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Liberia: Cover-up Crimes Years of Child Sex Abuse and Sexual Exploitation at Bridge International Academies

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FOR SHANNON MAY and her husband Jay Kimmelman, the conference call scheduled with the World Bank on September 12, 2020, was make or break.

It had been just over 10 years since the Harvard graduates had launched Bridge International Academies, a chain of for-profit schools that had exploded in Africa and South Asia.

With the backing of Silicon Valley’s elite and the support of international financial institutions like the World Bank, the founders were now in negotiations to raise fresh capital that would allow them to move into several new countries.

Rapid expansion was essential to the company’s business model. Bridge had figured out a way to slash the biggest cost drivers of a school budget — teachers’ salaries and traditional school houses — but the business was a low-margin enterprise that couldn’t slow down.

The company was aiming for 10 million pupils, and it wasn’t as unreachable as it sounded: Bridge had already taught more than 1 million kids, backed by the for-profit investment arms of some of the world’s most famous philanthropists, including Bill Gates and eBay and Intercept founder Pierre Omidyar.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative provided Bridge with $10 million in seed funding; its previous round of financing, the so-called Series E, which closed in 2017.

Bridge was now raising its next round, Series F.  May and Kimmelman had a lot to lose: The couple had relocated from Cambridge to Kenya, and had done well enough to helicopter to their vacation home on the coast.

Just days before the call, in early September, May and Kimmelman had gotten bad news. In 2016, there had been a dozen or more cases of serial sexual assault at a Bridge school in Kenya.

Several years later, at another Bridge location, a child on school grounds had been fatally electrocuted by a dangling live wire, while another had been badly injured. May and Kimmelman were already aware of the tragedies.

Indeed, the company had internally documented many more cases of sexual abuse, but they had not been reported to the World Bank and stayed out of the local press. Now, a World Bank investigation threatened to bring them to light.

In February 2020, an internal World Bank entity that independently reviews bank projects, called the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, had sent an investigative team, led by veteran investigator Daniel Adler, to Nairobi to look into complaints filed by a local human rights organization about workers’ rights and health and safety issues at Bridge schools.

The CAO team, while in Nairobi, learned of additional allegations from parents and community members, namely the serial assaults and the electrocution.

Adler quickly filed a report recommending a deeper look and asked Bridge for more information.

Bridge spent several months gumming up the process, successfully negotiating a nondisclosure agreement with the World Bank that would make it difficult to publish in full any report that might be completed. The company also pressured the head of the CAO, Osvaldo Gratacós, to ease off.

Gratacós was pushed out by the World Bank, but the effort ultimately backfired; before his tenure expired, he formally launched an investigation — known internally as a CAO compliance process — into the sex abuse allegations at Bridge in September 2020.

May and Kimmelman were now meeting with the World Bank officials — William Sonneborn, the banker who had inherited the Bridge investment made five years before he joined IFC and oversaw the investment and another World Bank staff member, Shannon Atkeson.

With the company actively soliciting Series F financing and close to securing a deal to expand in Rwanda, the timing couldn’t have been worse for the company. So, according to Sonneborn, Bridge informed the group of its plan to keep the Bridge investigation confidential.

With Gratacós already on his way out, the next step was to “neutralize Adler,” the CAO’s lead investigator. Bridge would file a complaint with a World Bank ethics office accusing Adler of violating CAO procedures and of impersonating a Bridge employee. It was right out of the Bridge playbook:

The company had previously done the same to a Canadian graduate student writing a report on its schools in Uganda, going so far as to craft a bogus “Wanted” poster and place it in local newspapers. (A subsequent complaint Bridge filed with his university was dismissed.)

Next, Bridge would publish a consultant report favorably comparing its own record on student safety to that of Kenyan public schools — something to point to if the news leaked. The main objective, though, was to keep it quiet for as long as possible.

The revelations would “spook investors” and undermine Bridge’s expansion plans in Rwanda. “Time matters,” as one person on the call put it. “Need to delay until Series F.”

There was only one problem: Someone on the call was taking notes.

