The World Bank: From Reluctance to a Human Rights Conscious Institution?

By Mustapha Hadji
The Bretton Woods institutions have for long been criticized for putting human rights in the backseat of their priorities. The World Bank, for instance, has for many decades used the concept of “
political prohibition” as a pretext to not uphold human rights. Non-interference in the political and internal affairs of a sovereign State is something that many would agree on. However, the concept of non-interference is not an absolute one and sovereignty has eroded due to the development of international law and its spread to spaces that were exclusive domains of States. Moreover, globalization and the interconnectedness it has engendered have also contributed to the erosion of sovereignty and given it a rather malleable meaning.

The World Bank’s loans to borrowing countries are not free and come with a political price attached to them. Imposing certain loan terms and conditions on borrowing countries, especially the very poor ones, is a salient embodiment of interference in political and social affairs of borrowing States. The line between what is political and what it is not is blurry and fluid at the same time. Consequently, the Bank’s approach and interpretation of the “political prohibition” clause should evolve and adapt to the new international reality.

“The World Bank could use its leverage to play a key role in making its member States align with their human rights commitments.”

The political, economic, social, and cultural realities that existed seven decades ago have changed drastically, as have societies’ values and the way they see the growing recognition of human rights. The World Bank could use its leverage to play a key role in making its member States align with their human rights commitments. Unfortunately, the World Bank seems to lack real will to change its practices and its reluctance to rely on human rights.

Development and human rights are complementary; that is, one cannot exist without the other. The World Bank, in a 1998 publication titled Development and Human Rights,[1] acknowledged that “the world now accepts that sustainable development is impossible without human rights.[2] This goes to say that the World Bank, for at least 20 years, has been aware of the linkage between human rights and development, at least in theory. However, its institutional practice on the ground still has not been streamlined with the findings of its studies. This could explain the “confusing approaches to human rights[3] that prevent the Bank from meaningfully fulfilling its declared mission as being a vector for sustainable development. The Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Mr Philip Alston, has eloquently pinpointed this reality in his 2015 report to the UNGA, when he stated that:

The Bank is unable to engage meaningfully with the international human rights framework or assist its member States in complying with their human rights obligations. That inhibits its ability to take adequate account of the social and political economy aspects of its work within countries and contradicts and undermines the consistent recognition by the international community of the integral relationship between human rights and development.’[4]

Furthermore, the 2014 Tilburg-GLOTHRO Guiding Principles prescribed 22 principles that experts and academics deemed necessary for the Bretton Woods institutions to follow if they were to meaningfully adhere to the international human rights framework.[5] These guiding principles were clear in highlighting the legal obligations and human rights responsibilities of these institutions and their member States, and proposed accountability and remedies that member States, the WBG and the IMF should follow in addressing human rights violations.

It is still not clear whether the World Bank was responsive and took concrete actions to adopt a clear and well-defined approach to human rights that can be implemented, rather than one that merely looks nice on paper, but out of touch with reality. Apparently, little has been done in that regard except the publication of copious amounts of literature with a human rights component.[6] The World Bank’s stated mission rarely refers to human rights as one of its main objectives. This remarque goes in line with what Mr. Philip Alston stated in his 2015 report to the UNGA when he claimed that the Bank is “a human rights free-zone.[7]

In 1993, the WBG created the Inspection Panel to “insure that people have access to an independent body to express their concerns and seek recourse.[8] Despite this initiative, this body has limited prerogatives and resources, with only three members and a Secretariat. Most importantly, its existence and mandate might not be known to people who need it the most. Projects that cause direct and discernable harm to human rights rarely run in countries where civil society is vibrant and active, and where the citizenry has a certain degree of awareness of its rights and platforms for making its voice heard.

Furthermore, it is revealing that after 25 years of existence, the Inspection Panel has only received 128 complaints. In Africa, the World Bank financed over 644 projects between 2007 and 2018.[9] In that same period, only 21 complaints had been lodged with the Inspection Panel. These complaints pertain to projects such as hydropower (Uganda, 2018) and urban environment sanitation (DRC, 2007).[10] What is intriguing is that most of these cases are still open and have not after, in some cases over 11 years, reached the end of the procedural pipeline set by the Panel.  

“After 25 years of existence, the Inspection Panel has only received 128 complaints.”

In a more recent project in Uzbekistan, financed by the WBG, numerous human rights NGOs raised the issue that this project contributes in reinforcing the practice of child and forced labor in cotton farms. According to the Bank Information Center – a Washington DC based organization – and local NGOs, the World Bank’s “social impact assessment failed to list forced labor as a risk, and that child labor is not incidental…[11] The Inspection Panel in its eligibility report subtly acknowledged that there is a link between the human rights violations indicated above and the RESP II Agricultural Project[12] but did little to remedy the situation.

It is quite clear from the above and from the Panel’s language, especially the vague and fluffy language it used to define its mission, that it was created by the World Bank’s Executive Board as a sideshow to give the illusion that human rights can be upheld through such weak and lengthy institutional mechanisms. In a nutshell, this institution lacks the tools, resources, and mandate to tackle the real issues and provide redress and reparation to those affected by the World Bank’s projects.

Mustapha holds an MA in Global Affairs from the USA. While in the United States, Mustapha worked as an adviser at an Arab Embassy in Washington DC, as an Africa researcher with a USG contractor in Virginia and a field protection delegate with an international humanitarian organisation. Mustapha is currently a fellow at the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis.  Mustapha’s research interests include African affairs, conflict resolution, and human rights and democratisation.

[1] The publication is accessible at:

[2] “Abuse-Free Development | How the World Bank Should Safeguard Against Human Rights Violations.” Human Rights Watch, 23 June 2015,

[3] UN Doc A/70/274, Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, on The World Bank and human rights, 4 August 2015,

[4] idem

[5] Revised Tilburg-GLOTHRO Guiding Principles on the World Bank Group, the International Monetary Fund and Human Rights (2015)

[6] A quick search on the World Bank website shows hundreds of internal and external publications on human rights.

[7] UN Doc A/70/274

[8] Inspection Panel, Who We Are,

[9] For more details, see WBG’s projects mapping at

[10] All the cases before the Inspection Panel can be found at

[11] Bank Information Center, Rural Enterprise Support Project,

[12] idem