Implementing a Human Rights Policy at the World Bank

Galit Safarty gave a talk at Harvard Law School today titled: Why Culture Matters in International Institutions: The Marginality of Human Rights at the World Bank. Sarfaty obtained her JD from Yale and is a lawyer and anthropologist. She is a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program and writing her dissertation based on 4 years of field work at the World Bank. She is studying why no mandate for human rights has been incorporated into the organizational culture at the Bank.

She sees the reason as resulting from a clash in ideology between the human rights people, which are largely the lawyers, and economists. Economists dominate the bank, hold most powerful positions, and have a unique and prestigious research group. Sarfaty also notes that the articles of agreement for the World Bank explicitly states that only economic considerations can be taken into account in World Bank decision making. The World bank is the largest lender to developing countries at $30 billion per year. Sarfaty notes that their mission is poverty reduction and this gives a crack through which supporters for a World bank policy on human rights can work. She suggests three reasons she expects the World Bank to have implemented a human rights policy:

1) peer institutions like UNICEF, UNDP, DFID, have one,
2) the Bank is subject to external pressure by NGOs and internal pressure from employees,
3) even banks in the private sector have human rights frameworks. ICS (the World Bank commercial banking arm) has a human rights framework based on risk management.

Sarfaty thinks the World banks legal mandate has become less salient in the recent years, but now bureaucrats stand in the way.

She has conducted about 70 interviews over 4 years at the WB in Washington DC, and found that professional identity is the source of conflict within the bureaucracy, and economists dominate at the Bank. Within the Bank lawyers are seen as technocrats that aren’t directly involved in projects. The legal department has a culture of secrecy because of this.

She concludes that the goal is to frame human rights issues for economists, rather than playing to the perception that it is a political issue. So the idea is to frame human rights goals for economists: presenting empirical data as to how they advance human development and thus is a relevant issue for the Bank and within its poverty eradication mandate. Also, the Bank is creating a new indicator that measure human rights performance not just legal compliance with contracts. Another avenue she suggests is exploiting the rigidness of some of the guidelines for working with countries – human rights could be a lever to incrementally convince the Bank to be more flexible, which not a constraint on lending.

Sarfaty makes this sounds like a tough road, especially when she explains that no explicit policy on human rights has even been put forward at the World Bank because the board of directors has seats held by China and Saudi Arabia. She sees the only option as working through the staff level.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

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6 Responses to “Implementing a Human Rights Policy at the World Bank”

  1. Victoria Stodden Says:

    […] on I&D Blog […]

  2. Gerardo Says:

    The World Bank is one of the most representative institutions in the “occidental wolrd” that shows us how the principles of modernity are no longer important.
    Human Rights, liberties, real democracy, these are not important values. What cares between the chairmen in the World Bank is the economic predominance of some clusters, interests groups and mobs.

    The International Monetary Fund, under the leadership of Dominique Strauss Khan, has been shifting its own pragmatic profiles. Strauss understands this world, where China, India, Brasil, South Africa, Russia are playing influential roles. We all must realize this new scenario: we live among a diminishing hegemony. The United States and Europe should exercise their memories and make some feedbacks among their institutions. There are no longer modern or democratic institutions on the “occident”.

    The World Bank is one illustrative example on how “occidental” institutions have lost their primal identity, and shows us their bloody teeth.

    My opinion is that Straus Khan should re-configure the IMF, change its name and start a new era. The World Bank has nothing to give, because it is still under the leadership of a mob.


    Gerardo Ballesteros de León.

  3. Should the World Bank promote human rights? at John Barrdear Says:

    […] Stodden (blog, Harvard page, Stanford page) has an interesting post up on her own blog and that of the Internet & Democracy Group at Harvard based on a recent talk given by Galit Sarfaty on “why no mandate for human rights […]

  4. John Barrdear Says:

    The trackback doesn’t seem to have come through. I have a response up here: Should the World Bank promote human rights?

  5. victoriastodden Says:


    The World Bank seems to be tightly constrained by it’s Articles of Agreement and its economic mandate. Many thinkers at the front of development eschew this as the only approach the development (see my book review of Amartya Sen’s _Development as Freedom_ at But to change the World Bank mandate is indeed a big task. As you note it might be easier to change the mandate of the IMF, since it is not as tightly bound to economic development as the World Bank is.


    Great blog post. I agree the four reasons listed by Sarfaty for implementing a human rights policy at the World bank are not compelling. The interesting question you point out is whether development is multifaceted as Sen suggests (again see my book review), which implies expanding the World Bank’s role is appropriate (or if the Bank remains relegated to the economic role it works in concert with other development mechanisms) or whether efforts should be directed toward economic development as a first priority. I absolutely agree that a better understanding of the causality of development is vital, and this will allow us to answer your second question about the institutional design best suited for development.
    Sarfaty does make an interesting point that a human rights plan within the World Bank could make sense in that it would bring a different strategic mandate to World Bank developers and thus increase the range of policy choices available. World Bank workers, she says, often feel overly constrained by rigid rules they cannot adapt to local culture and environments.

  6. John Barrdear Says:

    Cross posting my comment:

    I am sure that everybody would agree that development is multifaceted and that, as Sen argued, progress on any front helps in the progress on the others.

    But I don’t think it necessarily follows that organisations like the World Bank should take a multifaceted approach or even coordinate their work with other development agencies. The reason is that, while everybody can generally agree on whether some economic project is likely to improve a country [*], it is not at all the case that everybody can agree on the benefits of social or political projects, let alone whether those projects ought to take primacy over an economic one.

    You and I probably agree on what rights ought to be afforded to homosexuals or religious minorities, but I think we would meet fierce resistance to our views in Yemen. By doing anything to associate our views with financial assistance in building infrastructure in Sana’a will be seen as insulting and demeaning by the people of Yemen. I’m all for working to convince them of the benefits of a more tolerant society, but when we force our values on them against their will, we rob them of their ability to choose for themselves. I don’t see how that would be anything other than cultural colonialism.

    [*] Plenty of people have rightly criticised various World Bank initiatives, but I suspect that most of those criticisms are about corruption or the onerous nature of the debt imposed and not about the benefits of the projects per se. There are certainly some – large dams and the environmental impact, for example – but I think that they are outnumbered by the concerns about debt and corruption.