Viewpoints | Aug 19,2023
Sep 6 , 2020
By Yonas Biru (PhD)
The racism permeating international institutions is embodied in the global governance structure. The impact is reflected in the denial of a voice to black-majority nations in the board rooms of the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and G-20, where global economic orders are decided and where winners and losers are chosen, writes Yonas Biru (PhD) (firstname.lastname@example.org), former deputy global manager of the International Comparison Programme at the World Bank and founder and chair of the Nile Club.
The global protest that was sparked by the inhumane murder of George Floyd was displayed in slow-motion and witnessed by millions. A black man was handcuffed and his chest pinned to dirty pavement by two police officers, while a third put his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes until he stopped calling for his mother and died a cruel and undignified death.
His murder was a repeat of the all-too-familiar systemic disregard for the lives of black people, reflecting the bestial remnants of slavery and the Jim Crow era. The image of the knee that snuffed the life out of Floyd will forever be seared into the minds and hearts of all people of conscience as a reminder of the noose - the choice instrument of white supremacy that made black people utter or feel “I cannot breathe” for centuries.
António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nation (UN), has won the support and admiration of many for his speech at the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on July 18, 2020. Some say, he rose to the occasion, bringing Mandela’s spirit to life at a time when George’s murder reminded the world that it needed to hear the unvarnished truth about the wretchedness of anti-black racism.
Without saying it in so many words, Guterres made it clear that the anti-black racism manifested in the cruelty of George’s murder springs from the same river that the inherent white supremacy of the UN Security Council, World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pour out of.
“The legacy of colonialism still reverberates,” acknowledged the head of the UN. “We see this in economic and social injustice, the rise of hate crimes and xenophobia; the persistence of institutionalised racism and white supremacy.”
Indeed, he had it right when he stated that the original sins of colonialism are manifested in structural inequality in “the composition and voting rights in the UN Security Council and the boards of the Bretton Woods [World Bank and IMF] system,” and the Group of 20 countries (G-20).
His speech was prompted by two independent letters: one was signed by all 54 African nations and the other was penned by 20 high-level UN officials of African descent, all with the rank of Under-Secretary-General.
Burdened by “the weight of history,” the 20 dignitaries felt it was incumbent upon them to speak up and ask their boss to “go beyond [words] and do more.” They implored: “It is time for the United Nations to step up and act decisively to help end systemic racism against people of African descent and other minority groups.”
It should be noted that the UN is the custodian of three generations of international human rights instruments, including civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights; and collective development rights. For people of African origin wherever they live and for nations with black majorities in continental Africa and the Caribbean, the three generations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ring hollow. The UN, as their custodian, is at best irrelevant and cannot influence their enforcement or at worst it is complacent when they are violated.
Floyd’s murder has sparked global outrage and ushered in a new era where empty words and window dressings are seen as reprehensible preemption and appropriation of a genuine movement for racial equality and justice.
The 20 Black signatories of the UN letter had it right when they wrote: “If we are to lead, we must do so by example. To initiate and sustain real change, we also must have an honest assessment of how we uphold the UN Charter within our institution.” They welcomed the initiatives by the Secretary-General to “address systemic racism at all levels, as well as its impact wherever it exists, including in the United Nations Organisation itself.”
The UN is not the only institution that needs to address its systemic racism.
“A simple Google search will confirm the breathtaking racial injustice, producing several pages of citations of articles with shocking titles that seem to describe another era or a faraway place,” E. Faye Williams, chair of the National Congress for Black Women, highlighted in Afro American Newspaper, speaking of the World Bank [the author of this article formerly worked for the World Bank]. "Reverend Jesse Jackson’s column in theChicago Sun-Timesentitled 'Apartheid Avenue two Blocks from the White House' is one example. 'All Rise: The World Bank Jim Crow Tribunal is in Session' is another. For those who prefer French or Spanish, there are 'Apartheid a la Banque Mondiale' and 'Discriminación racial en el Banco Mundial' to start with.”
The racism permeating these institutions embodies and is embodied in the global governance structure. The impact is reflected in the denial of a voice to Black-majority nations in the boardrooms of the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and G-20, where global economic orders are set and where winners and losers are designated.
