Claims of institutional racism against black people have dogged the World Bank for decades. The current president has a real opportunity to end the scourge
Dr. Jim Yong Kim
The World Bank
Dear Mr. President
We, the undersigned, are executive committee members of Justice for Blacks, a group consisting of current and former World Bank staff organized to restore the human dignity and rights of people of African heritage in the World Bank. Racial discrimination is a violation of human rights that is unequivocally condemned by a multitude of international human rights instruments. It robs black people of their inalienable and inviolable rights. It also seriously impairs the Bank's legitimacy as a leading global development institution.
We are writing to urge you to take immediate and concrete steps to put an end to what is degrading and dehumanizing to black staff and damaging to the long term mission of the World Bank. We are encouraged by the brilliant speech you delivered in Tokyo during the Annual Meetings that underlined your reverence to Dr. Martin Luther King and his quest for justice. We sincerely hope that your presidential mantle will draw its strength from the gravitas of justice than from the inertia of the status quo.
BACKGROUND: A CULTURE OF RACIAL BIAS
Systemic racial discrimination in the World Bank was first raised formally in 1971 when a group of black employees mounted complaints. Their efforts were to no avail. African members of the Board of Governors discussed the issue at the IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings in Belgrade in 1979 and called for a reform. Their concerns were twofold. Racial discrimination is in contravention of international human rights laws, and it denies Africa the voice of her learned sons and daughters in shaping the Bank's development policy that affects the continent's destiny. Unfortunately, the problem continued unabated.
In 1996, a director of the Bank's loan department explained why he was not hiring black professionals in an open meeting stating: "Blacks make poor accountants and the department could not hire too many blacks as the department would look like a ghetto." He suggested blacks should be kept in the "African ghetto." According to the Bank's own 1998 report, interviews with Bank managers revealed cultural prejudices among some managers, "who rated blacks as unsophisticated and inferior."
In 2003, a World Bank commissioned study conducted by a private law firm reaffirmed the presence of "systemic" discrimination and noted that compared to equally qualified persons of any other race, being black is associated with a 36.3 percent reduction in the odds of being manager. It should be noted that the comparison is "with any other race" not with our "white counterparts." In the Bank's caste system blacks are lined up behind the beyond and stacked down beneath the underneath. In 2005, the Staff Association reported "The status of racial discrimination in the Bank is very bad." The report highlighted in five years, over 450 victims of discrimination filed complaints with the office of the then Senior Advisor for Racial Equality. This represented about 50 percent of the Black staff at the time.
In 2009, in an op-ed article in Foreign Policy in Focus, Bea Edwards, the Executive Director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) wrote:
"Eleven years have passed since the 1998 World Bank 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."
DENIAL OF DUE PROCESS: ACKNOWLEDGED AND IGNORED
It has long been recognized that victims of racism in the Bank have been denied legal redress by the Bank's Administrative Tribunal, since it was established in 1980. The Tribunal is seen as "neither fair nor credible" by the World Bank Grievance Process Review Committee (1998); "ineffective in addressing complaints of bias and harassment" by US Government Accountability Office and by the US Treasury (1999); having a "disturbing" track record of dismissing all racial discrimination cases filed by black complainants, by the US Government Accountability Project (2009); and a "broken" justice system by the Staff Association (2010). A 2010 independent scholarly study concluded International employment Tribunals, such as the World Bank's Administrative Tribunal "are a fig leaf of justice, internally controlled fictions of due process." http://www.unjustice.org/Parish.pdf
In the above-noted article, Bea Edwards described the impact of the absence of legal redress succinctly: "The pattern of discrimination at the World Bank and the lack of vindication for complainants at the Tribunal translate into an environment of impunity where breathtakingly racist incidents can still occur." Her article was triggered by repeated "Niggers go home" graffiti in the corridors of the Bank's Main Complex. Ms. Edwards is not the only one to use such a strong language. We invite you to read Elaine Coleville's forthcoming article, "The US and UK Ignore the Plight of Blacks in the World Bank," particularly the section "All Rise, World Bank's Jim Crow Tribunal is in Session." Having extensively reviewed the Tribunal's judgment on a particular racial discrimination case, she concluded that the Tribunal's ruling is "profoundly beyond the pale of human decency...and represents judicial misconduct bordering on the criminal." We are sending a copy of her article to your office.
