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An Opportunity to Embrace a Human Rights Economy

Achieving Sustainable Development Goals Requires Aligning Financial Institutions with Human Rights

A group of girls at work in a field in Chitwan district, Nepal, March 3, 2020.  © 2020 Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

Next week, a high-level summit will convene under the auspices of the United Nations General Assembly to chart a path to meet the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

The quadrennial summit marks the halfway point for achieving the SDGs, on which progress has stalled or even reversed. At this critical juncture, world leaders should acknowledge the enormous impact of international financial institutions on realizing the SDGs and demand these institutions change their approach to align with human rights.

Adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, the 17 SDGs articulate a global plan of action intended to drive economic prosperity and social well-being while protecting the environment. However, we have recently seen the largest increase in between-country inequality in three decades and inequality within many countries has also worsened, particularly in the Global South.

The abysmal state of the SDGs should be a clarion call that the current approach of many governments, and the international financial institutions that support them, is failing most people. One way to reverse course is to center rights in economic decision-making.

Since March 2020, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has approved new loans to at least 38 countries with a total population of over 1 billion people. Most of these loans include conditions that force governments to cut or limit public spending in ways that can erode or undermine efforts to eliminate poverty and food insecurity, improve health care and education, and reduce inequality: all SDGs. Yet most of these programs fail to assess and address their impacts on peoples’ rights.

The World Bank is also falling far short of meeting rights standards. In particular, despite its commitment to promote universal social protection systems, it is overwhelmingly funding expensive, ineffective, and error-prone infrastructure that targets eligibility on narrow indicators of poverty.

As the IMF and World Bank prepare for historic annual meetings in Marrakech in October, Human Rights Watch urges states to demand that:

  • The IMF and the World Bank align their approach with human rights and in particular by systematically conducting and publishing human rights impact assessments.
  • They commit to universal social security and avoid promoting means-tested programs.
  • The IMF redesign its social spending floors to align with rights and avoid trade-offs between different areas of social spending.

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