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This article analyses the World Bank’s environmental and social Safeguards against the backdrop of changing paradigms of global legal order. In January 2017, a new ‘Environmental and Social Framework’ (ESF) entered into force and replaced older ‘Safeguard Policies’ that had incrementally emerged since the 1980s in response to harmful impacts of investment projects financed by the Bank. The Safeguards reform epitomizes the changing structures and geopolitical shifts that shape international law in the twenty-first century and provides a fascinating looking glass on the evolution of global order since the end of the cold war. In this perspective, we see the first generation of Safeguards, introduced since the late 1980s, as an element of incremental legalization in the emerging global governance regime, a regime characterized by unipolar multilateralism and geopolitical dominance of ‘the West’. The 2016 reform not only reflects the increased politicization of global governance by civil society but also the emergence of a more competitive multilateralism, characterized by counter-institutionalization on the part of emerging powers like China. A comparison of the old and new Safeguards thus allows us to analyse different forms of contestation and resulting normative evolution in the key area of global governance of development and finance.