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The group Justice for Blacks indicts the World Bank for its racial injustice against its own black staff as America celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday and questions whether the new President of the bank will uphold the caste system of discrimination against blacks or seek to walk a different path that genuinely addresses systemic racial discrimination

When it comes to racial discrimination at the World Bank, there are three facts that have long been accepted as truisms, included in seven successive World Bank and two World Bank’s Staff Association reports: First, racial discrimination in the World Bank is systemic. Second, victims of discrimination are denied due process. Third, the Bank has failed to reform itself.

Many have asked the question: ‘How is it that the World Bank, which has over 50 years of experience in teaching others how to design and implement successful reforms, fails to rid itself of the scourges of bigotry?’ Others have asked: ‘How does an institution committed to fighting poverty in Africa as a major part of its mission explain systemically disadvantaging the people of black African heritage in its own ranks?’ (Foreign Policy in Focus, July 2009). What is not asked often enough, however, is: ‘How can those in a position of power remain oblivious to the inhumane suffering that victims of discrimination are subjected to?’ It is the quest for an answer to this question that led Professor Joseph Kieyah to wonder if the World Bank sees Blacks as ‘sub-human’ (The Africa Report, April 2012). More information is available on our Facebook: End Racial Discrimination at the World Bank.

The purpose of this article is to take a closer look at the physical and psychological tolls that racial discrimination exacts on its victims. Many studies have pointed at the Bank’s lack of accountability to an independent justice system as the most important culprit for its governance ills, not least for its culture of racial discrimination. Racial discrimination chips away people’s sense of dignity and diminishes their self-worth. Suffering such a violation without legal recourse is a traumatic experience, especially when it is systemic and sustained over time. A recent article entitled ‘Neo-Apartheid World Bank: It is the Culture’ describes the five stages of grief that victims of discrimination go through as follows:

‘First is denial, which is a coping mechanism to deal with a pain that it too painful to handle. It is nature’s therapeutic way of controlling the emotional floodgate and letting in only as little as the person is capable of handling. What is filtered out is denied to give the brain time to absorb what has been filtered in. Once the full gravity of the reality sinks in, denial gives way to anger. Anger represents an emotional eruption to face the pain head on. The third stage is bargaining, in which the victim comes to terms with the pain. This, in turn, sets into motion the fourth stage: depression. Such a painful emotional rollercoaster has to run its course with excruciating agony before the victim returns to something resembling normalcy.’

Those who go through the five stages of grief and survive with their psychological and physical faculties intact are the lucky ones.


Following a financially draining, emotionally destabilizing, and blatantly unfair process, an African staff member was devastated after the Tribunal summarily dismissed his racial discrimination charges with abject disregard for the merits of his claims. Racked with raw wrath and tormented with deepening emotional grief, he quickly spiraled down. Totally consumed by a deep sense of humiliation in his community where he was once a popular personality and public media figure, within weeks he was killed in a car crash. He perished at age 41, leaving behind a wife and two young children.

Another high caliber African staff member (a Harvard graduate and an author of several books) also perished under the crush of the Bank’s systemic injustice. He was brought into the Bank to function at a senior management level by a fair-minded vice-president. Soon after the vice president retired, he became a target and was subsequently downgraded to a lower-level position. As a senior member of the Bank’s management team he knew that it was futile to file complaints with the Tribunal. He was silently consumed by the injustice and succumbed to stress-related complications in short order.


There are numerous victims who have experienced nervous breakdowns, suffered heart attacks or been hospitalized, cheating death only by the grace of God. And there were those who went on a hunger strike to protest, but to no avail.


Filing discrimination claims at the World Bank results in systemic and sustained psychological abuse. The story of a Sub-Saharan African staff provides a telling example. Soon after the staff filed discrimination charges he faced systemic retaliation. The Bank’s own Appeals Committee ‘found some evidence to support an inference of retaliation’ and questioned ‘whether the aggrieved staff’s supervisor harbored personal animosity toward the staff.’ As a result, the Committee ‘strongly recommended’ that the HR vice president take immediate actions to accord him ‘a healthy working environment.’ The VP rejected the Committee’s recommendation thereby encouraging the aggrieved staff’s immediate supervisor and his director to escalate their assault. In a futile effort to find a humane solution the Chief Ethics Officer visited one of the Bank’s senior vice presidents three times. The Ombudsman met with the HR vice president, but all to no avail.


