Fri, August 09 2013 16:54
The World Bank and Human Right to Water
From an Economic Good to a Human Right: The World Bank's Response to an Emergent Human Right to Water

by Eve Warburton


At the 1992 International Conference on Water and the Environment, the United Nations adopted the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development. The Dublin Principles, as they came to be known, declared that, “water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good.”  The World Bank played a key role in this conference, and its water experts advocated the premise of the Dublin Principles - that scarcity should be addressed by giving water a market value. World Bank policies and programming in the field of water management since the 1980s, exhibited most powerfully in its push for privatization of water and sanitation utilities, have been founded on the notion that water is a valuable commodity most efficiently distributed via market forces.

However, in 2004 a report by the World Bank’s Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development office (ESSD), entitled The Human Right To Water: Legal and Policy Dimensions, concluded that there is “an incipient right to water evolving in public international law today.” Then six years later, in September 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a unanimous resolution bringing into force an independent human right to water. The emergence of an international norm recognizing the right to water presents an interesting challenge to the World Bank. Not only is the Bank historically ambivalent about becoming involved in the politics of human rights (Oestreich 2007), but a right to water would seem to undermine its status as a commercial, tradable, economic good, which has framed World Bank water policy for decades. How has this norm risen to become part of the international human rights regime, and how is the World Bank engaging with this norm, given its potentially significant impact on Bank policy interventions?

This paper examines The World Bank’s position on the human right to water. It asks how the Bank’s “knowledge networks” played a leading role in setting the international development agenda for treating water as an economic good; and explores the Bank’s response to an emerging normative and legal framework that articulates a human right to water. The evolution of the Bank’s approach to water is illustrative of how it counters and absorbs external pressures, including popular resistance to its policies – in this case efforts to impose privatization of water and sanitation utilities in borrowing countries.

This paper begins with a brief discussion of the dominant theoretical paradigms used to explain Bank behavior and its interaction with international normative frameworks – functionalism, neo-Marxism and critical constructivism. The second section explores the emergence of a human right to water, outlining key events, organizations and states that have propelled this nascent norm to the forefront of international development agendas. In the third section, the World Bank’s water programs, reports and its interactions with other water-related international bodies and civil society organizations are examined using a functionalist framework. The following section examines neo-Marxist interpretations of Bank water programming, and details the anti-water-privatization movement that has been integral to the emergence of a human right to water. The concluding section adopts a critical constructivist lens for explaining the nature of the Bank’s engagement with this new human rights norm, and with the anti-privatization movement that has advocated its recognition.

I argue the World Bank is an institution that perpetually but ambivalently engages with grassroots opposition in the Global North and Global South (Rajagopal 2003; Goldman 2006). The story of the Bank’s evolving approach to water sector interventions is best suited to a critical constructivist lens, which questions IOs as sites of objective or neutral knowledge, and gives agency to subaltern forces to influence the policy outcomes of international organizations such as the Bank. Thus far, however, the Bank has interpreted the right to water as an aspiration, an expression of what governments should do - which is distinct from its own apolitical, technical focus on water provision. The case of the human right to water is illustrative of how the Bank can manage and absorb external pressures, while expanding its programs in the Global South (Rajagopal 2000; 2003).

Explaining the World Bank’s approach to human rights: Functionalism, neo-Marxism and Critical Constructivism

The Bank has been the subject of numerous studies by scholars seeking to understand the machinations and contradictions of one of the world’s most powerful international organizations. Analysts have put forth various theoretical frameworks for explaining institutional change at the World Bank – a task deemed perpetually important given its ever-expanding intervention in the Global South. Since its inception, the Bank has evolved alongside an increasingly complex regime of international human rights treaties, soft law and advocacy NGOs. Initially the Bank saw no relationship between its role as the international agent for economic growth and stability, and the human rights movement (Oestreich 2007). However, over the past three decades, the Bank has expanded its understanding of economic development to encompass almost every aspect of “social reality” in the Third World – including health, education, and natural resource management (Rajagopal 2000). This expansion involves a complex interaction with normative and legal international human rights frameworks.

In explaining the development of international organizations such as the World Bank, functionalist accounts have traditionally dominated the literature. Indeed, the functional approach is, to a certain extent, how the Bank itself frames processes of policy and organizational evolution. This paradigm perceives IOs as repositories of knowledge and expertise that function in response to the complex needs of an integrated, interdependent international system. This position generally views policy evolution and normative change as a consequence of internal factors pertaining to the organization, whereby members of the team and strong leaders come to see that “adaptation will increase institutional effectiveness, [and is] ‘the right thing to do’ from an ethical perspective” (Oestreich 2000, 6). A functionalist would view the World Bank’s evolving strategy of water intervention as a consequence of internal experts’ identification of technically sound water programming, deemed to be an institutionally effective and ethical way of framing those programs. Over the past six years, the Bank has addressed the nascent norm of a right to water as an assertion of states’ responsibility to ensure citizens have equitable access to water – an assertion that is distinct from the role of the Bank’s ‘epistemic water community’, which is to address the pragmatic aspects of water provision. I borrow this term from Peter Haas (1992, 3) who describes an epistemic community as “a network of professionals with recognized expertise…and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within a domain or issue-area.”

