The World Bank and the SDGs: Towards Better Human Rights Protection

In recent decades, international financial institutions, like the World Bank, have come under criticism for their treatment of human rights in the context of development. As drivers of globalisation and economic development, the World Bank and other international lending agencies, have been promoters of human rights, at least indirectly; as a country’s GDP per capita increases, and as it becomes more integrated into the economic and moral framework of the global market, human rights violations, particularly in political and civil rights, tend to lessen. However, structural adjustment programs in the 1980s, as well as some adverse effects of economic globalisation, have resulting in growing inequality that exacerbates disrespect for human rights in the developing and emerging economies of the world. Additionally, the lack of thorough monitoring and evaluation of projects has resulted in the use of funds for inappropriate, and often violent, situations – such as displacing indigenous populations for large-scale infrastructure construction.

The adoption of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, signed and ratified by all 193 United Nations member countries, has heralded in a fairly groundbreaking tenant: the incorporation of a goal representative of human rights, if not an overt assertion of their necessity in development. SDG Goal 16, the promotion of peace, justice, and inclusive societies, is broad – incorporating into it not only prisoners held pre-trial, number of accredited national human rights institutions (NHRIs), and number of journalists, human rights leaders, and trade union leaders killed or disappeared, but also violence measured in homicides per 100,000 people, bribery indices, and anti-trafficking policy.

Comparing countries in Latin America and Africa, two of the slowest-developing areas of the globe and the most heavily indebted to the Bank, some particular successes and failures arise. These world regions, when compared, highlight the correlation of certain Goal 16 indicators with traditional human rights indicators, demonstrating a good alignment of the goal with actual human rights efforts – when the successful fulfillment of goals increases, so does the successful protection of human rights. These regions also demonstrate the World Bank’s relative success of promoting ‘empowerment’ rights, such as education, healthcare, and worker’s rights, but its lower success rate at promoting ‘political and civil’ rights, such as freedom of press and freedom from state violence, very rife in many of the most impoverished areas of these regions. However, in both regions, external threats – a regional drug war in Latin America and terrorism in East Africa, for example – give the state, through police and military channels, the ability to be significantly more liberal in their violations of political and civil rights – such as using violence and detention on ordinary civilians, and accepting bribes to not continue these actions.

The Bank, while it has control over its lending for development projects, has little control over these external threats and the local level at which these violations happen, making it difficult for funds lent to these borrowing countries to alleviate some of these violations.Although the Bank has had an imbalanced relationship with human rights and development in the past, the adoption of the SDGs, in particularly SDG 16, should hopefully mitigate some of the issues – such as decreasing social spending and massive macroeconomic reform, as well as monitoring financial flows more closely – that resulted in human rights violations in decades past.

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