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A senior country officer of The World Bank — the international financial institution that provides business loans to developing countries — stepped down as president of the bank’s LGBT employee organization last week amid accusations of false charges lobbied by the bank against him in retaliation for his criticisms of the bank’s president and financial leadership.
According to BuzzFeed News World Correspondent J. Lester Feder, the bank has opened an investigation against Fabrice Houdart — a “senior country officer for the Middle East and North Africa” — for allegedly leaking a bank document about loan countries’ environmental and human rights conditions.
But the leak allegedly happened over a year ago, and anonymous World Bank employees have told Feder that its timing is an attempt to discredit Houdart before an election next month where he could become the bank’s next staff association president. If elected, Houdart would likely rally employees to pressure the bank into paying more attention to its internal finances and the human rights impact of its loans.
The investigation is also being carried out by Locke Lord — a law firm that Houdart recently criticized on his personal blog on the bank’s intranet — “rather than the internal bank offices that usually investigate employee misconduct,” Feder said.
“[Houdart] maintained an internal blog on the bank’s intranet that has been sharply critical of the financial management by (World Bank President Jim Yong) Kim’s leadership team. In October, Houdart uncovered accounting that revealed a $94,000 bonus to the bank’s chief financial officer, Bertrand Badré, just as the bank was announcing hundreds of layoffs to meet Kim’s plan to cut $400 million from the operating budget. This became a flashpoint in employee protests that built through the fall, and Kim ultimately held a town hall meeting in which he announced that Badré would give up the bonus.”
Here’s why it matters: the World Bank is a hugely powerful institution with over 180 member countries and the ability to vastly affect cultural and financial policies on a global scale. For example, after Uganda passed a 2013 bill punishing homosexuality with life in prison, the Bank’s current president denied the country a $90 million health care loan; a move lauded by LGBT activists worldwide.
If it turns out that the bank is using this investigation as a way to intimidate one of its internal critics —an important gay whistleblower who exposed a secret bonus to the World Bank CFO and who is President Jim Yong Kim’s biggest critic — then it suggests a deeper corruption and climate of fear at the juggernaut institution.
The bank has been criticized in the past for taking advantage of poorer countries for the benefit of its wealthier nation-members. If Feder’s anonymous sources are correct, the institution is silencing would-be World Bank reformers with intimidation rather than facing up to its own shortcomings.
Feder should also be praised for uncovering this story. He’s one of the most prominent journalists covering LGBT issues internationally and has brought attention to other powderkegs such as Putin’s use of homophobia to keep East Europe out of the European Union, the Pope comparing transgender people to nuclear weapons, and Egypt’s continued harassment of gay and transgender citizens among other important worldwide developments.
The attention Feder has brought to this debacle could well turn the tide in Houdart’s favor and drastically reform the World Bank from the inside out.