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  • Values in Translation: Human Rights and the Culture of the World Bank by Galit A. Sarfaty
  • James Whibley (bio)
Galit A. Sarfaty , Values in Translation: Human Rights and the Culture of the World Bank (Stanford University Press 2012), 200 pages, ISBN 978 0 8047 6352 3.

In Values in Translation: Human Rights and the Culture of the World Bank, Galit Sarfaty, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, brings a unique perspective combining anthropology and law to the study of one of the world's most prominent international organizations. Sarfaty explains why the World Bank remains reluctant to integrate human rights considerations into lending practices. Sarfaty's consideration of the political, legal, and bureaucratic barriers to the Bank's adoption of a human rights policy is an insightful critique and provides much needed guidance for reform.

The main problem Sarfaty addresses is that, despite the Bank adopting various social and environmental policies, an overarching operational policy on human rights remains absent. Although the Bank engages in human rights rhetoric, it fails to include human rights concerns systematically in its decisions concerning lending. Any consideration of human rights is ad hoc and many employees consider it taboo to discuss human rights in everyday conversation or project documents. Specifically, the Bank resists adopting [End Page 531] a human rights policy that attempts to mitigate the impact of its projects on human rights, considers recipient countries' obligations under international human rights law, and develops guidelines on when to suspend projects because of human rights violations.1 Sarfaty makes an original contribution to the literature because the book goes beyond the politics of the Bak's member states. Instead, Sarfaty examines how formal and informal norms, incentive systems, and decision-making processes can aid in understanding the interactions among legal, social, ethical, and political norms, and the reasons why certain policies and laws are adopted.

The book deserves praise for the substantial attention given to outlining its methods. Sarfaty uses an ethnographic approach—drawing on her experience working in the Bank's Social Development and Environment Department and in its Legal Department—which provides a unique insider perspective on the Bank's internal politics. Interviews with over seventy staff at the Bank's Washington, D.C. headquarters provide the basis for much of Sarfaty's research and the book is very transparent about the method of conducting interviews. Interviewees consist of senior level officials and lower level employees from multiple departments, creating a balanced and varied perspective on the organizations workings and internal disputes regarding human rights. Sarfaty is also refreshingly honest about her preconceptions regarding the Bank's need to adopt a human rights policy, acknowledging that her background in human rights legal advocacy and work on indigenous rights shaped the framing of questions to interviewees and the analysis of data.2

Chapter 1 outlines the history of external and internal pressure on the organization to adopt a human rights agenda. The book traces the Bank's failure to create a human rights policy to a lack of knowledge by NGOs about its operations and their unwillingness to reach out to Bank staff to forge an internal-external alliance. Bank officials also deserve blame however, as internal divisions prevent any sort of coalition for change.3 There are implications here for successfully implementing norm changes that will be well worth considering for scholars and activists, as examining "the dog that didn't bark" is often ignored in the literature.

The remaining chapters trace manifold political, legal, and bureaucratic obstacles to adopting a human rights policy. The Bank interprets human rights as beyond its mandate under its Articles of Agreement, which prohibit interference in the political affairs of members and require that loan decisions be based on non-political criteria. Yet, Sarfaty argues that employees and senior management have a great deal of decision-making autonomy and potential to shape the Bank's behavior, especially when member states hold competing preferences and fail to reach consensus over issues.4 Thus, Sarfaty argues that the political obstacles to a human rights approach are overstated.

Nevertheless, any change to the status quo at the Bank faces numerous challenges. Sarfaty's account of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1085-794X
Print ISSN
0275-0392
Pages
pp. 531-534
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-17
Open Access
No
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