On the other hand, there are analysts that regard changes in Bank policy and it’s expanding development mandate as neither benign nor purely technical, but rather as a means of extending its power into new social arenas in developing countries (Barlow and Clarke 2002; Shiva 2004; Goldman 2007; Roberts 2008). Such observers reflect a neo-Marxist approach, whereby the Bank is perceived as a proxy for the interests of capital - powerful Western states and multinational private corporations (Shiva 2004; Goldman 2007; Haughton 2002). Expansion of the Bank’s ‘epistemic water communities’ is perceived to be a means of achieving consensus amongst powerful intergovernmental and private financial institutions on the role of privatization in water service and governance in the Global South. To the extent that activists and scholars from this position articulate a human right to water, it is a means of advocating state control and responsibility of water sources – rather than corporate control pushed by the Bank – because it is a public good to which all people have rights of access. From a neo-Marxist perspective, the Bank’s water programs serve the interests of private water corporations, and any shift toward a more human rights based approach is primarily cosmetic, masking the ongoing exploitation of a global underclass by global capitalist hegemons (Horta 2002; Barlow and Clarke 2002; Shiva 2002; Goldman 2007).

However, the functionalist rationale, and the neo-Marxian interpretation of Bank behavior are unable to capture the Bank’s complex engagement with external forces, particularly resistance movements, “albeit only within the parameters set by the institution” (Goldman 2005, 20). Rajagopal’s (2003) notion of international organizations as “terrains” of competing ideologies and North-South interests is an instructive framework for understanding the Bank’s evolving approach to human rights. According to Rajagopal, organizational change within the World Bank since the 1960s is a consequence of the need to address, moderate and contain Third World resistance; change cannot be explained purely by a “functionalist imperative or the genius of international institutional design” (2000, 577).  This approach is similar to that taken by Goldman (2005) in his ethnography of the Bank’s turn toward environmentally sustainable development. Both authors tend toward a critical constructivist approach, by scrutinizing the Bank’s claim to objective knowledge, and giving agency to subaltern forces to shape and change the norms that guide Bank Policy. This framework accounts for the influence of a transnational anti-water-privatization movement that has struggled for international recognition of a human right to water. However, both Goldman and Rajagopal argue that the grievances and goals of Third World resistance movements such as this have limited power to shift the ultimate trajectory of the Bank and its neoliberal foundations. Indeed, an examination of the goals of the campaign for a human right to water, and the Bank’s response to this nascent norm, are demonstrative of these limitations.

The Human Right To Water: a new international norm?
The debate over whether water should be considered an economic good or a human right has become a priority issue for international organizations over the past decade. Until recently, there was no independent universal human right to water recognized in international law. International institutions generally addressed access to water as “subordinate and necessary to achieve the primary human rights recognized directly by the international human rights agreements” such as the right to life or the right to health (Bluemel 2002, 968). Many of the rights embodied in the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights assume some level of equitable and affordable access to clean water, so the various UN bodies and the World Health Organization have historically treated it as an implicit rather than explicit part of the human rights legal framework. But a shift has taken place in the last ten to fifteen years. The following discussion briefly maps the evolution of this nascent norm, taking Sikkink and Finnemore’s (1998) conception of the “norm life cycle” as a central point of departure. Applying Sikkink and Finnemore’s theory of norm evolution, the human right to water can be understood to be approaching the “tipping point” of the “norm cascade.” At this stage “norm entrepreneurs”, via organizational platforms, bring the issue into an institutionalized framework (Sikkink and Finnemore 1998) – as evidenced by a majority of states voting for a legally binding right to water at the UN General Assembly. What this newly legalized human rights norm means in practice, however, is still being debated within international and legal spheres, and has not approached the stage of “norm internalization” where states and international organizations consistently adhere to its prescriptions. 

