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The World Bank's Uses of the 'Rule of Law' Promise in Economic Development


Alvaro Santos


Georgetown University Law Center

April 4, 2012

THE NEW LAW AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: A CRITICAL APPRAISAL, pp. 253-300, David Trubek & Alvaro Santos eds., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006
Georgetown Law and Economics Research Paper No. 12-014
Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 12-053

Abstract:     
In this chapter, the author seeks to disaggregate the World Bank and provide insight on the impact that particular groups have in dominant development strategies. By analyzing the internal dynamics among groups at the Bank, his aim is to illuminate the rise and fall of ideas about development and their resistance to both empirical evidence and academic critique. These internal dynamics include institutional inertia and constraints, groups’ struggle and competition over resources and prestige, and the relationship between groups at the Bank and the governments of borrowing countries.

The argument presented is that the conceptions of the rule of law behind these various projects need not be, and indeed are not, consistent with each other. They often conflict, but their inconsistencies or contradictions regularly go unnoticed due to a conceptually confused discussion coupled with the dynamics of a complex institution. To explore this point, this chapter undertakes both a conceptual analysis of the “rule of law” and an institutional analysis of the dynamics among the groups leading these projects in the Bank. The author gives an account of the ways in which the rule of law rhetoric within the Bank forecloses an analysis about the very policies these reforms introduce, their consequences among groups in society, and their ultimate relationship to economic development. Finally, it is argued that the agenda for the rule of law is not exclusively about the role of law in economic development. It is also about defining and expanding the role of the World Bank groups in domestic policies around the world.

This argument is developed in three parts. In the first part, four conceptions of the rule of law are sketched, developed in jurisprudence and in the literature of economic development, as a template with which to analyze the Bank’s strategies and the position of the various groups on the subject. The author considers the lack of conceptual agreement on the meaning of the rule of law and explores its multiple interpretations, as well as the overlap and tensions among these conceptions. It is argued that these various conceptions of the rule of law, as channeled in the Bank, constitute a hodge-podge that enables different and often conflicting projects to be pursued under the same agenda.

The second part provides an overview of the World Bank’s engagement with the rule of law, describing the different conceptions of the rule of law introduced at various points in time. The author analyzes how, since its inception, the rule of law has been a powerful rhetoric to justify the Bank’s involvement in reforming developing countries’ legal and judicial systems and to portray this endeavor as an apolitical one. This part includes a description of how the rule of law rhetoric has dramatically expanded from an instrumental conception focused on economic considerations to an intrinsic conception that values legal and judicial reforms as good on their own right and considers them an inherent part of the development process.

The third part looks at the practice of rule of law projects and describes the various divisions in the World Bank currently engaged in reforming courts and laws. The author highlights which conceptions of the rule of law these units have adopted and describes how, despite internal disparities and conflicting views among them, their agendas reinforce each other in what seems a common position. This part offers an analysis on this apparent consensus at two levels. First, it describes how the conceptual hodge-podge bonds under the same rubric different agendas and competing interests. Second, it analyzes the dynamics among the various World Bank groups, and the relationships between these groups and the borrowing countries. The author shows how this implicit consensus enables them to discount unfavorable results, support the continuation of their projects and validate a variety of different policies.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 49

Keywords: World Bank, rule of law, developing countries, economic development, international financial institutions, legal reform, international law, banking and finance

JEL Classification: K2, K33, O1

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Date posted: April 5, 2012  

Suggested Citation

Santos, Alvaro, The World Bank's Uses of the 'Rule of Law' Promise in Economic Development (April 4, 2012). THE NEW LAW AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: A CRITICAL APPRAISAL, pp. 253-300, David Trubek & Alvaro Santos eds., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006; Georgetown Law and Economics Research Paper No. 12-014 ; Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 12-053. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2034333

Contact Information

Alvaro Santos (Contact Author)
Georgetown University Law Center ( email )
600 New Jersey Av. NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
HOME PAGE: http://www.law.georgetown.edu/faculty/facinfo/tab_faculty.cfm?Status=FullTime&ID=2353&InfoType=Bio
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