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World Bank Whistleblower Policy Lacks Protections

June 12, 2008
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World Bank Whistleblower Policy Lacks Protections

(Washington, DC) - The Government Accountability Project (GAP) greeted the new ‘whistleblower’ protection policy at the World Bank with both applause and disappointment. On the one hand, the numerous advances in the policy represent an important symbolic commitment to accountability. On the other, the policy violates two of four policy criteria in U.S. law for credible whistleblower protection at International Financial Institutions. After two years of consultations with the Bank’s working group, GAP, a non-profit public interest group that advocates occupational free speech and defends whistleblowers, found that the policy denies those staff members who disclose misconduct, corruption and fraud:

  • Access to an impartial forum that will hear their claims of retaliation
  • A guarantee of employment/reinstatement when they successfully contest retaliatory dismissal.

In consultations with the Bank’s working group on the policy, GAP repeatedly emphasized the importance of a fair forum and reinstatement, to no avail. Senators Richard Lugar (R-Ind) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) urged the rule’s authors to put real teeth in the measure as the Bank moves forward with reforms to its internal conflict resolution system in the future.

When issuing the policy on June 10th, the World Bank claimed that it incorporated “recognized ‘best practices’ in protecting whistleblowers and promoting institutional accountability.” But GAP, author of the most commonly applied ‘best practices’ checklist for intergovernmental organizations, finds that the policy falls short on these two crucial protections.

“This is a gaudily decorated 'cardboard shield,'” commented GAP legal director Tom Devine. "We would love to declare victory, but it wouldn't be honest. We have a duty to warn whistleblowers. The policy has certain 'best practice' rights on paper, but the lack of enforcement makes it a trap structured to rubber stamp retaliation. Paper rights are enforced by an internal board that has not found retaliation against a whistleblower in a single case since 1999. Equally cynical, the rules are rigged so even if whistleblowers somehow prevail, they most likely will lose by winning. They are not guaranteed reinstatement in any Bank job, and the norm since 2000 has been to send them back to home countries in disgrace, with a minimal payoff. That is a double whammy for a legitimate transparency reform."

Because the Bank is not subject to national law in the countries where it operates, its staff members and consultants are dependent on the functioning of its internal ‘Conflict Resolution System’ for justice when their rights are violated. The internal system, however, is heavily influenced by geo-politics and the demands of management in internal disputes. Whistleblowers, to the extent that their disclosures of wrongdoing and corruption have implications for management or governments, often find themselves victimized by this flawed internal system, even when they win.

Without access to external arbitration when protesting retaliatory dismissal, discrimination or demotion, whistleblowers confront a judicial forum in which the Bank is both the defendant and the judge.

The Bank's Office of General Counsel last week asserted that a right to reinstatement is unnecessary, because it is only denied in "extraordinary" cases. That reassurance is not borne out by the facts. GAP has prepared a preliminary review of Administrative Tribunal cases, the ultimate judicial forum for staff members, and found that of the complainants who challenged termination successfully on due process or substantive grounds between 2000 and March 30, 2008, less than 15 percent were actually re-instated. The remaining 85 percent were dismissed from institutional employment despite prevailing, and this ‘protection’ will not change that.

Government Accountability Project

The Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, GAP’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, GAP is a non-profit, non-partisan advocacy organization based in Washington D.C.

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