|Good-enough racial equality at World Bank|
|Monday, 31 December 2012 00:00|
Good governance anchored in accountability and transparency is widely accepted as a prime factor for economic development and the rule of law. There is also a watered-down version of good governance
that some say is more suitable for relatively less developed regions such as Africa.
The essence of ‘good enough governance is articulated as follows. Not all governance ills can be treated all at once where there is a capacity problem characterised by weak institutional infrastructure, shortage of human capital, and absence of a democratic culture and the rule of law.
Reformers are advised to focus on selected strategic areas in the short term and broaden and deepen the reform gradually overtime.
The downside of this is that in practice such reform efforts are often dictated by what can be done easily rather than by what ought to be done, resulting in cosmetic rather than substantial change.
The proposal comes with a risk of allowing those in a position of power to reign with impunity while reformers are left on their own to deal with marginal and inconsequential areas that the powers that be point as “priority." This has been the story of the World Bank’s policy on racial equality.
In keeping with the ‘good enough governance’ principles the World Bank acknowledges the existence of systemic and deep-rooted problem with respect to racial equality, but argues that for a host of reasons it must be addressed as a long-term strategy rather than as a short-term reform agenda.
One explanation often given by Bank managers is that there is a shortage of qualified blacks. In 1978, then President Robert McNamara mentioned lack of qualified Sub-Saharan Africans as one of the reasons for under-representation of blacks in the Bank’s management cohort, according to an op-ed article in the Washington Post (November 10, 1978).
The Bank continues to use the same excuse for under-representation of African Americans 30 years later.
According to a 2009 report by the Government Accountability Project (GAP), one of the Bank’s directors suggested that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the US, such as Howard University, do not produce good quality graduates. The World Bank, the Director said, needs to help them upgrade their graduate programs as part of the Bank’s long term diversity goal. This is, of course, a lame excuse to say the least.
The message the Bank is sending, however, is that there is not much the Bank can do in the short term, but to do what is good enough given the constraints.
Let us divide the Bank’s history into three periods to have a better handle of the issue — 1978 to 1997; 1998 to 2007; and 2007 to 2012.
1978 to 1997
He pointed, for example, “There was no black among the 160 division chiefs, the lowest management rank.” In 1979, African members of the Bank’s Board of Governors discussed the issue at the Bank’s Annual meeting in Belgrade and issued a request to address it. Nothing of substance happened for over a decade. In 1992, a World Bank report documented: “People of African heritage receive less favourable treatment than is the norm in the Bank, including recruitment at a grade lower than comparably qualified staff from other parts of the world, significantly lower average salary level, lower profile assignments and unusual difficulty getting assignment outside of Africa region.”
This was a confirmation of what an earlier 1990 study found. A third study in 1997 re-confirmed what had been confirmed earlier: Racial discrimination in the World Bank is systemic and the internal justice system is deficient. On December 12, 1997, the Board met again to discuss the lingering problem, almost two decades after the Belgrade meeting.
The meeting was organised after the above-noted 1997 report found that the Bank did not follow through with earlier recommendations.
The Bank’s reaction, as presented in a 1998 official report, was: “Although past efforts have been less than fully effective, the Bank Group should be proud of its continued commitment to this issue.”
1998 to 2007 (James Wolfensohn’s Presidency)
The GAO Report stated without qualification that the Bank’s internal justice system did not adequately protect grievants complaining of discrimination and harassment. It noted also that the justice system did not hold managers accountable, and employees often saw it as neither fair nor credible and this deterred them from using it.
The report also carried a response letter from the Bank’s then President, James Wolfensohn, which indicated ‘Substantial resources are being invested to build capacity within the system to deal with discrimination and harassment in an effective manner.’ Were not the Tribunal judges appointed to their positions precisely because they were considered to be seasoned jurists, well-acquainted with legal standards?
Were the Tribunal judges really in need of training to understand that judicial independence and due process of law that they willfully breach are cornerstones of justice? Or was it, rather, the Bank’s managers, who hold multiple postgraduate degrees from big name universities, who were found in need of further schooling to learn that discrimination is wrong? To the contrary, what was needed in fact was accountability — not capacity building.
In the same letter the president told the US government: “We are in the process of implementing reforms and I can assure of my personal commitment to administering a conflict resolution system in the World Bank Group that ranks among the most effective and progressive of its kind.” He went further and promised “a state-of-the-art justice system.”
To his credit he initiated limited policy actions but failed to succeed for two reasons. First, as one of the managers, who was involved in the process wrote recently, “The problem proved to be bigger and deeper than the President or anyone of us could comprehend.”
Secondly, he tried to abolish a deeply entrenched practice without first establishing accountability as if discrimination happens without perpetrators. As a result, some of the very perpetrators were put in charge of the proposed reforms. The reform was partially neglected, partially sabotaged, and ultimately aborted.
A 2003 World Bank report prepared by external experts established that (i) racial discrimination remains systemic, (ii) the majority of the staff still has no confidence in the Bank’s justice system and will “never use it for discrimination claims,” and (iii) the organisation was not doing enough to repair policies, procedures, and systems that have failed to constrain racial bias.
In contrast, the reform proved to be successful in tackling gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The Bank took decisive actions against perpetrators of sexual harassment including termination and forced resignation.
The Tribunal also ruled in several cases in favour of victims of sexual harassment and upheld the Bank’s disciplinary actions when they were challenged. In the meantime, a number of diversity scorecards published by the Bank indicated the Bank was making headway in closing the gender gap, showing the Bank’s systemic and sustained attempt to curb gender discrimination.
2007 to 2012 (Robert Zoellick’s Presidency)
“Within five years he could boast that half of his top managers were female.” As the number of women managers increased the number of reported sexual harassment complaints declined. In the meantime, both the Bank’s management and the Tribunal continued to send a clear message that sexual harassment would not be tolerated.
In contrast, neither Zoellick nor his HR vice president showed any interest in addressing the glass ceiling for blacks, despite 35 years of official acknowledgment of racial inequality and repeated unfulfilled promises to end it. They did not even bother to pretend they cared. The vice president failed to act even when the Bank’s Appeals Committee “strongly recommended” that he take immediate action on specific racial discrimination cases. The situation for blacks deteriorated markedly. As documented in at least two reports, Ghettoisation of blacks in the Africa region worsened and the number of racial discrimination complaints increased significantly. ‘Niggers go home’ graffiti appeared in the corridors of the main headquarters on multiple occasions, as documented in the July 2009 issue of Foreign Policy in Focus.
This is a period in which blacks were subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment even by the World Bank standard. One example would suffice to make the point.
As documented in one of the Justice for Blacks reports, a Sub-Saharan-African staff was engaged in a racial discrimination dispute for over two years.
During this time he endured vicious and systematic retaliation without any institutional safeguard to protect him. After many months of unrelenting humiliation, alienation, and harassment, he was under tremendous psychological stress.
During that same time he had a serious physical health issue to address. Consequently, he requested provisional relief. He offered to submit a doctor’s report if it was deemed necessary.
The Bank’s Chief Ethics Officer visited one of the Bank’s senior vice presidents three times “to resolve the situation in a constructive manner,” but her appeals were rejected. — Pambazuka News.