Disability Discrimination at the World Bank: Is it Immunity or Impunity?
By Thalif Deen *
NATIONS, Apr 6 2021 (IPS) – 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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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.