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World Bank

Racial discrimination in the World Bank is a far more systemic and serious issue than any official is willing to admit. Successive Presidents have treated it as a can of worms that’s best kept closed. The Bank’s Administrative Tribunal exists to keep the can closed with a judicial seal and to shield senior management from accountability. 

I am faced with a peculiar situation in writing this piece. As a former member of the Bank’s Senior Management Team and an appointed member of more than one of the Bank’s working groups on racial discrimination, I was a part of numerous discussions and reviews on the subject matter of race-based discrimination.

I feel torn between institutional loyalty and social responsibility in discussing one of the Bank’s most thorny issues in public. I feel even more conflicted to do so behind the veil of anonymity. I can only say that the gravity of the matter leaned heavily on my conscience and pushed me over the edge to speak up. I have deliberately avoided naming the principal players in fairness. The presidents are the exceptions.

The trigger point for my pen was a feature article in Pambazuka News by a former Bank staff who wrote under the pen name Faith Moses - “$250 million: The cost of ending racism at the World Bank”.

The article begins with the lack of progress in abolishing racial discrimination. It uses the Bank’s own 2015 diversity report as an alibi and presents two cases from the Tribunal’s 2015 judgments: Ms. DD and Dr. Jane Biko.   

The brief summary of the Bank’s 2015 diversity report highlighted that the report rated the Bank “between 2 and 3”, on a scale of 6. A rating of 2 is given to institutions that are merely “tolerant of racial differences.” Those rated 3 take baby steps to make “symbolic changes.” A rating of 4 marks the minimum threshold "where institutions develop an intentional identity as an 'anti-racist' institution and begin to develop accountability to [their] racial and ethnic constituents."

After decades of promises, reaffirmed pledges and “zero tolerance for racial discrimination” pronouncements, the Bank has failed to clear the lowest bar to establish a system of accountability to protect discriminated groups. There is no way to sugarcoat such an indictment coming as it has from the Bank’s own official report.

Moses identified “two cross-fertilizing factors that organically collide to form a stubborn resistance to a systemic change: an endemic culture of racism and the estimated $250 million financial cost of justice.”

I am not aware of any World Bank study that has come up with the stated $250 million or any other cost estimate. This is not to say definitively that there was no such a study. Be that as it may, the fact that financial consideration is a determinant factor is not a farfetched assertion. The evidence presented in the article seems to support it.

The fear of dealing with the proverbial can of worms

Racial discrimination in the World Bank is a far more systemic and serious issue than any official is willing to admit. Successive Presidents have treated it as a can of worms that’s best kept closed. The Bank’s Administrative Tribunal exists to keep the can closed with a judicial seal and to shield senior management from accountability. 

Just as the Tribunal protects the Bank, successive Bank Presidents have protected the Tribunal from scrutiny and accountability.

In 1998, former President James Wolfensohn appointed an internal Grievance Process Review Committee with a mandate to examine the Bank’s internal justice system and propose concrete changes to make the system impartial and independent.

At the time I was a member of the Team for Racial Equality. Our report that was issued ahead of the Grievance Committee’s report revealed that, “Many black staff are reluctant to file grievances of racial discrimination through the existing mechanisms.” We recommended “the Bank establish a different mechanism” for racial discrimination claims – such as external arbitration.

I have had discussions with members of the internal Grievance Process Review Committee on the subject matter. More than one person had told me that the Committee was under pressure to avoid criticizing the Tribunal and proposing external arbitration. The Committee looked favorably at external arbitration as an alternative conflict resolution system “for augmenting the independence and impartiality of the system.” Nonetheless, it deferred its recommendation for future consideration.

Mr. Wolfensohn, who is widely credited for taking bold steps, was unwilling to grab the bull by the horns when it came to holding the Tribunal’s feet to the fire. The following passage from the April 2001 Staff Association Newsletter tells the tale. I will quote the relevant parts in extenso.

“Last August, the Staff Association (SA) launched a comprehensive review of the 20-year performance of the Administrative Tribunal. Afterwards, the SA sent a letter to the Bank’s Governors and Board of Directors about several serious problems with the structure and record of the Tribunal. (It is the Governors who control changes to Tribunal rules.) The Directors and Governors in turn notified senior management.

“SA chair also made plans to attend the Annual Meetings in Prague to discuss the problems in person with the Governors. When senior management learned this, they immediately responded that they did not have difficulties with the substance of the SA’s reform proposals. They said they would give the proposals serious consideration on an expedited basis - if [the SA chair] did not go to Prague. Based on these assurances, including some directly from President Wolfensohn, the SA did not attend the Prague meetings.”

