Using the World Bank Inspection Panel to pressure the government to release social program funds and strengthen human rights

In 1999, the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) worked with a group of beneficiaries of a nutritional social program, the Garden Program, to successfully prevent its elimination. In order to pressure the Argentine government to reinstate the needed money to ensure the survival of the program CELS made a presentation to the World Bank Inspection Panel requesting that the undisbursed tranches of a Structural Adjustment loan be withheld until the problem was solved. Less than a month after we made this presentation the Argentinean Government doubled the budget of the program allotting it an additional 4 million pesos.

Our chosen tactic was a game of political pressure. CELS put pressure on the Inspection Panel in order to put pressure on the Bank Management in Argentina; the Bank Management put pressure on the Minister of Economy and he released the money to the Garden Program.

After unsuccessfully campaigning against the threatened budget cut, the Garden Program’s beneficiaries and staff came to CELS for help. The technical staff of the Garden Program knew that the program, although not funded by the World Bank, was included in a list of social programs that was to be protected during the implementation of a World Bank Structural Adjustment Loan (SAL). The SAL was to be disbursed in three tranches and the third tranche was pending. With this information CELS team began its research requiring information from both the Secretariat of Social Development and the World Bank Office in Argentina.

CELS considered different strategies and took account of the conservative position of Argentinean courts towards economic, social and cultural rights. CELS’ lawyers concluded that the most effective way to guarantee the protection of the right to food of the Garden Program’s beneficiaries would be a presentation in front of the World Bank denouncing a failure by the Argentine Government to honor its commitments under the SAL agreement.

Once CELS decided to present the case to the Inspection Panel instead of filing a suit in domestic courts, it had to change its approach to the issue from a pure legal argument to a more political one. Even though CELS is a human rights organization it did not structure its claim as a typical human rights legal action. It did invoke the right to food and human rights standards but knew that that could not be the most effective argument. CELS chose instead to use to its advantage the Bank’s operational guidelines that the Panel is called to supervise.

The Garden Program had been in place since 1990 and provided fresh seeds and training in gardening and agrofood production systems to families with unmet basic needs. The aim of the Program is to help poor people to have a more balanced diet and improve the household food budget. The program also promotes community participation in food production and encourages small-scale agrofood production systems. The program was launched with the expectation that its coverage would grow over time. Until the last quarter of 1998 the beneficiaries of the program had been increasing during the years as well as its budget.

In 1998 it reached some 2.7 million of the poorest of the poor with an annual budget of $11.2 million. But with the approval of the budget for the 1999 fiscal year, the Secretariat of Social Development received only 4 million pesos, specifically earmarked for the Garden Program, equivalent to 32 percent of the total that was originally budgeted by the secretariat which meant the program would disappear altogether by mid 1999.

In July 1999, Garden Program participants presented a formal claim to the Inspection Panel. Under this claim, the local bank officials were charged with failing to comply with the Bank’s policy directives relating to poverty reduction, project supervision, and public access to information. The claim argued that such negligence was leading to the imminent shutdown of the Garden program that would result in direct material damage to the program participants. CELS asked the World Bank to postpone the pending disbursement until the Argentine government had earmarked sufficient funds to keep the Garden Program operational, as required under the terms of the SAL.

In less than a month, once the Bank Office in Argentina and the Argentine government heard about this presentation, and before the Inspection Panel had initiated any investigation, the program was allotted an additional 4,5 million pesos. On August 27, 1999 the government announced a resolution which allotted an additional 3 million to the Garden Program from funds reallocated from customs auctions. Another $1,5 million was added by the Secretariat for Social Development as part of a reorganization of its funds.

Apart from guaranteeing the continuity of the Garden Program, the outcomes of the tactic open the possibility of using the Inspection Panel as an international mechanism for protecting social rights or programs under certain circumstances and show how effective leveraging the power of money might be as a tactic for ensuring economic and social rights.

CELS recognizes some potential problems with this type of tactic. First, by using the mechanisms the Bank is providing, there is the danger of legitimizing the international financial institutions system, in particular the validity of these kinds of structural adjustment loans and the logic of their conditionality. In this regard there are many human rights activists that –with good reasons– would prefer not to participate in, not to support, any of the initiatives that the financial institutions have taken in order to open the dialogue with Civil Society or to become more accountable. Such activists would query the effectiveness or real intention of the political dialogue encouraged by the World Bank or IMF, suggesting that rather than “facilitate effective participation or contestation,” those procedures would contribute to legitimizing the present model.

In addition, our strategy was potentially a double-edged sword: CELS was asking that the Bank be more strict in monitoring social conditionalities while in general we are very critical about the level of encroachment of the IFI’s (international funding institutions) in the domestic affairs of our countries. In considering the use of this type of tactic it is essential to be familiar with the World Bank as an institution, with its operational guidelines and with the different mechanisms and procedures.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.