Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

The effort to abolish racial discrimination within the World Bank largely depends on the whims of its president and his perception of what is good enough for blacks. Adrienne Smith argues that after more than three decades of pledges and reaffirmed promises to end discrimination the Bank’s reforms have failed

Good governance anchored in accountability and transparency is widely accepted as a prime factor for economic development and the rule of law. There is also a watered-down version of good governance that some say is more suitable for relatively less developed regions such as Africa. It is called “good enough governance” that was proposed by a Harvard professor in 2002. Long before “good enough governance” was proposed, the World Bank has been using the concept with respect to its racial equality policy.

The essence of ‘good enough governance is articulated as follows. Not all governance ills can be treated all at once where there is a capacity problem characterized by weak institutional infrastructure, shortage of human capital, and absence of a democratic culture and the rule of law. Reformers are advised to focus on selected strategic areas in the short term and broaden and deepen the reform gradually overtime. The downside of this is that in practice such reform efforts are often dictated by what can be done easily rather than by what ought to be done, resulting in cosmetic rather than substantial change. The proposal comes with a risk of allowing those in a position of power to reign with impunity while reformers are left on their own to deal with marginal and inconsequential areas that the powers that be point as “priority." This has been the story of the World Bank’s policy on racial equality.


In keeping with the ‘good enough governance’ principles the World Bank acknowledges the existence of systemic and deep-rooted problem with respect to racial equality, but argues that for a host of reasons it must be addressed as a long-term strategy rather than as a short-term reform agenda. One explanation often given by Bank managers is that there is a shortage of qualified blacks. In 1978, then President Robert McNamara mentioned lack of qualified Sub-Saharan Africans as one of the reasons for under-representation of blacks in the Bank’s management cohort, according to an op-ed article in the Washington Post (November 10, 1978).

The Bank continues to use the same excuse for under-representation of African Americans 30 years later. According to a 2009 report by the Government Accountability Project (GAP), one of the Bank’s directors suggested that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the US, such as Howard University, do not produce good quality graduates. The World Bank, the Director said, needs to help them upgrade their graduate programs as part of the Bank’s long term diversity goal. This is, of course, a lame excuse to say the least. The message the Bank is sending, however, is that there is not much the Bank can do in the short term, but to do what is good enough given the constraints.
Let us divide the Bank’s history into three periods to have a better handle of the issue - 1978 to 1997; 1998 to 2007; and 2007 to 2012.

1978 TO 1997

In November 1978, William Raspberry, A Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, wrote two consecutive op-ed articles in the Washington Post bringing to light the extent of lack of racial diversity in the Bank’s management cohort. He pointed, for example, “There was no black among the 160 division chiefs, the lowest management rank.” In 1979, African members of the Bank’s Board of Governors discussed the issue at the Bank’s Annual meeting in Belgrade and issued a request to address it. Nothing of substance happened for over a decade. In 1992, a World Bank report documented: “People of African heritage receive less favorable treatment than is the norm in the Bank, including recruitment at a grade lower than comparably qualified staff from other parts of the world, significantly lower average salary level, lower profile assignments and unusual difficulty getting assignment outside of Africa region.” This was a confirmation of what an earlier 1990 study found. A third study in 1997 reconfirmed what had been confirmed earlier: racial discrimination in the World Bank is systemic and the internal justice system is deficient.

On December 12, 1997, the Board met again to discuss the lingering problem, almost two decades after the Belgrade meeting. The meeting was organized after the above-noted 1997 report found that the Bank did not follow through with earlier recommendations. The Bank’s reaction, as presented in a 1998 official report, was: ‘Although past efforts have been less than fully effective, the Bank Group should be proud of its continued commitment to this issue.’ The 14 page report did not indicate what the ‘past efforts’ were. However, whatever the efforts were real or feigned they were good enough for the Bank to be proud of.


In 1998, a World Bank report prepared by an internal Team for Racial Equality concluded the problem is far more entrenched and widespread than the 1997 report documented. In 1999, the US Congress commissioned the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to undertake a study of the access to legal redress provided to victims of racial and gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The GAO Report stated without qualification that the Bank’s internal justice system did not adequately protect grievants complaining of discrimination and harassment. It noted also that the justice system did not hold managers accountable, and employees often saw it as neither fair nor credible and this deterred them from using it.

The report also carried a response letter from the Bank’s then President, James Wolfensohn, which indicated ‘Substantial resources are being invested to build capacity within the system to deal with discrimination and harassment in an effective manner.’ Were not the Tribunal judges appointed to their positions precisely because they were considered to be seasoned jurists, well-acquainted with legal standards? Were the Tribunal judges really in need of training to understand that judicial independence and due process of law that they willfully breach are cornerstones of justice? Or was it, rather, the Bank’s managers, who hold multiple postgraduate degrees from big name universities, who were found in need of further schooling to learn that discrimination is wrong? To the contrary, what was needed in fact was accountability--not capacity building.

In the same letter the President told the US government: ‘We are in the process of implementing reforms and I can assure of my personal commitment to administering a conflict resolution system in the World Bank Group that ranks among the most effective and progressive of its kind.’ He went further and promised ‘a state-of-the-art justice system.’ To his credit he initiated limited policy actions but failed to succeed for two reasons. First, as one of the managers, who was involved in the process wrote recently, ‘The problem proved to be bigger and deeper than the President or anyone of us could comprehend.’ Secondly, he tried to abolish a deeply entrenched practice without first establishing accountability as if discrimination happens without perpetrators. As a result, some of the very perpetrators were put in charge of the proposed reforms. The reform was partially neglected, partially sabotaged, and ultimately aborted.

