23 May 2024

Joint Statement on World Bank Probe into Alleged Bridge Academies Child Sexual Abuse Cover-up

On May 16, 2024, the World Bank announced that it is hiring an outside firm to “explore the circumstances surrounding the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman’s (CAO) investigation of IFC’s investment in Bridge International Academies.”

We commend the World Bank’s Board for taking the lead on this issue.

Together with U.S. lawmakers and other stakeholders,[1] civil society organizations have been calling for an “independent and thorough investigation of the allegations that World Bank Group and Bridge management (aka NewGlobe) colluded to obstruct and delay CAO’s investigation of the child sexual abuse allegations” since October 2023.

An investigation is urgently needed because of serious and well documented allegations of interference in the CAO process and retaliation against its staff. These issues are outlined in our letter to the World Bank board on March 29, 2024 and include:

  • The signing of a confidentiality agreement between Bridge and IFC that specifically sought to limit CAO’s ability to disclose information;
  • A plan discussed between IFC and Bridge management to “neutralize” CAO’s lead investigator, with a view to supporting Bridge to raise additional finance without “spooking investors;”
  • The decision to push out the former head of CAO mid-way through what should have been his second five-year term;
  • Management interference in the hiring process of the new head of the CAO;
  • The decision to sideline CAO’s lead investigator on the Bridge case, after which CAO’s report was watered down; and
  • The failure of the Bank’s internal systems to respond in a timely and robust manner to these allegations.

While we welcome the Board’s initiative in moving forward with this investigation, the Bank’s press release sends mixed messages, framing it as a “review to verify that the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) investigation was conducted without interference.” A robust investigation must start with a process of fact finding, based on open questions. Describing this as an exercise that “seeks to confirm” or “verify” that the CAO process was conducted appropriately undermines the credibility of the review.

Transparency is essential to maintaining stakeholder confidence in this process. As such, we reiterate our call for the Board to disclose the terms of reference for the investigation, and to commit that the investigation report will be made public within a determined period after it has been received by the Board.

Finally, we are concerned that the Bank would downplay the seriousness of IFC’s non-compliance and its consequences. CAO found that IFC ignored allegations of child sexual abuse at Bridge schools for almost a decade, contrary to its environmental and social requirements, and every moral standard. To describe these as “protocol shortcomings” whereby “allegations were not acted on as early or aggressively as they could have been,” is an affront to the students who were abused while IFC looked away, and who to date have received no remedy.

[1] See also: 2023.10.10 Letter to Treasury and World Bank Officials re CAO Investigation.pdf (senate.gov) & 2024.01.23 IFC Bridge Letter.pdf (senate.gov); A Timeline of the World Bank Child Sexual Abuse Scandal