we were informed of some of the ongoing concerns faced by the Welfare Committee, and we interviewed the former and the current Presidents of the Welfare Committee (WC) to try and provide some clarity on these issues.
Everything began in 2016 : The WC was started as a specialized committee (with separate by-laws and procedures), primarily to work on well-being and sanitary products, and supplement the work done by IHEID’s Student Support staff. Two years ago, the then WC President decided to put more focus on advocacy, working more closely with the GISA board, on matters like sexual harassment and mental health. Since then, the WC has stayed a separate committee, but whose work has always been supported by the GISA board. In 2019, Zumba classes were started when a student (who is still the current instructor), offered her services to the Welfare Committee. They were in-person at the time. When the pandemic hit, they were moved online instead of cancelling them, to help students through their quarantine. The instructor, paid at the minimum wage, would conduct one live lesson a week (and the recording would be used for a second one).
Zumba classes and funding issues:
We interviewed Monideepa Mukherjee, former WC President: “We had a budget of 530 CHF overall last year when I started. We did Zumba online mainly, up to June 2021. Then, since the situation was improving, we started doing it on the Grand Morillon Students Residence rooftop”. In October 2021, the Zumba members were suddenly informed that the classes had to be stopped, due to lack of funds to pay the instructor. Eventually, however, classes continued to take place (despite long delays in paying the Instructor for the months of October and November by the current WC). When asked about this issue, the ex-WC President answered : “We asked for a budget of 900 CHF before leaving. The president who leaves makes the budget for this semester. But this budget was not approved1: all initiatives got a bit less than what they asked. Last year, when an initiative was short in funds, they could request for Flex Funds, which were usually granted”.
For clarity, we will now detail this budget. 650 CHF was initially available for the whole Fall semester (2021), of which 140.75CHF had to be spent for an event for the ‘third-year’ students (those students who would have otherwise graduated in September 2021, but received a semester-long extension due to COVID-19). After paying for the first month of Zumba and Yoga classes, 391.75CHF was left. However, 237 CHF was required to pay for “over-expenditures” by the Initiative : On this subject, the former WC President said, “During the Welcome Month, the Instructor did a lot of classes, but she did not send her receipt (invoice).That’s why she was paid using this semester’s budget, because we received the receipt in October. When I transitioned (in or out?), I knew there would be the possibility to use Flex Funds for that.”2
After checking directly with the Zumba instructor we were informed that her invoice for the month of September was sent mid-October, as is the common practice. She was never informed that this would be an issue, and even less that it would cause budgetary consequences. In such a context, it would appear that a delay in sending receipts was not the real concern, but rather, the manner in which accounting issues can occur, especially when expenses overlap between semesters.
As a result of this expenditure, the current WC president only had 93.25 CHF left for the three last months of the semester, which allowed her to pay for just a third of the intended Zumba and Yoga classes. This was why the WC President decided to firstly cancel the Zumba classes : because there were no funds left. When asked about the possibility of using Flex Funds, the current WC President said that she did not know it was possible and was informed of this possibility only later. After some discussions, GISA allocated 234.75 CHF of Flex Funds to the committee, so that both Zumba and Yoga could continue during the whole semester. This could have been the end of the issue : budget unlocked, situation solved, back to normal. However, it was not.
Racism allegations and the Welfare Committee:
With these explanations, we do not answer the accusations of racism that are mentioned in the email. As the student press, we feel the necessity to inform you of the discussion that happened, with the exact terms and context. The Zumba story explains a budgetary issue that could have stopped there. Later, an event happened on November 10th in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). This event was allegedly scheduled as part of the Gender & Diversity month by the WC, despite no clear link being established with Gender or Diversity. As a result, the GISA president asked for clarifications about the link of this event with the G&D month, so as to understand whether the G&D specific budget should be allocated to pay for this event. After a long email exchange between the GISA President, and the current WC president, Mariana Mendez, that did not lead to any conclusive answer, we were informed by the GISA President that the following sentence was used in their email communication: “I ran [for the WC president position] again just because I heard there was an Indian Mafia running GISA, so I will never get in because I was not part of this community. I ran just to try my luck because it was easier to advocate as an individual student…” . The Graduate Press has seen a copy of the said email and can confirm this claim.
To a question on this, the current President of the WC responded to us : “People say that I was about to lose because I was not Indian. You are not Indian, and you will lose the same because of that3 at PDC.”
We asked the current WC president if it was right to use these terms, and she commented : “No, it was not right. […] But I did not say that GISA is a mafia, I said that I heard that GISA was an Indian mafia.”
