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Secretary Kerry Holds the Key to End Racial Discrimination at the World Bank


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Dr. Jim Yong Kim as the first minority president of the World Bank

The World Bank has no equivalent in the United States as far as institutionalized discrimination goes. To hear firsthand the harrowing discrimination that Black employees endure in the World Bank is to be transported back in time to the 1950s.  At the heart of the systemic racism resides the World Bank’s immunity from virtually all paths of US law except the purse strings of Congress. This has confined victims of racial discrimination to the institution’s handmaiden Jim Crow Tribunal that has consistently denied them the security of justice.

Blacks at the World Bank were pleased when President Obama nominated Dr. Jim Yong Kim as the first minority president of the World Bank, hoping he would end the systemic discrimination that has been an endemic part of the institution’s culture. Instead the Korean American, who often talks about “the racial indignation he suffered growing up in Iowa”, has proved to be a guardian of the World Bank’s racial status quo rather than the agent of change many Blacks had hoped he would be. In internal World Bank meetings the president openly admits that “the existence of prevalent racial discrimination [against people of African origin] is no secret to anyone.”  Nonetheless, he refuses to establish an external commission to investigate why the Tribunal has failed to see in four decades what he saw in two years, that discrimination against Blacks is prevalent and no secret.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

In January 2014 President Obama signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act, requiring the World Bank to grant its staff access to external arbitration or face a 15 percent reduction in US financial aid. The 2014 Appropriations Act is the third such law. In a clear violation of three U.S. laws President Kim rejected several outstanding requests for external arbitration, denying victims of racial discrimination a credible road to justice. The onus to bring the World Bank into compliance with the 2014 Act is on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry who is mandated to report to the Congressional Appropriations Committees about the Bank’s lack of compliance with the Act, which would trigger a 15 percent reduction in US financial aid to this world financial institution.

As Justice for Blacks (a group of current and former World Bank staff) noted, “Institutional Racism in the World Bank is the big elephant in the room whose existence is acknowledged, but whose assault is not addressed.” The Bank’s own official reports admitted that some mangers considered Blacks as “inferior” and “ghetto” and suggested that they should be segregated in the Bank’s Africa Region vice presidential unit (VPU).  A 2003 World Bank report found that “Blacks are told they can only work in the Africa region because they can be more competitive there and [some nationals] do not want to work with Blacks.” In 2011, Blacks accounted for 45.2 percent of the professional staff in the Africa Region VPU. In contrast, they represented 2.1 percent and 2.4 percent respectively of the East Asia Region and Development Economics VPUs.

The Bank admits that even the meager 2.1 and 2.4 figures are misleading because they include Africans of Asian and European ancestry as “proxies for Blacks.” When this ploy was exposed the World Bank discontinued the practice in 2014, but started counting Blacks in sub-professional stream outside of the Africa Region VPU as part of its professional cohort.  Such open statistical shenanigans are used as a public relations ploy to cloud the segregation of Black professionals in the Africa region.

Segregation is not the only injustice Blacks are subjected to.  Several World Bank reports have documented that Blacks in general received “less favorable treatment than is the norm in the Bank, including recruitment at one level lower than comparability qualified [non-Black] staff; significantly lower average salary level; and more restrictive and lower profile assignments.”  This means Blacks are discriminated even in the Africa Region VPU in terms of recruitment, pay and promotion.

How is this possible in the 21st century?  The Administrative Tribunal considers such systemic racism in the World Bank a legitimate business practice. There is no racial injustice, no matter how blatant, that the Tribunal would not justify with business reasons. Since its establishment decades ago, it has summarily dismissed all racial discrimination claims it has reviewed despite the innumerable internal reports where the Bank has confessed that racial discrimination runs rampant within its walls.

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World Bank

In 2010, after extensively reviewing the Tribunal’s summary dismissal of a particular racial discrimination case, the executive committee of the Staff Association concluded that, “several aspects of the Bank’s justice system are broken.” Having reviewed the same case, the U.S. Treasury and the U.S. executive director to the World Bank stated “We remain interested in seeking to assure that the World Bank provides a fair conflict resolution system for its employees, and are continuing to explore the possibility of pressing it to look harder at external arbitration . . .”

The 2014 Act stipulated, without ambiguity, that the U.S. “will” withhold 15 percent of its financial support to the World Bank as leverage to press it to grant its staff access to external arbitration.  The World Bank is also unambiguous about its intention not to comply with any U.S. laws in clear violation of the 2014 Act. The passage of the 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act has shifted the onus of restoring the human dignity and rights of African Americans, and other people of color in the World Bank, from the World Bank to the U.S. government.

On July 7, 2014, representatives and leaders of over 500 faith-based organizations signed a petition requesting the immediate enforcement of the Consolidated Appropriations Act.  The clergy’s petition echoed an earlier petition signed by the leaders of the Metropolitan DC Chapters of several civil rights organizations including, the NAACP, the National Action Network, the National Congress for Black Women, the National Urban League and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

Mr. Kerry, who is mandated to enforce the 2014 Act, has a moral and legal obligation to discharge his duty.  Failure to enforce the law to the fullest extent would be tantamount to condemning American citizens of African origin to suffer racial indignation in their birth land often by foreigners who come to the U.S. to work for the World Bank that is benefiting from U.S. financial aid to the tune of billions of dollars.

Frank E. Watkins is the D.C. Public Policy Director for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

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