Global Governance and Development Ideology: The United Nations and the World Bank on the Left-Right Spectrum

By Joshi, Devin; O'Dell, Roni Kay | Global Governance, April-June 2013 | Go to article overview

Global Governance and Development Ideology: The United Nations and the World Bank on the Left-Right Spectrum


Joshi, Devin, O'Dell, Roni Kay, Global Governance


This article compares the development ideologies of the United Nations and the World Bank by placing them on the left-right spectrum. It reviews previous ideological assessments of the two organizations and applies qualitative and quantitative content analysis of annual World Development Reports published by the World Bank and Human Development Reports issued by the United Nations Development Programme to examine their development discourse. Analysis of fifty-seven reports from 1978 to 2011 reveals two major findings. First, the World Development Reports have continuously articulated a development discourse to the right of the Human Development Reports. Second, there is clear evidence of convergence in the reports over time toward the political center. KEYWORDS: development, global governance, governance, ideology, left, right, center, United Nations, World Bank.

ALTHOUGH THE WORLD BANK AND UNITED NATIONS WERE INITIALLY DESIGNED to be "apolitical," both exhibit discernible ideological commitments. The UN has increasingly championed democracy, human rights, and human development over the past two decades via numerous channels including its Human Development Reports (HDRs). (1) By contrast, the World Bank has continued to promote the private sector and a growth-centered approach to development as expressed in its World Development Reports (WDRs). (2)

While many observers claim that distinct and differing ideologies guide the World Bank and UN, we aim to: (1) more precisely identify the changing ideological orientations of the World Bank and UN over time; and (2) assess whether they have moved further apart or closer together over the past three decades. In order to do so, we applied the left-right ideological framework widely used in the study of comparative politics. Our goal was to fill an important gap in the study of international relations identified by Alain Noel and Jean-Philippe Therien who demonstrated that international politics like domestic politics can be fruitfully analyzed via the left-right spectrum. (3) Taking up their call to apply the left-right metaphor to the study of international organizations, we compared and contrasted the ideologies expressed in annual HDRs and WDRs issued respectively by the UN and the World Bank, the most influential international organizations disseminating ideas in the field of international development. (4) Though these organizations are large and each includes a variety of departments, their annual reports serve a useful ideological function because, despite internal differences, they often reflect a lowest common denominator of shared views and reflect changing emphases over time.

We begin the article with a review of past ideological assessments of the UN and the World Bank regarding their global governance approaches, development agendas, policy prescriptions, and public discourse. We also highlight why the left-right spectrum serves as a useful analytical tool to assess ideological convergence. We then undertake a qualitative and quantitative content analysis of fifty-seven WDRs and HDRs from 1978 to 2011 as a means to place these organizations on the left-right spectrum. The article concludes with a discussion of major empirical findings and several avenues for future research.

Ideological Assessments of International Organizations

The Left-Right Spectrum

The left-right spectrum is a frequently used device to compare the ideology of political organizations, having become nearly universalized since its origins in the French Revolution. (5) Often applied to domestic politics, the left-right spectrum is readily applicable to global politics and arguably "the left-right metaphor structures the primary cleavage through which, together, we debate the world." (6) Though there is some debate about whether new political cleavages over postindustrial issues trump the old left-right dichotomy in European party alignments, (7) most conclude that overall the traditional left-right classification is still relevant for classifying and comparing political orientations across organizations and movements. …

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Global Governance and Development Ideology: The United Nations and the World Bank on the Left-Right Spectrum
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