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The World Bank has historically been resistant to addressing human rights. But in the wake of the Arab Spring, it cannot ignore the importance of free speech, association, and assembly to sustainable development. Nor can it continue to turn a blind eye to governments shepherding funds primarily to its supporters with the hope that at least some resources will reach those in need. As the World Bank’s new president, Jim Yong Kim has the opportunity to lead the Bank into a new era by using its voice and resources to bridge the false divide between human rights and development.

The World Bank’s mission is to reduce global poverty, which is inextricably linked to socio-economic rights such as the rights to food, water, affordable housing, and Kim’s own area of expertise, the right to health. The World Bank has acknowledged that there is a growing body of research from development experts that shows the linkage between human rights and development. But despite this, the World Bank continues to treat human rights as extraneous political factors beyond the Bank’s mandate with most work on this topic restricted to a small trust fund.

The World Bank has been slow to act on discrimination in disbursing its aid. It should work with renewed vigor to ensure that resources reach the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society, including people with different political opinions. In Ethiopia, the Bank recognized the potential for “political capture” of its and other donor funds as early as 2006, after security forces killed 200 protesters and detained more than 30,000 people in the aftermath of the 2005 elections. But when its prediction came true, and Human Rights Watch provided the Bank with documentation in 2010 that the government was denying real or perceived political opponents access to services in programs funded by the Bank, the Bank did little other than a desk-based study to investigate those claims.

Kim should lead the World Bank to work tenaciously to open space for civil society and the media, and to promote government accountability.The Bank seemed to start down this path last April when Robert Zoellick, the outgoing president, reflected on the Arab Spring in a landmark speech that affirmed the importance of civic participation and social accountability in development. But despite ripples at the most senior levels of its Washington headquarters, Bank staff did not seem to learn the lesson. When Human Rights Watch warned Bank staff that the military government was closing space for civil society in Egypt this year, we were told that this issue was too political for the World Bank to touch.

This is particularly troubling as the Bank has also announced that it wants to increasingly fund civil society. But it is difficult to see how this would work if the Bank is not willing to speak out to make sure civil society can operate in countries where the Bank works. How would the Bank do this in Ethiopia, where authorities have used intimidation, laws, and violence to silence independent groups? The Bank needs to tell governments consistently not to intimidate or silence civil society if it wants its new program to work.

The Bank’s existing safeguards policies, which are intended to ensure that Bank activities do not cause social or environmental harm, fall far short of human rights standards. Major gaps include failing to protect labor rights even though the Bank lends to many countries that have major problems in this area. The safeguards do not adequately guard against discrimination. For instance, they do not protect the rights of those with disabilities so that they can also benefit from their country’s development. The Bank will be revising these policies over the next two years, providing Kim with the ideal opportunity to ensure that they comply with international human rights standards. Even if the right policies are in place, Bank staff have not always embraced them or welcomed their contribution toward sustainable development. Kim is in the position to send the message that the safeguards are meant to be enforced.

As World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim should pierce through the hushed tones with which the phrase “human rights” is spoken in the hallways and meeting rooms of the Bank and be clear and explicit that a free civil society, non-politicized aid, and effective safeguards are essential to the Bank’s success in the 21st century. Just as a former Bank president, James Wolfensohn, took the seemingly risky step of raising “the c word”–corruption– when the Bank had long said that this wasn’t its issue, Kim should take on human rights.

Jessica Evans is the senior advocate and researcher on International Financial Institutions at Human Rights Watch. You can follow her on twitter @evans_jessica  

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