“Time matters … The performance standards don’t address [child sexual abuse] … Need to delay until Series F.” Notes taken during a Bridge International Academies and World Bank meeting on Sept. 12, 2020.

Photo: Obtained by The Intercept

EARLIER THIS YEAR, The Intercept published an investigation into Bridge International Academies, exposing the serial assaults and the electrocution, along with concerns from parents, teachers, and local civil society groups that there had been little accountability.

Bridge responded furiously, citing the flattering consultant report discussed on the 2020 call.

New documents and interviews expose a plan between Bridge and the World Bank to undermine the internal investigation into the scandals that was far greater than previously known.

May and Kimmelman schemed with the World Bank to draft a far-reaching nondisclosure agreement that would limit the World Bank’s ability to speak publicly about what it knew.

And, following the meeting, the World Bank flagrantly retaliated against the investigator who initially uncovered the allegations and pushed for accountability in the face of institutional pressure.

The documents were provided to The Intercept by civil society representatives and a U.S. government source.

They include notes, contracts, a whistleblower complaint and supporting documents later filed by Adler to a World Bank’s ethics office, and a draft of the long-delayed CAO investigative report finding serious deficiencies in the way the World Bank and Bridge protected children from sex abuse and gender-based violence in its schools.

That report remains unpublished more than three years after the probe was launched.

Members of Congress are now pressing for answers. On October 10, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who serves on the Banking Committee, and Peter Welch, D-Vt., sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and World Bank President Ajay Banga, laying out a list of questions for the Bank about the Bridge investigation.

“We are also aware of allegations that World Bank Group management may have colluded with the project owner, Bridge International Academies (“Bridge”), to obstruct and delay the CAO investigation,” the letter warns.

Without naming Adler specifically, but making a clear reference to him, it goes on to warn the Bank against retaliating against staff who blew the whistle, asking what the Treasury Department and Bank would do so that “World Bank Group staff who have raised concerns about these issues are recognized as having whistleblower status under the Staff Rules and will be protected from retaliation by their employer.”

The documents and interviews offer a rare glimpse into the kind of internal institutional machinations that often remain concealed from public view. And they reflect a broader trend in the world of international development finance.

In the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s, the antiglobalization movement — a coalition of trade unions, environmentalists, and representatives of the Global South — regularly protested gatherings of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization. Under pressure, the institutions created internal accountability mechanisms that interact with external civil society organizations and member countries.

The CAO, created in 1999, was the World Bank’s version. Today, civil society organizations are warning, those guardrails are all being taken down, with independent investigators under siege.

Inside the World Bank, the fight with the CAO kicked off after Adler’s February 2020 discovery in Nairobi. Typically, the CAO only launches an investigation when it receives a formal complaint.

In this case, Adler had uncovered the allegations of abuse on his own. But when he returned from Kenya, Gratacós told him he’d been authorized to offer a “very generous package” if Adler would take his investigative curiosity elsewhere.

Adler, according to the internal complaint he filed to a World Bank ethics office in September 2022, had previously been warned that Bank management considered his investigations into their work too probing — and he had clearly attracted their attention again.

Adler declined, leaving Gratacós with a decision on how to proceed. Gratacós stood his ground, defending the integrity of the CAO. Gratacós made the International Finance Corporation (the World Bank’s finance arm) aware of the new allegations, asking for as much information as could be provided, and moved forward with an investigation.

Reached by phone, Gratacós, who is now working as a realtor in northern Virginia, declined to comment. World Bank sources told The Intercept that his departure included a strict NDA.

But the World Bank quickly moved to hobble the ability of its investigative unit to make public whatever it found.

Chris Stephens, vice president and general counsel at the IFC, and Sonneborn, the senior director for disruptive technologies and funds, began negotiating a confidentiality agreement between the company and IFC, which covered the CAO’s investigation, according to emails reviewed by The Intercept.

Sonneborn maintains that his this was his “only motivation was to give CAO access to information that would allow it to fully investigate Bridge, which was refusing to provide information critical to CAO’s investigation without an assurance of confidentiality.”

According to Sonneborn, Bridge insisted and, while the IFC leadership initially resisted, it reluctantly agreed that the CAO was bound by a confidentiality provision between the IFC and Bridge signed four years earlier and that no new obligations were added.

