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An open letter to President Obama

In the quest to end racial discrimination at the World Bank, Justice for Blacks presents an open letter to President Obama beseeching him to honour in deeds the promissory note that the founding fathers of America issued in 1776 that all people are created equal and should receive equal treatment

Dear Mr. President,

We, Justice for Blacks, were among the millions of people around the world who celebrated your election for a second term as the President of the United States of America. We were captivated by the eloquent oratory and uplifted by the towering ideals of your inaugural speech.

“What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’" You enthroned, with a healthy balance of humility and authority.

You went on to say, with deep conviction, “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths - that all of us are created equal - is the star that guides us still.”

We write to you to bridge the gap between the ideals of those noble words and the harsh realities of our experiences that stain the canvas upon which America's ideals and creed are narrated. We write not from afar, but from two blocks west of the White House and two miles north of Thomas Jefferson’s Monument on whose walls the words of America’s creed are engraved. We write from the World Bank, where blacks have been treated as second class citizens and denied the security of justice for over half a century. We represent thousands of current and former World Bank black staff and write to you as the ultimate custodian of the US Constitution and keeper of the American creed. We come to you to cash the promissory note that the founding fathers of America issued in 1776 that you reaffirmed in 2013.

Dear Mr. President,

The issue of racial discrimination at the World Bank ought to be of paramount concern for the US because it is a violation of civil and human rights committed on its soil. Adding to this is the question of providing tens of billions of tax payers’ dollars in financial support to an organization with an institutional culture of racial bias against a portion of American citizens because of the color of their skin. Not to mention the dilemma of entrusting such an institution with a lofty mission of ending poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, home to over 900 million Black people.

In 1978, an award winning columnist, William Raspberry, wrote an op-ed article on the Washington Post about an African with doctorates from both Yale and Oxford who never got his promised promotion to senior ranks. Thirty five years later, Blacks are still marginalized and not for lack of education or experience. For example, in 2011, Africa accounted for 50 percent of the World Bank’s total International Development Association (IDA) funds. In contrast, in the same year, blacks accounted for a dismal 2.4 and 3.8 percent, respectively, of the professional cohort of the Development Economics and the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management vice presidential units (VPUs). These are the two VPUs where the Bank’s poverty reduction programs and development policies are set. Africans are virtually shut out of the Bank’s strategic and administrative decision making.

In comparison, Asians and Latin Americans are deeply involved in the Bank’s strategic policies that have direct bearings on the development of their respective regions. Furthermore, Asian American and Latin American scholars and businessmen and women are regularly consulted and their inputs and involvements are actively sought by the Bank’s management. African Americans are not only denied similar opportunities, but are pushed back when they reach out. African American vendors face discrimination when they submit bids.

Dear Mr. President,

The issue of systemic racial discrimination was formally discussed by the World Bank Board of Governors in 1979 at the Bank’s Annual meeting in Belgrade. The issue was raised by African members of the Board. Thirty four years later the problem remains, but some members of the African Board of Directors seem to have given up trying to fix what they consider to be an intractable problem. On March 15, 2012, one of the African Board members wrote to us that the issue is “a disturbing and saddening matter,” but there is not much he could do. He concluded his note with kind wishes for “the Almighty's guidance.”

In contrast, gender discrimination was officially discussed at the Board level in 1992. Since then the institution has made significant strides to rectify the problem. For example, as noted in the July 27, 2012 issue of Forbes Magazine, half of the Bank’s top managers are female. More recently, equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender society was raised and the Bank has already made a remarkable progress on this front in a short time. What makes racial discrimination against Blacks different is that the Bank sees it as a natural social order to keep blacks at the bottom. Let us allow the World Bank to speak for itself.

[1993"> “Africans received less favorable treatment than is the norm in the Bank, including recruitment at lower grade than comparably qualified staff from other parts of the world; and significantly lower average salary level.” ~ The Stern Report, prepared under one of the Bank’s Managing Directors.

