The modern mission of the World Bank is to alleviate world poverty, but although Asia and Africa are home to 80 percent of the world’s poor, the racism of the bank is so deeply entrenched and pervasive that the nations of Africa have virtually no say over the bank’s policies and actions and blacks have no presence in its internal operations, according to an article by former World Bank officer Phyllis Muhammad on allafrica.com.
It is a problem that was pointed out as long ago as 1978 by the late William Raspberry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist who wrote 34 years ago about the complete absence of blacks in the operations of the World Bank. There has been very little improvement since then.
In fact, a group called Justice for Blacks has started a petition drive on change.org asking Human Rights Watch to investigate the bank’s human rights violations. The petition, entitled “End Racial Discrimination at the World Bank” and thus far signed by more than 1,500 people, chronicles some of the bank’s woeful practices regarding black people at its Washington, DC-based headquarters, where it employs more than 10,000 staff and consultants. Because it is part of the UN system, the World Bank is not under the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts, meaning internal victims of discrimination can’t seek recourse in the American courts but must instead go before an internal Tribunal—where they have not received any justice.
Many studies over the years have documented the endemic racism inside the World Bank. A 2008 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Project (GAP) found that “only four black Americans held professional positions out of more than 1,000 U.S. nationals. This figure represents a significant proportional decline even from the abysmal levels reported thirty years ago.”
The prejudice in these hiring practices is also reflected in the decision-making of the World Bank.
According to Muhammad’s article, the voting rights of three of the founding members of the bank—the U.S., China, and Ethiopia—tell the story. In 2007, the U.S. held 16 percent of the voting rights, China controlled 2.77 percent and Ethiopia accounted for a miniscule 0.08 percent. Even with a population of 77 million, Ethiopia carried less voting power than the Bahamas Islands, with a population 330,000. And Nigeria, with a population 150 million, held less voting rights than Kuwait, whose population is 2.5 million. Overall, sub Saharan Africa, home for 30 percent of the world’s poor, was allotted 5.55 percent voting rights.
The bank attempted to improve this in 2010, by approving a modest shift in voting rights in favor of developing countries. As a result, Latin America and China saw their voting rights increased a bit—China went from 2.77 to 4.42 percent. But Africa saw virtually no change—of the 47 countries in sub Saharan Africa, Sudan was the only one that gained.
The lack of black people in the bank’s decision-making ranks is surely a big part of the problem. While Africa accounted for 50 percent of the Bank’s International Development Assistance (IDA) disbursements for poverty alleviation in 2010, people of African origin represented just 2.5 percent of the professional staff in the Development Economics (DEC) vice presidency, where the Bank’s poverty alleviation policies are shaped.
At the recent IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings in Tokyo, the new World Bank President Jim Yong Lee pointed out that “wherever there is inequality, there is too often injustice.”
In fact, the bigotry inside World Bank headquarters is so pervasive that a street adjacent to the World Bank’s HQs is nicknamed “Apartheid Avenue.”
Massive internal change is needed if the situation is going to improve—change that likely will come from outside pressure because the racist culture inside is too ingrained. In 1997, a former director of the World Bank’s Loan Department explained why he was not recruiting black professionals: “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 ghetto of the Bank,” a reference to the Bank’s Africa region.
This past March 2012, when a group of former and current World Bank staff petitioned the World Bank Board of Directors to intervene, a member of the Board of Directors, after reading the documents submitted by the group proving the racist practices, wrote back to them: “Thank you for bringing this very disturbing and saddening matter to our attention. … [However] I am not in a position to provide you with a reasonable feedback… With kind regard and the Almighty’s guidance always.”
Muhammad points out in her piece that the Bank has been so focused on trying to improve its woeful gender inequity that it continues to promote white women over blacks.
“Would the World Bank have tolerated such naked discrimination for so long had the victims been any other group?” Muhammad asks. “The answer is made obvious by its sustained actions to end gender discrimination. Racial discrimination continues unabated because the victims are black.”
“Allowing systemic injustice to stand without accountability and correction would amount to endorsing human rights violations,” the Justice for Blacks group wrote in its change.org petition. “The Bank should not be treated as ‘too big to be held accountable’ and blacks should not be treated as ‘too little to count.'”