Sonneborn said “that information was essential to get the World Bank gender and social experts the information they need to create a comprehensive plan to mitigate the risk of future assaults.”

The World Bank quickly moved to hobble the ability of its investigative unit to make public whatever it found.

Gratacós, in emails with the IFC, made clear that he did not want the CAO bound by any new nondisclosure agreement. Such confidentiality agreements are routinely used to thwart investigations and accountability; adding a new one after a probe had been launched would undermine the investigation, he reasoned.

Then on July 2, Sonneborn emailed Gratacós triumphantly: “It has been a battle, but we finalized an agreement with Bridge — we now have access to everything. Want to make sure you and your team are aware of the final agreement.”

The World Bank framed the agreement as a win for the investigation, but it was anything but. The NDA was as startling as it was sweeping. Bridge agreed to give investigators access to company records but won an agreement that the IFC and CAO could not disclose almost any of that information.

The IFC went so far as to agree that “all information derived from information provided” could also be covered by the new NDA, making it extremely difficult, bordering on impossible, for the ombudsman to produce any sort of public report.

Gratacós pushed back, but the agreement had already been signed. “The NDA was reached without CAO’s agreement or participation,” a spokesperson for the CAO confirmed to The Intercept.

“While the NDA affirmed CAO’s access to client information, it included commitments from IFC that CAO would not disclose information that the client asserts to be confidential. … Obtaining access to client documentation was challenging due to the requirement to access client documents via a secure room.

However, this has not impacted CAO’s ability to thoroughly carry out its investigation since we were able to access all necessary information from other sources.”

In September 2020, Gratacós formally initiated what’s known as a compliance appraisal. It was one of the final acts of his six-year tenure at the World Bank, which had unexpectedly not renewed his contract earlier that year, amid tensions over his pursuit of the Bridge investigation and other probes into Bank investments.

Civil society organizations slammed the CAO for his removal. “In 2020 CAO Vice President Gratacós’s contract was not renewed by the President of the World Bank after he resisted intense pressure to compromise the independence of the office from management,” a coalition of NGOs wrote in a letter defending the integrity of internal investigators broadly.

Former IFC general counsel Ethiopis Tafara told Gratacós he “could have saved his job” if he had removed Adler from his, Gratacós told Adler, according to Adler’s complaint. A second World Bank source confirmed having heard the same claim directly from Gratacós.

Bridge, true to its discussion on September 12, 2020, filed a complaint against Adler that day. The Bank’s internal ethics department investigated and dismissed the complaint.

Notes from the 2020 call between Bridge and World Bank outlining a plan. The text in the image reads, “File complaint against Daniel [Adler].  …  U.S. negotiated to let [David] Malpass fire him, leaving Dec. 15th. Neutralize Adler.”

Photo: Obtained by The Intercept

Later that month, roughly a week after the call between Bridge and World Bank officials, an applicant for Gratacós’s soon-to-be-vacant position sat down for an interview with top bank executives.

After the routine questions about his background and approach to work, the interviewers asked one that caught him off guard: If he was the manager of an investigator who seemed too aggressive when probing IFC investments, how would he handle that person? The world of global development finance is small enough that the interviewee had no problem reading between the lines.

“It was clear they were referring to Daniel [Adler],” the applicant told The Intercept, asking to speak anonymously so as not to jeopardize work he does in the field. He relayed the conversation to Adler, who included it in his official complaint. The applicant did not get the job.

That honor went instead to Janine Ferretti. Her appointment raised alarms on both Capitol Hill and in the civil society community that interfaces with the CAO, because instead of an investigative background, she had spent her career in bank management. She was quickly read in on the problem of Daniel Adler.

She told Gratacós that World Bank management had let her know that Adler “was a problem and should be removed.” Gratacós relayed that conversation to Adler, who memorialized it in his complaint.

The conspiring would have remained in the stage of paranoid rumor had the notes from the critical September 12 call not fallen into the hands of the CAO. After the meeting, World Bank staffer Shannon Atkeson filed the notes internally.

