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World Bank

The World Bank should not be applauded for its new PR driven recruitments and promotions. Instead it should be held accountable for mistreatment of over 1500 black staff. The systemic racism for over half a century calls for bold and immediate actions. Establishing a high level external commission is the first critical step.

Part 2: I can no longer remain silent about racism in the World Bank

I was a happily retired person until I wrote the first installment of a three-part article on racial discrimination in the World Bank. My links with the World Bank were limited to my pension checks, the 1818 Society Bulletin, my visit to the credit union, and my occasional rant about Retiree Medical Insurance Plan. The issue of racial discrimination has become an additional link (I hope a temporary one) with my previous employer.

As a former member of the Senior Management Team, I carry with me a baggage of regrets and a sense of nagging guilt for not having said more and done more when I was in the Bank. A former colleague who suspected I was the “Anonymous” author of last week’s article called and asked me “why now and why behind the veil of anonymity”. I responded only to the second half of his question. Some of the facts I have used in my first article and I am using in this piece were provided to me by current employees. Revealing my identity will expose them to risk.

In days recent, the World Bank has been aggressively recruiting Sub Saharan African and Caribbean nationals. Before the targeted recruitment drive, the two groups represented 15 percent of the Bank’s labor force. Together they account only for 14 percent of the world population. This is according to the World Bank data.

The explanation for the ongoing aggressive recruitment drive is “to attract Sub Saharan African and Caribbean professionals to its work force” as part of the Bank’s “extra efforts to recruit from markets” where it has “thin representation.” At the end of the ongoing recruitment drive the Bank will have added over 170 new Sub Saharan African and Caribbean recruits.

The problem with this is that the two groups were not thinly represented. In fact, they were over-represented before the recruitment drive. Why is the Bank aggressively recruiting an already over-represented group? The purpose of this article is to unpack this paradoxical conundrum.

As noted in my first instalment, the trigger point for me 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 reframed the contours of the debate on racial discrimination in the World Bank, shifting the axis of the discourse simultaneously from the margins to the center and from the superficial to the fundamental.

Its analysis exposed the ugly truth in all its pertinent dimensions at the macro (the Bank in general), meso (Information and Technology Solutions vice presidential unit) and micro (two case studies) levels. The World Bank can no longer obfuscate the issue. It can no longer titillate or distract the public with public relations gimmicks.

In the past, the Bank’s policy has been to admit the presence of institutional racism in confidential memos and reports, but to deny it vehemently in public. It was in this tradition that in the September 17, 2014 issue of the Chicago Suntimes, President Kim wrote a letter to the editor to counter Reverend Jesse Jackson’s article titled “Apartheid Avenue Two Blocks from the White House.”

President Kim stated unabashedly “Our staff represents 170 different nationalities, each of whom expects to be treated with respect and dignity… Some 15 percent are from Sub-Saharan Africa and Caribbean … We are truly a rainbow institution… Later this year, we will begin the roll-out of an ambitious action plan on diversity and inclusion that will bolster our efforts to both attract and retain the very best talent in development from around the world. It will include extra efforts to recruit from markets where we have thin representation.”

Perhaps unintentionally, he revealed that Sub Saharan Africa and Caribbean nationals are NOT thinly-represented in the World Bank. At the time of his writing of the letter, the two groups represented 15 percent of the Bank’s labor force. As noted above, they account only for 14 percent of the world population.

If President Kim’s claim that each staff is “treated with respect and dignity” is true, and if Sub Saharan African and Caribbean nationals were over-represented in the World Bank in 2014, what explains the subsequent aggressive recruitment in 2015 and 2016?

The truth is that Sub Saharan Africans and Caribbeans in the World Bank are denied respect and robbed of their dignity. The 15 percent representation that President Kim referred to in his letter reflects mostly secretarial and sub-professional staff.

The Bank’s confidential memorandum acknowledges that “black staff members are recruited disproportionately in the secretarial grades, ignoring the educational and professional success they have achieved.” These are people that “are qualified for the professional ranks of the Bank.”

The majority of Sub Saharan Africans with Master’s degree and over a decade professional experience (some with two decades of world Bank experience) are confined to sub-professional grade (level GE in the Bank’s classification). Some are in secretarial rank (level GD).

In the meantime, the current recruitment drive for Sub Saharan Africans and Caribbeans states: “Minimum qualifications for entry-level positions (professional level, GF) include a Master's degree plus 5 years of relevant professional experience. For mid-career professionals (senior professional level GG), the minimum requirements are a Master's degree plus 8 years of relevant professional experience.”