How did this norm emerge? Since the late eighties there has been growing concern amongst scientists and international development experts that communities across the world are experiencing an unprecedented water crisis. Changing weather patterns, rainfall, pollution and expanding populations are creating more and more water stressed regions. Consequently, international conferences, research reports and new institutions dealing with this issue have increased exponentially. For example, the World Health Organization initiated the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (1981-1990), in 1992 the first International Conference on Water and the Environment and a subsequent UN Conference in Rio De Janeiro established the influential Dublin Principles on water and sanitation, the UN Millennium Conference in 2000 made clean water and sanitation a global priority, the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 addressed clean water and sustainable water resource management, and the tri-annual World Water Forums beginning in 2000 bring together a range of stakeholders to develop global solutions to water stress. International financial institutions, development organizations and businesses collaborate on water-related initiatives via the World Water Council and the Global Water Partnership, both of which were established in 1996 with assistance from the World Bank and United Nations Development Program (UNDP). In 2006 the UNDP released a Human Development Report, Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis, which called for a global plan of action to address water scarcity in the Global South. According to Conca (2006), the problem of water access and water governance has, via these institutions, been elevated to an international development priority, leading to a range of expert policy forums and interventions in developing countries.

Out of this increasing focus on the scarcity and management of water resources has grown a global campaign arguing for recognition of a human right to water. This campaign is made up of a broad, loosely affiliated coalition of “…development-focused aid watchdogs (such as the UK’s World Development Movement), mainstream international organizations (such as the World Health Organization), [and] human-rights organizations (notably Amnesty International)” (Bakker 2010, 146). These organizational platforms served to facilitate the efforts of norm entrepreneurs and put the issue of a right to water on the international agenda. This campaign, in tandem with the growing urgency expressed by scientists and other international ‘water experts’, has influenced the position of the United Nations. In 2002 the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights released General Comment 15, which recommended water be recognized in international law as an independent human right, and that states be legally accountable for supplying “sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water” (General Comment 15, November 2002). The UN Economic and Social Council has argued that the social and cultural, not just economic, value of water be taken into account, expressing concern that “the price mechanism fails to guarantee that basic human and ecosystem needs will be met in a fair and affordable manner” (Conca 2006, 217). Then, in December of 2003, the General Assembly proclaimed the “Water for Life Decade 2005-2015”, as a means of promoting the fulfillment of international water commitments by 2015.

These initiatives were followed up in 2007 with a report by the Human Rights Council in which the High Commissioner stated, “it is now time to consider access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right” (Human Rights Council 2007, 26). This study held a consultative session with representatives from countries such as Belgium, that recognizes “water as a human right” in its domestic law; intergovernmental organizations including UNDP and WHO; private sector actors such as Aquafed and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development; NGOs such as Amnesty International, Corporate Accountability International, Council of South America Indigenous Peoples and Nations Coalition, and International Environmental Law Research Center. Subsequently, the UN appointed Ms Christina Albuquerque as the independent expert on the right to water, with the task of assessing states’ obligations and responsibilities pertaining to this emergent norm. 

The governments of particular countries also acted as norm entrepreneurs in this process, with Bolivia playing a leadership role in compiling the text of the human right to water for a vote in the General Assembly. Co-sponsoring countries of the text included Latin American nations, such as Dominica, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Paraguay, and some African nations including Burundi, Congo, and the Central African Republic.  In 2010 the UNHRC passed a resolution on the human right to water with 112 countries voting in favor, none against, and 41 abstentions.    When examined using the framework of Sikkink and Finnemore (1998), the human right to water can be understood as being at the cusp of a “norm cascade.” This is the stage where states and international institutions – most prominently the UN in this case – act to socialize and institutionalize the norm, promoting and persuading other agents to adhere.

The World Bank has not been actively involved in recent deliberations or initiatives pertaining to a human right to water. In many ways this is not surprising given the Bank’s limited interest in engaging the human rights project, which is traditionally perceived as a political issue relating to states. Yet throughout the same period, water governance became a prominent feature of the Bank’s programming in the Global South. The following section examines World Bank water interventions through the lens of functionalism – a paradigm the Bank tends to invoke when framing its role in the international development sector. From this perspective, the human right to water is not immediately relevant to the Bank’s mandate of providing rational, apolitical and technical advice for the development and growth of the Global South.

An Economic Good and Human Need: Functionalist Explanations of World Bank Water Policy
The functionalist logic argues that growing concern amongst scientists about an unprecedented water crisis has prompted a response from international organizations such as the World Bank. This framework perceives the Bank as an institution designed to respond to the dynamic economic and social needs of international society, and its evolution is a product of the policy experts whose knowledge the Bank enlists. Studies of the Bank that adopt this perspective tend to emphasize the role of influential leaders and personalities in enabling change in the Bank’s organizational culture, structure and policy direction (Oestreich 2007). This paradigm perceives the Bank’s interventions in the world of water provision as the logical product of its mandate - to attend to the needs of countries with poor infrastructure and human development such that overall economic productivity can be improved. Bank programming in this sector is, therefore, designed and implemented based on the rational expert knowledge necessary for attending to a primary human need.

