At the World Bank IMF annual meeting in Tokyo this month, Jim Yong Kim promised to bring in an era of reformsaying: “While I’m excited by how much the bank has changed around openness and results and accountability, I believe the bank can go further.”

One step in this direction would be for the bank to address racial inequalities in its staffing at the senior level and to become open and accountable about its progress towards this end.

At issue is the conspicuous under-representation of African-Americans at senior levels of the bank. In 1978 William Raspberry reported in the Washington Post that there were only three black Americans, out of 619 Americans working at the World Bank. Thirty years later, the Washington-based Government Accountability Project (Gap) reported that of more than 1,000 American World Bank staff of professional grade, four were African-Americans.

The many studies the bank has undertaken over the years have generally acknowledged that race-based discrimination “is evidenced in management’s hiring and promotion decisions, attitudes and behaviours” and that a culture of bias, stereotyping of in-groups and out-groups exist within the work environment. In response, the bank took several positive steps including launching a racial equality programme in 1998, the office of diversity programmes in 2001, the diversity and inclusion leadership awards in 2003, and in 2009, a code of conduct(pdf) that addressed diversity, inclusion and discrimination.

Yet to most observers, these anti-discrimination policies have been largely cosmetic. Racial discrimination persists and even the bank’s own diversity newsletter reports that “despite considerable talk about the diversity and inclusion agenda – and new policies designed to advance it – the impression lingers among many World Bank Group staff that culture change lags far behind”.

A fundamental first step towards redressing discrimination, according to the bank’s team for racial equality (TRE), is to develop “accurate and complete databases” and use them “as indispensable management tools for monitoring the status and progress of black staff”. This is consistent with Kim’s call for openness and accountability. Yet the bank categorically refuses to track the number of African-American employees and, instead, collects information on national diversity based on passports – an exercise that it recognises is inadequate and misleading.

From the point of view of bank employees with a discrimination complaint, the situation is substantially worsened because they do not have recourse to national laws and must rely on the World Bank administrative tribunal (Wat); the tribunal almost never finds for the complainant. According to the GAP, review of the records since 1996 shows that Wat found no instances of discrimination in any of the cases that came before it.

A recent article in Forbes Magazine said the bank “is so obsessed with reputational risk that it reflexively covers up anything that could appear negative, rather than address it”. This is an extraordinary conclusion to reach yet, for an institution that claims that “diversity and inclusion are at the heart of how we define organisational and professional excellence“, then fails to provide an effective internal grievance system for those harmed suggests an organisation more concerned about reputation than it is about justice.

The bank is vulnerable to still more far-reaching critiques. Chronic inequalities may draw attention to past failures to deal with development challenges such as Africa’s HIV/Aids crisis, malaria and tuberculosis in the 1990s where severe under-representation of Africans on its board of governors and in regional offices, and the general lack of an African voice, show that inequalities affect output and outcomes. The bank, as the lead donor in SSA’s health sector in the 1990s, allocated $552m to HIV (1986-96): id=”mce_marker”60m went to Brazil, a middle-income country with an HIV prevalence rate of less than 1%, while $274m was received by Africa. In any organisation, raced-based discrimination will inevitably have a detrimental effect on its legitimacy, credibility, effectiveness and staff morale.

Kim told the global community this month in Tokyo that he wants to “bend the arc of history”. Dealing with its long-standing inequalities in Washington DC and its own institutional weaknesses is a good place to start.