Interview: Mr. Zeijlon of the World Bank on Human Rights and Development

“Do we do enough? Difficult to say. I think we are doing the right thing.” Anders Zeijlon of the World Bank discusses the complex relationship between human rights and development from the perspectives of individuals, states, and international organisations.


Image courtesy of Victorgrigas, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Victorgrigas, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Mr. Zeijlon has both studied and taught economics at Uppsala University. He was then sponsored by the Swedish government to work for the United Nations, mainly in Kenya and Tanzania. After this, he then joined the World Bank as a project economist. For the past four years, he has managed the internal World Bank program on human rights and development. His experiences and insights form the basis of the following discussion on human rights and development.

When thinking about development, explains Mr. Zeijlon, one needs to bear three points in mind. First, development takes place locally and in a particular context. What may work in one place may not work in another. Nevertheless, traditional measurements, such as the gross domestic product (GDP) of a country, may render a good picture of the stage of development of a particular country and serve as a basis on which to compare countries in terms of development. As a result, economists can classify different countries into poor, middle-income, and rich countries. One should not overlook, however, that as of recently the majority of lower income individuals do not live in poor, but rather wealthy countries. This calls into question the traditional three-way division and raises the question of where wealthy countries ought to best place their development funds.

This version of development cannot exist independently from the concept of human rights. This line of argument increased in prominence during the mid-1990s, as the World Bank became more heavily involved in governance and anti-corruption issues. Previously, dating back to the 1940s, the United Nations formed the main custodian of human rights, while the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were focused solely on economics. In fact, the Articles of Agreement of the World Bank explicitly forbid the bank from taking into account political considerations when making economic decisions. Nevertheless, it has become recognised that development is not merely a factor of average income. Meaningful participation in development, accountability, and the absence of discrimination are equally important. There exists, therefore, a strong link between human rights and development.

Human rights, according to Mr. Zeijlon, should be understood within the context of the UN Conventions and Declarations on human rights. As an extension, their practical application may require a broadening of the discussion and a more context-specific understanding of the concept. What this ultimately depends on is the relationship of power between the state and its citizens. It is important that the rights of individual citizens are realised by the state. Human rights are rights and not privileges that the state can give and take away arbitrarily. This notion is also reflected in the process of development.

In other words, the main link between human rights and development is the level of control that individuals have over their own lives and their ability to realise their potential and their aspirations. Here, it is important to grasp that poverty is not the only determinant: human rights factor equally into the ability of the wealthy and the poor to control their lives. They are an essential pre-requisite in one’s access to health, education and their ability to speak freely.

While the link between human rights and development has repeatedly been substantiated, Mr. Zeijlon still experiences opposition to his program. These mainly come in the form of political tensions between different countries over the role of the World Bank in the promotion of human rights. Whereas many wealthy countries, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, for example, have legislative mandates to enforce human rights in their development operations, many borrowing countries want to retain the United Nations as the main custodian of human rights.

In essence, these countries call into question the relationship between development and human rights. They also argue that including human rights in the mandate of the World Bank would diffuse its focus on finance and economics and make it less effective in its operations. Many also simply oppose the lengthy legal debates and processes that the implementation of human rights standards entails.

Mr. Zeijlon has this to say to his critics: the World Bank is not planning to become an enforcement and regulation agency. In the current context, the World Bank regards it as desirable for its staff to be human rights conversant. The normative and ethical dimensions of what the World Bank does are gaining ever greater prominence. “Questions about human rights,” says Mr. Zeijlon, “will not go away.”

 Subsequently, Mr. Zeijlon also offers a number of useful insights to St. Andrews students, who are considering a career with the World Bank. Firstly, the application process is very competitive and secondly, long-term contracts are very difficult to secure. The World Bank Summer Intern Program is available to undergraduate and graduate students alike, yet graduate students are preferred. The Junior Professional Officer Program sponsored by individual states, and the Junior Professional Associate Program sponsored by the World Bank, each last for two years and require an undergraduate degree.

“Go there with an open mind,” he recommends, “Yet equip yourself with a strong specialisation in a particular field. Pursue work experience, graduate studies or a PhD. Write articles about your field or apply it in practice. Most importantly, however,” Mr. Zeijlon emphasizes, “Get a good education and carry that with you through your career.”

If you enjoyed this article, you can listen to the un-edited audio of the full interview below, or in our Media section.

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