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  • A Review of Values in Translation:Human Rights and the Culture of the World Bank by Galit A. Sarfaty
  • Amanda Craig (bio)

In Values in Translation, Galit Sarfaty depicts an unfortunate but ostensible truth about the World Bank, in which the economics discipline reigns supreme: frame your issue in economic terms, and the World Bank may act on it; but frame your issue in economic terms, and you may forfeit your issue’s essential core. As such, wide adoption of a human rights policy at the World Bank may require human rights to be analyzed and implemented empirically, devoid of their complicated political and legal contexts, which may ultimately undercut the protection of those rights. Moreover, in leaving unresolved her catch-22, Sarfaty demonstrates the complexity of global governance—due not only to competing values within the system but also to bureaucratic dynamics embedded in ambitious international institutions.

Such bureaucratic dynamics include organizational culture and ineffective translation of knowledge among disciplines, which have stifled the World Bank’s development and adoption of certain policies, including human rights. Detailing and explaining these dynamics is a central goal of Sarfaty’s book. In recent decades, she explains, many other international organizations, private financial institutions, and aid agencies have adopted human rights agendas, but amidst such increased consciousness, the Bank is an anomaly. Despite both external and internal pressure to do so, the Bank does not consider the impact of its lending on human rights, require client countries to comply with international treaty obligations, or suspend projects when client countries abuse human rights.1 In short, Sarfaty, an anthropologist and legal scholar, unpacks why the Bank has not done so in Values in Translation. [End Page 389]

She first highlights efforts both outside and within the Bank to push it to adopt a human rights policy or implement a human rights impact assessment for its own projects. After noting that nongovernmental organizations have pressured corporations to develop such policies and the Bank to develop other social and environmental policies, she explains that there is actually “a lack of consensus among advocates over whether to pressure the Bank to adopt a human rights agenda. …”2 Advocates fear that the Bank may “co-opt” human rights (as it has environmental issues) or pass an “inadequate human rights policy,” which would then be very difficult to substantially revise.3 In addition, the Bank’s internal efforts—including an interdisciplinary human rights-focused working group in the 1990s and a human rights report, workshop, and institution-wide task force in the 2000s—could not gain sufficient traction.4 According to Sarfaty, both institutional and normative challenges explain failed internal campaigns. Because task force members did not receive from the Bank’s president or board a clear mandate to move forward, they acted cautiously and “made only symbolic gestures rather than concrete steps toward change.”5 In addition, it was difficult for employees from different sectors and disciplinary backgrounds to reach consensus, and the Legal Department and regional departments fought to control the human rights agenda.6

But Sarfaty argues that the more significant, underlying problem—which has allowed these institutional challenges to completely stymie progress—is “ambivalence over the conflicting relationship between human rights and the prevailing neoliberal ideology within the Bank.”7 Neoliberal capitalism, to which the Bank adheres, opposes or embraces human rights depending on circumstance; for instance, its core belief in individual freedom is consistent with property rights but not with distributive justice. Reflecting these contradictions, the Bank draws arbitrary lines around certain rights. Those that are consistent with its ideology are considered implementable by the Bank, and those that are inconsistent with its ideology are referred to as “political”—an attribute signifying that implementation is beyond the Bank’s mandate.8 For instance, the Bank considers forced labor and employment discrimination against women but does not take into account freedom of [End Page 390] association or the right to collective bargaining, referring to the former as apolitical and the latter as political.9

After identifying the Bank’s ambivalence as the ultimate cause of its failure to develop and implement a human rights agenda, Sarfaty delves into a deeper analysis of the institutional...


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pp. 389-394
Launched on MUSE
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