Written by Elisabeth Mäkiö
World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim visits Zanaki Primary School. Photo Sarah Farhat / World Bank via Flickr. March 20, 2017
The World Bank has recently been making headlines with regards to their stance on human rights. This is due to a proposed loan of US$500m from the World Bank to the Tanzanian government, to be used on improving access to secondary education. The meeting about the loan has been postponed after civil society groups and political opposition leaders called on the World Bank to re-evaluate their decision of granting the $500m education loan, due to concerns over the Tanzanian government’s policies on women’s educational rights.
Tanzania’s current education policies expel pregnant schoolgirls, administer intrusive pregnancy tests to girls in schools and even arrest girls who attend school whilst pregnant. The president of Tanzania, John Magufuli, has openly expressed his support for these policies, as well as raised controversy after referring to people who use birth-control as “lazy”. As unsafe abortions are one of the leading causes of maternal deaths in Tanzania, and sexual violence is common, it is no surprise that Tanzanian policies have raised severe objections from human rights-organizations. Policies that focus on portraying adolescent girls as “immoral”, rather than focusing on the lack of access to birth control and sexual violence, are not only ineffective but violate the girls’ rights to education. In 2018, the World Bank withheld a US$300m educational loan over concerns of women and girl’s rights in Tanzania.
So how is this new loan even proposed without any changes to Tanzania’s policies? Part of the reason lies within the World Bank’s wish to remain apolitical. Although the bank claims to strive for development in sectors such as gender equality and poverty eradication, they have systematically stayed away from aligning themselves with human rights standards, claiming that recognizing human rights would risk the institution’s position as an apolitical actor. This stands in stark contrast to other major international organizations, who have recognized and integrated the UN Human Rights Declaration into their activities. The supporters of the World Bank are likely to argue that the language used makes little difference to its activities; surely it is more important that they try to advance causes such as environmental and social justice?
The answer is not a simple yes or a no. Although some of the World Bank’s work is admittedly admirable, it has also been highlighted as a prime example of bad practice. Making an official declaration on the bank’s stance on human rights would send a strong message of the core values the bank deems non-negotiable, as well as avoid situations such as the one that has arisen in Tanzania. As of now, it is unclear what the World Bank’s policy on human rights is, and that is a big problem.
Although they postponed the education loan in 2018, last September a US$450m poverty-reduction program was approved to Tanzania. The World Bank claimed this was due to Tanzanian policy changes, yet the opposition leaders and human rights organizations have remained skeptical about these changes. Pregnant girls are still not allowed to attend school and can be arrested if found to be pregnant in school. For the institution to “improve girls’ education” by lending money to a country that excludes thousands of girls from attending education seems misguided at best, and hypocritical at worst. A clear stance on human rights issues would likely be helpful to the World Bank in making decisions (and having clear policies) about lending to countries violating human rights.