Racial Discrimination at the World Bank

On the morning of May 27th this year, the staff of the Legal Affairs Office of the World Bank encountered an ugly racial slur scrawled on the wall outside their department. Very shortly, however, the words “N–––, go home!” were erased by order of World Bank management. This was the second such episode in as many weeks.

The General Counsel’s office filed an incident report with security services, much as you might do about a broken lock or a stolen purse, but word spread rapidly through the Bank. For days, black staff members waited in vain for senior management to condemn the graffiti and inform them about steps that would be taken to ensure that public displays of race hatred would be stopped. This expectation was met with silence. Senior management neither acknowledged nor condemned either incident. One week later, the Bank’s diversity policy was posted on the intranet. Period.

This dismissal of racist conduct at the World Bank came as no surprise to many black staff members working there. Although the Bank’s website characterizes the institution as “able to attract, excite and nurture diverse and committed staff with exceptional skills who know how to listen and learn,” both data and folklore have strongly suggested otherwise for many years. Less than two weeks after the graffiti appeared, my colleague Shelley Walden at the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and I released a report documenting a clear pattern of racial discrimination that disfigures the personnel profile of the World Bank. Staff members of black African heritage, whether they come from sub-Saharan Africa, the United States, or elsewhere in the Americas, are less likely to be found in professional grades at the Bank or to be promoted than their non-black colleagues.

White ‘African-Americans’

Especially shocking is the fact that in 2008, fewer than four black Americans had positions among the Bank’s staff of more than 3,500 professionals. The precise number is unknown outside the Bank because the Department of Human Resources doesn’t correlate staff demographic statistics by nationality, race and rank. Nor does the Bank distinguish between naturalized and native-born citizens (black or white) who hold U.S. passports — which means the Bank considers dozens of white immigrants from South Africa to be “African-Americans.”

The infinitesimal ratio of native-born black American professionals to professionals of other races and nationalities persists at the Bank, despite the institution’s commitment to address its discriminatory employment practices after William Raspberry wrote a column exposing the issue over three decades ago. When the Raspberry article appeared, “sixty-odd” black Africans held professional positions among a staff of about 2,500, and of 619 American professionals on staff, three were black. Over three decades, the ratio of American black professionals to all professionals has actually declined after rising in the late 1990s, from 0.48 percent to 0.11 percent.

According to Julie Oyegun, the director of the Bank’s Office of Diversity Programs, black American professionals are underrepresented because of a shortage of qualified candidates. Oyegun said that the Bank cannot compete for those few black Americans who are qualified. This is, of course, a well-worn canard that doesn’t hold up. The World Bank, which offers interesting work, pays generously, and provides excellent benefits, is located less than five miles from Howard University. Howard, the flagship of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, is not only conveniently located for any World Bank recruiter willing to visit, but it graduates the largest number of on-campus black PhDs of any university in the world.

Window Dressing

Although the Bank is shielded from U.S. affirmative action and equal opportunity statutes, between 1996 and 2005, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn did instruct the Human Resources Department to quantify the problem of racial discrimination. A task force produced a report that documented serious racial bias, particularly against black Americans. In 2001, management established an Office of Diversity Programs. The new office released its own study in 2003, which found a continuing problem of racial bias in recruitment and promotion. Black people entering the Bank tended to be hired at lower grades and salaries than others with similar qualifications. Black staff members also were ghetto-ized in the Africa Region and had difficulty transferring to different units. The pattern of discrimination appeared again in figures released internally in 2005. Strikingly, the 2005 study showed that the President’s Office, where the racial equality initiative originated, didn’t employ a single black staff member in the professional grades.

That figure was telling. Like many internal reforms at the Bank, the measures adopted to address racial discrimination were largely cosmetic. While senior managers delivered speeches deploring discrimination, the organization took no substantive steps to fix its own internal problems of racial bias in recruitment, promotion, and retention. On the contrary, after Wolfensohn stepped down in 2005, for the most part, even the window-dressing was neglected.

To compound the problem for black staff members, not a single complaint of racial discrimination brought before the Bank’s internal justice system in the past 12 years has been validated. In fact, the Bank’s administrative tribunal, which serves as an internal justice system for its 10,000-plus employees, has reviewed only 21 complaints of racial discrimination over this period. Taken together, the pattern of discrimination and the lack of vindication for complainants at the Tribunal translate into an environment of lawlessness and impunity where breathtakingly racist incidents can still occur.

Corrosive Impact

Racial discrimination is an ugly practice, wherever it happens, but it has a particularly corrosive impact on an institution that serves as the primary source of development finance for sub-Saharan Africa. 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? As one unnamed World Bank vice president volunteered in the Bank’s diversity report, “We are not likely to treat our clients better than we treat one another.”

In response to recent inquiries from the press, Bank management has distorted the truth about the prevalence of racism at the institution. The immediate concern about the slurs on the walls was apparently not about the impact on black staff members of such a public display of bigotry, but rather about the institution’s embarrassment if the news got out. A reputation for racism, after all, could cost the World Bank money. Bank operations are heavily dependent on member states’ contributions to its International Development Association (IDA) branch, which exists to help the world’s poorest nations. About half of IDA’s funds are lent and granted to African countries. The feel-good rhetoric generated in the course of doing business at IDA each day is endless: IDA funds foster competitiveness for African economies and build schools for African children and hospitals for the victims of HIV/AIDS. How does this financial and rhetorical devotion to uplift in Africa square with the practice of racial discrimination and the silence about it inside the Bank itself? How do managers who tolerate vicious racist actions in Washington conduct themselves when on mission in Africa?

In preparing our report on racial discrimination at the World Bank, we found that since 2001, management has been striving for “diversity” and “inclusion.” The Office of Diversity Programs eschews an association with the unpleasant and conflictive issue of discrimination. Nor does the office wish to become involved in addressing the Bank’s administrative tribunal’s abysmal track record. It prefers instead to convene an “Annual Diversity Day” and celebrate the inclusive multicultural heritage of many nationalities working together at the Bank. But how does an institution attract and retain minority staff members when, after the sun sets on Diversity Day, new recruits will be subjected to exclusion and harassment?

Eleven years have passed since the 1998 Task Force quantified the impact of discrimination on black African and black American employees at the World Bank. Indications are that nothing has changed for the better. If anything, the situation has worsened.

The Way Forward

There are immediate steps, however, that Bank management could take. First, recruitment efforts could establish special relationships with universities that graduate black African and black American scholars in the fields of international development and economics, such as the University of the West Indies, Howard University, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, and others. Second, meeting diversity targets could be tied to bonuses for managers. Promotion procedures that produce a disparate racial impact should be scrutinized for screening mechanisms that restrict opportunity for black staff members. Third, the standard of proof required to win a discrimination case at the Tribunal could be adjusted so that compelling circumstantial evidence is sufficient. Finally, judges should be trained and sensitized to recognize the signs of racial bigotry and bias.

Racial discrimination today is typically covert, anonymous, and clandestine. It occurs without witnesses, without names attached. Often only the victims and the villains themselves are aware of it. Nevertheless, because it is insidious, it sabotages the World Bank’s mission and must be aggressively addressed. If anyone doubts this, the handwriting was on the wall on the morning of May 27.

Bea Edwards is the Government Accountability Project’s International Program Director and a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor.