Saturday, October 16, 2010

Walking Apartheid Avenue

In Washington, D.C., there is a subway station known as Farragut West, it is two blocks from the World Bank headquarters. World Bank employees of African descent call this two-block stretch “Apartheid Avenue” because the white World Bank managers who leave this station to go to work there in one building, while black employees go to another building. Whites and Asians at the World Bank have little limit to their ability to advance, but the blacks stay in the positions they are given and are expected to be happy to be there at all.

Now you might say that there are blacks in high positions at the Bank, and you would be right. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is Managing Director at the Bank, and Obiageli Ezekwesili is Vice President for the Bank’s Africa region. However, to say that such high-level appointments mean that the World Bank has a color-blind environment is like saying the United States has achieved a color-blind society because Barack Obama was elected President. Very few of us would believe the latter, and there is no more reason to believe the former.

Three decades ago, the Washington Post ran an article that documented underrepresentation by black employees at the World Bank. In June 2009, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) issued a subsequent report on racial discrimination at the World Bank that showed very little progress has been made since then, and internal mechanisms to redress racial discrimination grievances were found to be part of the problem.

“GAP reviewed the Bank’s Tribunal decisions since 1996 in racial discrimination disputes. Our review found that the Tribunal failed to find discrimination in any of the 21 racial discrimination cases it reviewed over the past 12 years,” the report stated. “Given the fact that a series of studies have found systematic discrimination within the institution, and that the Bank’s own data reveal the racial differentials cited earlier, this record at the Tribunal is disturbing.”

According to the Bank’s data, between 1996 and 2009, a cutback led to three out of five black employees in just one department being let go, and neither of the two remaining blacks were promoted. Meanwhile, only four of 18 Asians were let go, while five were promoted. Only one of 12 whites was dismissed, and seven were promoted. Even looking at these numbers in just one department, World Bank grievance hearing officials see no pattern of discrimination.

GAP’s Beatrice Edwards, writing in Foreign Policy in Focus last year, said the failures to properly investigate and adjudicate racial discrimination at the Bank “translate into an environment of lawlessness and impunity where breathtakingly racist incidents can still occur.”

Dr. Yonas Biru knows that all too well. Until earlier this year, he was performing managerial duties at the Bank. His supervisors had brought back a retired white employee rather than allow him to head the project that he was partially managing. When the white manager proved incapable of doing his job, Dr. Biru was assigned more of his duties than he already was performing. When the man retired again, Dr. Biru was once more denied the promotion. The original excuse was that an outside agency made that decision, but it was discovered that this explanation was untrue.

When Dr. Biru protested, Bank officials apparently decided to get rid of him. Scholars working on his project were scheduled to deliver their reports in June of this year as contracted, but he was asked to summarize these reports weeks earlier. When he couldn’t comply, he was fired.

In his racial discrimination grievance, Dr. Biru noted that he had performed managerial functions and was qualified for the job. He cited his uniformly outstanding reviews and the testimony of the scholars that he had managed their work. At the Administrative Tribunal hearing, Bank managers said they only rated Dr. Biru so highly as an encouragement for him to do better. They said the scholars couldn’t be believed that Dr. Biru had managed them because they were biased by being managed by him. Dr. Biru faces a final decision on his case by Bank appeals officials next Friday.

The World Bank has declared that Africa is the Bank’s top priority, and of the requested US$50 billion plus in funding for the Bank’s International Development Association financing facility, half will go to Africa projects. With Western donors cutting back on aid because of the global recession, the World Bank is becoming increasingly important to Africa. But if Africa’s children are treated so poorly by Bank officials, how much faith can we put in any programs supposedly intended to help the continent?

Immunity should not be confused with impunity. We may not be able to sue them in court for such blatant discrimination, but we are not without recourse. No agency that depends on donor funding should take that funding for granted. Racism should never be rewarded, and World Bank officials should keep that in mind. For anyone who wants to voice their opinion to the Bank on this issue, call 1-202-473-1000 or send an e-mail to

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