Dr. Noa Zanolli Davenport, a world renowned expert was retained by the aggrieved staff as an expert witness in his attempt to secure provisional relief while pursuing his case before the Tribunal. As an author of a highly acclaimed and frequently cited book and articles on workplace psychological abuse, Dr. Davenport is a highly sought-after expert who has appeared in several US and European courts as an expert witness. Having gone through hundreds of pages of documents and having interviewed the aggrieved staff, concluded he was subjected to ‘mobbing,’ -- commonly known as ‘office bullying.’
Mobbing is defined as ‘a malicious attempt to force a person out of the workplace or to surrender through humiliation, harassment, isolation, and emotional abuse and terror.’ The European Union and the International Labor Organization have recognized workplace mobbing as a serious health issue. Companies have been assessed substantial fines for failing to stop mobbing in the US, UK, Europe, and Australia. A UK firm was fined $26 million. In the World Bank mobbing is a tacitly approved instrument of choice to bring protesting staff into line. A 2007 study prepared by the Bank’s Ombudsman’s Office noted:

‘Systematic and prolonged bullying behavior at work is highly injurious to the victim’s health resulting in a range of emotional and physical disorders, including stress, blood pressure, depression and heart attack. Many of the harassment behaviors in the Bank fall squarely into the category of office bullying that is more devastating than all other work-related stress added together.’

Several studies including a 2008 study at McLean Hospital in collaboration with Harvard Medical School found that individuals exposed to mobbing face a heightened risk of suicide. Citing scientific studies Dr. Davenport’s report emphasized that ‘mobbing can result in serious heart attack or even suicide’ and flagged the fact that the aggrieved staff ‘had to be rushed to the emergency room on two occasions with a racing heart.’

In his request for provisional relief the staff noted that in addition to the tremendous psychological stress he also had a potentially life threatening physical health issue that he was dealing with. He volunteered to submit his doctor’s report if required. The Bank’s acting vice president made it clear in her reply that the Bank’s management could not do anything to mitigate the situation ‘while the adversarial Appeals case is in progress.’ Meanwhile, the Bank’s lawyers argued before the Appeals Committee that the staff was claiming health problems ‘to gain sympathy.’ The Committee ruled for the Bank and against the staff member’s motion for provisional relief, stating:

‘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.’
Only trained health professionals can determine what constitutes risk for irreparable harm. However, the Bank was not interested in expert opinion.


During the Tribunal proceedings, the staff member sought to substantiate his suffering with evidence including Dr. Davenport’s extensive report. The Tribunal not only ignored her report, but also brazenly suggested it never received it. The Tribunal was in possession of (i) Dr. Davenport’s report, (ii) evidence of emergency room visits, (iii) a report from a prominent psychiatrist, and (iv) evidence of prescriptions for depression drugs. Nonetheless, its judgment read:

‘The Applicant’s heated rhetoric about the injury he perceives simply cannot substitute for material evidence of his serious charges. … Naturally the Tribunal cannot accept the Applicant’s allegations of bullying and intense psychological abuse, unsupported as they are by any evidence save his own assertions.’

This was patently false. It is with such reprehensible violation of due process that the Tribunal rejects racial discrimination claims it reviews. Victims of discrimination spend as much as $100,000 in legal fees and end up seeing their evidence ignored or destroyed and denied. For most victims of discrimination the Tribunal’s judgments dismissing their claims is a crushing weight of injustice more devastating than being exposed to several years of mobbing. It extinguishes the flicker of hope that victims of discrimination cling to and as such represents a traumatic end to already traumatized victims.

As America celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the new President of the World Bank will find himself at a crossroad. For the sake of convenience, he could embrace the past, lauding the Bank’s accomplishments fighting poverty in the world while ignoring its paucity in fighting injustice for its own Black staff. He could continue to uphold the caste system for employees and issue the Bank’s familiar promissory notes for Tribunal reform, which for decades have bounced, marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we, the group Justice for Blacks at the World Bank, appeal to him to summon the courage of Dr. King and help the Bank walk a different path, the path of being a drum major for justice for the Blacks in its institution. Only in so doing will his tenure prove creditworthy to Blacks and the Bank prove itself to be a first-class institution in truth.


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*Fatuma Mokaba for Justice for Blacks – [email protected]