Faculty Author Type

Current Faculty [Galit A. Sarfaty]

Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date



World Bank; Human Rights; Justice; Organizational Culture


How can we measure justice? Are there tensions between an instrumental and an intrinsic conception of justice? These questions are currently being debated within the World Bank, an international development agency founded in 1946 under a mandate of poverty reduction. On May 15-16, 2006, members of the Bank’s Legal Department led a workshop on developing justice indicators that examined these questions. The participants included thirty Bank employees, the Nordic-Baltic Foreign Ministries, and experts from four continents. The Bank organized the workshop in preparation for a new trust fund on justice and human rights, aimed at the “practical” promotion of human rights considerations at the institution. One of the objectives of the workshop was to “consider ‘what measuring justice means,’ including both the objective of and methodologies for doing so.” The Measuring Justice Initiative, which attempts to quantify the performance of the justice sector in developing countries, is part of a larger trend in the Bank to empirically measure normative concepts. My research focuses on the institution’s empirical treatment of human rights and its support for an instrumentalist interpretation of the concept. One example of this recent approach is the Bank’s Human Rights Indicator Project, a parallel initiative to Measuring Justice, which began in 2005 and is also based in the Legal Department. This project aims to develop a methodology and operational tools to measure and assess human rights and integrate them into development processes. It is an effort to demystify human rights for employees, particularly some economists, who remain skeptical of their value for the Bank’s work. Yet if one were to examine this project in isolation, one would overlook the multiplicity of human rights interpretations among employees. Whereas some promote human rights as instrumental goals toward achieving poverty reduction, others define them as legal obligations or as moral imperatives. Meanwhile, there is a sizable minority of staff who interpret them as political considerations that are beyond the Bank’s mandate. Why is the Bank exhibiting such divergent approaches to human rights? I argue that the “interpretive pluralism” over human rights reveals contradictions within the Bank’s bureaucratic culture and, in particular, a tension between principles and pragmatism. This chapter seeks to analyze the internal conflicts that led to the current empirical approach by presenting a genealogy of human rights at the Bank. My analysis is based on ethnographic fieldwork at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C. over a period of two years, including the summers of 2002 and 2004 and the 2005-2006 academic year. I demonstrate that human rights has been a taboo topic within parts of the institution, but the type and extent of the taboo has changed over time and in different contexts. Moreover, when the concept of human rights has been incorporated into Bank discourses and practices, it has often been in a partial or inconsistent manner.



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