Report Details Racial Discrimination at World Bank

Posted: June 11, 2009 in society
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WASHINGTON – June 9 – Today, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) released a report that investigates and finds evidence of racial discrimination against black professional grade employees at the World Bank. The report, which documents the treatment of these employees in recruitment, retention and internal judicial decisions, finds that a race ceiling exists at the institution, and that the Bank’s legal system fails to address racial discrimination adequately.

Specifically, the report details that of over 3,500 professional grade World Bank staff worldwide (more than 1,000 of whom are Americans), there are only four black Americans. In addition, the report details how other black bank staff, such as black Caribbean nationals and black African employees, are also underrepresented.

The report, which was prepared in response to multiple disclosures concerning racial discrimination at the World Bank, is available on GAP’s Web site. The annexes can also be viewed here.

“As Africa’s leading financier, the World Bank should be at the forefront of promoting racial equality,” said Shelley Walden, GAP International Program Officer and co-author of the report. “Instead, their anti-discrimination policies are largely cosmetic and lack effective, impartial enforcement mechanisms. They allow black employees to be sent to the back of the World Bank bus.”

The problem is particularly acute for black American employees. GAP found that the number of black Americans employed in the professional grades at Bank headquarters has decreased in both absolute and relative numbers in the last 30 years. While the World Bank is an intergovernmental institution that cannot focus on the specific concerns of national governments in its personnel policies, the fact remains that an unusually large percentage of its professional staff members are U.S. nationals, yet black American professionals are visibly under-represented. Although the World Bank’s international status exempts it from US Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity statutes, such an under-representation strongly indicates discrimination in recruitment and retention policies, a violation of a core labor standard of the International Labour Organization of the United Nations. Moreover, because the Bank does not regularly collect data on racial identity, to a large extent such patterns of discrimination in employment are invisible.

GAP’s report also documents the failure of the World Bank’s conflict resolution system to address racial discrimination issues adequately. Because the Bank is not subject to national laws, discriminatory conduct by Bank personnel can only be challenged internally. The standard applied by the institution’s internal court (World Bank Administrative Tribunal), however, imposes an onerous burden of proof standard on a complainant that favors the institution and is inconsistent with international discrimination jurisprudence. In the past 12 years the Tribunal has reviewed 21 cases of racial discrimination, but failed to substantiate a single case. That record stands despite internal Bank studies that have repeatedly found racial discrimination to be prevalent within the institution.

When asked about the pattern of racial discrimination in recruitment at the Bank, the Office of Diversity Programs responded that qualified black American applicants were in short supply. “This response seems disingenuous,” said Bea Edwards, GAP’s International Program Director. “Washington, D.C., the city that hosts the World Bank, is home to Howard University, the flagship of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States.”

Other significant findings from GAP’s report include:

  • Bank studies uniformly show that Sub-Saharan African, Caribbean and black American staff members are disadvantaged, relative to other staff, when they pursue careers at the Bank. For example, as of 2003, the latest year for which statistics were available, black World Bank employees were 36.3% less likely to hold a managerial grade relative to equally qualified non-black employees.
  • Bank data show that professional black staff members working on Bank operations are disproportionately confined to positions in the Africa Region.
  • In 1999 a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that the Bank’s internal grievance process was ineffective at addressing bias complaints and made a series of recommendations for improving the system’s ability to address discrimination. Ten years later, it appears that the most important recommendation of the GAO and the Bank’s own Review Committee regarding discrimination has not been adopted.
  • The rules of the Administrative Tribunal do not permit the World Bank Staff Association to file complaints contesting policies that appear to have a racially discriminatory impact.
  • Staff members and job applicants of African heritage who allege racial discrimination appear to be unlikely to receive the compensation or vindication they seek before the Tribunal. In contrast, complainants of non-African descent who allege racial discrimination, retaliators or Applicants claiming reverse discrimination have a better chance of receiving a favorable judgment and compensation.

To address these issues, GAP’s study recommends that the Bank record and publish its figures on the recruitment, retention and promotion in professional grades of all black World Bank employees, especially black Americans. GAP also recommends that an independent review of the Administrative Tribunal’s jurisprudence regarding racial discrimination cases be conducted, and that the Tribunal’s rules be amended to allow a shifting burden of proof. In addition, the Tribunal should allow petitions from the Staff Association challenging discriminatory policies or a hostile work environment. Finally, an intensive recruiting effort at Howard University’s graduate schools, and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities, would help to address the issue practically and immediately.

The Government Accountability Project (GAP) is a 30-year-old nonprofit public interest group that promotes government and corporate accountability by advancing occupational free speech, defending whistleblowers, and empowering citizen activists. We pursue this mission through our Nuclear Safety, International Reform, Corporate Accountability, Food & Drug Safety, and Federal Employee/National Security programs. GAP is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization.

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