Human Rights and the World Bank: Moral Leader or Honest Broker?

Picture by Simone D. McCourte / World Bank

Picture by Simone D. McCourte / World Bank

By Anthony Maher

“We believe that everyone in the development community should be an honest broker who helps find win-win outcomes – where owners of capital get a reasonable return, and developing countries maximize sustainable investments.”[1]

– World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, 2017

In this blog post I will offer reflections on the World Bank’s involvement in the broad field of human rights. First, I introduce key sections of the Bank’s founding legal instruments that have particular relevance for human rights. Second, I contend that a human rights analysis of the Bank can be conducted on two closely related, but arguably distinct, levels. I suggest that this can be understood as explicit versus implicit action on human rights and offer evidence of the Bank’s involvement in each domain.

The Articles of Agreement

The Articles of Agreement form the Bank’s founding legal instrument and must first be considered. Article IV, section 10 establishes several limitations on the Bank’s activities and reads as follows:

The Bank and its officers shall not interfere in the political affairs of any member; nor shall they be influenced in their decisions by the political character of the member or members concerned. Only economic considerations shall be relevant to their decisions, and these considerations shall be weighed impartially in order to achieve the purposes stated in Article I.

Article III, section 5(b) is also relevant to considering human rights at the Bank:

The Bank shall make arrangements to ensure that the proceeds of any loan are used only for the purposes for which the loan was granted, with due attention to considerations of economy and efficiency and without regard to political or other non-economic influences or considerations.[2]

Taken together, these provisions appear to establish a dichotomy between ‘economic considerations’, which the Bank is permitted to consider when making decisions, and ‘political affairs’, which it is not.

While I do not intend to discuss the legal implications of these provisions, it is worthwhile to reflect on the framing of the Articles of Agreement in shaping what is considered possible for the Bank. Does this founding document constitute a barrier to action on human rights within the Bank? If we accept the proposition that the Bank ought to be an active player in advancing human rights, is amendment of this document necessary or can the Articles be interpreted in a way that enables the Bank to act decisively in favour of human rights? For instance, it has been argued that the Articles must be interpreted in light of the Bank’s mission to alleviate poverty through economic growth and social equity. This line of thinking holds that social equity “includes fighting inequality, giving the poor and marginalized a voice (i.e., empowerment), freeing the poor from hunger and fear, and providing access to justice,” thereby giving it an “obvious human rights component.”[3]

Explicit versus Implicit Action on Human Rights

Given this legal context, one might interrogate the extent to which the Bank explicitly addresses its role in the protection and advancement of human rights. This approach asks: does the Bank address human rights, broadly understood, in a way that is explicitly recognised by established policies or those in positions of authority within the organisation? For example, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim invoked the language of rights in a 2014 speech, arguing that “[health] care is a right for everyone, in every country, rich or poor.”[4]

Second, one might explore the extent to which the Bank implicitly supports or advances human rights. Rather than focusing on formal statements on human rights made by the Bank or its agents, this approach asks: to what extent do the Bank’s historical and current activities impact human rights, including, but not limited to, the right to health?

The Bank’s influence in this regard has long been recognised amongst Bank officials. Writing in 1998 in his capacity as General Counsel, Ibrahim Shihata observed that the “Bank’s involvement in human rights issues goes far beyond the political arena.” He went on to identify such areas as the “alleviation of poverty, the fulfilment of basic human needs for nutrition, safe water, education, health and housing, the concern for resettlement of people affected by large development projects and of tribal peoples, the role of women in development, and the avoidance of the negative impact of development on the environment.”[5]

Indeed, the above discussion rests upon the assumption that the Bank should be engaged in formal analysis of the potential and actual impacts of Bank-supported initiatives on human rights. But this remains a contested notion. Former General Counsel Roberto Dañino argued in an oft-cited 2007 article that the Bank “can and should take into account human rights.”[6] However, this opinion is of unclear legal significance. Further, it has not resulted in the formation of an official policy at the Bank regarding decision-making on human rights, which remains ad hoc and at the discretion of individual employees.[7]

Conclusions & Areas for Further Inquiry

There is much work to be done to further characterise the Bank’s impact on human rights, particularly from the “implicit” perspective introduced here. Bridging the divide between Roberto Dañino’s personal conviction that “work in [human rights] is a moral imperative”[8] and the Bank’s portfolio of projects and investments is a formidable task, and one that raises important questions about the meaning of the right to health in the 21st century.

To what extent is the Bank willing or able to provide moral leadership in the world? And related to this, might it be enough that the Bank influences the pursuit and protection of human rights without having a formal commitment to doing so? One could argue that a tension exists between “the premise that health is a human right,” on the one hand, and “the bank’s focus on return on investment and productivity,” on the other.[9] But perhaps the conflict is about how to conceive of human rights themselves in an era of global markets. Does the Bank’s approach to human rights consider them to be mere components of the ‘investment climate’ in a given country? The Bank’s vision of becoming an “honest broker”[10] prompts us to re-imagine the right to health in a way that places a central emphasis on the economic implications of its implementation. The enduring question, it seems, is whether making the realisation of human rights contingent upon privately held capital is necessarily at odds with their universality.



[1] World Bank. Speech by World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim: rethinking development finance. 2017. Accessed 21 November 2017.

[2] IBRD Articles of Agreement. Accessed 21 November 2017.

[3] Dañino R. The legal aspects of the World Bank's work on human rights. Stud. Int'l Fin. Econ. & Tech. L.. 2007;8:3. See page 22.

[4] World Bank. Speech by World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim on Universal Health Coverage in Emerging Economies. 14 January 2014. Accessed 21 November 2017.

[5] Shihata IF. The World Bank and human rights: an analysis of the legal issues and the record of achievements. Denv. J. Int'l L. & Pol'y. 1988;17:39. See page 40.

[6] Supra note 3, at page 24.

[7] Sarfaty GA. Why culture matters in international institutions: the marginality of human rights at the World Bank. American Journal of International Law. 2009 Jan;103(4):647-83. See page 676.

[8] Supra note 3, at page 21.

[9] Sridhar D, Winters J, Strong E. World Bank’s financing, priorities, and lending structures for global health. bmj. 2017 Jan 1;358:j3339. See page 4.

[10] World Bank. Speech by World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim: rethinking development finance. 2017. Accessed 21 November 2017.