Yona Biru came to the United States after the military government takeover in Ethiopia resulted in a communist government. "I came to the U.S. with $12 in my pocket, including a $2 bill because I was told that was good luck," Biru said.
He worked hard, financing his education by working as a waiter. With his doctorate degree in economics in hand, he started working at the World Bank in 1993. For 17 years, he provided stellar service to the organization, spending seven of those years as the deputy global manager of the International Comparison Program (ICP), "one of the most prominent programs that the bank has ever managed," he said.
On Feb. 20, Biru told a group of civil rights leaders from local chapters in the Washington, Maryland and Virginia areas, that despite his hard work and success, he was not promoted because he is Black. His description of the working environment at the World Bank can be characterized as "Jim Crow" or "apartheid." It is why the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), D.C. and Prince George's County chapters; the National Action Network (NAN), D.C. chapter; National Urban League; and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition gathered to hear about and discuss the World Bank and these issues.
"We are coming together as a group of local civil rights leaders representing organizations to say that we will together address this issue. We might not be able to resolve every part of it, but our job is grassroots mobilization [and] exposure, and that's what we want to do," said Lennox Abrigo, president of the National Action Network of the D.C. chapter.
They started by hearing the entirety of Biru's story. While he was deputy global manager of the ICP program, the global manager position became available and he applied. His credentials and employment record were stellar; his experience was current and relevant. His application was turned down. He defines the reason for the bank's inability to promote him as one that was "systemic, it is in your face, it is know your place type of racial discrimination.
"To start with in 1996, one of the staff associations' members asked one of the directors of the World Bank why is it that you do not hire Black professionals," Biru said. The director, in a departmental meeting with people of all races, according to Biru, answered, "Blacks do not make good accountants and besides, I do not want my department to look like a ghetto."
Biru said the managers, who come from all over the world, come with a preconceived idea about where Blacks should be in the professional and social hierarchy. For example, the development economics vice-presidency, where the Bank's economics policy is developed, had about 170 professionals but only had two Blacks; Biru was one of them. "The reason for that is at the professional level Blacks are segregated in the Africa region," he continued, "the ghetto of the bank."
Blacks do not cross and go to the main building because they are segregated in a building called "Apartheid Avenue."
"I was a Deputy Global Manager of a very high profiled project. And I was the highest rated manager seven years ago. So the Global Manager retired, I said, 'I am going to apply for it because my record is straight outstanding best practice, year after year,'" Biru said.
When Biru applied for the position he had already been doing for seven years, he was shunned. He was told candidly that Europeans were not used to seeing a Black man in the Global Manager position. Although he was offered other positions, he refused to take any besides the Global Manager position. "I said over my dead body, I would not get any position but that."
Soon, Biru started receiving threats of termination. "Since they could not deny me that position based on my qualifications, basically what they did was they got into my HR file, wiped out my managing experience. All seven years of outstanding best practice evaluation was gone," Biru said.
That was not the end of his troubles with the bank. Biru said after they wiped out his managing experience, that they denied he was ever a manager, but acknowledged his secretarial credentials. "Over a dozen heads of international agencies wrote letters saying that this is crazy." These executive attested to knowing Biru as a high performing senior manager at the World Bank. The bank stood firm with their forged documents, claiming he was not qualified to be considered for the position.
"This is the kind of racism that happens, and they can do it because they are immune from the legal system. But this is not only my story. One thing that really needs to be understood, and really advocated for, is if you look at particular groups that are most discriminated [in the World Bank], they are African-Americans."
According to Abrigo, the four civil rights groups are brainstorming strategies to expose discrimination at the World Bank. The organizations plan to visit Congress, including sending a letter to the Congressional Black Caucus. They are planning press conferences and rallies, and to use various media platforms to share this information. The civil rights groups also plan to challenge the World Bank in court, using legal expertise from each organization.
Biru is seeking $4.1 million for emotional damages, mental distress, and a destroyed career.