Skip to content

Leaked document: World Bank rife with ‘fear and retaliation’

Many bank employees complain managers are shutting down internal debate and ruling by fear, according to leaked documents.

World Bank

Many World Bank Group employees complain the bank’s managers are shutting down internal debate and ruling by fear, according to a confidential document obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and The Huffington Post.

“The World Bank has evolved into a place of fear and retaliation,” one employee said, according to a 163-page compilation of open-ended comments that were submitted last year as part of an in-house bank survey. “Intellectual debate is no longer welcome. Management is inept and there is no captain in this ship. Senior management does not know its own organization… only fear, fear, fear.”

“Managers have a lot of power and use it for retaliation,” another employee wrote.

Employee surveys that invite staffers to submit anonymous responses often reflect some dissatisfaction, especially in an institution with the size and reach of the World Bank Group, a global financier that backs dams, roads and hundreds of other development projects each year. 

But the harshly critical responses to the survey completed by about 12,000 employees – 79 percent of the bank’s workforce – appear to go well beyond typical gripes about pay and fairness.  The survey shows a startling lack of support among the bank’s employees for senior management – and reflects deep worries about a culture that many characterize as toxic. 

Just 26 percent of employees who responded to the survey’s specific questions said they agree that bank leadership “creates a culture of openness and trust.” Only 41 percent said they were confident they could report unethical conduct without fear of reprisal.

The World Bank Group told ICIJ and HuffPost that it forbids retaliation and that it’s working to create a more open work environment.

“We have a zero tolerance policy for retaliation of any kind,” a bank spokeswoman said in a statement. “To support this policy, all managers at the World Bank Group complete mandatory training on preventing retaliation.”

The bank also provided ICIJ with an excerpt from World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim’s message to employees after the survey results were announced, in which Kim pledged that “we are working hard to foster a culture of openness and build trust, including through our own behavior and actions.”

The World Bank has come under fire from outsiders in recent months. ICIJ, HuffPost and other media partners have documented the bank’s failure to protect people in the path of development projects. Human rights groups have criticized the bank for pushing to weaken  “social and environmental safeguards” designed to protect vulnerable populations.

The survey comments volunteered by bank employees indicate that some insiders are also concerned that the bank doesn’t do enough to protect people who lose homes or livelihoods as the result of dams, roads or other projects backed by the bank.

The World Bank’s safeguard rules require that governments that borrow money from the bank for big projects take steps to reduce environmental damage and make sure that people harmed by projects are restored to living conditions equal to or better than before. Families evicted from their homes, for example, are supposed to be resettled in new homes.

In comments that appeared to come from in-house staffers responsible for making sure safeguards are enforced, some workers said they felt isolated or intimidated by bank managers who are concerned with pushing projects through to approval. 

“Though safeguards exist,” one staffer wrote, “most employees think that they are not safe so they don’t use them.” 

Another said that some “safeguards specialists” have been “eaten by the system” and “just play the game of the Bank, support disbursements and see later how to fix the issues.”

Comments from other employees give a sense of the pressures that safeguard workers face within the bank. In a number of comments, staff members criticized the lender’s protection policies as excessive. One staffer, for example, complained the rules have “grown out of control in complexity” and create “costly burdens without obvious substantial benefits.” 

The bank has acknowledged that it failed to do enough to protect people whose lives are disrupted by the bank’s projects and has promised reforms to fix the problem

On the issue of retaliation, the bank has repeatedly disputed claims that it has lashed out against internal critics. The World Bank’s staff manual forbids reprisals against “any person who provides information regarding suspected misconduct” or is “believed to be about to report misconduct.”

In June, after a lengthy investigation, the bank demoted and reduced the salary of an outspoken internal critic of the bank’s leaders, Fabrice Houdart. Houdart raised questions about possible financial mismanagement by World Bank leaders in 2014 in an internal blog on the bank’s intranet, and was investigated on charges that he had leaked confidential bank documents to advocates and the news media. 

Although the staff survey was conducted before Houdart’s punishment was announced, Houdart maintains that the case against him was was an effort to punish him for speaking out against bank management. The bank denies it retaliated against him.

In the compilation of employees’ survey comments obtained by ICIJ, the word “fear” appears 48 times. Workers were allowed to keep their identities anonymous in answering the survey questions and submitting written comments.

Not everyone who took the survey expressed complaints about the bank’s culture. Some workers praised Kim and other top bank officials.  

“Despite the tumultuous times, the Bank is doing good work and forging ahead,” one worker wrote. “The President and Senior Management are doing a commendable job on all fronts.”

Another said the World Bank Group “is a willing listener. It values its staff as building blocks to be more appropriate and responsive to its clients.”

Others expressed anger, though, about what they see as a top-down culture that leaves little room for discussion or criticism. 

“I have no faith in the system,” one worker wrote. “Everyone knows that one must never say the slightest ‘bad’ thing about a colleague, even if it is justified, for fear of reprisal.”

“The Bank talks about instilling a climate without fear, but it does exactly the things it can to provoke fear,” another employee wrote. 

ICIJ is dedicated to ensuring all reports we publish are accurate. If you believe you have found an inaccuracy let us know.