Why do international institutions behave as they do? International organizations (IOs) have emerged as significant actors in global governance, whether they are overseeing monetary policy, setting trade or labor standards, or resolving a humanitarian crisis. They often execute international agreements between states and markedly influence domestic law, which makes it important to analyze how international institutions behave and make policy. Conducting an ethnographic analysis of the internal dynamics of IOs, including their formal and informal norms, incentive systems, and decision-making processes, can usefully aid in understanding institutional behavior and change. This article analyzes the organizational culture of one particularly powerful international institution - the World Bank (the Bank) - and explores why the Bank has not adopted a human rights policy or agenda.
Established on July 1, 1944, the World Bank has become the largest lender to developing countries, making loans worth over $20 billion per year. Its more than ten thousand employees (including economists, sociologists, lawyers, and engineers, among others) are engaged in the Bank’s mission of poverty reduction, which it primarily carries out through its development lending. While the institution has adopted various social and environmental policies and works on issues as diverse as judicial reform, health, and infrastructure, it has not instituted any overarching operational policy on human rights. Human rights concerns are not systematically incorporated into the everyday decision making of the staff or consistently taken into consideration in lending; incorporation of human rights is ad hoc and at the discretion of employees. In addition,many employees consider it taboo to discuss human rights in everyday conversation and to include references to them in their project documents. The marginality of human rights stands in contrast to the Bank’s rhetoric in official reports and public speeches by its leadership, which have supported human rights.
What do I mean by saying that human rights is a marginal issue within the Bank? In general, it means that the Bank maintains no comprehensive or consistent approach on the policy and operational levels. In more specific terms, it means that the Bank lacks at least the three following provisions/safeguards: (1) a staff policy to mitigate the impact of its projects on human rights; (2) a requirement to consider countries’ obligations under international human rights law when its employees engage in country dialogues or draft Country Assistance Strategies; and (3) guidelines on when it would suspend operations because of human rights violations. Why should we be surprised that human rights are such a marginal issue at the World Bank? I find a few compelling reasons why the Bank’s approach to human rights (or lack thereof) appears counter intuitive. First, other institutions involved in poverty reduction, including the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, have adopted human rights policies or a rights-based approach to development. Second, the Bank has been pressed by civil society organizations and internal advocates to integrate human rights considerations into its projects and programs. Third, private financial institutions have begun to address human rights more openly out of concern for their public image and the reputational risk of committing human rights abuses. Even the International Finance Corporation, the Bank’s private-sector arm, has openly adopted human rights as part of a risk management approach, although its engagement in selective human rights has been subject to criticism by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Despite these three factors, the Bank has not adopted a strategy on human rights. Whether and how the Bank should adopt human rights has been discussed at length by academics and civil society advocates. This literature primarily focuses on legal arguments for binding the Bank and its member countries to international human rights obligations. It does not investigate the internal workings of the bureaucracy so as to understand why the Bank has yet to adopt and internalize human rights norms. This article offers an empirical analysis of the Bank’s organizational culture based on extensive ethnographic field research at the institution itself, including personal interviews, participant observation, and analysis of Bank documents. This research sheds light on why organizational change has not occurred and suggests conditions under which it could happen. I selected this case because the Bank has neither adopted nor internalized human rights norms despite external pressure over the past two decades and repeated attempts by insiders to push the human rights agenda forward.
I have found that the ways norms become adopted and ultimately internalized in an institution largely depend on their fit with the organizational culture. When a new norm is introduced, employees from different professional groups within the Bank often have distinct interpretive frames that they use to define the norm, analyze its relevance to the Bank’s mission, and apply it in practice. Proponents of a norm must take internal conflict over competing frames into account when trying to persuade staff members to accept it. They must also consider the operational procedures, incentive system, and management structure of the organization when determining the most effective strategy of implementation. Thus, to bring about internalization, actors must adapt norms to local meanings and existing cultural values and practices - that is, they must “vernacularize” norms.
