Established in 1944, the World Bank has become the largest lender to developing countries, lending more than $20 billion per year. The Bank is probably the most well-known symbol of economic globalization, capitalism and Western imperialism. Its more than ten thousand employees are engaged in the Bank’s official mission of poverty reduction, which it carries out primarily through development lending. Its legitimacy depends on fulfillment of the mission, which is inextricably linked to human rights.

The institution may be implicated in human rights in at least three possible activities: the Bank’s direct or indirect violation of human rights through its projects (eg, forcible displacement of indigenous peoples resulting from a Bank-financed dam project), its lending of money to governments that commit gross and systemic human rights violations, and its reluctance to directly support human rights. If the Bank finances projects that hinder the rights of vulnerable peoples or channels investments to state governments that do so, it harms its reputation and relevance as a global leader in fighting poverty and compromises the development outcomes of its projects.

Although the institution has adopted various social and environmental policies and works on issues as diverse as judicial reform, health, and infrastructure, it has not adopted any overarching operational policy on human rights. Despite the Bank’s rhetoric that protecting human rights is critical for development, its employees do not systematically incorporate human rights concerns into their everyday decision making or consistently take them into consideration in lending; incorporation of human rights is ad hoc and at their discretion. In addition, many employees consider it taboo to discuss human rights in everyday conversation and to include such references in their project documents, with minor exceptions. The marginality of human rights in official policy contrasts with the Bank’s rhetoric in official reports and leaders’ public speeches, which have supported human rights.

Human rights is a marginal issue within the Bank, I argue, because the institution maintains no comprehensive or consistent approach at the policy and operational levels. In more specific terms, the Bank resists adoption of such provisions as (1) a staff policy to mitigate the impact of its projects on human rights; (2) a requirement to consider countries’ obligations under international human rights law when Bank employees engage in country dialogues or draft Country Assistance Strategies; and (3) guidelines on when it would suspend operations because of human rights violations. In contrast, other multilateral development agencies have instituted human-rights-based programming; for instance, the United Nations Development Programme has conducted country program reviews based on human rights criteria, and bilateral aid agencies, such as those of Denmark (DANIDA), Sweden (SIDA), and the United Kingdom (DFID), have adopted human rights approaches.

My recent book investigates the internal workings of World Bank bureaucracy so as to understand why it has yet to adopt and internalize human rights norms (Values in Translation: Human Rights and the Culture of the World Bank, Stanford 2012). I argue that legal and political constraints do not fully explain this phenomenon; existing explanations lack an anthropological analysis of the Bank’s organizational culture that would uncover bureaucratic obstacles to the adoption of human rights norms. Such obstacles include the internal incentive system, which emphasizes lending targets rather than results on the ground, and power dynamics between professional subcultures.

The battle over human rights at the Bank corresponds to a clash of expertise among staff, as well as a broader clash of normative rationalities: economics versus human rights, or more broadly, the market versus social democratic liberalism into which human rights nestles. Economic knowledge has become dominant within bureaucracies as well as in domestic and international public policy making. The Bank is both a producer and an effect of this phenomenon. It has facilitated the global expansion of capital through the mission of poverty reduction but has also mirrored the effects of economic globalization in its bureaucratic practices, for instance through the quantification of many issues that are value-laden and politically contested. The encounter between the knowledge regimes of economics and human rights represents the negotiation of competing values that underlie global governance. Their convergence has led to the infusion of human rights discourse with an instrumental logic.

My research analyzes interpretive gaps between experts (particularly lawyers and economists) over whether human rights is an incommensurable value that precludes trade-offs and should not be translated into an instrumental logic, or whether economic rationality trumps all other concerns. Even though many Bank lawyers conceive of human rights as legal imperatives, having an intrinsic value and derived from the international human rights regime, most economists emphasize its instrumental value, as a means towards achieving other objectives such as economic development. The interaction between these competing frameworks raises the important question of whether human rights can be translated and if so, at what cost.

Due to prohibitions against political activities in its Articles of Agreement, the Bank has embraced what it interprets as the economic-related aspects of rights, which make up their regulatory dimension, and is attempting to vacate their sovereignty dimension. (The sovereignty dimension of human rights invokes their universal character, symbolic valence, and emancipatory power, while the regulatory dimension emphasizes their instrumental, rule-oriented, and administrative qualities that are more susceptible to a market logic.) For instance, although the Bank has adopted a policy on indigenous rights (largely as a result of external pressure), it has mostly limited the focus to economic-related issues such as land rights and the commercial development of cultural resources. It has refused to engage in sovereignty-related aspects such as indigenous rights to self-determination. Yet I argue that the regulatory and sovereignty dimensions are critical to human rights. They are necessarily linked even though their intersection is fraught with tensions and contradictions. If the political potential of human rights is negated, the rights lose their teeth and are rendered not just impotent but transformed into a form one can no longer call “human rights.”

Galit A Sarfaty is Canada Research Chair in global economic governance and assistant professor in the faculty of law at the University of British Columbia.

Jessica Winegar is editor of Human Rights Forum, the AN column of the AAA Committee for Human Rights. She may be contacted at


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