The debates concerning market-oriented legal reforms and their effects on economic growth have long been subject of interest in global development studies. Much of the literature discusses how these efforts may have significantly changed their approach and theoretical assumptions over time. However, there has been less attention on how international institutions and international law have played specific roles in order to reflect those continuous developments.

In the paper The International Politics of Legal Reforms: Hard Bilateralism, Soft Multilateralism and the World Bank’s “Doing Business” Indicators published in Revista Brasileira de Relações Internacionais (RBPI, vol. 60, 1/2017), the author argues that, while the deliberate promotion of reforms in laws and judicial procedures is not a new phenomenon in development policy, the role of international institutions in this process has varied in both scope and intensity. For this purpose, the paper provides a critical assessment of the legal reform policies that gained momentum since the 1960s, by explaining the origins of the so-called “Law and Development” movement and how it evolved towards the values and attitudes that are now undertaken by most international organizations. It is then argued that the influence and purpose of international institutions have been dynamically shaped by the experiences of success and failures of legal reforms in the countries where they have been implemented.

The paper explores the evolving role of international institutions according to three main phases, each with its own distinct causes and features. First, a stage where they played a very minor role in comparison with initiatives led by the United States, which dominated most of the legal reform projects and were strongly based on bilateral actions and obligations. In the second phase, there is a rise of multilateralism as the leading approach, mostly represented by an activist World Bank and the use of international institutions as a method for achieving both legitimacy and compliance in the process of securing legal reforms. In the third stage, the World Bank will also adjust its role towards a more soft-based approach focused on best practices and guidelines, under the assumption that private investments are the effective driving forces of successful reforms. To illustrate this recent trend, the article then provides a critical analysis of the so-called Doing Business initiative currently carried out by the World Bank and examines how this approach has been influencing reform projects carried out in Asia and Latin America.

In the concluding section, the article provides some remarks over the evolving role of international institutions and its theoretical consequences for an interdisciplinary agenda between law, economic development and international politics. While the ongoing international mechanisms mark an improvement over the attempts to use legal reforms as a method for promoting economic development, there are still some important limitations in this approach. For instance, there is little understanding of the actual factors that explain the success of certain legal reforms in one but not in another region. Furthermore, a ranking method simply based on the number of reforms promoted by each country, such as the Doing Business, seems to have less significance in leading to high-impact changes in the institutional climate of developing countries.

Read the article

Tang, Yi Shin. (2017). The International Politics of Legal Reforms: Hard Bilateralism, Soft Multilateralism and the World Bank’s “Doing Business” Indicators. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 60(1), e016. Epub October 23, 2017.

About the author

Yi Shin Tang – Universidade de São Paulo, Instituto de Relações Internacionais, São Paulo – SP, Brazil (

How to cite this article

Cite this article as: Editoria, "The World Bank and Legal Reforms: Bilateralism and Multilateralism in Promoting Development, by Yi Shin Tang," in Revista Mundorama, 05/11/2017,


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