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 I&D Blog

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