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Black Staffers Battle Racism and Discrimination at World Bank

February 6, 2014

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.

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim Kim. Photo: AFP

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim Kim. Photo: AFP

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.

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11 Responses to Black Staffers Battle Racism and Discrimination at World Bank

  1. victory

    February 8, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    Dear Yonas, as someone said above first and foremost when you are fighting a powerful insitution, you must really take good care of yourself mentally and physicaly from any harm. World Bank is not just a mere insituation, it infuences the world. So since you are still important for the world, yourself, family because of your skills, you can always apply to another prominent organization. WB may not allow the high position for Blacks or AFrican descendants because there will be a can of worms to open if allowed what the plan is against poor countries and perhaps that is why it is off limits for non Whites. It is about dominating the world without any interfernce. Besides, they never want bright individual such as yourslef to be in high position because of this intellectual threat. Beleive it or not, there are Westerns who want to prove that people who live in Africa are not intelligent and this is the only way to ban you from showing your intelligence. They believe it is genetics or born with it. So be useful and avoid any serious threat and work for other worthy organization. UN will be a good place although UN is now no longer is fair and balanced as well.

  2. Hope

    February 8, 2014 at 7:45 am

    For some reason, the word RACISM drive these people crazy. I wish you the best of luck. Try the best you can not loose your sanity — surround yourself with family and friends. They will do everything to make you look like an insane person. I hope you have good competent somewhat descent lawyers that won’t throw you under the bus if The World Bank offers them more more money than they would receive from your lawsuit — they have no shame or guilty conscience. All the best to you and your family. This also shall pass. Be strong my brother!

  3. seifu degefu

    February 6, 2014 at 10:36 pm

    My Soul Brother Yonas:
    If you do not know the European Supremacy up to this moment whatever you know is no count. You got to know that but you got to fight it to
    smooth it out.

    As a brother I advise you to go back and study the history why the “world bank” (Aint world bank) was established.

    Be cool and know why some countries refused to pay back their debts.

  4. Abera M. Abebe

    February 6, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    Continue the fight. Racism and discrimination are alive and present in all US private and governmental institutions including the federal government. The World bank and IMF are not better in this regard. Perhaps they have all the bigots of the world gathered in one institution. What they did is not only racism and discrimination, it also rises to criminal behavior. The victim in this case should the US legal institutions. For example EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunities Commission)is a good start. He might get better attention if he uses the power of the US law enforcement in this case.

  5. Dagi

    February 6, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    Why only $4.1 million?you are suing the world bank it has to be at list 40 million.

  6. Ethiopie

    February 6, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    My advice to mr Biru is to protect himself and his mind.

    This is typical of the world we live in. Being educated black is not a meal ticket to great jobs but hell ticket into high places. Constant belittling and undermining has left many with mental illnessess and broken homes.

    What makes it worse is the problem is prevelant more so in the the so called Charitable Organisations-the do-gooders.

    The fact that the world bank head has to be an “american” says it all.

  7. Born again

    February 6, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    Keep up with the fight for justice against racism. Don’t let anyone step over you.
    The World Bank is the most racist and corrupted institution when it comes to Blacks and Africa. Its corrupted policy itself is an affirmation propping up dictators by giving money to extend their tyranny.

    The most brutal dictators, such as the late Meles Zenawi and now Hailemariam Desalegn are childrens of the World Bank. They would not have a chance to stay in power if it was for a democratic election and if it were not for the corrupt World Bank support.

    Meles died in power for 20 years with rigged elections and crimes that the whole world knows but the World Bank kept on coming quickly to rescue him by giving him money to pay his cadres.

  8. Aida Leroy

    February 6, 2014 at 9:30 am

    Thank you Washington Informer for giving this serious matter serious coverage.

    Perhaps the World Bank’s spokesperson should tell your readers what part of Biru’s accusation the Bank is disputing. The Bank claim of “privacy and confidentiality” for not going in detail is conspicuous considering that the fact that Biru has given the Bank full permission to discuss the matter with the Washington Informer. It is hard to go in detail when the detail exposes open racism.

    First the Bank’s own 2013 “diversity scorecard” shows Blacks are still segregated in the “African Ghetto” of the Bank and they are virtually absent in the other parts of the Bank. Biru was one of the only two blacks in the Bank’s Chief Economists’ complex out of over 175 professionals. The Chief Economist’s complex that is supposed to be the Bank’s Ivory Tower is off limits to blacks.

    Second, the fact that the World Bank falsified Yonas Biru’s employment record has been verified by several independent reviewers including the US government and the Government Accountability Project (GAP). Perhaps the Bank’s spokesperson should be reminded the aggrieved staff has the original copy of his record as well as a copy of the forged document showing an empty space where his stellar performance was recorded. Here are the facts that the Bank’s spokesperson cannot deny. Before Yonas Biru filed discrimination claims his official World Bank HR record read:

    “Yonas has been Deputy Global Manager and a very strong performer managing one of the most critical programs the Bank has ever managed. He has multiple roles in the global management of ICP. He is praised for his many skills… The Bank’s role in managing the ICP is extremely important and high profile with many international partners involved. Yonas’ work in managing sensitive relationships between stakeholders involved is very impressive. He was responsible for expanding the scope of the program’s global partnership. He initiated, managed and brought to fruition important innovations in critical areas of the program that has created a lasting legacy to the ICP.”

    After he filed racial discrimination complaints his record was falsified and the Bank filed false statement to the Tribunal suggesting:

    “He had no management responsibility. To be sure, he has been asked to help during spikes in work assignments as a team member and to foster teamwork competency in him…. …He was not regarded as a team player nor able to work cooperatively with others… He also lacks credibility with the other partners in the international statistical system… Some regions do not want to work with him. They are concerned that the whole project would be put at risk if he was made the global manager.”

    Over a dozen senior officials of international organizations (including Presiddents and Chief Economists of the organizations) refuted the Bank’s claim as patently false. What is the Bank contesting?

  9. bayou Damtew

    February 6, 2014 at 6:39 am

    Such an outright injustice as that meted out on an Ethiopian employee based on one’s exterior is commonplace in an institution that is itself founded by largely by whites to plunder the rest of the world.
    The fact that the Bretton house financial institutions World Bank and IMF must be headed by an American and a European respectively, speaks amply about the nature of these supposedley ‘World’ insitutions.
    Is the United Nations any different?
    That Yonas did what he had to do in terms of interrogating the banks workings, is correct. I sense most Ethiopians would not brook any ‘racial’ injustice. But surely may blacks and other people oc colour are grilled in that sinister istitution that has been used to exploit and cause outrageous havoc on the environments particularly in Africa, Asia and latin America.
    Yonas’s pursuit of justice is legitimate. But I wonder if anything positive will transpire as they felon, the judge and excecutioner are one and the same.

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