by Barrington M. Salmon
The Washington Informer
For more than seven years, Yonas Biru has been fighting the World Bank.
The Ethiopian native and Silver Spring, Md., resident said he’s learned the hard way the price of being black at the venerable institution.
Biru, a married father of three, says the World Bank dismissed him because he challenged his bosses when they passed him over for a promotion. He was punished, he said, for refusing to accept the racist and discriminatory treatment commonly meted out to blacks by the Bank’s managers and supervisors.
“I came to the U.S. with $12 in my pocket. I had to work at a hotel as a room service waiter to finance my education,” Biru said. “There were some winters when I couldn’t buy shoes because I had to buy books, pay for my education. Now I have no professional identity. They stole it.
“Nobody’s going to question that the World Bank would do something like this. If you look in the public domain, they say everything I say is an exaggeration,” he said. “When I asked the bank to give me my employment records, they refused. They signed, sealed and archived my records seven years ago. I cannot write a curriculum vita saying I was a manager.”
Biru said he fled Ethiopia because his mother was a close relative of former Emperor Haile Selassie and their lives were in danger as the communist government that overthrew the monarchy in 1974 murdered and imprisoned royals, nobility and perceived opponents.
“I thought I was coming to a land of opportunity, work hard, succeed. I worked so hard, for so long, got a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and worked for the Bank,” Biru said.
The abrupt and bitter end to his World Bank career proved to be a deep contrast to the excitement and promise the job once engendered.
“I joined the Bank in 1993,” he said. “And in 1999, I was appointed to reform a program that was dying. At the time, the International Comparison Program (ICP) was one of the most important in the Bank. A United Nations committee investigated the program and saw the need for an organizational, institutional, operational, financial and meteorological overhaul. The Bank
called the director and she gave me the job.”
“She said we don’t have resources, but if the programs died, I’d lose my job. I knew I could turn it around with her support. It was a one-man shop but by 2002, I had turned it around. We had hubs in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. I was getting perfect evaluations just short of saying I walked on water.”
“From 2001 to 2009, Biru said he managed research in critical areas that stabilized and strengthened the ICP. He also developed and coordinated ICP regional programs in Asia, Latin America, and Western Asia. Biru racked up frequent flier miles meeting with and encouraging partners in farflung parts of the world to participate in the program, and for seven years, he said he managed fundraising and was responsible for expanding the scope of the program’s global partnership.
And then it all fell apart.
“A bank director and my immediate manager told me that the Bank could not appoint me Global Manager because ‘Europeans are not used to seeing a black man in a position of power,'” he
recalled. “They made it seem as if it was the external ICP Executive Board who did not want me to
be Global Manager. But several members of the Board testified and rejected the Bank’s sworn statements as patently false.”
“The new storyline the bank concocted was that I was not considered for the Global Manager position because I lacked management experience. And to give credence to the new storyline, the Bank falsified my employment history, wiping out my entire managerial track record.”
Until that time, Biru said, as Deputy Global Manager he was considered by his superiors to be a strong performer managing one of the most critical programs the Bank has ever managed. His original human resources records say he played “multiple roles in the global management of ICP” and he “is praised for his many skills…”
But they were rewritten, he said, to say “he had no role in the management of ICP (and) lacked the core competency and credibility to be a global manager.”
A Bank spokesman disputes Biru’s accusations, but declined to go into specifics citing privacy and confidentiality issues.
The Bank, which draws its staff of 15,000 from 170 nations – two-thirds from developing nations – is considered the most diverse employer in Washington, D.C.
The tribunal, which heard Biers’ two complaints, one claiming breach of promise and racial discrimination, ruled against him. Tribunal rulings are considered binding and irreversible but Biru sought to have the cases reopened.
“These types of cases are very difficult. It gets very heated and emotional,” the spokesman said. “It gets very difficult because these things mean a lot. He has strongly held views. We have to vigorously dispute (his) assertions about the environment at the Bank. We do work hard to deal with these issues. And we have a strong commitment to diversity.”
Biru said his case is commonplace. For more than 30 years, the World Bank has been scrutinized and criticized for the manner in which it treats its African American and African employees. But as an international entity, was not subject to U.S. laws until recently. The U.S. is the anti-poverty agency’s larger donor.
Interviews of Bank staff by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) in 2008 show that only four black Americans held professional positions in a headquarters staff of more than 3,500 professionals.
According to one GAP study, black World Bank employees were 36.3 percent less likely to hold a managerial grade relative to equally qualified non-black employees. In addition, GAP has gotten information about how the Bank treats black employees, especially black Americans. In response
to these concerns, GAP conducted an investigation into the Bank’s approach to internal racial discrimination.
The Bank itself has conducted several surveys that confirm the depth of the problem in the institution. Blacks are underrepresented at the higher levels of the Bank, and black staffers have
complained about the discrimination that surrounds promotion decisions there. The problems prompted several past and present employees to form Justice for Blacks.
Former Bank employee Phyllis Muhammad, in a column titled “Jim Crow Reengineered and Institutionalized at the World Bank,” provides concrete examples of abuses.
In 1996, she said, a department director announced in a departmental meeting that “Blacks make poor accountants and the department could not hire too many blacks as the department would look like a ghetto.” He said blacks should be kept in the “African ghetto,” a reference to the Bank’s Africa region. Then in 1998, an internal World Bank confidential memorandum revealed that some managers regard Blacks as “unsophisticated and inferior.” The memorandum noted that Blacks are “located” (segregated) in the Africa region and face “Unusual difficulty getting assignment outside of the Africa region.” According to the same memorandum, black staff members interviewed for the report said “a common excuse is that the World Bank does not know how (clients might) react to a black (staffer), and can’t take the risk” by appointing blacks outside of the Africa region.
Biru is seeking $4.1 million for damages, mental distress, lost salary and benefits.
“I want justice and redress for the suffering I’ve experienced. I want them to restore my employment history. The bank, to this point, has refused. They also refused to remove from the public domain all the forged documents. This was done to disqualify a qualified applicant from getting a job elsewhere,” he said.
This is the first of a three part story.