This article proceeds as follows. In part I, I argue that theories of international institutions should account for the internal dynamics within organizational cultures, which shape how institutions change and influence state behavior. Ethnographic research can help us analyze the conditions under which norms are internalized, including the degree to which they should be legalized. In part II, I consider why human rights have remained such a marginal issue at the Bank. I review legal constraints in the Bank’s Articles of Agreement (or Articles) and failed efforts from the early 1990s through 2004 to introduce a human rights agenda at the Bank, as well as the uncertain legal status and limited impact of a 2006 legal opinion on human rights. Part III analyzes the Bank’s organizational culture, including formal and informal processes of norm socialization and power dynamics between professional subcultures, and focuses on the prestige of economists and the lower status of lawyers in the Legal Department. In part IV, I emphasize the importance of framing norms to adapt to organizational culture, examine battles between Bank lawyers and economists over defining human rights norms and relating them to the Bank’s mission, and discuss the most recent attempt to introduce human rights into the Bank’s work. The conclusion analyzes the risks of achieving norm internalization at the Bank by “economizing” rather than legalizing human rights.Sarfaty concludes
Analyzing organizational culture contributes usefully to understanding organizational change and predicting how IOs will behave. The conditions under which norms are adopted and internalized in an organization are shaped by its culture, including its mission, management structure, incentive system, and decision-making process. Internalization occurs when actors vernacularize norms, or adapt them to local meanings and existing cultural values and practices. There is no universal recipe for bringing about internalization in IOs. Rather, an institutional fit for norms must be found. They must be framed to be adaptable to the structural, functional, and cultural distinctiveness of each institution.
The recent initiative to push human rights forward at the Bank offers insights on how to bring about organizational change. Internal advocates attempted to appeal to the dominant subculture of economists by framing human rights as quantifiable and instrumentally valuable to achieving the economic development goals of the Bank. They called for pursuing an incremental strategy from the bottom up through country-level pilot projects, rather than a topdown official policy. By late 2006, the strategy became public and no longer under the radar, but it is too early to gauge its success. This approach represents one potentially effective way of bringing human rights norms into the Bank’s work. Another may be to alter the existing distribution of power within the institution (and thus the organizational culture) so that lawyers have more decision-making power and status in relation to economists and other professional groups. A radical change of this nature, however, would probably take many years and would require support from the leadership.
Human rights are a particularly difficult set of norms to incorporate into an economic institution because doing so forces employees into a struggle between principles and pragmatism — that is, it creates a tension between normative, intangible values and goals, and practical ways to solve problems (which may make it necessary to reconcile competing principles). In an environment like the Bank where most issues are subject to cost-benefit analysis, employees may be ambivalent about principles that appear to be non-negotiable or subject to trade-offs. They may perceive potential costs in trying to render seemingly incommensurable values commensurate.
What are the consequences of economizing rather than legalizing human rights? Some critics fear that although legalizing human rights norms may limit their persuasiveness within the Bank, an economic framework would dilute their meaning and serve as a ceiling for future human rights standards of other development agencies. Therefore, injecting human rights too far into the existing power structure involves risks. As an anthropologist has observed, if human rights “are translated so fully that they blend into existing power relationships completely, they lose their potential for social change.” This co-option is part of the dilemma of human rights framing and vernacularization strategies: they will not induce radical, long-term change if they do not challenge existing power structures and are too compatible with dominant ways of thinking. At the same time, they need to resonate with local cultural understandings if they are to appear legitimate and appealing, and thus become part of local rights consciousness. This conundrum raises important questions: Can human rights be so extensively vernacularized that they lose their essential core, or even contradict their fundamental meanings? Must human rights remain connected to a legal regime (and be linked to state obligations deriving from international law) to continue to be considered “human rights” and not another concept like “empowerment”? Ethnographic studies can illuminate the process of internalizing norms within international institutions and thus help determine how to resolve such issues and devise an appropriate strategy for organizational change.