Let us compare Nigeria and Argentina. Nigeria with a population of over 200 million people and a real GDP, in purchasing power parity terms, of nearly 1.1 trillion dollars is treated differently from Argentina, which has a population of around 45 million and a GDP of one trillion dollars. Argentina has far less population and slightly less GDP but has significantly more voting power in the World Bank Board than Nigeria. Argentina is a member of the G-20. Nigeria is not.
It is neither by accident nor happenstance but by design that the current system has created a racial global order and put a knee on African and Caribbean nations.
A cursory glance of the World Bank shows 14 of the 15 least educated countries in the world are in Africa. The only non-African country is Afghanistan, where girls face enormous social obstacles to go to school. Twenty-three of the 25 highest infant mortality rates in the world are found in African countries. The 30 countries with the lowest life expectancy are all in Africa.
Guterres’s acknowledgement about “the legacy of colonialism” and its implications on current “economic and social injustice” against black people and nations and most of all his daring mention of “white supremacy” as the culprit is worthy of note.
At the same time, his failure to acknowledge the systemic racism in the UN system is more noteworthy, because it signifies an unwillingness to take action even where he has an unmitigated authority to lead by example.
A piece published on the IMF's website staged its call for racial justice from a moral high ground.
“Addressing systemic racism is a moral imperative,” enthralled Joseph Losavio, a specialist at the World Economic Forum. He went on to make an economic case noting that “racism has restrained black economic progress for decades.”
The only problem with such a high-minded and value-laden statement is that it is published on the website of an institution that serves as one of the pillars upon which global racism is anchored and revolves around.
The same culture is reflected in the World Bank.
“As an institution [the World Bank] can do better in tackling injustices, racism and inequality within the World Bank Group and around the world,” David Malpass, World Bank president, acknowledged in a widely published blog post. He condemned the “reprehensible” murder of George Floyd rather poignantly and expressed “hope that justice will be served for him and his family.” He went on to state, “The scourge of racism is deep and pernicious and must be confronted and ended.”
As a sign of solidarity with Black victims of entrenched racism, the World Bank hung a 12-story-long banner that reads "#EndRacism" at its Washington headquarters.
All this would have been praiseworthy had it not been disingenuous window dressing, considering the fact that the World Bank continues to cover up and refuses to address and redress even cases that its own investigation called a “blatant and virulent case of racism.” The case that is widely referred to as “The Corporate Equivalent of the George Floyd Case” happens to be my personal case.
The injustice has been condemned by leaders of over 500 faith-based organisations. Jesse Jackson, an African-American political activist, called it “dehumanising and painful to read.” The only Black cabinet secretary in the Trump administration, Ben Carson (MD), condemned it as “inhuman.” Another current Trump cabinet member, Ken Cuccinelli, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, wrote the injustice signifies “systematic destruction of the dignity of a human being.”
In May 2019, President Malpas’s spokesperson promised in writing to “correct” the injustice.
“I have gotten up to speed with the issue. And I also know that President Malpass is well-informed. I’m sure this will be resolved adequately,” wrote the US Board of Director for the World Bank three months later, on August 29, 2019, to the World Bank.
Why has the case not been resolved a year later?
It is all about the knee on the throat, the expression of white power that silences individual challenges against racism to nip in the bud the microcosmic erosion of the structural foundation of global racism. During slavery, the system never allowed a single slave to receive justice. The same was the case with Apartheid. Not a single racial victim was fully redressed or had their dignity restored.
The overlords of institutional racism understand that redressing one or two or three individual cases of racial injustices and restoring the human dignities of individual victims will ultimately lead to the death of structural racism by the proverbial thousand cuts. Woefully, the institutional and structural nexus is intertwined and cross-fertilised to the point that one cannot be broken without the other.
Neither the UN nor the World Bank is a party to the current global movement to end structural racism. They are custodians of the structural racism of white supremacy both within their institutions and on the global level.
Just like Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi’s death by self-immolation sparked the Arab Spring, George Floyd’s death by asphyxiation has fanned the flame of the global spring to end racism. No words, no matter how articulate, and no banner, no matter how many stories high, will stop a change whose time has come. It is time to move from window dressing to redressing global racism.
PUBLISHED ON Sep 06,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1062]
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