Rights

Background

The World Bank’s approach to human rights

19 July 2023 | Inside the institutions

The year 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR; see Observer Spring 2023), a document created from the ashes of World War II at the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 to lay out the fundamental and universal rights for everyone on the planet. As members of the United Nations (UN) system, the World Bank Group (WBG) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have the same duty to uphold these universal human rights, as outlined in the Tilburg Principles; yet, the current crisis of development has once more put the spotlight on the BWI’s neoliberal paradigm and its global human rights impacts.

The “lost decade” of structural adjustment

The World Bank’s approach to human rights cannot be explored without acknowledging the human rights consequences of conditions still imposed through World Bank loan agreements.

Structural Adjustment Loans or Programs (SAPs), were large conditional loans made by the Bank and Fund to low- and middle-income countries which carried strict financial and budgetary obligations or required reforms oriented towards liberalisation, deregulation, privatisation and reduction in government expenditure, aligning with a neoliberal approach to economic development focused on economic growth.

Following a heavy period of Bank and Fund imposed SAPs in the 1980s primarily in Latin America and Sub Saharan Africa, which in reality caused many economies to contract, the related austerity measures were widely considered to have contributed to a “lost decade” for these continents: Heightened rates of illness due to lacking investment in public healthcare, cases of land grabbing and displacement, and a decline in rates of education, particularly amongst girls, as education was underfunded. More money was often spent on servicing debts than on funding essential public services, and economists have highlighted the extractive nature of this post-colonial era in the cycle of North-South dependency. It is estimated that trillions of dollars’ worth of commodities, resources and labour have been drained from the South, with a particular peak in periods of structural adjustment.

The insurmountable damage done by SAPs was highly publicised and evidenced in research. The Common Report by UN Special Reporter Ronaldo Figueredo and Independent Expert Fantu Cheru in 2000 noted,“These drastically austere programmes have exacted a high social and ecological price and, in many countries, the human development index has taken a dramatic plunge…the exercise of the basic rights of the people of debtor countries to food, lodging, clothing, employment, education, health services and a healthy environment cannot be subordinated.” Nonetheless, the Bank continues not to recognise its human rights obligations or have a human rights policy, and still operates a model of providing loans with ‘prior actions’ that are reminiscent of SAPs, now called Development Policy Financing (DPF; see Briefing, The World Bank and Gender Equality: Development Policy Financing).

SDGs yes, human rights still no

Since the adoption of the UN’s Agenda for Sustainable Development, in 2015, the Bank has committed to incorporating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into its work, noting that the targets were “formulated with strong participation from the World Bank Group, are fully consistent with the World Bank Group’s own twin goals to end poverty and build shared prosperity in a sustainable manner.” As a result, the Bank now houses a Human Rights, Inclusion and Empowerment (HRIE) Umbrella, which has as its objective to “increase and strengthen the understanding and application of human rights principles across the WBG’s work by funding human rights-focused, Bank-executed grants,” amongst other initiatives such as staff training. In addition, a new Environmental and Social Framework (ESF) developed in 2018 applies to all Investment Project Financing (IPF), with the goal of “enabling the World Bank and Borrowers to better manage environmental and social risks in projects and to improve development outcomes in client countries.”

These attempts of human right alignment have nonetheless yielded little results. The Bank’s ESF framework does not apply to DPF lending, leaving the bulk of the Bank’s lending and associated ‘prior actions’ effectively blind to human rights impacts – particularly women’s rights. Philip Alston, former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, brought to light the Bank’s deficit in human rights in 2015, describing the institution as a “human rights free zone” and stating that the Bank was leading a “race to the bottom” on human rights (see Observer Winter 2016).

A Roadmap to rights?