We rebutted that most GISA members were elected by the students, who are from the whole world, to which her answer was, “We have 30% of students coming from Asia. Indian students are very supportive of each other. Latin-American students are coming from countries that fight against each other,” thus explaining her perspective on some of the rumours that she had heard. But it seems extremely concerning, to say the least, that an elected member can use rumors and innuendos in a formal communication, re-using a racist comment, even if not directly made by herself, to discredit the other elected representatives. While the electoral process for the PDC has been criticised in the past, and has been modified since, it still remains true that the PDC President was rightfully elected, in accordance with the process that existed then.
Another point mentioned in the email was the following : “The GISA Executive Board has attempted to meet with the President of Welfare Committee on multiple occasions to discuss the aforementioned but has been unsuccessful in its attempts.”
This information was confirmed with the current WC president, who informed us that she missed a lot of meetings. “That was very problematic, because all students of the Institute were reaching out to me. I lost track of the important emails, because I was receiving too many emails. I lost track of everything that was important to me as a student. And my team was not able to understand what was happening, because they were first years,” she said. It is probably understandable that the workload as head of a Specialized Committee is elevated, but this should have been taken into account before the elections.
As mentioned in GISA’s email, “Earlier this month, the GISA Executive Board requested the incumbent President of Welfare Committee to resign from her position.” The situation, as of today, is that the current WC president has not resigned. However, most of her team has resigned for various internal reasons. When asked about this, the current WC President commented, “I was trying to solve the freerider4 issue, and I became the free rider in my team, I became a free rider president. […] I made a mistake by choosing to be the WC President, I will now see if I need to resign or not.”
Is 0.5 CHF per student’s welfare enough?
We tried pushing the debate further than just resignations. The current budget of the WC is 0.5 CHF per student per semester. Isn’t this too less? Is it what welfare is worth? When asked about this, the former President of the WC answered, “I don’t think the budget determines the value of the Committee. For me, I got a very low budget. But then I started collaborating with different initiatives. We are not being given that much funds, but we decided to collaborate to compensate for this. It is about how you manage money. […] There are a lot of initiatives : more than 40, that need a budget. Each initiative requests funds, so it makes the shares for each initiative lower.”
Let us remind you that the first mission of the Welfare Committee, according to its statutes, is “to promote the welfare, mental health and health of the students of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.” If we acknowledge that the WC is so important that its Presidency is an elected position, that includes a tuition-waiver worth 7’000 CHF, it implies that we recognize the centrality of welfare and mental health at the Institute. It therefore seems counterintuitive that the Welfare Committee’s budget stays at 0.5 CHF per student per semester (a few other student initiatives have received higher budgetary allocations). If the WC has to pay for Zumba and Yoga, even at the Geneva minimum hourly wage, it becomes extremely constraining to add any new activity, unless it is free. Of course, partnerships with other initiatives can solve part of this problem. But probably the recent events show that a deeper reflection must be made on whether the WC really has the abilities to fulfill its mandate with the current funds.
To conclude, the WC seems at a dead end: The budget is arguably low, it is almost always at the mercy of flex funds, the WC has very few members left (apart from the WC president), and the current President now faces very concerning accusations of re-using a racist comment. Quite ironically, the semester break will now be needed to improve the welfare of the Welfare Committee.
- 650 CHF were allocated to the Welfare Committee
- It must be clarified that the ordinary practice for all student initiatives is to make budget requests for the Spring semester that also account for expenses that will take place during the upcoming Fall semester’s Welcome Month period. This practice is maintained because Initiative Boards often see leadership transitions as each batch graduates, and therefore each Initiative would need to ensure adequate funding for Welcome Month events before a new Board is put in place, and the new budget is allocated. Ideally, the budget for Spring 2021 should have been adequate to also cover the Welcome Month in Fall 2021. Flex Funds are defined as “extra budget for an event not planned at the beginning of the semester and therefore not initially included in the general budget request or for a newly created initiative to request for the budget”. They amounted to 3,511.00 CHF (at the disposition of all initiatives) for the Fall Semester 2021.
- [NOTE FROM THE WRITER : In Spring 2021 the current WC president ran for the PDC Presidency and lost. The vote was internal (and prior to the amendment to the PDC election related by-laws), done only by the 11 PDC members. The elected candidate is the current PDC president (member of the Indian community).]
- Inefficient distribution of tasks between members that can lead large teams to see only a small number of people contributing to the work.