A Timeline of the World Bank Child Sexual Abuse Scandal

April 18, 2024

Ajay Banga has acknowledged the bank ignored reports of abuse in schools it funded, and has promised an investigation into a cover up and retaliation against whistleblowers—including under his own tenure.

World Bank President Ajay Banga, former head of MasterCard, has the affected impatience of a businessman. He wants the bank's private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation or IFC, to move “much faster, much quicker.” He has said, at times, that the bank must have a bigger risk appetite.

But what happens when the risk is realized and people get hurt?

One embarrassment for Banga's private-sector agenda is that the IFC is currently engulfed in a scandal about sexual abuse in a chain of private schools it funded in Kenya called Bridge International Academies. Details remain murky, but at least a dozen and potentially several dozen child abuse cases have been identified in Bridge schools.

As is often the case, the alleged cover up has eclipsed the original scandal. Banga has acknowledged IFC staff knew about sexual abuse in schools they were funding and failed to act. Leaked documents suggest something worse: the IFC prioritized its client's financial interests over children's safety, impeded investigation of the abuse, and retaliated against the IFC's own investigators who pursued the case.

There are a lot of moving parts here, so here’s my attempt at a blow-by-blow. Much of what we know comes from reporting by Neha Wadekar and Ryan Grim for The Intercept, who interviewed parents in Kenya and World Bankers in Washington. Other pieces have been documented in letters from civil society organizations and members of the US Congress, as well as the IFC’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman’s (CAO) own published files on the Bridge case.


2013: IFC invests in Bridge.

From 2013 to 2016 the IFC made a series of equity investments totaling $13.5 million in Bridge's parent company NewGlobe Schools.

Between 2013 and 2020: IFC received reports of child sexual abuse at Bridge schools.

According to the CAO report IFC received reports of child sexual abuse in 2013, 2016, and 2017 but did little in response, failing to adhere to its own policies (p.9).

February 2020: IFC receives reports of sexual abuse in Bridge schools through CAO.

In response to complaints about illegal labor practices and unsafe infrastructure at Bridge schools, the CAO sent a team to Kenya to investigate, led by an investigator named Daniel Adler. While there, they received more than a dozen complaints about incidents of sexual abuse in Bridge schools. (IFC later obtained a list of at least 70 other sexual abuse incidents in Bridge schools. The CAO “could find no indication that IFC took any action” in response.)

June 2020: IFC and Bridge sign a non-disclosure agreement, hampering the ombudsman's investigation.

With the ostensible purpose of gaining access to more information from Bridge about the sexual abuse allegations, the IFC signed a non-disclosure agreement. CAO, the oversight body leading the investigation objected, noting "the IFC and client entered into a wide-ranging confidentiality agreement that purports to cover the CAO's work" and that this was done "without CAO's agreement or participation."

September 12, 2020: Bridge and IFC discuss blocking investigation.

Notes from a meeting between the Bridge founders, Shannon May and Jay Kimmelman, and IFC staff member William Sonneborn published by The Intercept show that the two parties discussed how the child abuse scandal could jeopardize Bridge's upcoming funding round from investors, as well as its efforts to secure a large government contract in Rwanda. The notes also mention an agreement to fire Osvaldo Gratacós, the head of CAO, and the need to then "Neutralize Adler," in apparent reference to Daniel Adler, the investigator who had uncovered the sexual abuse cases.

Image of notes from an IFC staff member and Bridge founders about the scandal and the whistleblower, from the Intercept

Image of meeting notes from Sep 12, 2022 meeting between Bridge and IFC, reprinted from The Intercept.

December 31, 2020: World Bank fires the IFC ombudsman.

A few months after launching a formal investigation into the IFC's Bridge investment, Osvaldo Gratacós, the head of CAO, was replaced after six years in his role. The number six is significant because he was supposed to have five-year renewable terms, insulating him from management interference. The Intercept cites two World Bank sources reporting that Gratacós was offered the chance to keep his job if he would fire Daniel Adler, who was leading the Bridge investigation. He declined.

March 1, 2021: Makhtar Diop becomes managing director of the IFC.

March 2022: The IFC divests from Bridge.

September 2022: Adler filed a complaint about interference in the investigation.

March 23, 2023: Online news outlet The Intercept publishes an investigation into sexual abuse in Bridge schools in Kenya.

June 2, 2023: Ajay Banga becomes World Bank president.

August 2023 – today: IFC investigator who uncovered abuse is suspended.

According to The Intercept reporting, Daniel Adler was placed on administrative leave in August of last year.

October 3, 2023: Ombudsman report is shared with World Bank board.

While not public at the time, the long-delayed CAO report on the Bridge case finally went to the World Bank board, finding a host of failures by the IFC in preventing and responding to child sexual abuse in Bridge schools.

October 2023: The CAO opened cases on four additional complaints of sexual abuse in Bridge schools in Kenya.

Late 2013 – early 2024: Pressure mounts on the World Bank to explain apparent cover up.