Amidst the current context of polycrisis and record numbers of countries in debt distress, the chorus of calls for reform of the international financial architecture is growing. The World Bank has a unique opportunity to alter its approach to human rights in the ongoing Evolution Roadmap process. However, the Bank, now led by former Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga, believes the answer lies in mobilising private finance and lending more under the ‘Cascade’ approach (see Observer Summer 2017), despite the wealth of evidence warning against it. The Bank renewed its enthusiasm for public-private partnerships (PPPs; see Observer Autumn 2022) at the June Paris Summit, much to the dismay of human rights defenders and public finance experts.

The recent global pandemic laid bare the essential role of publicly-funded services, including health and social care, education, and the importance of maintaining universal protection schemes, most notably for women (see Briefing, Learning lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic: The World Bank’s macroeconomic policies and women’s rights). The World Bank Group has been repeatedly criticised, including by UN human rights experts, for the harms caused by its investments in for-profit social services, including healthcare and education (see Observer Summer 2022). The increased financialisation of public goods under this approach erodes basic human rights, such as the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, the rights to food, adequate housing, development and a healthy and sustainable environment.

A July civil society briefing, endorsed by over 70 organisations and individuals, urged the Bank to adopt a human rights policy in its evolution process, including ex-ante and ex-post assessments of its lending and privatisation impacts, as well as an accountability and remedy framework for past evidence-based harms generated by the Bank’s operations. Gender activists also called for the Roadmap to meaningfully mainstream a women’s rights lens into the Bank’s operations including macroeconomic policies, and address the gendered harms of the ‘race to the bottom’ encouraged by the Cascade approach (see Observer Summer 2023).

Economic decisions and policies are inherently tied to human rights because they relate to prioritisation of essential needs and reflect power dynamics that impact civil political rights and redirect state resources. Therefore, World Bank policies are not technocratic processes. This invites a complex discussion about accountability of international financial institutions under international human rights law that – as civil society has been arguing for decades – requires reform to reflect the overdue evolution to a post-colonial economic system fit for the immense challenges of the 21st century, and for the Bank to recognise its international human rights obligations.

More background on this issue

Rights

Background

19 July 2023 | Inside the institutions

The World Bank's approach to human rights

This Inside the Institutions explores how the World Bank approaches human rights in the context of the international human rights obligations of international financial and development institutions.

Social services

Background

5 October 2020 | Minutes

World Bank Group’s ‘Maximizing Finance for Development’ in times of Covid-19

Notes from the virtual Civil Society Policy Forum at the 2020 World Bank and IMF Annual Meetings 5 October session on the World Bank's 'Maximizing Finance for Development' and the Covid-19 response.

Private Sector

Background

29 March 2021 | Minutes

Private sector accountability in times of crisis

Notes from the virtual Civil Society Policy Forum session on 29 March.

Social services

Background

26 March 2021 | Minutes

The role of the World Bank in ensuring universal and equitable COVID-19 vaccines for all

Notes from the virtual Civil Society Policy Forum event on March 26.

IFI governance

Background

25 March 2021 | Minutes

An economic future for whom? The Cascade/MFD and recovery

Notes from the virtual Spring 2021 Civil Society Policy Forum on 25 March 2021.

Accountability

Background

29 September 2020 | Minutes

Tracking the trillions: Emergency funds, corruption and making the Covid-19 recovery work for all

Notes from Civil Society Policy Forum at the 2020 IMF and World Bank Annual Meetings 29 September session on corruption and Covid-19 recovery.

Rights

Background

21 April 2017 | Minutes

Are governments and the Bretton Woods Institutions fighting inequality?

Notes of a 2017 IMF and World Bank spring meetings session on the BWIs and inequality, 21 April

IFI governance

Background

10 October 2014 | Minutes

UK civil society meeting with UK World Bank Executive Director Gwen Hines

Notes of a meeting with World Bank executive director Gwen Hines in October 2014.

IFI governance

Background

11 April 2014

What does real accountability mean in practice?

