By Thalif Deen *
The 15,900-strong World Bank, which has funded over 12,000 development projects worldwide since 1947, is an international institution with a superlative reputation for its sustained efforts to end poverty in the developing world—with loans, interest-free credit and outright grants.
But it has come under heavy fire for its blatant violations of disability rights—an area where no US labour laws are applicable because the Washington-based institution enjoys diplomatic immunity.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a spokesperson for the Disability Support Group at the World Bank told IPS the Bank has been hiding behind its diplomatic immunity for decades to cover up abuse of staff ranging from sexual harassment to institutional discrimination against its most vulnerable disabled staff.
“There is absolutely no national or international accountability framework that the World Bank can be held accountable to – neither the UN Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities nor the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).”
“We have cases and irrefutable evidence of serious and consistent disability abuse and harassment of staff, conflict of interest, lack of transparency and accountability – the very values and conditionality for World Bank projects.”
Andre Hovaguimian, a former Director of the International Finance Corporation, Middle East & North Africa, a sister organization of the World Bank, told IPS: “The World Bank’s treatment of staff injured in the line of duty has been and continues to be deplorable.”
“Staff injured in the line of duty, taking risks to do the Bank’s business, should be treated with care and respect. The Bank’s diplomatic immunity should no longer be used to abuse the disabled,” said Hovaguimian.
Currently more than one billion people worldwide – including an estimated 800 million in developing countries – experience some form of disability, according to the World Report on Disability authored jointly by the World Bank (WB) and World Health Organization (WHO).
“Persons with disabilities face stigma, discrimination, and exclusion from accessing jobs and services, such as education and health care, and they consistently fare less well than their non-disabled peers in development gains,” said the study.
The charges of discrimination have come up at a time when the World Bank is holding its annual 2021 Spring Meetings in Washington DC. The meetings, which began April 5 will continue through April 11.
Two disabled former staff members told IPS they could speak only on condition of anonymity due to fears of retaliation and losing their medical coverage as disabled persons.
“When I was denied worker’s compensation against the findings from five reputable doctors, I was told that “As an international organization established under its Articles of Agreement, the World Bank Group has been granted certain privileges and immunities under U.S. laws.”
“I feel discouraged, bullied and abused. It is a case of David against Goliath, with the most vulnerable and handicapped having to fight a disability program that has no proper Governance, Accountability or Transparency. There is no justice for the disabled at the World Bank”, he complained.
“The World Bank is evading accountability and oversight of its disability program by saying it is not subject of either UN Conventions or US disability laws while keeping its own Executive Board in the dark”
The other former staff member who has previously been disabled confirmed: “I was harassed to the point of breakdown. The disability program is managed completely arbitrarily with secret procedures not shared with staff but used against them”.
“I am really sick of this hypocrisy where the World Bank lectures developing countries on disability inclusion while it discriminates shamelessly against its own disabled. While an independent grievance mechanism is mandatory for all projects, the WB refuses to allow its disabled staff the same opportunity,” he declared.
Asked for an official reaction, a World Bank spokesperson told IPS: “The World Bank Group is committed to ensuring the health and safety of our staff and their families. Our benefits, policies and track record over the years demonstrate this commitment”.
“Our self-insured insurance programs include disability and worker’s compensation programs, which provide comprehensive benefits to staff injured in the line of duty, or those that are unable to work due to a disabling condition occurring outside of the work environment”.
“Given the global footprint of the organization, as well as its presence in a number of high-risk environments, the Bank Group made the decision many years ago to self-insure these benefits. This was necessary to ensure all staff are covered, regardless of duty station, as some carriers may not support or be present in many of the markets in which the Bank Group operates, which are amongst the poorest nations in the world.”
“We regularly review our benefits and processes to ensure we meet the needs of staff and their families, taking input from plan beneficiaries and stakeholders,” the spokesperson added.
“The World Bank integrates disability issues into its operations around the world across a wide range of sectors, including promoting access to infrastructure facilities and social services, rehabilitation, skills development, creating economic opportunities, and working with Organizations of Persons with Disabilities. This is at the core of the World Bank’s work to build sustainable, inclusive communities, aligned with the institution’s goals to end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity,” the Bank’s spokesperson declared.
Providing more specifics, S. Gonzalez Flavell, a former Special Assistant (retired) to the Director General of Evaluation and Senior Counsel WBG Legal Department told IPS:
“I was a disabled staff member under the World Banks self-funded disability program for over eighteen months. The experience was significantly demeaning and disturbing, my status carried stigma and it was made clear to me by numerous Bank Senior Management staff that my career and professional reputation would be adversely affected.
The program lacks clarity in requirements and transparency in application, and I repeatedly had to require procedures to be correctly followed, actions were taken by the Disability Administrator that would have been unlawful had any of the US protective laws for disabled persons applied and a copy of the operating guidelines applying to the program was denied to me despite reasonable request.
The disability administrator did not act in accordance with known disclosed program requirements and instead made arbitrary decisions capriciously without respect for my health or concern for me, my treating physicians treatment plan or my recovery and return to work.
The Bank’s HR team, which should have overseen the Disability Administrator’s actions, acted throughout as if my health and disability could be ignored, intrusively asking me to attend work meetings, attempting to have me present for interviews (at a time I could not work) incorrectly applied its own benefits rules (erroneously denying me 30% benefits which I had to fight through the justice system before they corrected)and leave rules and even allowed my job to be affected and declared my position redundant while
I was on disability (again disallowed under US law). Despite my health issues I had to take on HR to prevent financial benefits and career and leave abuse significantly affecting my health wellness and recovery.
On return to work I, as I knew had happened to many other returning disabled staff, faced hostility and retaliation every effort was made to exclude me and deny any right to reintegration with the work force.
Having discussed and now researched several disability programs, including those of other international organisations , including with disabled persons, the World Bank’s disability program remains the most lacking in integrity, compassion or equitable treatment and that it continues to exist in its current form is a failure to care adequately for staff from whom it demands so much, a failure to understand sound management and the hard realities faced by disabled staff and , without recourse to an independent grievance redress system, is an abuse of human rights,” he declared.
Meanwhile, the World Bank Group has raised USD 82 billion for IDA19 (International Development Association, member of the WBG) to support the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries with a particular focus on disability
The Disability Support Group said IDA19 will do more to expand equitable opportunities for people with disabilities.” Disability is therefore a major focus of this IDA19 replenishment, with World Bank seeking funding from donor countries because “investing in people, and especially in people with disabilities who are often poor, is also critical to [sustainable development goals] progress” (https://ida.worldbank.org/replenishments/ida19)
“Yet what the World Bank fails to disclose to donors who are asked to dish out USD 82 billion, is that the World Bank itself has a very poor track record with its own disabled staff”’, says the Group.
In the past three years, there have been a record number of complaints and problems with the World Bank’s Disability and Workers Compensation programs, which the World Bank has conveniently ignored, it says.
“The number of complaints has risen exponentially, both to the World Bank’s Ombudsman and to the World Bank’s Staff Association, leading the later to retain additional outside counsel to address the flood of complaints.”
“The rights of World Bank’s disabled staff are being trampled, as they are bullied and harassed as the World Bank seeks to cut its own costs related to the disabilities of its employees,” the Group declared.
*UN Bureau Chief and Regional Director IPS North America, has been covering the U.N. since the late 1970s. A former deputy news editor of the Sri Lanka Daily News, he was a senior editorial writer on the Hong Kong daily, The Standard. Thalif Deen is a former Director, Foreign Military Markets at Defense Marketing Services (DMS); Senior Defense Analyst at Forecast International; and military editor Middle East/Africa at Jane’s Information Group.