The World Bank’s involvement in lending for water supply projects in developing countries dates back to the late 1960s, when its team of experts began to promote the view that “investment in public utilities was a precondition for the development of the rest of the economy” (Bakker 2010, 65). These projects began, however, with the goal of generating revenue and did not fall under the Bank’s “social” mandate. Then throughout the 1970s, under the leadership of Robert McNamara, the Bank began to expand its activities to encompass more socially focused development projects – thus funding for water projects increased significantly (Bakker 2010, 67). The prevailing wisdom that has guided the Bank’s intervention in the supply of clean water since this time (and most other infrastructure projects) is decentralization and privatization, and the notion that water resources are most efficiently supplied and consumed through the market (Bakker 2010, 69).

Of recent international institutions, the Dublin Principles have had the most significant influence over the development of water policy within international organizations, confirming the economic value of water while also introducing the now ubiquitous notion of “sustainable development” into water resources management.   Allouche and Finger (2001, 43) argue that the World Bank “developed its own interpretation of the Dublin Principles”, emphasizing Principle 4, which described water as an “economic good”, and supported the Bank’s increasingly dominant policy of water privatization. The failure of public water utilities in developing countries is, according to the Bank, a consequence of inefficient governments whose politics prevent rational, economically sound decision making processes (Bakker 2010). As the Washington Consensus became hegemonic over the past 2-3 decades, Bank lending became increasingly focused on integrating private sector actors and full-cost recovery.  The Bank’s privatization policy was implemented on a growing scale throughout the 1990s, and by the turn of the century, the Bank made water a prominent feature of its programs, with 14% of total lending dedicated to water projects over the past 10 years (Sadoff et. al. 2006).

The Bank has been key in facilitating a convergence of water experts and stakeholders from the public and private sectors around “new approaches” to water management. For example, “the World Bank’s Rapid Response Unit, and Private-Public Infrastructure Advisory Facility…new water-focused NGOs with a premarket orientation such as Business Partners for Development (cosponsored by private water companies and the World Bank), the World Water Council (initiated by French private water companies)….the Global Water Partnership (originally chaired by a WB vice president and sponsor of the influential interministerial World Water Forums initiated in 1997)…and the rise to dominance of the World Water Forum meetings (organized outside the United Nations system by a private nongovernmental organization with close links to the World Bank)” are indicative of the Bank’s central role in establishing powerful, international policy-making networks whose business is water in the Global South (Bakker 2010, 75). In 2003, the Bank’s “Water Sector Strategy” referred to information published by the Global Water Partnership that predicted huge “public funding shortfall in water projects [and]…stressed the need for the World Bank” to assist in creating conducive political, regulatory and institutional arrangements for water investments from the private sector (Conca 2006, 2003). Through these “powerful transnational policy networks”, the Bank has campaigned for consensus on the need for a particular type of water reform that is based on the view that big government has failed and that the “state should regulate but not run the public service” of water (Goldman 2005, 268). The Bank’s networks of think tanks and technical specialists have, to a significant degree, set the international agenda for the governance of water in the Global South (Bakker 2010).

Throughout the evolution of Bank water policy, the notion of a human right to water features very little. In fact, I found no World Bank publications that address a “human right to water” until 2004, after which a small number of research papers and online documents make reference to debates on this issue. From a functionalist perspective, the Bank’s role as a source of technical development expertise means that it views water as a human need that must be met through improving subpar infrastructure and governance mechanisms in the Global South. The implications of an independent human right to water are beyond the technical realm of the Bank’s mandate. However, it is clear that from about 2004 onwards, the Bank felt compelled to address an emerging normative debate about the relationship between human rights and water provision.

The Bank commissioned a report that was published in 2004 by the Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development and International Law Group, which outlined the policy implications of an “incipient” right to water in international law – motivated primarily by UN General Comment 15 discussed earlier. The authors argue that recognizing a human right to water offers “considerable legal and moral support” (World Bank 2004, 88) to global efforts to improve access to clean drinking water, and to bolster initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals. They also believe that the General Comment may herald, “the emergence of a principle of international law on the human right to water” – which of course has since been realized (World Bank 2004, 89). However, the report also highlights the risk that a human right to water could undermine water pricing, which the Bank considers key for establishing more effective provision and usage.