[1996"> “Blacks make poor accountants and the department could not hire too many blacks as the department would look like a ghetto. They should be kept in Africa ghetto [in reference to the Africa region.">” ~ Public statement by a director of the Bank’s Loan department.

[1998"> “Interviews for African working Papers revealed cultural prejudice among some managers, who rated Africans as unsophisticated and inferior… Racial discrimination is present in our institution, and the Problem is serious.” ~ A Report by the World Bank’s Team for Racial Equality.

[2003"> “Blacks can only work in the Africa region because they can be more competitive there… Some nationals do not want to work with Blacks.” ~ World Bank report, Enhancing Inclusion at the World Bank: Diagnosis and Solutions.

[2005"> “Racial discrimination in the World Bank is entrenched and systemic. The World Bank should “address seriously the issue of ‘ghettoization’ [of blacks in the Africa region"> to ensure that diversity cuts across the institution” (original emphasis). ~ Staff Association.

[2006"> “You cannot be appointed global manager because Europeans are not used to seeing a black man in a position of power” ~ Explanation given to an African applicant.

[2009"> "The first thing was to promote them [Blacks"> in the Africa region. The second hurdle is that having seen them do well in Africa to convince other regions to accept them and to stop putting the screens of our clients that they may not deal with them very well." ~ Video message by former senior vice president, explaining the Bank’s HR policy.

And then there are Black Americans. They are the most discriminated group even when compared with other Blacks. In 1978 there were only “three Black Americans out of 619 American professionals. In 2009, “only four Black Americans among more than 1,000 American Professional, a significant proportional decline even from the abysmal levels reported in 1978.

Dear Mr. President,

Making the gross injustice even worse is the fact that victims of discrimination are denied due process. A 2005, staff Association report found, “450 racial discrimination complaints were filed” in a span of five years. There are 2009 reports and articles indicating that the situation has gotten worse. Despite an astounding number of complaints, not a single manager has been held accountable since the Bank’s Tribunal was established in 1980. As a matter of de facto policy the Bank’s Tribunal does not rule in favor of Blacks.

On December 23, 2011, you signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012, requiring that Bank staff have access to "independent adjudicative bodies.” The intent of the Act is to introduce an independent and fair grievance resolution system (external arbitration), without infringing on the Bank’s immunity from US courts. The Act states “US funds may not be disbursed for the general capital increases of the World Bank” until the Bank has continued to make progress toward, among others things, providing staff access to independent adjudicative bodies.

The Bank is on record making it clear that it has no intention of opening up for external arbitration. In clear violation of Lugar-Leahy Act of 2005, on June 3, 2011 the former HR vice president rejected a request for external arbitration stating: “Because the Tribunal exists for the final and binding resolution of employment disputes, outside arbitration is not an acceptable resolution mechanism for Bank Group staff grievances.” More recently, in clear violation of the Lugar-Leahy Act and the Consolidated Appropriation Act of 2012, in December 2012, the current HR vice president made it clear that the Bank will not comply with any US law.

There are pending cases requesting external arbitration that the Bank has refused to even acknowledge, much less respond to. Meanwhile, it has submitted a request for tens of billions of dollars in funding from the US. In light of this we respectfully and humbly ask that you request the Secretary of the US Treasury to:

• Ensure that the Bank’s request for funding is blocked until it complies with the requirements of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012;

• Table a proposal to the World Bank Board for an up or down vote to establish an independent commission, with a mandate to investigate if victims of discrimination are systematically denied due process and recommend redress if and where necessary; and

• Use the US’s significant financial leverage to influence and ensure the Bank’s inclusion of Africans and African Americans to a significant degree in policy making decisions involving Africa.

Please accept, Mr. President, assurances of our highest regard.

Executive Committee, Justice for Blacks.
Yonas Biru, PhD
Ibrahim Elbadawi, PhD
Phyllis Muhammad, JD
Eugene Nyambal, PhD
Salomon Samen, PhD
Adrienne Smith, MBA
Name Withheld*
Name Withheld*

*Names of current World Bank staff are withheld.


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