Every so often, the World Bank puts out a paper that calls for better social protection or at least a somewhat better deal for working people. The public relations people there evidently believe we have very short memories.
No, dear reader, the World Bank has not changed its function, nor have elephants begun to fly. Without any hint of irony, the World Bank’s latest attempt at selective amnesia is what it calls its “Social Protection and Jobs” strategy, in which it purports to advocate that the world’s national governments “greatly expand effective coverage of social protection programs” and “significantly increase the scale and quality of economic inclusion and labor market programs.” Hilariously, the World Bank titles its 136-page report fleshing out this strategy “Charting a Course Towards Universal Social Protection: Resilience, Equity, and Opportunity for All.”
In that report, the World Bank, with a straight face, writes that it “recognizes that the progressive realization of universal social protection (USP), which ensures access to social protection for all whenever and however they need it, is critical for effectively reducing poverty and boosting shared prosperity.” Furthermore, the report builds on a previous document that allegedly offers “an overarching framework for understanding the value of investing in social protection programs and outlined how the World Bank would work with client countries to further develop their social protection programs and systems.” The report asserts goals of achieving equity, resilience and opportunity for all people, especially the developing world’s most vulnerable, and “to create opportunity by building human capital and helping men and women to access productive income-earning opportunities.”
We arrive at that favorite set of code words, “human capital.” We’ll return to that shortly. But before we highlight the actual record of the World Bank and its role in imposing devastating austerity on countries around the world, at enormous human cost, let’s take a brief look at the International Trade Union Confederation response. The ITUC, which represents 200 million workers in 163 countries and has 338 national affiliates, says its “primary mission is the promotion and defence of workers’ rights and interests.” Readers may recall that the ITUC issues a yearly report on the state of labor, consistently finding that not a single country fully upholds workers’ rights.
In its four-page summary of the World Bank declaration, the ITUC said it agrees with the World Bank’s stated goals, and “agrees with the Bank that the lack of social protection for the majority of the world’s workers in the informal economy is a challenge that needs to be urgently addressed.” Nonetheless, the ITUC “has a number of considerable reservations to some of the policy messages” and disputes “the rigor of the analysis underpinning some of the policies proposed.”
The ITUC writes: “The Bank’s vision of universal social protection appears to prioritise the extension of targeted non-contributory social assistance at the expense of social security, when both forms of support serve distinct and complementary functions.” Further, it “disagrees with the Bank’s critique of social security schemes, especially pensions, as an undue burden on public finances and ‘regressive’ in nature.” The World Bank’s “solution” to make pension and social security systems sustainable “mainly involve reducing public subsidies to social security, strengthening the link from contributions to entitlements through defined-contribution schemes [retirement plans in which you pay into but have no guarantees as to payout], as well as strengthening the role of voluntary and private pensions.”
In other words, it’s work until you drop! That is already a long-term goal of right-wing ideologues and corporate interests not only in the United States but around the world.
Underneath the rhetoric, the usual right-wing prescriptions
And, true to right-wing form, the World Bank places the onus for unemployment squarely on individuals. The ITUC critique says: “the onus of addressing unemployment appears to focus on the individual, rather than on the broader structural forces at play. The [bank report] disregards in particular the measures that governments can take to create new, quality jobs, such as proactive industry planning, public sector job creation, and public investment – including in labour intensive sectors with strong social and environmental dividends, such as infrastructure, care and the green economy.” Finally, the World Bank claims that labor regulations are “excessive” and threaten employment, and advocates lowering already meager worker protections.
Once again, the World Bank has not forgotten its raison d’être; it has not suddenly changed its stripes. Elephants will continue to not fly.
Did we really expect otherwise? A look at the World Bank’s record provides all the evidence anyone could want of it being one of the world’s most destructive agencies, an organization dedicated to enhancing corporate plunder and imposing punishing austerity. A one-two punch with the International Monetary Fund. Both organizations do the bidding of the Global North’s multi-national corporations through playing complementary roles.
When I last checked in at the World Bank, in 2018, the bank was in the process of completing its “World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work,” which opened with quotes from Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. That was merely a feint. What we soon read in examining the report is that the problem is “domestic bias towards state-owned or politically connected firms, the slow pace of technology adoption, or stifling regulation.” Sure, jobs are disappearing, but that’s no problem because “the rise in the manufacturing sector in China has more than compensated for this loss.” Essentially, the World Bank was advocating that we become sweatshop workers in China. What else to do? “Early investment in human capital” — in other words, pay lots of money for advanced degrees you won’t be able to use — and “more dynamic labor markets,” which is code for gutting labor protections and making it easier to fire workers.
Elephants didn’t, after all, fly five years ago, either.
The World Bank has even declared itself above the law. Unfortunately, at least one U.S. court agrees. A lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington on behalf of Indian farmers and fisherpeople ended with a ruling that the World Bank is immune from legal challenge. The bank provided $450 million for a power plant that the plaintiffs said degraded the environment and destroyed livelihoods. The court agreed with the World Bank’s contention that it has immunity under the International Organizations Immunities Act. The World Bank thus was declared the equivalent of a sovereign state, and in this context is placed above any law as if it possesses diplomatic immunity. Another suit, however, also filed by EarthRights International against the World Bank for its role in turning a blind eye to alleged systematic human rights violations by a palm oil company in Honduras for a project it financed, was allowed to proceed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019. That case, however, appears to yet be decided by the trial court. So the World Bank can sometimes be sued in the United States legal system but it remains to be seen if it will have to shoulder any responsibility.
