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Beneath the racial underneath

The birthday of Dr Martin Luther King reminds the world that African Americans suffered for centuries under slavery and during the Jim Crow era of legalized segregation. Yet the World Bank continues to target them to this day

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

~ Martin Luther King, 1963

As we gear up to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, we must remember that the day is commemorated not only to honour an iconic civil rights leader, but also to cherish his legacy and keep his dream alive. Dr. King’s birthday is as much a day of celebration as it is a day of reflection and commitment for action. It is in this spirit that we write this article.

The World Bank was established in 1946 and currently stands as the second largest employer in the nation’s capital, next only to the US federal government. Its history is replete with a deep-rooted racial bias against Blacks. Since 1978, several investigative reports have documented that racial discrimination in the World Bank is “systemic” and all-encompassing. To-date Blacks are systematically segregated in the Africa region, a practice referred to as “ghettoization.” The degrading practice continues despite repeated plea from the Staff Association “to address seriously the issue of ‘ghettoization,’ to ensure that diversity cuts across the institution as a whole.”

Dozens of articles and blogs have expressed the culture of bias as: “a shame” (World Bank Staff Association Newsletter); “walking Apartheid Avenue” (Africa Rising 21st Century); “sins of bigotry” (The Huffington Post); “demeaning and dehumanizing” (The Africa Report); “debasing of humanity,” (The Ethiopian Reporter); “Apartheid a la Banque Mondiale” (, Cameroon); “chronic inequality” (The Guardian, UK); “pervasive” (The Atlanta Black Star); and “profoundly beyond the pale of human decency” (Pambazuka News).

Much has been written, also, on the fact that victims of discrimination are denied the protection of the law. Because the World Bank enjoys immunity from US courts, aggrieved staff can only file complaints with an internal Administrative Tribunal. A 1999 report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Bank’s justice system “did not adequately protect grievants’ rights of discrimination and did not hold managers accountable.” The US Treasury Department endorsed the report as “a fair and accurate statement.” Several recent studies have reached the same conclusion as recently as in 2010, some calling the Tribunal “a fig leaf of justice.”

The gravity of the problem is best described as “breathtaking” by Beatrice Edwards, Executive Director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), in an op-ed article in the June 2009 issue of Foreign Policy in Focus. She wrote: “The pattern of discrimination at the World Bank and the lack of vindication for complainants at the Tribunal translate into an environment of impunity where breathtakingly racist incidents can still occur.”


In an open letter to the current President of the World Bank that appeared on this forum (Dec. 13, 2012), as members of Justice for Blacks, we wrote: “In the World Bank’s caste system blacks are lined up behind the beyond and stacked down beneath the underneath.” That was generally speaking for all Blacks. Hard as it may be to believe, the situation is far worse for African Americans.

In a 1978 op-ed article in the Washington Post, William Raspberry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, reported: “60-odd black African professionals on a professional staff of more than 2,400.” This means Blacks in general accounted for a meager 2.5 percent of the World Bank’s professional grade. More importantly, the article noted, “there was not a single black division chiefs out of 160 scattered throughout the bank.” With respect to African Americans, Raspberry found “three black Americans out of 619 American professionals,” accounting for 0.48 percent of American professionals in a city where Blacks represented over 50 percent of the population.

A 2009 investigation by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) found “four Black Americans out of over 1000 American professionals, a significant proportional decline even from the abysmal levels reported by Raspberry thirty years ago.” The Bank’s public explanation is that there is a lack of qualified African Americans. As Bea Edwards succinctly put it in her above-noted op-ed article, “This is, of course, a well-worn canard that doesn't hold up.”

The World Bank’s own 1998 report indicates “black staff members are recruited disproportionately in the secretarial grades, ignoring the educational and professional success they have achieved.” The report acknowledges, “many of them are qualified for the professional ranks of the Bank." According to the same report, 32 percent of the Bank’s overall workforce is in secretarial ranks. In comparison, 47 percent of Africans are in secretarial grade. The corresponding figure for African Americans is a staggering 75 percent!

African Americans are excluded from professional ranks because they are blamed for “complaining too much to the Congressional Black Caucus.” As such, it is believed the best way to deal with them is not to hire them. As a result, they are effectively shut out of the World Bank or are kept in a secretarial position as an agency temporary. The story of Ms. Hitch provides a telling example. The following is a brief summary, borrowing liberally from a report prepared by GAP.


