Accountability in international organisations: Reviewing the World Bank's environmental and social framework

Dimitri Van Den Meerssche*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


On August 4th, 2016, the Board of Executive Directors of the World Bank endorsed the new Environmental and Social Framework ('ESF'). The ESF is the latest of many steps that the Bank has undertaken to promote citizen-driven accountability regarding environmental and social damage, thereby seeking to rectify an accountability-gap that is omnipresent in international institutional law. The first contribution of this chapter is to provide an original typology of the four main innovations that the ESF brings to the safeguard mechanism in the World Bank. The chapter highlights how the topic-oriented safeguard standards, which were previously scattered in different independent operational policies (OPs), have now been integrated in a hierarchically organized, unified legal scheme (1). I further expose a shift from deontic reasoning to processes of qualitative managerial assessment in the environmental and social standards, which fundamentally alters their normative nature. This conclusion applies both to the increased focus on a specific methodological understanding of country ownership (2), and to the general substantive reformulation of the safeguard standards (3). Finally, the chapter sheds light on the new substantive areas of environmental and social protection in the ESF, such as labor and working conditions; climate change; non-discrimination; natural resource management; and-to a very minor extent-human rights (4). Going beyond this descriptive and analytical typology, the chapter also critically assesses the changing nature of the safeguard model and situates the ESF in the broader context of international law. This section argues, first of all, that the ESF reflects the 'solipsism' of the World Bank: the safeguard standards are part of an endogenous legal structure and hierarchy, in which validity is produced without recourse to exogenous international legal sources. Secondly, I argue that the shift from deontic safeguard protection to risk-based managerialism risks to dilute the accountability of the Bank, both regarding its own responsibilities and regarding its supervision over the performance of borrowing countries. This dilution poses challenges for the Inspection Panel, which will need to draw clear normative lines in this maze of managerialism. The chapter identifies five techniques for the IP to achieve this, among which the systematic integration of external legal sources and the recourse to teleological hermeneutics figure prominently. As a final point of caution and critique, I have pointed out that the ESF provides only limited coverage, excluding both Development Policy Lending and Programming-for-Results Lending in the World Bank. In conclusion, it is undisputable that the ESF can be seen as a new step in safeguarding the accountability of the Bank. This chapter provides an analytical framework to evaluate in which direction this step was made.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAccountability, Transparency and Democracy in the Functioning of Bretton Woods Institutions
EditorsElena Sciso
PublisherSpringer International Publishing
Number of pages31
ISBN (Electronic)9783319578552
ISBN (Print)9783319578545
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jul 2017


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