Black Staffers Battle Racism and Discrimination at World Bank
By Barrington M. Salmon
For more than seven years, Yonas Biru has been fighting the World Bank.
The Ethiopian native and Silver Spring, Md., resident said he’s learned the hard way the price of being black at the venerable institution.
Biru, a married father of three, says the World Bank dismissed him because he challenged his bosses when they passed him over for a promotion. He was punished, he said, for refusing to accept the racist and discriminatory treatment commonly meted out to blacks by the Bank’s managers and supervisors.
“I came to the U.S. with $12 in my pocket. I had to work at a hotel as a room service waiter to finance my education,” Biru said. “There were some winters when I couldn’t buy shoes because I had to buy books, pay for my education. Now I have no professional identity. They stole it.
“Nobody’s going to question that the World Bank would do something like this. If you look in the public domain, they say everything I say is an exaggeration,” he said. “When I asked the bank to give me my employment records, they refused. They signed, sealed and archived my records seven years ago. I cannot write a curriculum vita saying I was a manager.”
Biru said he fled Ethiopia because his mother was a close relative of former Emperor Haile Selassie and their lives were in danger as the communist government that overthrew the monarchy in 1974 murdered and imprisoned royals, nobility and perceived opponents.
“I thought I was coming to a land of opportunity, work hard, succeed. I worked so hard, for so long, got a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and worked for the Bank,” Biru said.
The abrupt and bitter end to his World Bank career proved to be a deep contrast to the excitement and promise the job once engendered.
“I joined the Bank in 1993,” he said. “And in 1999, I was appointed to reform a program that was dying. At the time, the International Comparison Program (ICP) was one of the most important in the Bank. A United Nations committee investigated the program and saw the need for an organizational, institutional, operational, financial and meteorological overhaul. The Bank called the director and she gave me the job.”
“She said we don’t have resources, but if the programs died, I’d lose my job. I knew I could turn it around with her support. It was a one-man shop but by 2002, I had turned it around. We had hubs in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. I was getting perfect evaluations just short of saying I walked on water.”
“From 2001 to 2009, Biru said he managed research in critical areas that stabilized and strengthened the ICP. He also developed and coordinated ICP regional programs in Asia, Latin America, and Western Asia. Biru racked up frequent flier miles meeting with and encouraging partners in farflung parts of the world to participate in the program, and for seven years, he said he managed fundraising and was responsible for expanding the scope of the program’s global partnership.