The World Bank is facing accusations of failing to prevent child abuse at Bridge International Academies, a school chain it funded in Kenya.
The Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), the bank’s internal watchdog, found that the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the bank’s private sector arm, did not satisfy its own environmental and social requirements before and during the funding of Bridge International Academies.
The CAO reported that the IFC was aware of child abuse allegations but failed to ensure appropriate action or safeguards to prevent future abuse. The report revealed 21 cases of child sexual abuse by teaching staff at Bridge schools between 2014 and 2021.
Bridge confirmed 10 cases in one of its schools in 2016 and claimed to have taken measures such as terminating the accused teachers’ contracts, filing reports with the police, providing support to victims, and engaging with parents and communities.
However, critics, including the executive director of Inclusive Development International, accused the IFC of turning a blind eye to the risks.
The IFC, which invested $13.5 million in the for-profit school chain between 2014 and 2021, stopped its funding last year, coinciding with its broader policy shift away from supporting private, fee-charging schools.
The bank did not provide a reason for the divestment. The IFC’s managing director expressed deep concern and commitment to addressing the findings transparently.
However, civil society organizations, US senators, and rights groups have called for an independent investigation into the IFC’s handling of the Bridge case.
The abuse cases came to light following a 2018 complaint by the East African Centre for Human Rights over separate concerns about health, safety and labour rights at Bridge schools.
Margaux Day, policy director of rights organisation Accountability Counsel, said: “How could we trust the institution [IFC] to do better next time if they can’t get it right in this very emblematic and egregious case?”
The CAO’s investigation into this complaint revealed the sexual abuse cases. US senators Elizabeth Warren and Peter Welch have expressed concerns and supported calls for an independent investigation.
The IFC stated that it is reviewing the CAO report and has launched an in-depth review to identify projects with elevated risks of gender-based violence.
Critics argue that the World Bank has been reluctant to compensate victims, pushing that responsibility onto the organizations it funds.
“The IFC continues to [push] risk on to communities instead of taking responsibility itself,” said Day. “If its response [to Bridge] is any indication of what to expect from the IFC’s overall posture toward remedy, then we should be seriously worried.”
The CAO staff mentioned a history of pushback from World Bank management, and rights groups express worry about the bank’s overall posture toward remedy based on its response to the Bridge case.