In Ethiopia, the World Bank helps fund a program that provides food and cash to people who work on public infrastructure projects. It's a popular program and many people need the work. But a poor farmer said that when he went to sign up for the program he was turned away. "This doesn't concern you," the program coordinator told him.
Three other farmers said they registered and did the work, only to see their names taken off the distribution list to receive the promised two sacks of wheat and 400-500 Birr (US $35-$44). All four were members of Ethiopia's opposition party. "There is not a single opposition person in the safety net program with me," a member of the ruling party who took part in the program admitted.
What should the World Bank do in situations like this – where it funds badly needed assistance to poor communities only to see those programs used as an instrument of political repression? The bank's answer is, not much. Situations like this appear not to violate the World Bank's social safeguard policies, which borrowing countries are required to follow for World Bank-financed projects.
But those "safeguards" don't specifically require bank projects to respect human rights at all – an inexcusable omission.
Now the bank is carrying out a supposedly comprehensive overhaul of its safeguard policies but without addressing this problem. Last Tuesday, it released a long-awaited second draft of its proposed changes. The bank had promised that the new safeguards will be "clearer [and] stronger" than its current policies, in support of the bank's recently adopted twin goals to end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity.
But the revised draft still doesn't recognize that those goals can't be met without demanding respect for fundamental human rights. Instead, it treats human rights as aspirational values that the bank may selectively promote, rather than as a set of obligations with which its borrowers must comply.
We have also documented cases around the world of people who speak out against these problems being harassed or even arrested. The bank has policies requiring vulnerable people to be consulted in carrying out its projects, but none require the bank to take responsibility for preventing, investigating, and remedying attacks on people who dare to speak their mind or even the people who file complaints with the bank's own independent accountability mechanisms.
Where safeguard policies fall short of human rights standards, they leave communities unprotected against governments' abuses against the most marginalized and poorest communities in carrying out bank projects or retaliation against project critics. Requiring countries to respect human rights would ensure that, at a minimum, bank projects do not harm the same communities that the bank claims are their beneficiaries.
Embracing human rights also has implications beyond the bank. It could set the bar for other development banks and help build borrowing countries' capacity and support for human rights. On the other hand, there is the risk that the bank's dilution of human rights standards can weaken existing rights. As the case of the Ethiopian cash-for-work program illustrates, discrimination on the basis of political opinion – or a person's language – violates human rights but apparently not bank policy. It is a grim sign that the definition of discrimination in the United Nations' proposed Sustainable Development Goals does not explicitly include discrimination against people for their political opinions or language.
The World Bank should do three things to make good on its promise of clearer, stronger safeguards. First, its operational policies should make clear that it will not finance projects that contravene borrower's human rights obligations. Second, it should revise its requirements, including on non-discrimination, to comply with human rights. And, third, it should obligate borrowers not to retaliate against project critics.