Are human rights an intrinsic value, a set of universal freedoms to be protected as ends in themselves? Or are human rights a means to an end — a fast track to economic development, peace and prosperity? A lawyer might argue the first, an economist the second. And if the argument took place at the World Bank, the economist would probably win.

Conflicting interpretations of human rights are just one reason the World Bank has yet to adopt an overarching human rights policy, says Galit A. Sarfaty, a Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics. The Bank’s organizational culture — including its management structure, incentive system, decision-making process and internal power dynamics — has contributed to human rights’ short shrift, she maintains. In her paper, “Why Culture Matters in International Institutions: The Marginality of Human Rights at the World Bank,” Sarfaty goes beyond the standard explanations of why the world’s largest lender to developing nations has yet to put human rights at the top of its agenda.

Those explanations usually point to the Bank’s Articles of Agreement, which prohibit political activity and permit only economic considerations in decision making. According to Sarfaty, however, it is not the legal constraints but disagreements among groups within the Bank that have kept human rights out of the spotlight. “I argue that bureaucratic obstacles have impeded the Bank’s adoption of human rights,” she notes. “My study identifies as a key obstacle the clash of expertise among staff and, in particular, interpretive gaps between lawyers and economists over how to define human rights and justify their relevance with respect to the Bank’s mission.”

The significance of Sarfaty’s study extends beyond human rights at the World Bank. By digging into the Bank’s internal politics, she shows how the culture of an institution itself can accelerate or impede the progress of a profound idea. The implication: To affect change — whether at an international organization or a corporation — one’s approach will be more successful if it is tailored to fit the institution’s culture and norms.

Historical Division

Sarfaty analyzed the organizational culture of the Bank as part of her PhD dissertation in anthropology, conducting ethnographic field research at the Bank’s Washington, D.C., headquarters over a period of four years, from 2002 to 2006. Her interviews with more than 70 officials — including former World Bank president James Wolfensohn — revealed a bureaucracy “rife with internal conflict.” Decision making is often stymied at the top, where 24 executive directors representing member states struggle to agree.

“Historically, the board has been deeply divided over the issue of human rights,” she suggests. “Some member states, like China and Saudi Arabia, strongly oppose an explicit human rights agenda…. Others, like India and Brazil (middle-income countries that are responsible for a substantial portion of the Bank’s revenue), fear that human rights would increase transaction costs for loans…. Because the board operates by consensus, disagreements on such issues as human rights have simply resulted in inaction.”

Most executive directors at the Bank serve for just one or two two-year terms, and rely on managers for expertise. That puts most of the real power of the World Bank in the hands of bureaucrats who frequently split into opposing camps based on professional background. “I found that disciplinary background is one of the strongest sources of identification for staff, as well as a basis for sharp internal division,” Sarfaty notes. “Experts struggle over who has authority and jurisdictional control over particular issues, such as human rights. One of the sharpest divisions is between economists and non-economists, particularly lawyers.”

Internal culture clashes have ultimately trumped external forces that otherwise might have persuaded the Bank to adopt a human rights agenda. These include pressure from civil society organizations, adoption of human rights agendas by other institutions involved in poverty reduction such as the United Nations Development Program and the United Nations Children’s Fund, and a growing trend among commercial banks and private corporations to address human rights concerns more openly.

Advocates within the Bank have also found it difficult to move a human rights agenda forward. An institution-wide task force that tried between 2002 and 2004 to develop a human rights policy at the Bank failed, and a legal opinion on human rights written in 2006 hardly got circulated and had limited impact.

“[M]y interviews indicate that the most significant factor behind the failure of the internal attempts between 2002 and 2004 was a clash of expertise,” writes Sarfaty. “Members of the task force complained of the difficulty of reaching a consensus of people from different sectors and disciplinary backgrounds, who held divergent views on how to define human rights and interpret them with respect to the Bank’s operations. The theoretically oriented people (who emphasized the indivisibility of human rights) clashed with the more pragmatically minded, who were mainly concerned with operational issues and the need to make trade-offs between different rights in projects with limited budgets. One employee familiar with the events explained that the failure to bring about a human rights strategy was not due to resistance from the board or senior management but, rather, ‘turf battles.'”