The Bank’s position on the human right to water is reiterated in a 2006 publication Global Issues for Global Citizens under the chapter, “Calming Global Waters: Managing a Finite Resource in a Growing World”. The authors emphasize the Bank’s technical expertise and rational approach to the problems of water provision, describing water as a “driver of sustainable, responsible growth….[requiring] sound infrastructure and sound institutions….[including] management capacity and a commitment to good governance” (Sadoff et al. 2006, 3-4). It also emphasized that private investment is integral for enabling a more “pragmatic and principled approach” to water provision (emphasis in original). There was, however, a more significant focus on the need for defining clearer “water use rights…(not a right to own water)” in order to avoid tensions over the ownership of water resources (Sadoff et al. 2006, 5). The Bank argued that water should be de-politicized, by highlighting that “It is the service not the provider that matters” (emphasis in the original) (Sadoff et al. 2006, 7).

However, other observers have not interpreted Bank water policies as the product of an apolitical and pragmatic agenda, but rather as a means of enabling the further accumulation of public goods by private, for-profit corporations and capitalist interests. The global anti-water-privatization movement that opposes World Bank water programs articulates this neo-Marxist perspective. The following section discusses this movements’ interpretation of the Bank’s intervention in the water sector of poor countries, and how it has coalesced under the banner of a human right to water in order to try and prevent the privatization of public water sources.

“Water is a right, not a privilege”: Neo-Marxist Interpretations of Bank Policy and the Anti-water-privatization campaign:
According to Conca (2006, 238) an important source of “normative evolution…has been the conflictual politics surrounding water privatization specifically and water marketization more generally.” The campaign against privatization is made up of a diverse range of interest groups, from indigenous rights organizations, women’s groups, and trade unions – but their common struggle is against what they see as greedy, unaccountable and undemocratic private companies accumulating control over more and more public water supplies. For these antagonists, “public goods are inviolably collective”, water is “the public good par excellence”, and access is a fundamental human right (Bakker 2010, 138). This movement to stop privatization of water utilities embodies broader anti-globalization campaigns the world around.

The global campaign to have water recognized as a human right has featured “radical anti-privatization and alter-globalization groups” (Bakker 2010, 146). Large scale demonstrations and organized resistance emerged in developed and developing countries around the world over the past decade and a half in response to the sale of public water utilities. According to Conca, (2006, 238) “anti-marketization activists have begun to find one another, come together, exchange information, coordinate activities, and build a shared set of symbolic frames about water.” Prominent radical scientist and activist, Vandana Shiva (2002, 89-92), has been an important figure in the transnationalizing of the anti-water privatization movement. Shiva (2002), and the movement for which she speaks, maintain there is little evidence that privatization improves services; rather it jeopardizes the livelihoods of public employees, risks increased water prices, and reduces the accountability of the provider to the public.

A seminal moment for this resistance movement was the privatization of public water utilities in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which was initiated by a World Bank loan, and led to huge price increases that triggered public protests in 2000. The protests attracted a violent response from the Bolivian military, leaving 6 dead and hundreds injured. The Betchel corporation responsible for the price hikes was eventually expelled, and the Cochabamba story became one of tragedy, but also inspiration for anti-privatization activists around the world (Bond 2010, 459).  The protest leaders came together and released the now famous Cochabamba Declaration, which stated that, “Water is a fundamental human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of government, therefore it should not be commodified, privatized or traded for commercial purposes.” The Declaration illustrated that water is an emotional and inevitably political issue, and that many communities see water as a human right, rather than an economic good (Bluemel 2004, 967).

The World Bank was a key force behind this and other privatization efforts in the Global South, and is thus a principal target in anti-privatization campaigns. Goldman (2007, 790) argues, “since the mid-1990s, water privatization became a key green neoliberal project for the World Bank.” These projects have been generated through transnational policy networks, large development loans for privatization of water utilities, and conditionalities upon borrowing states. For those who harbor a neo-Marxist interpretation of this programmatic trend, the Bank’s agenda is neither neutral nor benign, but is highly influenced by powerful capitalist interests (Grusky 2002; Shrybman 2002; Bayliss and Hall 2003). The World Water Council, for example, maintains close connections with the World Business Council, who in 2002 released a report, “Water for the Poor” with the catch phrase, “No Water, No Sustainable Development!” According to Goldman (2007, 792), the Council’s “main policy prescriptions reflect a political rationality that weaves together the needs of corporations and public institutions with those of the poor.” As discussed earlier, the Bank has also facilitated the tri-annual World Water Forums, and played an important support role (often through funding) in the establishment of the “International Symposium on Water, the Global Panel on Financing Water Infrastructure, the Water Media Network, Water Utility Partnership- Africa, and a variety of other high-level networks which bring together state, private sector, NGO, and corporate officials by region, theme, and agenda…. [and] the Bank has trained more than 9000 professionals from 90 countries between 1994 and 2001” (Goldman 2007, 793). Goldman (2007, 793) argues that these networks are not simply sponsors of policy discussion and innovation, but are “self-referential” and “ideological advocates of water privatization” to the profit of Western corporations. A report by the anti-privatization NGO, Public Citizen, went as far as calling the Bank’s network of water partners a “well-managed public relations endeavor…to achieve the goals of de-regulation, commodification and privatization of water resources” (Grusky, No Date, 6).

