Yonas Biru is a typical example for racial discrimination at the World Bank. He served the organization for a long time. When he applied for a management position, the answer he got was “Europeans are not used to seeing a black man in a position of power.”
For many, the World Bank, whose president resigned this month three years before the end of his term, sounds like a liberal institution.
It does not, however, seem to be the case as there is practices of racial discrimination. It is evident in the case of Dr. Yonas Biru to Ethiopia, at least.
He has served the institutions for a very long time and has been to eight countries. His last position in the organization was Deputy Global Manager of the International Comparison Program (ICP) which he held for seven years, based on letter Former Virginia Attorney General,Hon. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, wrote to Ethiopian Prime Minister and Ethiopians.
When he applied for Global Manager of the ICP position, as noted in Mr. Kenneth’s letter, the World Bank told him “Europeans are not used to seeing a black man in a position of power.”
Dr. Yonas did not pursue the matter in the US court as the organization has immunity. However, he filed complaints within the organization and the findings reflected in the World Bank’s official diversity report says his case represents “blatant and virulent case of racism.”
Worse, the organization stripped of his professional accomplishments.
Yonas is not pursuing the matter to be reinstated in the organization but he wants full redress and he has been on hunger strike since January 2019.
Kenneth T. Cuccinelli seem to be optimistic that the acting president of the World Bank, Kristalina Georgieva , is a champion on human rights. He also counts on her integrity.
In his letter entitled “Do Not Let Your Citizen Die of Hunger Strike in the US,” he says “PM Ahmed should demand the Board of Governors of the World Bank intervene to redress Dr. Biru for the despicable racial injustice he suffered.”
Full content of his letter in which he recounted the experiences of Yonas Biru is as follows :
- Ken Hon. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II
Former Attorney General
As an American I can say without hesitation that if an American citizen faced injustice in a foreign land, the US government would do everything in its power to ensure justice is rendered and its citizen is returned to the US without delay.
We are pleased to learn that Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed’s government has shown the same level of commitment to protect Ethiopian citizens living abroad. This is evidenced by the Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs request to the US Secretary of State to intervene on behalf of Dr. Yonas Biru who endured unimaginable racial injustice in the World Bank.
I was introduced to Dr. Biru’s case through former US Congressman and a founding member of the Freedom Caucus who, in 2018, was one of the conservative US Congressmen who were closely following the case.
The purpose of this article is to inform PM Ahmed and Ethiopian citizens that Dr. Biru has gone on a hunger strike since January 12, 2019 in protest of his mistreatment. Dr. Biru has lived in the US for 40 years, but he still holds Ethiopian citizenship. It is extremely rare for someone who has lived in the US legally for 40 years without taking American citizenship. This shows the love he has for his country. It is important that his country stands by him.
Dr. Biru’s case has triggered a global outcry. It has been covered in over two dozen newspaper articles around the world, including an open letter to the Pope that was authored by an American Civil Rights icon.
The World Bank’s own official diversity report found it to be a “blatant and virulent case of racism.” The Dean of the World Bank Board of Directors (Dr. Merza Hasan) characterized it as an “unfortunate case.” One of the African Board of Directors (Dr. Denny Kalyalya) wrote “This is a very disturbing and saddening matter.” The US Board of Director (Mr. Ian Solomon) interfered without success. His office sent Dr. Biru a memo stating “further engagement in your case with the World Bank would not be productive.”
What made Dr. Biru’s case an international outrage? As reported in The Hill Newspaper and a 73-page report by US Senator Chris Van Hollen, the World Bank disenfranchised Dr. Biru of his stellar professional accomplishments, deeming his record “too good to be true for a black man.”
During the last 7 years of his tenure at the World Bank, Dr. Biru was the Deputy Global Manager of the International Comparison Program (ICP). The ICP is the “largest and most complex” economic comparison program in the world.
Apart from managing the ICP in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, his duties included overseeing the ICP research work and serving as the Editor of the ICP Quarterly Journal, the only World Bank quarterly that was published in five languages.
Dr. Biru has traveled to over 80 countries, acquiring vast global experience and receiving laudable international accolades in the process. The World Bank Peer Review Committee recognized him as a “gifted and talented” Deputy Global Manager and affirmed that he was qualified to be Global Manager.
His accomplishments proved too much for a black African in the eyes of his Iranian and Turkish top-brass superiors. At first, two senior executives including the Iranian lied under oath on tape, denying Dr. Biru’s official record. Ultimately, the Bank acknowledged his official record, but refused to honor it, claiming it is too good to be true for a black man.
Dr. Ben Carson, an African-American Conservative US Presidential Candidate and a current member of the Trump Cabinet, expressed outrage, stating the case shows “World Bank President Jim Yong Kim’s lack of humanity.”
