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

Galit A. Sarfaty, Harvard Law School


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. This study identifies a key obstacle as the 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 current strategy of framing norms for economists is a better fit with the Bank’s organizational culture.