The current state of race relations in the World Bank resembles a lingering remnant of Apartheid of yester-century than a failed attempt at embracing a post-racial 21st century. Over the last three months alone several articles have been written, including:
1. Investigate 'Ghetoization' of Blacks at the World Bank (The Ethiopian Reporter);
2. World Bank Reforms Must Embrace Racial Equality (Guardian UK);
3. Report Details Shocking Racism at the World Bank (The Atlanta Black Star);
4. Unmasking Racist World Bank (Pambazuka.com) -- Reprinted in several countries;
5. Neo-Apartheid World Bank: It is the Culture (www.africaw.com).
OUR OPTIMISM FOR CHANGE
We are writing to you with optimism. We draw our optimism from a statement you made at the 2012 Annual Meetings in Tokyo. Reflecting on the state of matters 50 years ago, you said:
"Back then, in Africa, the wave of independence was opening new opportunities for self-determination. And in America, institutionalized racism was being confronted by a civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. captured this universal quest for progress and dignity when he said: "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Dr. King's statement revealed a fundamental optimism about the human condition, an optimism which has fueled my life and which I carry with me to the World Bank Group. The transformations that took place five decades ago reveal how individuals working together can bend the arc of history toward more opportunities for more people."
In the above-noted article, Professor Simms wrote: "If Jim Yong Kim wants to 'bend the arc of history', he should start by addressing long-standing inequalities in his own organisation." We wholeheartedly agree!
Your speech at the Annual Meetings had many remarkable points -- points that only a person who had been long enough in the trenches of the underprivileged world can grasp and articulate. It is this quality that separates you from your predecessors. It is this quality that inspires our confidence in you. One point in your speech that struck us the most is your statement that "poverty inflicts violence on people's bodies and spirits." You noted "This makes all of us less human" and wondered "why we tolerate it." One can substitute the word poverty with "institutional racism" and make an equally powerful statement. Institutional racism inflicts violence in people's spirits. It makes all of us less human. Why have the Bank's leadership and its Board of Directors tolerated such a plague for decades?
You have eloquently and genuinely talked the talk. We hope that unlike the previous Presidents you will walk the walk. You spoke so elegantly of the arcs of moral universe and history. We would hasten to note that where the arc of moral universe meets the arc of history resides the altar of accountability.
OUR REQUESTS: THERE IS NO JUSTICE WITHOUT ACCOUNTABILITY AND REDRESS
Justice for Blacks believes three critical steps are needed for justice to prevail:
1. The first is issuing a formal apology without qualification to all current and former black employees for decades of institutional racism they endured. The fact that there are seven internal reports establishing systemic racial discrimination over a span of several decades without accountability and/or redress demands such an apology.
2. The second is establishing an external commission to review all racial discrimination cases the Tribunal summarily dismissed and taking corrective actions to redress grave injustice inflicted upon those who have suffered discrimination and been denied due process.
3. The third is granting those who have pending discrimination and related-retaliation cases an alternative judicial process outside of the Bank's Tribunal system. Insisting that the Bank enjoys sovereign immunity and requiring victims of discrimination to only take their cases to a widely discredited Tribunal would be tantamount to saying "Blacks Need Not Apply for Justice."
OPENING A NEW CHAPTER AND REDEEMING THE BANK'S LEGITIMACY AND CREDIBILITY
As the first Asian-born president of the World Bank and as one nominated by the first African American President of the United States, your appointment signifies a break from the past in more ways than one. Your Tokyo speech, anchored in an iconic line by an iconic American civil rights leader, signals a new light. We are confident that your presidency will open a new chapter and the flickering light we are seeing will shine even brighter. We are hopeful you will restore the human dignity and rights of people of African origin and redeem the Bank's legitimacy and credibility as a global leader in the quest for human development. Only then can you say "individuals working together can bend the arc of history toward more opportunities for more people."
On behalf of all members of Justice for Blacks, we take this opportunity to thank you for your consideration. It is with high hopes and raised expectation that we look forward to receiving a favorable response. Please accept assurances of our highest regard.
We remain sincerely,
Yonas Biru (PhD)
Ibrahim Elbadawi (PhD)
Phyllis Muhammad (JD)
Eugene Nyambal (PhD)
Salomon Samen (PhD)
Adrienne Smith (MBA)
We Call upon Civil and Human Rights Leaders to Join Our Call for Justice
We Call upon African Members of the Bank's Board of Governors to Support our Demand