Rights

Background

10 April 2014 | Minutes

Smart assessment: Capturing and managing human rights risks

IFI governance

Background

9 April 2014

IFC – Dinant and lessons learned

IFI governance

Background

8 April 2014

CSO roundtable with World Bank Group executive directors

Rights

Background

7 April 2014

Multilateral Development Banks & human rights: Issues, challenges, opportunities

Accountability

Background

22 April 2013 | Minutes

Bending the arc of poverty

The session focused on the World Bank's development strategy, poverty eradication goals, global inequality, and the threat of climate change.

Accountability

Background

22 April 2013 | Minutes

Financial and housing crises, the Bank's safeguards and the right to adequate housing

This session featured a presentation from UN special rapporteur on the links between financial and housing crises, safeguards and the right to adequate housing.

IFI governance

Background

22 April 2013 | Minutes

From the Arab revolutions to global austerity trends

This session examined issues thrown up by the Arab revolutions, including the fiscal, monetary, tax and investment policies being considered by governments facilitating, or hindering countries in the Arab and other regions in building an inclusive economy and supporting socioeconomic recovery, the impact on public expenditure for the strengthening of education, health, and other social sectors as well as the management of chronic and high unemployment and high food and fuel prices.

Accountability

Background

18 February 2013 | Minutes

UK Civil Society Meeting with Minister of State Rt Hon Alan Duncan MP

This was a meeting on 1 October 2012, between the Minister of State of the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) and civil society representatives, focusing on the World Bank.

Land

Background

11 October 2012 | Minutes

Halting the global land rush: protecting land rights and promoting food security

This event discussed how to invest in agriculture in a responsible way, including research on the scale of the global rush for land, and explored potential solutions to the problem, including the role that the World Bank can and must play.

IFI governance

Background

10 October 2012 | Minutes

Making global governance accountable: civil society experiences with 13 Institutions

This session discussed the conclusions reached on the global governance role of civil society by the Civil Society and Accountable Global Governance project.

Infrastructure

Background

10 October 2012 | Minutes

Water privatisation management issues

This session featured a discussion on the implications of current water policy reforms that have increasingly privatised and commodified water.

Environment

Background

9 October 2012 | Minutes

CSO Roundtable with World Bank executive directors

This was a roundtable discussion between IMF and WBG Executive Directors (EDs) with accredited civil society representatives to promote an exchange of views and discussion on key issues of the 2012 Annual Meeting agenda: global economy, disaster resilience, social and environmental safeguards, and global health.

Accountability

Background

23 April 2012 | Minutes

EIR + 10

Minutes of afternoon sessions of extractives conference, Washington DC, 23 April 2012

Conditionality

Background

23 April 2012 | Minutes

A Global Shared Societies Agenda

Minutes meeting for A Global Shared Societies Agenda

Environment

Background

26 September 2011 | Minutes

Safeguards and climate finance in Indonesia in the context of REDD+

Notes of meeting, Washington DC, September 23, 2011

Social services

Background

23 September 2011 | Minutes

Seminar - Gender Equality Matters: The Way Forward

Notes of meeting, Washington DC, September 21, 2011

Accountability

Background

7 March 2011 | Minutes

Notes of meeting between UK Executive Director to World Bank and Civil Society Groups

On February 2nd 2011 civil society organisations held a meeting with the UK Executive Director to the World Bank and staff from the Department for International Development to discuss the formation of the new Green Climate Fund, the World Bank energy startegy review, and the role of the private sector in World Bank lending.

Accountability

Background

4 October 2010 | Minutes

Meeting on the World Bank between DFID and UK NGOs

Notes of a meeting between UK civil society and DFID staff.

