Redefining Political Interference in the World Bank: A Genealogy of Governance and Rule of Law Reform

Dimitri Van Den Meerssche

Research output: Working paper


The field of global development epitomizes international law’s recourse to expertise as a semantic of legitimacy. Indeed, the World Bank’s functionalist claim to neutrality is predicated on a dichotomy between ‘economic’ technique and the ‘politics’ of international life, with the latter being out of its constitutional reach. This paper explores how the fall of the USSR resulted in a renegotiation of this economics/politics schism, thereby facilitating a remarkable operational expansion in the Bank, as expressed in the turn to ‘governance’ and ‘rule of law’ reform. Drawing on written and oral archives and an analysis of internal legal opinions, I map out the institutional frictions and legal rationalities underlying this reconfiguration of ‘political interference’ in the Bank. The paper formulates two innovative argumentative threads regarding this genealogy of State reform. First of all, I demonstrate how the recalibration of the borders between ‘economics’ and ‘politics’ was internally validated by a legal memorandum that reinterpreted the principle of neutrality in the Bank’s founding charter. This inquiry conceptualizes the institutional traction and performative character of constitutionalism and the rule of law in contemporary sites of global governance, where legal discourse structurally oscillates between the promise of formalism and managerial exigency. Doing so, the paper provides an original – historically contextualized and socio-legal – account of how law substantively operates and gains institutional meaning in the Bank. Secondly, I explore how, externally, the Bank’s technocratic gaze in the agenda of rule of law reform sparked a practice of measuring, ranking and diagnosing countries on the basis of an epistemically constructed ideal-type of the development State. I define this mode of normalizing a specific configuration of public authority, with Foucault, as the transnational discipline of diagnosis. The practice of rendering the public sphere increasingly visible within the Bank’s modernist episteme, I conclude, results in a problematic aesthetic of statehood that normalizes contentious political choices and institutional configurations, while obscuring and delegitimizing the potential for diversity and counter-hegemonic politics.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 29 Sep 2017

Publication series

NameSSRN Electronic Journal


  • development
  • World Bank
  • International Organizations Law
  • governance
  • Rule of Law
  • indicators


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