The World Bank’s Environmental and Social Standard on Indigenous Peoples: A Case Study on Global Governance

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While civil society groups have been urging the World Bank to integrate human rights concepts into its policies, borrower countries have increasingly made the case for flexibility and deference to domestic standards in the implementation of bank-funded projects. This article analyses how the World Bank has navigated these conflicting legitimacy demands in the context of its 2016 Environmental and Social Framework (ESF). Drawing on insights from organizational sociology, we focus on practices of decoupling, which allow organizations to correspond to legitimacy demands by different audiences while not having to substantially adjust their core activities. The labour and indigenous peoples’ safeguards serve as cases in point. Specifically, the article argues that the Bank has decoupled its discourse concerning the ESF from the framework’s actual content by making statements about the ESF’s coherence with key human rights concepts which, upon closer scrutiny, do not fully correspond to its actual requirements. The article also shows how the design of the ESF furthers a decoupling of relevant requirements from its actual implementation. In particular, the confined scope ratione personae of the relevant safeguards and the discretion granted to the Bank’s staff and the borrower to add meaning to undefined key concepts may render their human rights-related requirements in a number of cases inconsequential. By and large, the decoupling practices identified regarding the Bank’s ESF entail problematic effects for the normativity of relevant human rights concepts and may, in the long run, undermine the Bank’s legitimacy as a whole.
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