The notes are not always clear on who is doing the talking, though in some portions, initials are attached to particular comments. Efforts to reach Sonneborn, Atkeson (who has since left her post at the World Bank), May, and Kimmelman for clarification were unsuccessful.

When the CAO asked bank officials to turn over all documents related to the Bridge investment, those notes wound up with investigators, and eventually into the hands of the U.S. government.

Girls at the entrance to the Bridge International Academies in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 11, 2023.

Photo: Brian Otieno for The Intercept

MOST MAJOR INSTITUTIONS have internal rules that at least purport to protect whistleblowers from retaliation.

The World Bank is no different. In a standard bureaucracy, an institution’s leadership instead seizes upon a pretext to circumvent those protections. In the case of the Bridge investigation, however, the bank dispensed with such formalities.

In March, a spokesperson for the CAO told The Intercept that the long-delayed report on the World Bank’s Bridge investment would be completed by fall 2023.

Adler filed his complaint regarding Bank interference in the investigation in September 2022. In early August of this year, Adler was placed on administrative leave, his draft report still unpublished.

“CAO has removed the former head of the compliance unit — who worked on the Bridge case — and advised staff that he is on leave until further notice, without providing further information,” reads an open letter that a coalition of more than 20 civil society organizations sent to the CAO and similar internal investigative bodies on October 2.

“This is amidst reports that CAO staff who raise concerns about the erosion of the office’s independence are marginalized and retaliated against.”

The Bank admitted in writing that Adler’s whistleblower complaint was a factor in the decision to place him on leave, according to two Bank staffers with knowledge of the situation. Adler declined to comment, saying that he had been instructed not to discuss any CAO matters while on leave.

The day after Adler was placed on leave, the CAO finalized and circulated a revised draft of the Bridge report, which the Bank may never publish in full due to the nondisclosure agreement. On October 3, the report was sent privately to the World Bank board for review.

The coalition letter also referenced the controversial NDA and the failure to renew Gratacós’s contract amid broader complaints about the hiring of management-side personnel to staff an ostensibly independent bureau.

“The personnel changes at CAO have occurred as the Office of the General Counsel has stepped up its interference, most notably through the approval of a non-disclosure agreement that impedes CAO’s ability to disclose a forthcoming investigation of child sexual abuse in an IFC project in Kenya,” the letter reads.

“Ferretti understood the assignment: Rein in the CAO.”

World Bank and CAO staff take a similar view. “It took a while to get investigated,” said a CAO source who is familiar with the Bridge case. “There is a lot of interference from the Bank’s management,” they said, adding that the interference continues to this day. A World Bank staffer familiar with the case agreed, saying that Ferretti, the CAO head, invited further meddling.

“Ferretti understood the assignment: Rein in the CAO,” the staffer said. “She wants to work more closely with management, but she doesn’t appreciate the value of independence for the credibility of the Bank.”

One of the signatories to the letter was Inclusive Development International, a civil society organization that advocates for communities impacted by corporate projects.

The group’s executive director, David Pred, separately wrote to Treasury Department officials in late September, urging them to have the World Bank board investigate how the NDA came about.

“It is inexplicable why the IFC’s Office of General Counsel would approve an NDA with a client that binds the CAO, in the middle of a compliance investigation,” he wrote in an email to senior officials. “This doesn’t just expose IFC to the risk of litigation but invites it, unless of course the intention of the NDA was to obstruct disclosure of the CAO investigation, and protect its client and itself by covering up the details of their complicity in a child abuse scandal.”

“This smacks of a child sexual abuse cover-up at the highest levels of the World Bank.”

The NDA, he wrote, grossly infringed on CAO’s independence. “The Board should demand a full investigation into who authorized this agreement and why it was done and they should be held accountable.” Pred confirmed to The Intercept that he sent the email, adding that the NDA coupled with the retaliation against Adler were deeply disturbing. “This smacks of a child sexual abuse cover-up at the highest levels of the World Bank,” he said.

“Why else would the IFC’s General Counsel approve an NDA with a client under investigation that binds the ostensibly independent office that is carrying out the investigation?”

