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Will the World Bank Walk Away with $100 Billion IDA20 Replenishment Without “Walking the Talk” on Disability?

Credit: World Bank

VIENNA, Oct 14 2021 (IPS) - Will the World Bank walk away with $100 Billion IDA20 replenishment without “Walking the Talk” on disability?

The World Bank Group’s (WBG) International Development Association (IDA), the Bank’s low-income lending arm, aspires to raise $100 billion for its early 20th replenishment (IDA20). IDA20’s focus includes “reducing barriers preventing …persons with disabilities…from achieving their full potential”.

In 2019, the World Bank Group mobilised $82 billion under IDA19 to support its global development goals, with disability one of its four key cross-cutting themes.

The World Bank’s 2018 Disability Inclusion and Accountability Framework commits to, “non- discrimination and equality, accessibility, inclusion and participation, and partnership and collaboration.” However, behind this fundraising rhetoric lies another dark reality.

Dozens of staff disabled while employed by the WBG claim that abuse, retaliation, governance failures, lack of transparency, lack of accountability and denial of legitimate disability claims to cut costs are not the exception but the norm.

These issues were first publicly exposed during the 2021 World Bank and IMF Spring Meetings in April in an article by Inter-Press Service (IPS) news agency.

Over the past four years, the number of disability-related internal complaints has risen alarmingly, with alerts to the President of the World Bank. However, the rights of disabled continue to be trampled, under the condoning gaze of the human resources team tasked with oversight.

How can the World Bank circumvent its responsibilities?

The World Bank has immunity under the International Organizations Immunities Act, which means that although headquartered in the US, a few blocks from the US Supreme court, it is not subject to any US laws, nor can it be sued in US courts.

Originally granted to facilitate operations, this immunity has had very serious repercussions for the Bank’s disabled staff, who cannot claim protection under any minimum national or international disability law – such as the American with Disabilities Act or the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is time the WBG be held accountable under these standards.

WBG unclear rules facilitate discrimination

The World Bank sets its own standards in the form of its Disability and Workers’ Compensation Rules which lack the robustness befitting an international organisation because their vagueness facilitates discrimination, abuse, cronyism, arbitrary interpretation, unequal application and retaliation.

These rules do not require WBG to treat disabled staff fairly, or even equitably.

Under cover of immunity, the WBG can and has changed these rules with impunity. For example, the WBG has removed the pension protection for totally and permanently disabled staff. In response to questions about arbitrary and unfair decisions, the human resources team tasked with oversight refers to “proprietary procedures,” which are kept secret.

The World Bank is expanding operations and increasing staffing in fragile, conflict and violence settings. Unlike its sister UN organisations, the WBG does not provide critical Malicious Acts (MA) insurance to protect its staff.

As early as 2010, these shortcomings were exposed in a report by the US-based Government Accountability Project based on the information provided by a WBG whistle-blower.

Unfortunately, despite continued calls for reforms, this report’s findings about lax security arrangements and “a chronicle of changing policies on claims reimbursements, rotating claims adjustors, increasingly detailed and contradictory demands for information,” and the Bank’s “exceptionally parsimonious” workers compensation programme, remain the norm.

Intimidation and retaliation: Beyond the findings of the Doing Business Report

The recent scandal unleashed by the independent investigation of the irregularities in the Bank’s Doing Business Report (see Observer Autumn 2021) exposed an environment of “psychological terrorism”, bullying and intimidation.

The reported experience of the disabled at the World Bank certainly supports this description. Some of the disabled report psychological harm expressed in attempted suicide, mental breakdown, and hospitalisation due to harassment by the WBG and its handling of the disability programme.

The disabled report feeling powerless and that they have nowhere to turn for support. They have raised their concerns to the World Bank President, David Malpass, and to all 25 Executive Directors of the WBG Board, yet to no avail.

The disabled feel that the World Bank has a culture where those who expose abuses face retaliation. Those who commit the abuses do so with impunity. Whistle-blowers fear retaliation, as the Bank could end their disability coverage, endangering their health and survival.

Many disabled report they have experienced examples of adverse actions that they attribute to whistle-blower retaliation including intimidation by private investigators, arbitrary denial of medical treatments and slander.

The Doing Business external and independent investigation has revealed the internal accountability deficit at the World Bank. Similarly, only an external and independent investigation with full participation of the WBG disabled will reveal the magnitude of the disability issues at the World Bank.

What is required is a structural overhaul of World Bank’s workers compensation and disability schemes, transparency, governance and accountability mechanisms.

Prior to handing over additional taxpayer funds for IDA20, donors have an obligation to uphold human rights and ensure that the Bank can no longer get away with, “Do as I say, but not as I do.”

Andre Hovaguimian, is a former investment director for Central Asia, Middle East and North Africa at the International Financial Corporation (IFC), a sister organization of the World Bank and a member of the World Bank Group (WBG).


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