Human rights and development: has the connection sunk in?

EFE/Farooq Khan

For many donors and some NGOs, the limited implementation of RBA can be attributed to the extraordinary success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

A change in NGO advocacy emerged at the turn of this century, one with the potential to unleash greater collaboration, more powerful advocacy, and deeper impact. Development organizations began to apply international human rights standards to their advocacy and programming, as human rights groups expanded their work on economic and social rights. Further, the Rights-Based Approach to Development (RBA) shifted the historic focus of development groups from achieving charitable aid goals, to demanding governments fulfill international obligations to human rights.

How significant and how durable are human rights and development agencies’ moves toward applying the force of human rights advocacy to economic and social development issues? We argued in 2003 there was reason to hope that a growing interaction between the human rights and development sectors could transform both fields and advance struggles against extreme poverty and inequality. Fifteen years later, how has this human rights-development nexus progressed? The answer is mixed—disappointing in some respects, but with real advancements too.

We carried out extensive research and, in a recent article, draw a number of conclusions. First, there is no clear agreement on what “rights-based” means. In our view, it includes both a set of political objectives (promoting justice, equality and freedom), and grounding programming on standards and principles such as non-discrimination and the duty to protect and respect economic and social human rights. Planned initiatives should be tested against these principles and standards. Further, RBA should take seriously the human rights duties on states, and promote this through advocacy and cooperative programing involving NGOs. This understanding of a human rights-based approach implies that “rights talk” alone is insufficient. Yet, it is still too common.

"RBA should take seriously the human rights duties on states, and promote this through advocacy and cooperative programing involving NGOs".

Second, the real impact of RBA among development agencies is difficult to pin down, and closest to being systematic among only a handful of NGOs. The NGO Care has documented detailed, practical measures staff can take to follow a rights-based approach. It continues to work to translate human rights principles into development programming, as in the agency’s work on women’s reproductive health and rights in Peru. Many national affiliates of Save the Children have deepened their grounding in human rights standards and principles, as is evident in the agency’s updating of documents on defending child rights to include field-based experience and guidance. The US-based NGOs Plan International and American Jewish World Service (AJWS) have embraced somewhat contrasting variants of the rights-based approach.  

For most of the large influential development donors, however, there is limited evidence of rights-based analytical or program work. Even rhetorical affirmations of rights-based approaches have faded into the background at DFID, Sida, UNDP, and other major donors who were early RBA champions. The 2003 United Nations’ “Common Understanding” called for rights-based approaches among UN agencies and inspired rights-based rhetoric across the UN system. But the evidence of change in programming is occasional rather than systematic, with some important exceptions in UN agencies working to advance women’s and children’s rights.

Some of the reasons for this disappointing implementation are clear. For many donors and some NGOs, the limited implementation of RBA can be attributed to the extraordinary success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which became the centerpiece for development aid funding from 2000 through 2015. The MDGs’ success at mobilizing donor support was nearly unprecedented, and human rights emphases of major donors were a casualty of that success. But the MDGs effectively ignored the human rights obligations and principles that govern economic and social rights. The MDGs’ numerical targets and indicators also ignored critical human rights priorities such as addressing inequalities and building responsive health systems.

Organizational factors in development agencies also played a role. They are already steeped in the language and practice of participation and consultation, and so emphasized procedural rights. But the failure to tie individuals’ and communities’ substantive rights to specific, tangible goods and services—housing, food, and education, among others—means that some agencies’ RBAs amount to a re-emphasis of community participation principles that have prevailed in development circles for 20 years or more.

What about the human rights NGOs? Their work on poverty and development has grown phenomenally since the 1990s. Expanded interest, innovation and organizational change are apparent among large international human rights NGOs, the growing number of smaller, economic and social rights specialist NGOs, and local human rights advocacy organizations. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both entered the arena not by launching initiatives tied to ESC human rights themselves, but by first using their core methodologies to assert and protect the civil and political rights of activists doing health rights, environmental and labor activism. Amnesty eventually moved into more aggressive and direct advocacy on specific economic and social rights. Yet, much of the most significant and innovative work that could also potentially shape development practice has been done by international NGOs specializing on ESC rights advocacy, and by national NGOs, movements and campaigns.

Human rights advocacy has led to the recognition of important new rights that can shape development practice, including the human right to water and the right to “free, prior and informed consent.” In the process, human rights-driven work has introduced new tools and sources of leverage, including applying human rights obligations beyond borders, campaigns to eradicate corruption such as Publish What You Pay, and vastly expanded advocacy around women’s economic rights including land ownership and inheritance. Indices have been developed to monitor ESC rights progress and government efforts. These will be important in the coming years, as human rights advocates engage in the process of monitoring progress on the Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs). These create more opportunities to advance human rights than the preceding MDGs, and the SDG goals can be readily linked to states’ human rights obligations.

The “new rights” trends we identified in the early 2000’s have not all realized their potential. We cautioned then that RBA might become another fad within development practice. We fear it has, altering some NGO methods but not producing a systemic shift. However, the move into economic and social rights by human rights organizations has transformed the sector’s practice permanently and opened up new areas of advocacy. Finally, new rights that emerge out of the work at the intersection of development, human rights, and environmental advocacy in response to changing conditions will continue to evolve in the decades to come.