Twenty-six US Senators and Congressmen and women as well as leaders and representatives of over 500 religious organizations called upon President Kim to redress the injustice. Ignoring all calls for justice, President Kim chose to hide behind the Bank’s legal immunity.
Summary of Dr. Biru’s Case
The problem started when Dr. Biru applied to become the Global Manager of the ICP. As noted in Senator Van Hollen’s report, the World Bank told him “Europeans are not used to seeing a black man in a position of power.” He was advised to withdraw his name from the application pool.
Several independent reports, including one prepared by a coalition of 32 conservative organizations, provided documentary evidence to support Dr. Biru’s allegations. The evidence includes a confidential memo that was marked Dr. Biru “will not get a copy or see it.” The memo revealed the culprits were the European Union (EU), Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).
In sworn and taped statements two World Bank executives blamed the three institutions, particularly the IMF. The World Bank record shows Dr. Biru was denied the Global Manager position after the Iranian executive received what she claimed was “unsolicited sensitive feedback” from high-level officials of the three organizations. She claimed their message made her “feel uncomfortable.”
The confidential memo exposed a dehumanizing arrangement that the World Bank and its European and Iranian partners agreed on. The memo disclosed an arrangement whereby Dr. Biru was charged to run the global program behind the scenes, but a white consultant was designated as Global Manager without his managing anything!
The arrangement was implemented despite the confidential memo’s acknowledgment that “it is not possible even on an informal basis to designate a consultant as global manager.” The World Bank is on the record, admitting that Dr. Biru was running the day-to-day management of the Global Program and World Bank rules did not allow the consultant to undertake any management or supervisory role. The Bank’s and its European allies concern was with the optics of an African being the head of the ICP.
As Documented in Senator Van Hollen’s report, to justify the decision not to designate Dr. Biru as Global Manager, the World Bank retroactively downgraded his personnel record and claimed he lacked relevant experience to be designated Global Manager.
Before Dr. Biru’s record was falsified and denied under oath, it read: “He has multiple roles in terms of the Bank’s global management, managing one of the most critical programs the Bank has ever managed… His work in managing sensitive relationships between international stakeholders is very impressive… The global program couldn’t be successful without his expertise and knowledge of key players.”
The degraded and falsified record that is currently on the World Bank website reads in part: “He had no management responsibility in the Bank’s global management. He doesn’t have the judgment and relationship management skills… He lacks credibility with the international community. The global project would be put at risk if he were made Global Manager.”
More importantly, before he was stripped of his professional accomplishments, Dr. Biru’s official personnel file noted; “He managed and brought to fruition important methodological innovations in critical areas that have created a lasting-legacy.”
Three of the studies produced new methodologies that became gold standards for international economic comparison. One of the studies was undertaken by a Nobel Prize-winning economist. The World Bank retroactively decided it is unfathomable for a black man to have initiated and managed such legacy-setting studies. His Iranian manager with the knowledge of the Turkish HR VP removed Dr. Biru’s name and management role from World Bank electronic publications and credited the work to white managers.
World renowned professors and senior consultants expressed outrage. One sent a signed testimonial, stating Dr. Biru was “robbed of his lifelong hard work and stellar personnel record. It defies logic and violates human decency on every level.” Another added: “Any statement that anyone but Dr. Biru initiated, managed, or guided our research is utterly false.”
When Dr. Biru challenged the racist actions, the World Bank declared him unqualified for any management position and terminated him.
Because of the Bank’s immunity from US courts, the only legal recourse Dr. Biru had was to file a complaint first with the World Bank’s Appeals Committee and then with the Administrative Tribunal.
The record shows Dr. Biru was denied due process. For example, during the Appeals Committee hearing, the Bank’s lawyer threatened the Committee not to allow Dr. Biru to call international witnesses. The Bank’s lawyer stated on the record that “The General Counsel of OECD is making a special trip” to Washington. They are “very nervous.” They are “being advised of the risk” of being cross-examined.
Inger Anderson, Chair of the World Bank Appeals Committee, filed a complaint for the record stating: “We do not have access to national labor law, and national court system. I want to put that on record. Because we’ve had some sense that the Bank was unhappy with the way in which we were proceeding.”
Ultimately, the Committee complied with the threat and rejected Dr. Biru’s right to call international witnesses. In the meantime, as documented in Senator Van Hollen’s report, the Committee concluded “There was no business reason for the actions taken against Dr. Biru” and “strongly” recommended the Bank “immediately enter into a binding mediation.” The Bank rejected the recommendation.
Dr. Biru filed an appeal with the World Bank Tribunal. Officially, the Administrative Tribunal unanimously ruled in favor of the World Bank, upholding its legal defense as credible. Confidentially, an email exchange between the judges and the Tribunal’s Executive Secretary that Dr. Biru was inadvertently copied on characterized the Bank’s legal defense as “dishonest.”