In a statement to The Intercept, a CAO spokesperson used more diplomatic terms, but similarly objected to the Bank’s NDA. “IFC should not make contractual confidentiality commitments that limit CAO’s ability to disclose information as allowed by the CAO Policy,” the spokesperson said.

THE DRAFT CAO REPORT — which was subsequently leaked to civil society sources who shared it with The Intercept — shows a company aware of a string of child sex abuse allegations, and a Bank that routinely gave them a pass.

CAO’s 82-page draft report shows that the World Bank was aware of a child sex abuse case at a Bridge school as early as 2013, citing analysis from a Kenyan law firm that the World Bank commissioned before investing in Bridge.

The law firm noted that a recent conviction of a Bridge employee for sexual violence “would prejudice the associated entity’s ability to obtain registration under Kenya’s Basic Education Act 2013.”

That, of course, would be a problem, and Bridge set about remedying the situation — by hiring an attorney who got the conviction overturned on appeal, according to the report.

The Intercept previously reported on the horrifying case, which involved an allegation of a Bridge teacher slashing a student’s scrotum. Bridge at the time responded by noting that the conviction had been overturned on appeal.

The judge ruled that the child’s testimony was insufficient because he was a child. What Bridge did not disclose, but what the new report shows, is that Bridge paid for the teacher’s legal defense.

In December 2019, the World Bank was made aware of a three-year randomized control trial by the Center for Global Development that compared schools in the Liberian “LEAP” program — which prominently included Bridge schools — with other government schools.

It found that nearly 4 percent of LEAP students surveyed in 2019 reported “sexual intercourse with a teacher” and 7.5 percent had “some form of sexual contact with a teacher.” The Bank “expressed concerns … about the findings to project leadership and also raised the findings with Bridge,” the report finds. “However, CAO found no evidence of follow-up action by IFC in response to the concerns.”

The report further found that Bridge itself was aware of at least 21 cases of child sex abuse that had been deemed credible.

“Despite these significant warning flags, CAO found no IFC project supervision documentation issued prior to February 2020 that addresses any incidents, risks, or concerns related to [child sex abuse] or [gender-based violence] against children,” the draft report found. Bridge consistently argued to the Bank that child sex abuse did not fall under the Bank’s oversight, and the Bank just as often acceded to that logic. The CAO report rejects the claim out of hand.

Bridge, the report found, even expected survivors or their families to cover their own medical costs stemming from the abuse. The report encouraged the World Bank to create a restitution fund to compensate victims for the harm done to them.

The IFC, in a statement, claimed it was implementing reforms in response to the sexual assault cases. “Since 2020, a global specialist in gender-based violence has worked with us to strengthen protections for vulnerable children and women in our projects and to educate IFC staff in how to identify and respond to instances of sexual abuse,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“We plan to hire additional specialists to focus on specific regions where we know the risks of gender-based violence to be high. In addition to our efforts to address gender-based violence in projects, we are also looking at measures to strengthen the capacity of the private sector to address this important issue more systematically. As an institution that is focused on fighting poverty and enabling people to improve their lives, we are deeply concerned about the allegations, and we are committed to working with our clients to strengthen preventive and response measures against such unfortunate incidents.”

As The Intercept previously reported, the IFC quietly divested from Bridge in 2020, though maintains an indirect holding in the company through an education investment fund.

Bridge, meanwhile, declined to engage with the allegations raised in this article. “Bridge has previously provided The Intercept with a comprehensive amount of material on safeguarding,” said a Bridge spokesperson. “These allegations are clearly false as is evidenced within the extensive and detailed responses — including the publically [sic] available 2020 Tunza report — shared with The Intercept in March 2023.” The spokesperson declined to specify which allegations she was referring to.

Emily’s complaint to the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman.

Photo: Ryan Grim/The Intercept

OVER THE SUMMER, former students who were sexually assaulted by a teacher at the Bridge school in Kenya began filing their own complaints with the CAO, alleging that the school had failed to take action regarding the abuse.

Several survivors from the school, now in their late teens, came forward to tell their stories. The Intercept is concealing their real names to protect their privacy.