Activists and scholars such as Shiva (2002) and Barlow and Clarke (2002) have also galvanized opposition around the Global Agreement on the Trade of Services (GATS) negotiations. GATS is presented as another example of how powerful intergovernmental financial institutions like the World Bank are able to construct consensus on “best practice” for service provision in the Global South. The agreement includes the possibility of reducing barriers for multinational corporations to obtain rights to provide public services such as electricity and water.  Critics claim that such measures aim to increase the market penetration and profits of European and American corporations at the expense of local economies. And while water remains relatively under-privatized at present (compared with telecommunications and transport) the potential for growth and an insatiable demand means water is an increasingly attractive investment. Shiva (2002, 93) argues that, “the World Bank is promoting privatization of water through structural adjustment programs and conditions, [while] the WTO is instituting water privatization via free-trade in services”. The resistance movement, of which Shiva is a leading figure, sees the World Bank as central to the growing privatization of water, whose neoliberal agenda threatens the human rights of the poorest communities across the globe. Barlow and Clarke (2002a), therefore, rally governments to “declare that water belongs to the earth and all species and is a fundamental human right….and [put] an end to World Bank and IMF-enforced water privatizations”.

The Bank as a “terrain”: critical constructivist interpretations of the Bank’s water interventions:
The Neo-marxist and Functionalist explanations represent starkly different interpretations of Bank water policies. One perceives the Bank as source of apolitical expertise that attends to the needs of underdeveloped nations; the other interprets the Bank as an ideologically driven institution that builds powerful networks through which it can pursue the interests of capital. And both ultimately do not see any meaningful engagement of the human right to water by the World Bank. Such depictions, however, are not sensitive to the complex ways in which the Bank’s mission has evolved in tandem with powerful external forces. Constructivsm, according to Barnett and Finnemore (2004, 3), perceives international organizations not purely as agents of powerful states or capitalist interests, but as autonomous institutions “with the ability to change the world around them”, and also the capacity to be changed by both internal and external forces. Critical constructivism treats IOs as dynamic institutions, but places more weight on how the relationship between “power” and the “subaltern” effects organizational change and the production of knowledge. This framework is particularly suited to an analysis of the World Bank’s involvement in poor countries’ water infrastructure.

Rajagopal (2000; 2003) offers an eloquent critique of dominant historiographies of change within the World Bank that reflects a critical constructivist approach.  He argues the Bank is neither a “simply benevolent vehicle for development, nor ineluctably exploitative mechanism of global capitalism; but rather a terrain on which multiple ideological and other forces intersect, thus producing the expansion” and evolution of its mandate (2000, 543). However, Rajagopal does not look upon this expansion as benign. Rather, he perceives it as a process of pacifying resistance, co-opting opposition, and maintaining power in such a way that key goals, approaches and ideologies underlying Bank policies can remain intact. Rajagopal’s approach to explaining how the Bank responds to external forces, most importantly resistance from its Third World subjects, is illuminating for understanding the Bank’s position on the human right to water.

At the second World Water Forum in 2000, the World Bank identified “two controversies standing in the way of global progress towards a sustainable water future: the polemical debate surrounding large dams and a linked set of increasingly contentious issues related to property rights, privatization, water exports, water pricing, and foreign investment and ownership in the water sector” (Conca 2006, 215). How has the Bank responded to these controversies? The World Bank acknowledges that an independent right to water has been developing in recent years. However, an analysis of scholarly literature and recent World Bank reports on this issue reveals how the Bank engages the language of rights, while sidestepping key grievances expressed by those who oppose its water privatization policies. The Bank’s approach to the right to water exemplifies its ability to “filter” the norms it internalizes, based on whether they are considered “good economics” (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998, 899). Sikkink and Finnemore (1998, 900) argue that, “the inability to quantify many costs and benefits associated with antipoverty and basic human needs norms” like the right to water, cannot be justified by the Bank “on the basis of ‘good economics’”. For Goldman (2007, 791), the Bank’s investments into international water-focused think tanks, such as the World Water Council, is a means of maintaining control over the production of knowledge, and ensuring consensus around its neoliberal agenda of privatization. Through filtering, negotiating and interpreting the terms of a human right to water, the Bank has “deradicalized” (Rajagopal 2000) its opposition and enabled an expansion of its mandate in water governance - without re-evaluating its fundamental agenda of privatization in the Global South.

