October 23, 2023, Washington, D.C.,— Last week, an explosive article in the Intercept shed further light on the extent of the World Bank Group’s cover-up of the sexual abuse of children. The reporting reveals not only the extent of knowledge within both the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the Bank’s private lending arm, and the Bank itself, of allegations of horrifying child sexual abuses at IFC-funded Bridge International Academy schools, but also significant efforts by IFC and Bank management to conceal the abuses and silence whistleblowers.
EarthRights Deputy General Counsel Michelle Harrison released the following statement:
“The abuses experienced by students at Bridge schools are unconscionable. It is now clear that IFC and Bank Management learned about these abuses years ago, at which point they had a clear opportunity and responsibility to act to remedy the abuses that had already occurred and prevent further harm. Rather than take action to ensure accountability, IFC instead actively worked with Bridge to seek to cover up the abuses, to undermine the investigations by its own internal compliance mechanism, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), into the abuse– specifically IFC’s handling of the situation–and to silence those who would dare expose it.
“Of particular note, after CAO learned of the allegations that children were sexually abused, IFC management entered into a sweeping Non-Disclosure Agreement with Bridge, without any involvement or say from the CAO, that purported to bind CAO, thereby preventing it from doing the important investigative and reporting work necessitated by these grave abuses. That is a flagrant violation of IFC and World Bank policies and of CAO independence. Worse, it appears to have been working–the investigation has been delayed for years.
“But IFC and World Bank management’s interference didn’t stop there. The head of the World Bank Group had the CAO head removed from office after the allegations were uncovered, and IFC management and Bridge together devised a plan to ‘neutralize’ and remove the CAO employee leading the investigation.
“It is difficult to overstate the seriousness of this stunning interference by IFC management in the workings of its supposedly independent accountability mechanism. By actively seeking to undermine its ability to investigate and report, and silencing all those who would seek to hold IFC accountable, IFC has done considerable and potentially irreparable damage to the CAO’s ability to function and more broadly to its own credibility and legitimacy.
“While these latest revelations are particularly shocking, they are consistent with IFC management’s behavior and its apparent belief that it is above the law and accountable to no one. Despite its anti-poverty and development mission, and despite its substantial power and leverage to ensure the corporations it invests in abide by high standards, prevent harm, and remedy any harm that results, IFC continues to prioritize financial returns over its mission and mandate. Too often, this results in harm to the most vulnerable–the very people IFC was charted to help–and when it does, IFC consistently fails to take any action to remedy such harm or hold its borrowers accountable.
“We have seen this first hand in the communities we represent. This is why our clients filed the landmark Jam v. IFC suit that led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that institutions like IFC were no longer entitled to the ‘absolute immunity’ from suits they had long assumed they enjoyed. Our clients went through the CAO process, which in 2013 affirmed virtually all of their concerns and called for IFC to take remedial action. More than a decade later, the harm they have endured remains unremedied.
“This story reveals a dire need for remedy for those who have been harmed by Bridge and all those harmed by IFC investments. It also further reveals an institution that has fundamentally lost its way; it is incapable of holding itself accountable and in need of substantial reform. This is a critical moment for the institution and the actions it takes now in response to these latest revelations – and in the broader context of its approach to remedy where it causes or contributes to harm – will determine whether IFC continues to be a relevant global actor going forward, or whether it will destroy what’s left of its credibility and legitimacy as a development institution. We’ll be watching.”
Kate Fried, EarthRights International
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