If the same criteria were applied, the majority of Sub Saharan Africans who are currently stuck in sub professional (level GE) will be reclassified at least as full professionals (level GF), or possibly as senior professionals (level GG). Many more who are in the secretarial cohort will be qualified for at least level GE, or possibly for level GF.

This is well known to the Bank. Several World Bank reports have documented that Sub Saharan Africans are “recruited at lower grade than comparably qualified staff from other parts of the world, and are paid significantly lower average salary level.”

Why do Sub Saharan Africans and Caribbeans tolerate such degrading treatment? The Bank holds their G4 visa. Leaving the Bank entails uprooting their families and leaving the US in two months.

The following excerpts that are taken verbatim from World Bank (WB) and Staff Association (SA) reports tell the extent of the dehumanizing treatment.  

“The African governors discussed [race-based discrimination against Sub Saharan Africans] at their meeting in Belgrade” (WB, 1979). “There is a cultural prejudice among some managers, who rated Sub Saharan Africans as inferior” (SA, 1992). “There are discrepancies between the hiring and promotion of Black and non-Black candidates and Black staff perceived the work environment to be hostile and prejudiced” (1997).

“The findings of three World Bank studies send a clear message: race-based discrimination is present in our institution. Discrimination, especially against black African staff and other staff of African origin, translates into a denial of opportunity and inequitable treatment on the basis of the color of their skin” (WB, 1998).

“There is a deep-seated attitude that Blacks are not bright or competent and the gap in salary between blacks and non-blacks was entirely attributable to differences in race” (WB, 2003). “The status of racial discrimination in the Bank is very bad” (SA, 2005). “Previous diversity reform initiatives were seriously undercut by lack of managerial accountability” (SA, 2007).   

At the time of the writing of President Kim’s letter to the editor, the Bank had the latest diversity report under embargo. The report was ultimately released in May 2015 under enormous external pressure. It documented that "Discrimination/racism is most acutely felt by the Bank's Sub-Saharan-African and Caribbean Staff." It identified cases of “blatant and virulent racism” and reveled that some staff interviewed for the report “referred to their assignment as [a] kind of apartheid.”

President Kim’s statement that each staff is “treated with respect and dignity” was disingenuous at best, or dishonest at worst. There is nothing respectful or dignifying about being in “a kind of apartheid” assignment or being subjected to “blatant or virulent cases of racism.” Conspicuously or perhaps coincidentally, the letter to the editor has since been removed from the newspapers website. I happen to have a copy of it and it’s republished here.

Every time there is a public outcry about the Bank’s dehumanizing treatment of Blacks, the Bank issues false statements and goes on a hiring spree of Sub Saharan African and Caribbean nationals to shift attention away from the root causes of the problem. This is what happened in the 1980s (during President Clausen’s time) and in 1998 (During President Wolfensohn’s time). This is what is happening now on President Kim’s watch.

 In June 2016, David Theis, World Bank spokesman, told Breitbart News: “Since 2015, the Bank has made good progress on racial diversity in key positions:  9 of 31 VPs are from Sub-Saharan Africa or are African American. Two years ago, there were only 3.” (See “Hillary Clinton’s Handpicked World Bank Chief Accused of Overseeing ‘Systemic’ Racism” by Patrick Howley).

Theis’ figures indicate that the Bank’s affirmative action has increased the representation of Sub Saharan African VPs from 9.7 percent to 29 percent in just two years.[1]

Flaunting 9 Sub Saharan African VPs and showing of 170 or so new trophy recruits as a sign of progress is the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig and calling it by a different name.

The World Bank should not be applauded for its PR driven recruitments and promotions. Instead it should be held accountable for dehumanizing over 1500 Sub Saharan Africans and other staff of Sub Saharan African origin currently on its employ.

The systemic racism for over half a century calls for bold and immediate actions. Establishing a high level external commission is the first critical step. The commission should be completely independent from senior management and its report must be made public.  

What Blacks in the World Bank need is an environment free of discrimination where they will be judged by the content of their character and by the level of their competence not affirmative action. The only way that can be ensured is by establishing an independent adjudicative body outside of the discredited (quite frankly the disgraceful) Tribunal.

For the World's premier development institution whose vision is "a world free of poverty," its record of institutional racism makes it untrustworthy among people of African origin. The only honorable thing for senior management and the Board to do is to admit the undeniable and reform itself. Seven decades of institutionalized racism is enough. It is worth remembering that apartheid in South Africa lasted only 46 years, 1948 to 1994.

May the wind of change blow the defenders of the current system off to their resting place.

* 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.

End note

[1] The inclusion of African Americans in the list needs to be qualified. The person referred in Theis’ statement is not a native African American. The reference is to a naturalized African American of Ethiopian origin.

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