Ms. Hitch, an African American worked for the World Bank from 1984 until June 30, 2004. During her employment she served as an agency temporary, then on the Contract Temporary Assignment Program, and finally on term assignments. But despite positive performance evaluations and awards, she was never offered a permanent position with the Bank in the nearly 20 years.

Ms. Hitch applied for three separate positions in 2003-2004 and was denied all of them, including the contested program assistant position in the Bank’s Energy and Water Department, as well as another position that she was selected for, but was not offered. In 2004, she was short-listed for a regular position, but was excluded from an interview. She was interviewed only after she inquired about her exclusion. The interviewing panel identified her as “the candidate of choice” and this triggered a senior HR officer to send this email to the hiring director:

“I thought I should let you know the background of the African American only for your benefit when you finally get to make the hiring decision. She is about 57 years old and has been in the Bank about 20 years. For 18 years as a temp…I believe that in the department, we need young, dynamic staff who are quick starts and have the urge to go an extra mile.”

The HR official mentioned an “Indian” male candidate as an alternative to whom the position was given. Ms. Hitch filed a complaint with the Tribunal. While summarily dismissing her racial, gender and age discrimination claims, the Tribunal noted, “it is troubled by the unfortunate stereotyping … when comparing candidates during a selection process.” However, it ruled the Bank’s decision “was based on the Applicants’ respective qualifications and legitimate diversity considerations.” It is not clear how the Tribunal arrived at this conclusion. Particularly, the claim of “legitimate diversity consideration” was inexplicable. African American women are by far less represented than Indian men in the World Bank. It is with such blatant disregard for fact-finding due process that the Tribunal summarily dismisses every racial discrimination claim it reviews.


It has long been recognized that racial discrimination and whistleblower retaliation fester under the veil of the Bank's immunity. It was this recognition that led the passage of the Lugar-Leahy Amendment in 2005, requiring the Bank to give whistleblowers access to "independent adjudicative bodies, including external arbitration." The Lugar-Leahy Amendment is of particular importance in granting victims of discrimination the security of justice. This is because victims of discrimination often blow the proverbial whistle seeking support from American civil and human rights groups, the Congressional Black Caucus and other government agencies. As a result, they are subjected to whistle-blowing retaliation, often involving termination or separation under the threat of redundancy.

The intent of the Lugar-Leahy Amendment is to introduce an independent and fair grievance resolution system as an international best practice, without infringing on the World Bank’s immunity from national courts. The Amendment has been adopted as a best practice resolution measure by other international agencies, for example the African Development Bank. The World Bank’s refusal to comply with the Lugar-Leahy Amendment triggered the passage of the Consolidated Appropriation Act, 2012 that requires the US government to withhold approval for the World Bank's capital increase until it has made substantial progress in complying with the Act.

The Bank seems to be unfazed and remains out of compliance with the Consolidated Appropriations Act, insisting that its Administrative Tribunal is an independent adjudicative body. This position is untenable given the fact that its own multiple studies have determined the Tribunal lacks independence. Moreover, as recently as September 2010, the US Treasury and the US Executive Director to the World Bank have indicated they were “seeking to assure that the Bank provides a fair justice system for its employees, and [were"> continuing to explore the possibility of pressing the World Bank to look harder at external arbitration.”

Currently, there are at least three discrimination-related outstanding retaliation claims requesting access for independent adjudicative bodies through external arbitration or mediation. One is by Adrienne Smith, which is being handled by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The World Bank has ignored all three requests. The onus is on the US government to enforce the law by blocking the Bank’s pending request for capital increase.

African Americans have suffered for centuries in the US both under slavery and during the Jim Crow era of legalized segregation. It was to end the dehumanization of Blacks that many African American civil rights leaders sacrificed their lives. Dr. King did not die to replace Jim Crow with racism of a Bretton Woods brand that targets African Americans even more than it targets other Blacks.

Justice for Blacks, a group consisting of current and former World Bank officers, calls upon American civil rights leaders to raise their voice for the Obama administration to enforce immediately the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which is a critical first step towards insuring justice for Blacks in the World Bank. Rekindling Dr. King’s spirit and keeping his dream alive demands no less.


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* The authors, African Americans, are members of Justice for Blacks. Ms. Muhammad holds a JD from Harvard Law School and Ms. Smith is a graduate of Morgan State University (MBA). They may be reached at [email protected]