Rights-based approaches to development: from rights ‘talk’ to joint action

Brian Atwood, chair of the OECD-DAC and director of US Agency for International Development (USAID), writes that in recent years, rights-based approaches (RBA) to development are overcoming divisions between human rights, democratization, and development. Like other proponents of this approach, Atwood hopes that the RBA will make governments more accountable, reduce discrimination, and help bring local communities and civil society together to claim their rights.

The rights-based approach began in the 1990s among a handful of international NGOs. In 2003, the paradigm took off when the United Nations (UN)mainstreamed the approach throughout its agencies. Today, Atwood reports, some six per cent of the roughly $125 billion USD given each year to poor countries is now focused on human rights promotion. Another report says total private flows to human rights workers amount to about $1.2bn annually. As a result, many aid organizations that once specialized in providing services now do human rights education and advocacy.

In practice, there are many different RBA styles. The international NGO ActionAid, for example, emphasizes civil society empowerment, while Oxfam, another major organization, uses campaign-style approaches. Yet a third group, Plan International, focuses on local community empowerment.

A lot of people are excited about the RBA, as Atwood’s article attests. What, however, do we know about its actual effects? A straightforward question, but answers are hard to come by. As one evaluation of Plan International noted, the group’s different country offices often defined “rights-based” goals, methods, and activities in very different ways. Many international NGOs have responded by establishing specific training programs of best practices, which will contribute to greater consistency over time. But spreading knowledge about the rights-based approach internally is only a part of the solution. The larger issue is that scholars, NGOs, and donors have widely differing views on what outcomes or impacts to measure and “making the case for human rights—to trustees, donors, and fellow staff members—is an ongoing challenge.”

Funding incentives

Although some international NGOs are now trying to train their staff in a consistent rights-based approach, the funding environment is changing in ways not necessarily favorable to a rights-based approach. In the United States (US), for example, charity watchdogs such as Charity Navigator or GiveWell still put major emphasis on overhead and efficiency, neither of which is a good indicator of human rights promotion. Charity Navigator is in the process of rolling out a new methodology that focuses greater attention on transparency and results reporting, but it remains to be seen what effects these new criteria have.   

What we do know is that major NGOs such as Plan International and others face a rapidly changing funding environment already. They are faced with a rapidly ageing individual donor base that reduces income from traditional sources such as child sponsorships. To continue growth, groups turn increasingly to corporate partnerships and government contracts, both not exactly human rights champions. Corporate partnerships and contracts may compromise the public’s perception of independence and can impose donor expectations at the expense of paying attention to what is best for the populations these groups claim to help. 

Does the human rights approach benefit the most disadvantaged?

Despite the broader challenges affecting rights-based approaches, there is evidence that international NGOs are now doing a better job of promoting human rights at the local level and elsewhere. As Atwood notes, international NGOs do devote more money and effort to human rights education and training. In Guatemala, for example, Plan International uses a rights-based approach with indigenous communities, raising awareness about children’s rights and creating mechanisms for children to represent their own interests. One evaluation of these efforts found positive results, including some parental behavioral change and a broader willingness on the part of Plan International staff to help local communities connect with national and international actors.

What remains unclear, though, is if the rights-based approach will actually live up to its promise of doing more than just scratch the surface of deeply rooted problems. Although RBA proponents say they want to work with the most vulnerable and oppressed communities, this is costly and difficult. Indeed, there is very limited evidence, to date, that rights based approaches are empowering the most disadvantaged individual and communities in their own efforts to hold governments accountable. Instead, just like previous development interventions, the rights-based approach is vulnerable to elite manipulation and has yet to deliver of its core promises.

Will more money help?

Sadly, there is little evidence that more international money for local human rights efforts will change the underlying power dynamic between locals and internationals. Foreign donors, rights-based or not, still call the shots because they still control the money, and the bulk of those resources comes from the global North. This continued financial dependence, in turn, limits the effectiveness of Southern civil society. External money, education and training has made a difference, but it comes with significant costs, including compromising the legitimacy of local organizations and making them vulnerable to government crackdowns. The very success of many international NGOs to establish a local presence often undermines its ability to contribute to lasting change.      

Funding not only gives inordinate power to donors, but it also undercuts the collaboration across organizations to effectively advance human rights. A rights-based approach requires working simultaneously across different levels, for example by raising awareness about children’s rights not only at local, but also at governmental levels. What is missing today is coordination between actors using this approach in different communities and at different levels of society. For example, Plan’s efforts in Guatemala boosted local communities’ awareness of rights issues and capacity to organize, but Plan collaborated rarely with local NGOs and avoided challenging the national government directly. What is missing here is a joint strategy of identifying priorities and coordinating efforts at different levels of society, for example by drawing on the expertise of other groups focused on coalition-building or national-level advocacy. This absence of in-country collaboration points again to funding incentives. Each country office is first and foremost integrated into a reporting hierarchy back to headquarters, rather than a part of a common rights-based effort at national or local levels.

International NGOs face many challenges today, in particular with regard to funding. Individual donors are increasingly drawn away from such intermediary organizations to more direct forms of action, such as Kiva or Change.org. To remain relevant, international NGOs need to show more evidence that a rights-based approach works, they need to understand that it is not about spending ever growing amounts of money, and they need to take more seriously working with others in solving the problems they claim to address.