Accountability

Background

6 April 2010 | Minutes

Meeting between UK civil society and Susanna Moorehead, UK Executive Director to the World Bank

Minutes of a meeting between UK civil society, UK World Bank Executive Director Susanna Moorehead, and DFID staff

Accountability

Background

22 September 2009 | Inside the institutions

Safeguard policies and performance standards

Originally drafted as internal operational policies to guide staff, World Bank safeguard policies evolved after pressure from environmental and social groups in the 1980s and were first officially implemented in 1998. They aim to protect people and the environment from the adverse effects of Bank-financed operations and are based on international agreements, even if these protections are not explicitly provided for in the borrower country's national law.

Accountability

Background

27 April 2009 | Minutes

IFC and broad community support

Minutes of a session hosted by the IFC at the World Bank spring meetings, April 23, 2009

Rights

Background

13 October 2008 | Minutes

Testing the water: How can the right to water and sanitation enhance the World Bank's policy and pra

This event brought together a panel of World Bank representatives with civil society members who have worked extensively on issues of access and the right to water and sanitation. Sponsored by Both ENDS, Fresh Water Action Network (FWAN), Center on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE)

Environment

Background

25 July 2008 | Minutes

Highlights: Meeting of UK NGOs with UK Alternate Executive Director to the World Bank

Meeting between UK NGOs and UK Alternate Execituve Director to the World Bank -Caroline Sergeant- on July 22, 2008.

Environment

Background

13 April 2008 | Minutes

Dialogue with NGOs and Lars Thunell, Executive Vice President and CEO, IFC

Dialogue with NGOs and Lars Thunell, Executive Vice President and CEO, IFC

Environment

Background

23 October 2007 | Minutes

A dialogue with Lars Thunell, International Finance Corporation, Executive Vice President and CEO

Highlights of a 22 October civil society dialogue with Lars Thunell, International Finance Corporation, Executive Vice President and CEO.

Rights

Background

17 April 2007 | Minutes

Chad-Cameroon pipeline: implementation, challenges and lessons learned

Minutes of meeting on the Chad-Cameroon pipeline

Environment

Background

16 April 2007 | Minutes

The DRC's natural resources: a roundtable discussion on forestry, mining and the role of donor insti

Minutes of meeting

Environment

Background

2 April 2007 | Resource

Iraq: staffer shot, oil deal continues

In February Iraq's cabinet approved the IMF supported draft oil law

Social services

Background

23 November 2006 | Inside the institutions

The World Bank and disability

The Bank’s formal commitment to disability work began in June 2002 with the founding of the disability and development team within the social protection unit of the human development vice-presidency. The team’s primary focus is on cooperating at the international level on including the disabled in development.

Accountability

Background

20 January 2006 | Resource

Bank freezes pipeline funds to Chad

Bank freezes Chad's funds following government violation of agreement with Bank over the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline

Environment

Background

12 January 2006 | Minutes

Highlights of UK NGO meeting with executive director to the World Bank and IMF, Tom Scholar

Brief minutes of UK NGO meeting with Tom Scholar

Knowledge

Background

21 November 2005 | Inside the institutions

HIV/AIDS and the World Bank

Summary of the Bank's response to HIV/AIDS

Conditionality

Background

27 September 2005 | Resource

Social development in the World Bank, from vision to action

Brief summary of the presentation of the World Bank's social development report, and follow-up discussion

Rights

Background

12 September 2005 | Resource

Indigenous policy undermines rights

Summary of the recent paper by UK-based NGO Forest Peoples Programme regarding Indigenous peoples and the World Bank: experiences with participation

Environment

Background

28 April 2005 | Minutes

UK NGO meeting with executive director Tom Scholar: uncorrected highlights 4 April 2005

Minutes of Spring meeting with Tom Scholar and UK NGOs in London

Infrastructure

Background

22 April 2005 | Minutes

IFC consultation with civil society on the safeguard review

Highlights of the IFC consultation with civil society on its revision of the WBG environmental and social safeguards

Environment

Background

21 April 2005 | Minutes

EIR Update: highlights of civil society meeting with World Bank Group

Civil society meeting with the World Bank Group on the Extractive Industries Review update

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