International organizations largely unchanged by the SDGs: insights from the World Bank

Image of a globe in the shape of a piggy bank

In 2015, the United Nations agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity. A recently published article in Global Studies Quarterly led by Utrecht University’s Melanie van Driel investigated how these goals impact international organizations, focusing on the World Bank. The findings indicate that any impact on communication, policies, institutional structures or country level processes has thus far remained largely absent. “It seems like the World Bank has been able to impact the SDG policy cycle more than it has been impacted by it,” she says.

International organizations like the World Bank form the building blocks of global governance and can directly and indirectly influence most development issues. They therefore play an important role in governing, promoting and supporting the SDGs.

The World Bank as a case of organizational jiu-jitsu

The World Bank’s projects link to various SDGs, ranging from building schools and fighting disease, to providing water and electricity and increasing environmental protection. “Through its financing, it can therefore have a major impact,” says van Driel. In 2020, the World Bank’s total commitments amounted to USD 77.1 billion; it had 12,300 full-time staff and operated in 145 countries.

“We looked specifically at the World Bank’s engagement with SDG 10, the goal of reducing inequalities within and between countries, explains van Driel. “This goal is novel compared to previous sets of global goals, and the World Bank has been criticized in the past for not sufficiently focusing on inequality reduction.”

As the World Bank was able to integrate its own ambition of 'Shared Prosperity' into the SDG on inequality, other actors are working on a framework greatly impacted by the organization

The researchers found that the World Bank itself was able to engage with the SDG negotiation and review process without being significantly influenced by the goals themselves, something they dub ‘organizational jiu-jitsu.’

“The World Bank was able to influence SDG 10’s definition of inequality, which a number of civil society organizations felt did not get to the core of the problem,” says van Driel. “Since then, the organization has focused on those parts of SDG 10 that align with its own definition of inequality, thereby avoiding making more fundamental changes to its organizational structure or how it engages with clients. As the World Bank was able to integrate its own ambition of 'Shared Prosperity' into the SDG on inequality, other actors are working on a framework greatly impacted by the organization.”

Questions about transformative potential of SDGs

The researchers note that ‘organizational jiu-jitsu’ likely arises as international organizations try to preempt the need to adjust to novel external developments in a context of an existing mandate and obligations to their Member States. Although this tendency itself is understandable from the point of view of the international organization, ‘’it does lead to questions about the transformative potential of the Sustainable Development Goals in practice,’’ concludes van Driel.


van Driel, M., Biermann, F., Vijge, M. J., & Kim, R. E. (2023). How the World Bank Engages with the Sustainable Development Goal on Reducing Inequalities: A Case of Organizational Jiu-JitsuGlobal Studies Quarterly3(3), ksad035.