Skewed bank data affects Jordan’s number 1 status

(Photo: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development)
AMMAN — A former senior World Bank staff member allegedly manipulated data to ensure that Saudi Arabia ranked first on the Top Improvers list of the bank’s Doing Business 2020 report at the expense of Jordan’s no. 1 spot, according to documents obtained by Jordan News.اضافة اعلان

In September 2021, a US law firm completed a report on behalf of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), investigating data irregularities pertaining to the Doing Business 2018 and 2020 reports, and improper changes made to data for Saudi Arabia, among others.

The IBRD the World’s Bank lending arm, and both banks share management staff.

Specifically, the firm was to investigate improper changes to the data, and “who at the bank directed, implemented, or knew about the changes to the data,” building on the work done by the bank’s Office of Ethics and Business Conduct (EBC).

Furthermore, the firm was tasked with identifying what internal circumstances allowed for the changes to the data to take place.

Why Jordan had to go

The documents suggest that the motivation for the data irregularities was to reward Saudi Arabia for the “important role” it played in the bank's community.

Furthermore, the firm identified “multiple factors” that may have motivated the senior bank official to favorably modify Saudi Arabia’s data.

Firstly, Saudi Arabia had implemented a number of significant reimbursable advisory services (RAS), which the World Bank defines as “an instrument developed to deliver advisory services to eligible clients requiring services that cannot be fully funded from the bank’s country program”, under which the bank provides “advisory services, analytical services, and implementation support”, the costs for which the bank is then reimbursed. Some of these RAS, the documents stated, pertained to the Doing Business report.

By improving Saudi Arabia’s position on the Top Improvers list, the bank would “demonstrate the effectiveness” of its RAS projects and “validate the amount of money” that Saudi Arabia had spent on them.

Secondly, the senior official had traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he gave a speech that asserted that the country would see “significant gains” in its Doing Business reports as a result of the bank’s advisory services. “Altering the data allowed (the senior bank staff member) to demonstrate that his public prediction was correct,” the document stated.

Thirdly, the senior staff member and other bank officials were in discussions with Saudi Arabia to revive an initiative that would recognize countries that had made “the most significant strides” in implementing regulations that were conducive to conducting business.

The Top Improver list draft

In August 2019, the Doing Business team drafted its Top Improver list for its 2020 report. In that iteration of the list, Jordan was listed in the first place, and Saudi Arabia was ranked second.

The senior bank official “instructed the Doing Business team to find a way to alter the data such that Jordan fell from its first-place position”, according to the document.

The staff member told the law firm that two senior officials at the World Bank’s MENA Regional Vice Presidency were the drivers of the push to displace Jordan from its first-place position. The report stated that the MENA officials believed that the credibility of the Doing Business report would be questioned “in light of the turmoil (Jordan) was facing at the time” if it ranked first on the Top Improvers list.

For their part, the two MENA officials denied suggesting Jordan should be removed from its first-place position, according to the documents.

In September 2019, a member of the Doing Business team was sent to Jordan to investigate the legitimacy of the reforms the Kingdom had been credited with. The documents stated that the employee found no irregularities in Jordan’s data.

The senior bank staff member at that point changed tactics, according to the law firm’s report, to finding ways to boost Saudi Arabia’s score, and thereby their ranking on the Top Improver list.

On September 30, the data for Saudi Arabia was changed by the Doing Business team to boost its ranking past Jordan, the documents stated. Specifically, a point was added pertaining to the country’s treatment of debt, which raised Saudi Arabia’s legal rights index from 3 to 4 points. Additionally, the compliance time was reduced for the country’s newly enacted value-added tax.

This change, the documents noted, also led to a change in the UAE’s data, as the UAE and Saudi Arabia have similar tax systems. This change did not affect the UAE’s ranking, the report said.

A report prepared by the management of the World Bank's Development Economics Vice Presidency on December 16, 2020, reviewed data irregularities in the Doing Business reports for the years 2016–2020. The report stated that “after correcting (the) irregularities, ... (Saudi Arabia) would not have been the top improving economy in Doing Business 2020 had these data irregularities not occurred.”

The leaked documents stated that investigators found “no evidence” suggesting the Office of the President or any members of the World Bank's board of directors had any involvement in the data changes affecting Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the Doing Business 2020 report.

‘Toxic’ work environment

During its investigation, the law firm interviewed members of the Doing Business team to determine why these employees were willing to take actions they knew were inappropriate, rather than file reports with the EBC. Employees’ responses largely described two main reasons.

Firstly, the senior official driving the data changes threatened his team that he would find out who had complained about him. “Thus, staff members felt powerless to object,” the documents state.

Secondly, Doing Business employees interviewed by the firm described a work environment that was “at best, deeply problematic, and, at worst, emotionally harrowing,” the firm’s report said. The senior official’s management style was described as “psychological terrorism” that created a “toxic environment”, the report quotes employees as saying.

Finally, many Doing Business employees feared their manager’s retaliation. This fear, the documents said, kept employees from voicing their concerns regarding the Doing Business report’s integrity until the senior official had left the bank.

The World Bank board of directors announced on Sunday that it will discontinue the Doing Business report after reviewing all the information relating to the report, including the findings of past audits and its internal investigation.

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