A 2003 World Bank report prepared by external experts established that (i) racial discrimination remains systemic, (ii) the majority of the staff still has no confidence in the Bank’s justice system and will “never use it for discrimination claims,” and (iii) the organization was not doing enough to repair policies, procedures, and systems that have failed to constrain racial bias.

In contrast, the reform proved to be successful in tackling gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The Bank took decisive actions against perpetrators of sexual harassment including termination and forced resignation. The Tribunal also ruled in several cases in favor of victims of sexual harassment and upheld the Bank’s disciplinary actions when they were challenged. In the meantime, a number of diversity scorecards published by the Bank indicated the Bank was making headway in closing the gender gap, showing the Bank’s systemic and sustained attempt to curb gender discrimination.


During this period, the Bank made remarkable progress in combating gender discrimination because of the steadfast leadership of President Robert Zoellick. In the July 16, 2012 issue of Forbes, Richard Behar wrote: ‘When arriving at the bank Zoellick was flabbergasted at the glass ceiling for women–despite 20 years of studies and internal promises to change it. Within five years he could boast that half of his top managers were female.’As the number of women managers increased the number of reported sexual harassment complaints declined. In the meantime, both the Bank’s management and the Tribunal continued to send a clear message that sexual harassment would not be tolerated.
In contrast, neither Zoellick nor his HR vice president showed any interest in addressing the glass ceiling for blacks, despite 35 years of official acknowledgment of racial inequality and repeated unfulfilled promises to end it. They did not even bother to pretend they cared. The vice president failed to act even when the Bank’s Appeals Committee “strongly recommended” that he take immediate action on specific racial discrimination cases. The situation for blacks deteriorated markedly. As documented in at least two reports, Ghettoization of blacks in the Africa region worsened and the number of racial discrimination complaints increased significantly. ‘Niggers go home’ graffiti appeared in the corridors of the main headquarters on multiple occasions, as documented in the July 2009 issue of Foreign Policy in Focus.

This is a period in which blacks were subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment even by the World Bank standard. One example would suffice to make the point. As documented in one of the Justice for Blacks reports, a Sub-Saharan-African staff was engaged in a racial discrimination dispute for over two years. During this time he endured vicious and systematic retaliation without any institutional safeguard to protect him. After many months of unrelenting humiliation, alienation, and harassment, he was under tremendous psychological stress. During that same time he had a serious physical health issue to address. Consequently, he requested provisional relief. He offered to submit a doctor’s report if it was deemed necessary. The Bank’s Chief Ethics Officer visited one of the Bank’s sr. vice presidents three times ‘to resolve the situation in a constructive manner,’ but her appeals were rejected. The Bank’s ombudsman contacted the HR vice president to intervene, but his efforts met no success. The Bank’s lawyers argued that the aggrieved staff was claiming health problem to win sympathy and that he should not be granted provisional relief. The Appeals Committee ruled for the Bank with the following explanation: ‘The Appeals Committee has interpreted undue hardship to refer to situations where staff members demonstrate the likelihood that the consequences of the management actions would cause immediate and irreparable harm.’

Apparently, to get provisional relief he was required to prove imminent risk of “irreparable damage.” Only the doctors could establish that. However, a psychologist’s report that the staff submitted which flagged serious potential consequences was ignored and his offer to submit a doctor’s report was deemed unnecessary.


During the first period the problem of racial discrimination in the Bank was acknowledged but nothing was done about it. In the second period there were half-hearted efforts made without success. During the third period the issue of racial discrimination was taken off the Bank’s radar screen as President Zoellick gave priority to gender equality. The lesson here is that the effort to abolish racial discrimination largely depends on the whims of the president in office and his perception of what is good enough for blacks. After more than three decades of pledges and reaffirmed promises to end discrimination the Bank’s reforms have failed to materialize.

In its petition on Justice for Blacks, a group organized to end racism in the World Bank, asked ‘Would the World Bank have tolerated such naked discrimination for so long had the victims been any other group?’ The answer is made obvious by its sustained actions to end gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Racial discrimination continues unabated because the victims are black.

The bottom line is that the Bank has failed to accept people of African heritage as deserving of the full protection of international human rights laws that assure equality in rights and access to the security of justice. The Bank fully realizes that allowing access to a genuine legal system will have serious legal repercussions. If justice were to prevail, the Bank would face serious repercussions as the floodgate of lawsuits open. The Bank would be held accountable for systemic and protracted racial discrimination that seriously undermines its proclaimed commitment to “improving the lives of the poorest people on the planet.” Therefore, not a single allegation of racial discrimination can be allowed to prevail within the Bank’s justice system, lest a precedent can be established and the floodgate be breached, and the Bank’s image be damaged. The role of the Tribunal judges is keeping the floodgate shut tight.

The Bank envisions conferring full equality upon blacks in the distant, hazy future, but for the present, good-enough equality will remain the Bank’s personnel policy. This has been the story of the World Bank’s reforms to end racial discrimination. Clearly, as pointed out in this article, left to its own devices, the World Bank is incapable of reforming itself. In the July 27, 2010, issue of the Huffington Post, Reverend Gregory Livingston, a Chicago based civil rights leader wrote: ‘We cannot expect the World Bank to change its discriminatory culture without a powerful and organized demand. We need everyone accountable and at the table.’ I reiterate, indeed, we need everyone accountable and at the table! Then, and only then, will racial equality at the World Bank be made GOOD.

* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

The author, an African American is a member of Justice for Blacks. She holds MBA from Morgan State University. She can be reached at [email protected]