The World Bank has a long history of ignoring the human cost of the projects it funds. The World Development Movement, a coalition of local campaign groups in Britain, reports that the World Bank has provided more than US$6.7 billion in grants to projects that are destructive to the environment and undermine human rights, a total likely conservative. To cite merely three of the many examples, the World Bank:
- Loaned an energy company in India more than $550 million to finance the construction of two coal-fired power plants. Local people, excluded from discussions, were beaten, their homes bulldozed and reported reduced food security and deteriorating health as a result of the power stations.
- An Indonesian dam, made possible by the World Bank’s $156 million loan, resulted in the forcible evictions of some 24,000 villagers, who were subject to a campaign of violence and intimidation.
- In Laos, a hydropower project made possible by World Bank guarantees displaced at least 6,000 Indigenous people and disrupted the livelihoods of around 120,000 people living downstream of the dam who can no longer depend on the rivers for fish, drinking water and agriculture.
A study of World Bank policies, “Foreclosing the Future” by environmental lawyer Bruce Rich, found that:
“Drawing on Bank studies, project evaluations and sectoral reviews, it is shown that the World Bank still suffers from a pervasive ‘loan approval culture’ driven by a perverse incentive system that pressures staff and managers to make large loans to governments and corporations without adequate attention to environmental, governance and social issues. In 2013, Bank Staff who highlight social risks and seek to slow down project processing still risk ‘career suicide.’ … [The bank] has continued to binge on enormous loans to oil and gas extraction, coal-fired power stations and large-scale mining generating environmental damage, forest loss and massive carbon emissions.”
Destroying the environment in the service of short-term profits
Want more? The World Bank has provided nearly $15 billion in financing for fossil fuel projects since the 2015 signing of the Paris Climate Accords. An October 2022 report by Big Shift Global, a coalition of 50 environmental organizations across the Global North and South, notes that despite World Bank claims that it would end financing for upstream oil and gas production, it has other avenues to promote fossil fuels. One of these methods is to send funds to a financial institution, which in turns sends the money to the fossil fuel project. Another is to provide non-earmarked funds but make the money conditional on instituting reforms encouraging fossil fuels.
The biggest fossil fuel funding, according to the Big Shift Global report, is $1.1 billion for the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, a gas distribution project in Azerbaijan. Another $600 million went toward a gas storage project in Turkey and another eight projects were given at least $100 million by the World Bank. Projects that the World Bank has financed include expansion of coal. Other work by the World Bank includes $2.8 billion so that Ghana could move its energy mix from mostly hydropower to majority fossil fuels, and pressured Ghana to enter into gas contracts that causes it to pay $1.2 billion annually for gas it doesn’t use, which also has put a greater debt burden on the country.
The World Bank also encouraged Guyana to use a Texas law firm that has Exxon as a major client to rewrite its petroleum laws, while providing money for oil and gas development in Guyana. That development will benefit Exxon as the fossil fuel multinational snagged a contract under which Guyana doesn’t receive any of the profits until the costs of the field are paid off. In other words, the Big Shift Global report says, “Exxon can continue to charge Guyana for every newly developed oil field. It could take decades before the money trickles down to the people.”
The World Bank attempted the same whitewashing stunt with its fossil fuel funding, once issuing a report lamenting global warming while completely ignoring its role in worsening global warming. At the time of that whitewashing report, the bank was providing billions of dollars to finance new coal plants around the world. By any reasonable standard, the World Bank is a key organization in the concatenation of processes that has brought the world to the brink of catastrophic climate change. The policies of the World Bank and its sibling, the International Monetary Fund, have constituted non-stop efforts to impose multi-national corporate control, dismantle local democratic institutions and place decision-making power into the hands of corporate executives and financiers, the very people and institutions that profit from the destruction of the environment.
A trail of evictions, displacements, gross human rights violations (including rape, murder and torture), widespread destruction of forests, financing of greenhouse-gas-belching fossil-fuel projects, and destruction of water and food sources has followed the World Bank. It works in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund, whose loans, earmarked for loans to governments to pay debts or stabilize currencies, always come with the same requirements to privatize public assets (which can be sold far below market value to multi-national corporations waiting to pounce); cut social safety nets; drastically reduce the scope of government services; eliminate regulations; and open economies wide to multi-national capital, even if that means the destruction of local industry and agriculture. This results in more debt, which then gives multi-national corporations and the IMF, which enforces those corporate interests, still more leverage to impose more control, including heightened ability to weaken environmental and labor laws.
The World Bank compliments this by funding massive infrastructure projects that tend to enormously profit deep-pocketed international investors but ignore the effects on local people and the environment. The two institutions are working as intended, to facilitate the upward distribution of wealth, regardless of human and environmental cost.