Previous studies examine how and why the Bank began introducing internal review procedures and social safe-guard policies in the nineties (Oestreich 2007; Park 2010). While not directly addressing the issue of the human right to water per se, some of the most significant review policies were established to deal with the fall out of disastrous water-related projects. For example the Buky Report assessed the devastating effects of the World Bank’s Narmada Dam project on displaced villagers in India (Bakker 2010). The international condemnation of World Bank funded damn projects around the world forced the Bank to more rigorously consider the environmental and social risks of its policies. Allouche and Finger (2001, 45) demonstrate that the Bank’s policy framework of increased “sustainability” and “participation” in water projects that emerged in the nineties was, to a certain extent, informed by lessons of these past failures. This, the authors argue, is what gave birth to the now hegemonic concept of “integrated water resource management” (IWRM).  The strategy reframes the processes of marketization, “stressing partnerships and risk management” (Conca 2006, 254). In 2003, the Bank released a revised water strategy emphasizing that the financing of water infrastructure “increasingly…requires public private partnerships, both in investment and operation” (Conca 2006, 254). It also stated that while private sector investment must expand, it should not crowd out, “community-managed infrastructure and beneficiary participation in design and management of water systems” (cited in Conca 2006, 230). This retreat from an aggressive and explicit policy of private ownership is “a direct response to mounting anti-privatization activism” (Conca 2006, 233).

A functionalist approach would interpret this shift as demonstrative of the Bank’s ability, through its teams of experts, to respond to criticism, reflect on unsuccessful programs, and invest in the measures necessary to address new areas of human need (Oestreich 2007). On the other hand, the neo-Marxist position would maintain that such shifts are purely cosmetic, and that IWRM and public-private partnerships just “disguise the fact that [they]….entail public funds being made available for the privatization of public goods” (Shiva 2002, 89). However, the critical constructivist frame emphasizes the ongoing power structures in which these changes have occurred. The changes are real, not purely cosmetic – but are also not meaningful to the extent that the opposition would seek, because such changes are a means of pacifying or “deradicalizing” resistance (Rajagopal 2003).

This approach is apparent in the Bank’s 2006 publication, “Calming Global Waters: Managing a Finite Resource in a Growing World,” in which the authors address the rise of a “human right to water” via the UN ICESCR General Comment 15. The report recognizes that such a right “has the potential both to strengthen efforts to deliver water services to the poor and to increase transparency in this process” by holding governments responsible for progressively ensuring their citizens have access to clean water (Sadoff et al. 2006, 16). This is, however, distinguished from what the authors deem as the pragmatic and more urgent problem of making “sound political decisions, reforms and investments” into the water sector – the technical decision making advice that is the Bank’s repertoire. The publication states that:

“Debate has arisen because many have read the U.N. covenant as a call for free water for all, and thus to argue against measures seeking cost recovery for
water services. The text of the covenant, however, merely adds access to water to an existing list of “rights emanating from, and indispensable for, the realization of the right to an adequate standard of living”—a list that already included “adequate food, clothing and housing.” It therefore no more implies
free provision of water than it implies free provision of any of those other necessities.” (Sadoff et al. 2006, 16)

This divorces the Bank’s policies and its technical concern with water provision, from what it sees as the aspirational quality of the human rights discourse. This document also confirms that the UN statement itself does not enter into discussion about the nature of water provision, which is the mandate of the Bank as the source of pragmatic solutions to the world’s water crisis. A recent statement on the Bank’s website, “The Promise and Peril of Water” also demonstrates how the Bank responds to debates over the right to water:

The question of water cost is a hot political topic. “There is definitely a lot more awareness that water has a price and a value, and that customers have to pay for what they use,” says van den Berg. Nevertheless, there remains widespread global resistance to counting the costs of so-called “externalities” into the water price…The World Bank has adopted a pragmatic approach toward issues such as water pricing and the involvement of the private sector in water management programs. In 2008, nine low or middle-income countries implemented at least 65 water projects with private participation, involving investments of more than $3.1 billion”

Opposition is depicted as political, while the Bank’s approach is “pragmatic”, and the ongoing integration of private sector management is the most pragmatic way in which to solve the world’s water crisis. Thus the Bank recognizes that there are contentious debates over water pricing – though not over the moral and social consequences of privatization. Generally the Bank frames the water challenge as one of environmental and economic urgency, while continuing to reflect its broader mission of “reforming the state” - transferring control of public infrastructure and service provision from the state to the private sector (Allouche and Finger 2001, 44). The introduction of “participatory” water management schemes, and “public-private partnerships” demonstrate the Bank’s attempts to assuage opposition and create a less aggressive policy of privatization. This process of making “change around the edges” is what Rajagopal (2003) identifies as “mediating” the opposition.

