The Editorial Board
Much of the evidence supporting the emerging consensus that strong human rights safeguards promote and enhance development has come out of research from the World Bank. Yet the institution has been far too reluctant to make adherence to human rights a core principle by which it evaluates projects intended to reduce poverty and improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people.
The bank is now in the final stages of updating its policies on how to reduce the environmental and social risks of projects and loans. This offers an opportunity to chart a new course.
The World Bank was created in 1944 to play a leading role in rebuilding Europe after World War II. As its mission shifted to the developing world, the bank held on to a foundational principle: It stays out of the politics of the countries it works with and makes decisions based solely on “economic considerations.” That may have made sense in the geopolitical landscape of the post-World War II era and the Cold War. But it is anachronistic today.
While the World Bank cannot reasonably be expected to become an enforcer of human rights law, there is much it can do to protect human rights and persuade borrowers to live up to commitments they have made in international treaties. Adopting a clear and substantive human rights policy would mirror the bank’s efforts to more carefully consider the environmental impact of the projects it funds.
Bank officials, shareholders and borrowing countries have wrestled with this issue since 2012, when the latest review of the bank’s so-called safeguard policies began. The first draft of the new policy, which was released in 2014, was widely criticized by human rights advocates for presenting support for human rights as a vague, aspirational goal. Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said in a report last year that the bank was a “human rights-free zone” with operational policies that treat “human rights more like an infectious disease than universal values and obligations.”
He and other critics say the bank has failed to adopt effective protocols to examine the potential social harm of projects it bankrolls. They also contend that the bank too often passes the burden of assessing and mitigating the impact of development work to the governments that get the funding.
Labor and human rights activists have chided the World Bank for its slow and inadequate response to allegations that its funding was abetting forced labor in cotton fields in Uzbekistan. The Bank Information Center, a group that monitors World Bank projects, faulted it for the involuntary displacement of thousands of families that resulted from an initiative to help poor people establish a legal claim to property in Cambodia.
The bank has failed to play a more assertive role in human rights in part because bank executives have been reluctant to add more regulations to the work of an institution that is already infamously bureaucratic. They are also mindful of the rise of other international financial institutions — most significantly from China — that pay less attention to environmental and labor standards in financing.
Still, the World Bank’s own research shows that embracing the protection of human rights as a core part of its mission is more than a moral imperative; it makes good economic sense. Bank studies have concluded that reducing gender inequity is good for prosperity and that communities where human rights are violated with impunity are more prone to armed conflict.
Members of the bank’s Committee on Development Effectiveness received the latest draft of the bank’s proposed safeguards on Friday. As they review it, they should aim to make human rights integral to the bank’s development work.