Why Culture Matters in International Institutions: The Marginality of Human Rights at the World Bank

American Journal of International Law, Vol. 103, pp. 647-683, 2009

68 Pages Posted: 12 Jan 2010 Last revised: 14 Dec 2011

See all articles by Galit Sarfaty

Galit Sarfaty

University of British Columbia – Faculty of Law

Date Written: January 11, 2010

Abstract

Why do international organizations (IOs) behave as they do? Scholarship in international law and international relations reflects an emerging interest in IOs, yet it overemphasizes the role of states in shaping how IOs behave and make policy. Understanding institutional behavior and change requires an ethnographic analysis of the internal dynamics of IOs, including their formal and informal norms, incentive systems, and decision-making processes. This Article analyzes the organizational culture of one particularly powerful international institution - the World Bank - based on ethnographic fieldwork at the Bank over four years. It seeks to understand why the institution has not adopted a human rights policy or agenda despite external and internal pressure over the past two decades. I argue that legal and political constraints do not fully explain this phenomenon; what is needed is an anthropological analysis of the organization that sheds light on bureaucratic obstacles to the adoption of human rights norms. These obstacles include the Bank’s incentive system as well as a clash of expertise among staff and, in particular, interpretive gaps between lawyers and economists over how to define human rights. I conclude that while scholars have emphasized the benefits of legalization, there are instances where legalizing human rights would not be effective. The recent efforts to frame norms for economists is a better fit with the Bank’s organizational culture.

Keywords: World Bank, international Institutions, Human Rights, Organizational Culture, Legal Profession, Law and Development

Suggested Citation

Sarfaty, Galit, Why Culture Matters in International Institutions: The Marginality of Human Rights at the World Bank (January 11, 2010). American Journal of International Law, Vol. 103, pp. 647-683, 2009. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1534882

Galit Sarfaty (Contact Author)

University of British Columbia – Faculty of Law ( email )

1822 East Mall
Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z1
Canada

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