Bakker (2010) argues, therefore, that the growing recognition of a human right to water by the UN and WHO, while “celebrated by advocates”, has had little effect on the trajectory of the institutions which are their target – the World Bank, IMF and multinational corporations. While the Bank’s ability to mediate opposition is one explanation for this trend, the other is the fundamental weakness of the human rights framework as a tool for protecting communities’ rights over water as a common pool resource. Advocates believe that recognition of water as a human right would make governments legally accountable for inadequate water provision, it would facilitate tangible targets for governments to meet, and many also believe it limits the responsibility of water governance to the state in such a way as to reduce private involvement (Bakker 2010, 147). However, Bakker (2010, 150) shows that a human right to water is entirely compatible with privatization. The human rights regime, while putting the responsibility on the state to ensure access, does not go so far as to delineate a preferred “political-economic model of provision” (Bakker 2010, 150). Bakker outlines how NGOs with close ties to multinational corporations and financial institutions – such as the World Water Council – were quick to adopt a supportive line on the human right to water following the 2003 Kyoto World Water Forum. The World Bank followed suit with their 2004 publication recognizing an, “incipient right to water” in international law.  Private companies also released a joint statement at the 2006 World Water Forum in Mexico, which Bakker (2010, 151) describes as a “diluted interpretation of the human right to water….in which private companies had an officially sanctioned role.”

The anti-water privatization movement is still incipient, and has not yet gained the publicity or success of the global anti-dam movement. However, “calls have been made to emulate the global stakeholder model of the World Commission on Dams to grapple with water marketization controversies” (Conca 2006, 219). Conca (2006, 219) argues that, “the emergence of the human right to water frame has been an important development within the anti-privatizations movement…[and] has created possibilities for a broader global water coalition linking anti-dam and anti-privatization activists.” But unlike popular opposition to the large dam projects supported by the World Bank, the anti-privatization movement is unable to target specific, tangible projects that have widespread and almost immediate negative impacts on people (Bakker 2010, 143). As a consequence, the campaign has thus far been less effective in prompting anything beyond ‘change around the edges’ in regards Bank policy.

The emergence of a right to water is a product of “contentious politics, economic globalization, and transnational mobilization” (Conca 2006, 219). It grew out of an increasing awareness of water scarcity, the construction of an international “consensus” over a policy of privatization in the Global South, and the growth of a transnational social movement that resists corporate control over water resources. In all of these processes, the World Bank has loomed large.

While the United Nations has formally instituted an independent human right to water, this norm is being mobilized and interpreted in different ways by different groups and institutions, and is yet to reach a point of “internalization” within the international sphere. The global anti-privatization movement sees water as a fundamental human right that should be ensured, administered and protected by the governments that people elect. The campaign that “water is a right, not a privilege” is aimed at intergovernmental financial institutions, primarily the World Bank. Yet the World Bank has, thus far, managed to absorb these pressures by acknowledging the importance of a human right to water, while defining it as political and aspirational and, therefore, outside the Bank’s technical and pragmatic repertoire.

A functionalist explanation emphasizes the Bank’s ability to respond to an emergent water crisis by harnessing its network of policy experts, whose technical focus falls outside the realm of political debates about a human right to water. But neo-Marxists see the Bank’s water policies as anything but apolitical, rather they are driven by the interests of powerful states and multinational corporations who stand to benefit from increasing privatization of water sources and services. Both these approaches explain certain aspects of Bank behavior in the water sectors of poor countries, but are ultimately dismissive of its ability to engage an emerging human right to water. These paradigms, however, are unable to capture the more nuanced and complex ways in which the Bank’s approach to water has evolved alongside external forces, including an increasingly high profile anti-privatization movement.
Critical constructivism holds a microscope to the interplay of powerful capitalist interests, the World Bank’s construction of knowledge and “best practice”, and influential subaltern voices who have banded together to challenge the Bank’s hegemonic policy of privatization in the Global South. Resistance has not overthrown the Bank’s powerful network of international think tanks that push for private sector involvement in water; however, the anti-privatization movement and its call for a human right to water has achieved ‘change around the edges’ of Bank policy. The retreat from an aggressive policy of privatization toward one that recognizes a role for “partnerships” and “participation” may signal a more meaningful shift in World Bank approaches to public services in poor countries. While it remains to be seen how far this rhetoric will be translated on the ground in communities where Bank programs are being implemented, it is clear that outcomes are being closely watched by a network of human rights activists who now have a legal framework through which to pursue potential violations relating to water access. The case of the right to water demonstrates both the Bank’s ability to mediate new normative frameworks, and the power of civil resistance to pressure for change – even if only within narrow parameters.


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