Judge Francis Ssekandi (the only African judge on the Tribunal Panel) sent Dr. Biru an email stating that he did not agree with the judgement. Nonetheless, he voted to vindicate the Bank instead of registering his dissent because he was “not yet ready for such a momentous step…” of going against the other judges. The very Judge who denied Dr. Biru justice went on to console him writing: “I know what litigating against an employer does to the employee who sees his rights trampled without remedy.”
The Staff Association condemned the injustice and stated for the record that “several aspects of the Internal Justice System are Broken.” The Tribunal’s miscarriage of justice triggered a global outrage, creating pressure on President Kim to restore Dr. Biru’s professional record. After four years of relentless international pressure, the World Bank HR unit sent Dr. Biru a note to inform him that the redacted version of his record will be “scanned into your record.”
As so often happens with international crimes, President Kim’s cover up proved far worse than the original crime. President Kim moved the case to his front office and put his Chief of Staff in charge of it.
God seems to stand with Dr. Biru. First, the President’s former Personal Assistant told him the President and his Chief of Staff were the ones who denied him justice. To top it off, the Chief of Staff mistakenly copied Dr. Biru in a message she instructed the HR VP to send “a final email that notes that the President’s Office and HR will not be responding further.”
The General Counsel acknowledged on the record that World Bank Staff Rule 2.01 requires the Bank to correct a false public record and disclose the true and official record to mitigate any real or potential “reputational damage” to the affected staff. However, she insisted that the Bank will not honor Staff Rule 2.01 in Dr. Biru’s case.
Dr. Biru filed an appeal with the Tribunal to instruct the Bank to honor Staff Rule 2.01 and correct the public record. His appeal stressed there is no legal or moral ground to seal his “official” record as confidential and keep the proven false and defamatory record in the public domain.
The Tribunal reopened the case and asked the World Bank to respond. The Bank’s Senior Advisor for Racial Equality filed an amicus brief, supporting the Tribunal’s decision to reopen the case. He stated in his brief: “In my 30 years of tenure in the World Bank, it is my sincere belief that the injustice Mr. Biru was subjected to is profoundly beyond the pale.”
More importantly, Dr. Biru’s appeal coincided with the conclusion of the World Bank’s 2015 official diversity report that characterized his case as a “blatant and virulent case of racism.”
As revealed in several independent reports (see here and here), President Kim embargoed the report for a year while his General Counsel filed a motion with the Tribunal to dismiss the appeal, asserting the Tribunal had no jurisdiction to review the merits of the appeal. The Tribunal compliantly dismissed Dr. Biru’s defamation case, without reviewing its merits.
Dr. Biru is not asking to be reinstated in the World Bank. Nor is he demanding to relitigate his racial discrimination case. His demand is to redress him for the willful misrepresentation of his credentials and the systematic destruction of the dignity of him personally and professionally. This is a case of a deliberate and systemic destruction of a human being, emotionally, financially and professionally. Dr. Biru deserves full redress without delay.
Ethiopia Needs Dr. Biru
Dr. Biru is the co-author of a proposal to establish an independent Economic Advisory Council for Prime Minister Ahmed. The objective of the proposal is articulated in a compelling article.
He wrote: “The pessimism of the now (burdened by localized conflicts and high unemployment) and the optimism of the future (triggered by the ongoing reforms) are competing for political space. The government’s effort to navigate the tension between the two must focus on forging an economic vision embedded within the larger bedrock issues of the future.”
The government, he said, “needs to inspire the people’s confidence about the economy’s future and restore the nation’s morale to recapture its destiny. It needs to formulate an economic vision along with a clear strategy, coherent policies and a roadmap to reach the envisioned goal.”
As noted in the Ethiopian Foreign Affairs Minister’s letter to US Secretary of State Pompeo, Ethiopia needs Dr. Biru to return to his country of birth and contribute to the ongoing change. It will be a travesty of unimaginable proportion if he dies of hunger strike.
President Kim has been credibly accused of (1) racial discrimination by his Personal Assistant, an accusation that the World Bank settled by paying her five-year’s worth of salary; (2) an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate woman, exposed by a Senior Advisor to the Dean of the World Bank Board; and (3) charging a World Bank credit card for a tuxedo and using a private plane, and he has resigned.
The Interim President, Kristalina Georgieva, is believed to be a woman of integrity and a champion of human rights. This has opened a door for justice for Dr. Biru.
Apart from seeking the intervention of the African Union and President Trump, PM Ahmed should demand the Board of Governors of the World Bank intervene to redress Dr. Biru for the despicable racial injustice he suffered. Time is of the extreme essence to save Dr. Biru, a father of three children.
Editor’s note : Hon. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli’s letter was published on Addis Insight.
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