What are the strengths and weaknesses of a human rights approach to development?

September 5, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Confession time, with a dash of heresy. I have mixed feelings (and a fair amount of confusion) about the whole ‘rights based approach’ to development. First, it has a lot going Human Rightsfor it. The human rights framework is:

precise: it sets out clearly who has obligations and duties and who has not, and what those obligations and duties are.

practical: it provides states with a formal language they can use to negotiate and co-operate with one another.

binding: when governments ratify human rights agreements, they accept a formal duty to implement the commitments they have thereby made.

The work of the Olivier de Schutter, the UN’s outgoing special rapporteur on the right to food, demonstrates what can be achieved.

On a more human level, I have many times seen how understanding that they have rights can be a life-changing ‘lightbulb moment’ in people’s lives. I used to airbrush out all the comments to the effect that ‘it was the gender/farmer/child rights workshop that changed my life’ because somehow it felt too convenient and cheesy, but when a campaigner in Bolivia took me aside and said ‘it was ILO Convention 169 that changed my life – when I read it, the indigenous part of me woke up’, I got over my scepticism.

health-is-a-human-rightA rights-based approach also encourages personal agency – poor people are citizens, at the core of progressive change, not ‘beneficiaries’ waiting helplessly for whitey to ride to the rescue.

But its multiple uses – from courtroom haggling to spiritual awakenings in Bolivian shanty towns, are both a strength and a weakness. According to Oxfam’s Joss Saunders, to whom I defer on all things legal (and most other things as well), the word is used in at least three ways: legal rights, moral rights or claims and as a language of debate, in which new and old rights are contested and sometimes accepted.

The trouble is that campaigners often fail to distinguish which meaning they are using, and everything acquires the halo of a legal right. Superficially, that sounds like a good thing, but there are at least two downsides: legalizing rights means handing a lot of the work (and power) over to lawyers – the language rapidly becomes legalistic and remote, the struggles arcane and unengaging, and if you legalize incorrectly, you are setting yourself up to lose cases.

The other downside is that, done badly, a rights approach leads to what the Latin Americans call ‘revindicalismo’ – citizens issuing an endless list of ‘demands’ to ‘duty bearers’, usually governments. That can lead to a deeply polarized, oppositionalist approach, which doesn’t always produce results – sometimes it’s more effective to get state, citizens and other non-state actors in a room to work together to solve society’s problems. I’m not sure rights language helps in that effort, at least when it is crudely applied.

Then a recent conversation with some University of Toronto students raised a further issue: the link between rights and systems thinking. If you see the world as made up of complex systems, does a rights based approach help or hinder your work?

My gut feeling is that a rights-based approach can help (but I’m not sure it always does). In a complex system, you steer by having a final destination in

So which of these are legally binding then?

So which of these are legally binding then?

mind, but navigating through rules of thumb, rather than long lists of best practice guidelines. My favourite example is the US marines, who reportedly enter combat with three such rules – stay in contact, take the high ground and keep moving. A rights framework can serve a similar function for activists and aid workers, acting as a compass to help them steer through the messiness of reality – what are the rights involved in this situation? Whose rights are being violated? Will the intervention strengthen their exercise? I would add the distribution/redistribution of power as an equally useful rule of thumb in most cases.

Over to you – what are the strengths and weaknesses of a rights based approach?

September 5, 2014
Duncan Green