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Are human rights too political for the World Bank?

Human Rights Watch's Jessica Evans argues here that the World Bank needs to insist that recipients of its loans respect basic human rights:

[New World Bank president Jim] Kim should lead the World Bank to work tenaciously to open space for civil society and the media, and to promote government accountability.The Bank seemed to start down this path last April when Robert Zoellick, the outgoing president, reflected on the Arab Spring in a landmark speech that affirmed the importance of civic participation and social accountability in development. But despite ripples at the most senior levels of its Washington headquarters, Bank staff did not seem to learn the lesson. When Human Rights Watch warned Bank staff that the military government was closing space for civil society in Egypt this year, we were told that this issue was too political for the World Bank to touch.

This is particularly troubling as the Bank has also announced that it wants to increasingly fund civil society. But it is difficult to see how this would work if the Bank is not willing to speak out to make sure civil society can operate in countries where the Bank works. How would the Bank do this in Ethiopia, where authorities have used intimidation, laws, and violence to silence independent groups? The Bank needs to tell governments consistently not to intimidate or silence civil society if it wants its new program to work.

The World Bank's conception of what is "political"--and therefore beyond its remit--has changed significantly over time. For much of its existence, the Bank deemed corruption too political; that has now changed. In theory, there's no reason human rights couldn't make a similar migration. But there are powerful political and institutional obstacles. The Bank and the IMF are in the process of giving greater voting power and institutional influence to emerging powers--several of whom have no desire to see the Bank meddling on rights issues.    

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