While each of them was abused in a slightly different way, the overarching details of their experiences aligned. They were preyed upon in the hours before or after school; they were taken to empty classrooms or offices; they were ordered not to tell a soul about what had happened.

Their accounts paint a harrowing picture of systemic failure to protect children from a sexual predator and to get justice for the survivors.

As The Intercept previously reported, after the teacher was exposed by a student, he was confronted by the other teachers but then disappeared after a conversation with the school’s manager.

“Bridge didn’t do anything; it was just the teachers [helping us]. The Bridge part of it, they didn’t follow up anything, because when we came back from the hospital, we got back to our homes, and then the next week it was just normal as if nothing happened,” said Susan, who has since graduated high school and is studying to become a beautician. “All of a sudden [the perpetrator] disappeared. We felt bad, actually, because he wasn’t caught after doing all that.”

(In response to our previous story, Bridge said that it partnered with local institutions to provide counseling. The academy manager was fired.)

The impacts of the assault are long lasting. “It made me lose trust in any man,” said Nancy, another survivor who hopes to join an electrical engineering training college in January.

Emily, who is now 18 years old, grew up in the countryside with her grandmother, where she learned at school in her tribal language.

When she was around 12, she moved to a tough informal settlement in Nairobi to stay with her father and enrolled in Bridge, where she began to study in English. The other students made fun of her rural accent, and Emily said she was a lonely and timid student.

Her teacher would call her into an empty classroom, touch her private parts, and force her to touch him. “He pulled me in between his legs. I was like, ‘What’s wrong with this?’” she recalled. “I tried to pull back. I cannot tell anybody, because I feel like I’m not worthy.”

She is devastated that he has not been held accountable for his crimes against her and her friends. “This is a person who took advantage of us,” she said.

In her formal complaint to the CAO, Emily wrote of her frustration and disappointment that Bridge failed to protect her both before and even after the sexual assault took place.

“I wish to lodge a complaint with you following the incident which took place at my former school (Bridge Kwa Ruben) in 2014 and 2016 through one of the teachers [name redacted].

Nothing was done by the administration even after it was confirmed that I and the other girls were sexually abused and harassed. I am looking forward for justice to prevail and action be taken against them,” reads her handwritten note from June 16, 2023.

After the former students sent their complaints to the CAO, the office scheduled video conferencing interviews with each of them, according to a Nairobi source with knowledge of the situation. World Bank rules mandate that the CAO must decide whether to accept a complaint within seven weeks.

More than three months passed, and the girls remained in limbo until The Intercept contacted the CAO for comment. “CAO is finalizing the eligibility process for 4 new complaints regarding Bridge which raise sexual assault allegations,” a CAO spokesperson said.

In mid-October, one of the girls was approached by CAO to set up a new video call to explain how she could move forward with her complaint and she has decided to work through the CAO to seek justice.

The CAO, in its draft report, revealed a detail that underscores the failure of Bridge and the World Bank to protect children in its care.

After learning of Adler’s February 2020 trip to Nairobi, Bridge, perhaps erroneously, gave a World Bank official access to a list the company had compiled of roughly 70 known cases of child sexual abuse, the official later told the CAO during its investigation.

The bank official, according to the report, destroyed the document, thinking they were not supposed to have access to it. The banker subsequently asked Bridge to share it more broadly with other officials at the Bank who ought to have access.

Bridge never did so, and the Bank took no further action.

Update: December 30, 2023

This story was updated to include clarifying comments from William Sonneborn, who represented the IFC in meetings with Bridge International, an investment that predated his tenure.

In a meeting between the World Bank and Bridge, Bridge’s founders proposed the plan to slow down the public disclosure of the investigation into sexual assault, Sonneborn said.

Bridge insisted, and while the IFC leadership initially resisted, it reluctantly agreed that the CAO was bound by a confidentiality provision between the IFC and Bridge signed four years earlier and that no new obligations were added.

He said the information “was essential for the investigation and the work of the World Bank Group social and gender experts to enhance Bridge’s governance, policies and procedures.”

By The Intercept Ryan Grimryan.grim@theintercept.com@ryangrimon  and Neha Wadekar@NehaWadekaron X

 

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