The SA expressed regrets that the Bank’s promise was “un-promised” after the Prague meeting. What was believed to be on “the table” was taken “off the table” and “major items were whittled down so much as to undermine the intent of the reform.” It registered its disappointment stating:

 “While the Tribunal has been operating in its inadequate way, ironically, the Bank itself has gotten into the business of advising client countries on corruption and judicial reform… The structure of the Bank’ s own Administrative Tribunal should measure up to the principles that the Bank is espousing to its client countries.”

Those of us who have been in the Bank long enough, know the harsh treatment the SA chair endured for challenging the credibility of the Tribunal. The SA was brought to its knees after she vacated the Chair.

In 2010, when the US Treasury and the US Executive Director to the World Bank pushed the Bank to use external arbitration, then Chair of the Staff Association and her Executive Committee sided with management and rejected the proposal.

The Kim Administration

In March 2013, President Jim Yong Kim met with the leaders of African American, African and Caribbean Associations. The two major demands on their agenda were: establishing a high-level external commission and using external arbitration for racial discrimination claims. Kim struck down both requests. As a consolation, the Bank commissioned “a comprehensive internal assessment”. The justifications were as follows.

“There have been assessments of the Bank Group’s diversity and inclusion in the past, such as Bendick and Egan’s 2003 report, ‘Enhancing Inclusion at the World Bank Group: Diagnosis and Solution.’ However, there has not been a comprehensive internal assessment that is specifically focused on race relations. While there have been external assessments, most notably the Government Accountability Project’s (GAP) 2009 report, ‘Racial Discrimination at the World Bank,’ their utility in helping to promote diversity and enhance inclusion is limited due to their narrow focus and lack of internal data.”

This was a bit puzzling, and a lot more disingenuous. The Bendick and Egan’s 2003 independent report was commissioned by the Bank and all data was made available to the authors. There was another World Bank report prepared by an independent party, namely the Dewey Ballantine Law Firm in 1997. There were also several internal assessments, including one by the Team for Racial Equality. There were two more by the Staff Association in 2001 and 2005.

 The Terms of Reference (TOR) for the “comprehensive internal assessment” stated that the study would be conducted by a consultant “Under the overall direction of the HRS Director, Strategy, Diversity and Operations, and the Chair of the SA, and the direct supervision of a [senior HR officer].”

The consultant, a nationally recognized quantity in diversity and inclusion and a former senior vice president at AOL, was tasked, among others, to:

 •         Identify potential sources of institutional and individual racial bias and impact;

•         Review all previous assessments of race relations and racial discrimination within the Bank Group;

•         Review relevant published Tribunal judgments/orders on racial discrimination;

•         Develop recommendations to address areas of concern and leverage areas of success; and

The deliverable was “A final written report (MS Word) and PowerPoint presentation of key findings and recommendations.”

The final report was unflattering at best. At worst it was damaging for the Bank, and especially devastating for the Tribunal. The Kim Administration embargoed it until it was nudged by the Board to release it under relentless pressure from American civil rights leaders to honor the Bank’s principles of transparency and open data policy.

The Bank’s effort to have the consultant smooth the sharp edges of her report proved unsuccessful. The Bank took the matter into its own hands and liberally edited it before releasing it “for internal use only.” The part that was edited the most was the consultant’s assessment of the Tribunal.

One example would suffice to show what can only be characterized as an extraordinary violation of professional decorum, if not a criminal act.

The report identified a 2009 case as a “blatant and virulent case of racism.” The case was reviewed by the Tribunal in 2010 and summarily dismissed. The section of the report that assessed the Tribunal’s judgments agreed with the judgment, stating that the complaint was a matter of perception on the claimant’s part, not a reality.

What is presented in one section of the report as a “blatant and virulent case of racism” was seen as a mere “perception” in another section of the same report.

The breached report went on to conclude: “The Internal Justice System was found to provide a robust system.” This, in the very institution that the report found “not open to those who challenge the status quo” and “lacking of accountability to discriminated groups.”

The SA had it right when it wrote a revealing article entitled “Can the Leopard, er, the Bank Group Change Its Spots?” Its assessment was that “The Bank's diversity reforms will work only if senior management were willing to knock the heads of those who resist change - a step that would depend entirely on the will of the Bank president. If the president did take such action, it would likely upset many apple carts in the Bank. But it would indeed be a cultural revolution.”

Indeed, the leopard cannot changes its spots.

* The author is a former member of the World Bank’s Senior Management Team and served on more than one of the Bank’s working groups on racial discrimination.



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