Economists vs. ‘Technocrats’

At the World Bank, economists control most of the turf. While employees come from 160 different countries with backgrounds ranging from engineers to anthropologists, economists form the most dominant subculture at the organization because their expertise is considered key to the Bank’s mission of poverty reduction and economic development.

“Economists fill the majority of senior management positions (although they do not make up the majority of the staff), and their way of thinking prevails within the institution, including how they define development success,” Sarfaty writes. “This form of ‘workplace assimilation’ has discouraged informed debate between disciplinary perspectives and has created a sense of inferiority among some who are not economists…. Experts in other disciplines often feel obliged to translate their writing and speech into economists’ language and to quantify their observations to gain legitimacy for their ideas.”

By contrast, lawyers are often viewed at the Bank as technocrats whose main role is to iron out loan agreements. Few serve as project team leaders or land influential roles, with the exception of the General Counsel. In the past, arguments from the Bank’s lawyers about human rights failed to make headway in part because the lawyers took on a legal approach to human rights rather than an economic one, Sarfaty says.

“Lawyers often hold an intrinsic rationale in that they view human rights as indivisible and value them as ends in themselves,” she notes. “Based on their professional training, they define human rights as legal obligations that derive their legitimacy from international law. In contrast, many economists hold an instrumental rationale, meaning that they value human rights as a means towards achieving other objectives, like economic development.”

If translated into policy, the legal approach to human rights would slam head-on into another bureaucratic barrier: the Bank’s incentive system. According to one Bank official quoted in the report, employees get their “brownie points” based on successfully getting a loan out the door rather than a project’s long-term results. “Staff are promoted based on the numbers of loans they get approved, and the amount of money in those loans,” Sarfaty states. “Since [the loan-funded] projects often take many years to yield results, promotion is not tied to favorable long-term outcomes.”

The result: Staff members resist policies that are perceived to slow down loan activity. For example, the Bank has a number of operational “safeguard” policies, which are designed to avoid detrimental social and environmental impacts of lending. (Although there is no safeguard policy yet on human rights, several existing policies address human rights-related issues, like involuntary resettlement.) Sarfaty found that the loan approval-focused incentive system indirectly resulted in non-compliance with the Bank’s safeguard policies.

“Although employees are required to apply the policies in borrower countries, they do not consistently do so in practice,” she writes. “The Bank promotes its safeguard policies as indicative of its concern for environmental and social goals, but its implicit incentive system suggests that these goals are not primary. In fact, most employees perceive the policies as impediments to lending because they add constraints to tasks and thereby reduce efficiency and opportunities for promotion.”

‘Economizing’ Human Rights

Recently, some advocates within the Bank have taken on a different approach to the human rights agenda, backing away from the idea of a top-down human rights policy and toning down the legalese. “They are pursuing an incremental strategy of framing human rights for economists — or what I call ‘economizing human rights,’ rather than legalizing human rights,” Sarfaty points out. “The decision to economize human rights shows that the lawyers recognized that past attempts to introduce the agenda failed in part because they neglected to build a constituency at the Bank.”

These advocates are considering an empirical approach that would measure human rights performance with economic-style indicators, she notes, rather than lawyerly rules and obligations. They have also proposed pilot projects rather than a policy that would require board approval. “After years of internal and external advocacy for an institutional policy on human rights, internal advocates began moving toward a country-level approach,” writes Sarfaty. One of her interview subjects who supported this strategy observed that Bank officials “shouldn’t try and get a formal process going because it would backfire, and that [they] should basically do a human rights agenda through stealth.” By incrementally introducing human rights under the radar screen of the Bank’s board, internal advocates could slowly build support among staff and demonstrate the value-added of a human rights approach.

Although it is too early to say whether the new efforts will be successful, Sarfaty believes that the change in approach shows progress, and holds lessons for other organizations. “The recent initiative to push human rights forward at the Bank offers insights on how to bring about organizational change,” she writes. “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 top-down policy…. The approach represents one potentially effective way of bringing human rights norms into the Bank’s work.”

Just as lawyers at the World Bank learned to maneuver and translate their cause to a world of economists, groups seeking change at other organizations may find more success by taking into account the organization’s culture, she says. “When you want to change policy within an institution, you have to adapt the issue that you’re trying [raise] — whether it’s human rights or environmental causes or whatever — to the organizational culture. The clash of expertise between different professional groups can apply to all types of issues, not just human rights.”