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Peter Welch wrote to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on October 10, 2023, expressing alarm at the potential cover up and retaliation against investigators. On October 17, The Intercept published a follow-up piece to its sexual abuse coverage, focusing in part on the aftermath: “Whistleblower: The World Bank helped cover up sexual abuse at a chain of for-profit schools it funded.” Questioned about this report at a public event at CGD on February 5, 2024, Banga denies there was any cover up of the sexual abuse scandal (see 1:01:48 for the relevant exchange). In the following weeks, a series of pieces in the New York Times reports on Banga's struggles with the case and its implications for his plans to pivot the Bank toward the private sector.

March 13, 2024: World Bank board approves publication of ombudsman’s report; Ajay Banga apologizes.

Under continued pressure from Capitol Hill, the IFC Board approved publication of the CAO report, alongside the IFC management response and action plan. Notably, IFC’s response did not include compensation for victims, proposing instead a general program aimed “primarily to support the psychosocial needs of survivors of child sexual abuse” across Kenya. Banga’s all-staff email noted that “early on we received reports of child sexual abuse, but protocols were not followed and children were hurt. Put simply, mistakes were made.” There was no mention of accountability for anyone within the IFC or World Bank. Though his email quickly leaked to the press, Banga has not made a public statement on the Bridge case.

Date TBD: External investigation of apparent coverup and retaliation against ombudsman.

In his all-staff email, Banga committed to “ask an outside investigator to ensure that [the CAO investigation] was conducted in a manner that was free from interference.” This aligns with requests from Senators Warren and Welch and Representative Maxine Waters, but the scope and terms of reference for this investigation are yet to be defined. Some civil society organizations have made recommendations.

Counterfactuals and assigning blame

A comment I hear a lot from from fellow economists, trained to think in terms of counterfactuals, is “sure, this is horrible, but presumably Bridge is better than the alternative in government schools.”

First, there is no evidence to this effect. We have no comparable data on sexual abuse rates in Bridge schools versus public schools. In Liberia, my colleagues and I did measure children’s reports of sexual abuse in public schools versus charter schools run by Bridge, and found rates of abuse were slightly higher in Bridge schools, though the gap was not statistically significant.

More importantly, such comparisons are anathema to the core principles of child protection. If children are abused at school, the school has a responsibility to provide redress to the children and their families—whether that’s one case or hundreds. If a school fails to report sexual abuse cases (as Bridge originally failed to do), it must face accountability. If a company entrusted with the care of children conspires to conceal abuse while it woos investors (as Bridge allegedly did), it should no longer be entrusted with the care of children.

If a hypothetical school reduced child abuse rates below prevailing levels but not to zero, and diligently reported and pursued the remaining cases, we would be having a very different conversation. That’s not what happened here.

Bridge has demonstrated time and again that it is willing to overlook harm to children to advance its own commercial interests. In our randomized trial in Liberia, for instance, they expelled so many children in an effort to boost their test scores that they managed to quintuple per-pupil expenditure relative to government schools and still reduce secondary school enrollment rates in the communities where they worked. There is an argument to be made that organizations who continue to work with Bridge now do so knowing that they may be putting children in harm’s way.

This week the IMF-World Bank Spring Meetings are being held here in DC, and the focus right now is understandably on the IFC’s alleged role in aiding and abetting the cover up of sexual abuse. Other Bridge investors should face similar questions—the Omidyar Network, Bill Gates, and the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation. It is unclear if they had the same knowledge of abuses as the IFC did.

But of course, the lion’s share of blame for this tragedy lies with Bridge International Academies and its founders, who surely cannot escape accountability.

Compensating victims

At least two issues remain to be resolved. The first is who is going to compensate the victims, if anyone.

At least one Democrat in Congress and various NGOs have called for the World Bank board to reject the IFC plan not to pay compensation to victims.

Devex spoke to former IFC and World Bank officials who are more skeptical of paying compensation. They argue that while Bridge may owe compensation to victims, as an investor IFC per se does not, and that compensating victims will create a “moral hazard” problem by incentivizing more (alleged) victims to come forward. The latter argument is not only callous, it would essentially place the IFC above the law, beyond any accountability ever. On the contrary, the US Supreme Court recently held in Jam vs. the International Finance Corporation that the IFC can be sued in US courts for harm caused by its projects overseas. So, if plaintiffs bring a case, US courts may ultimately get to decide this one. In the meantime, compensating victims still might be the right thing to do ethically.

Credibility and accountability

The other remaining task is to restore the IFC’s and its ombudsman’s credibility. That will require not just an apology, but a transparent accounting of IFC’s apparent efforts to obstruct the investigation of sexual abuse in Bridge schools.

If a credible, independent investigation finds that World Bank and IFC management did indeed attempt to cover up abuse for the financial benefit of their client, the board should demand accountability. This case has stretched on for several years, but some key players remain in senior bank positions.

At present, Ajay Banga has apologized and talked about how the World Bank must do better in handling reports of abuse. Meanwhile, it seems that those who tried to do so remain fired or suspended.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: Michael Foley via Flickr