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What does a ‘rights-based approach’ look like in practice? A new Oxfam guide

December 10, 2012
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banner_hr2012Sometimes it seems like the devil has all the best tunes, while the angels struggle to get their message across. In development, some of the most interesting and important concepts are rendered impenetrable to non-specialists by a morass of jargon.

Take human rights for example. Today is International Human Rights Day, but I for one, find that the dry, legalistic and jargon-filled language of the ‘human rights community’ often seems depressingly, well, inhuman. One example is, alas, Oxfam’s new ‘Learning Companion to the Right to be Heard Framework’, published today to coincide with this year’s International Human Rights Day’s focus on ‘voice’.

But please read it, because under all the jargon-laden sentences about ‘governance components as mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability in delivery of quality essential services’ there is some real and useful substance. Trust me.

What the document is really about is how to render power visible – sprinkling magic dust over a community or a process to reveal their underlying power relations – the alliances and coalitions the keep the haves in the driving seat, and keep the have nots in their place; the hidden and invisible forms of power as well as the more obvious kinds; the discontinuities and moments of opportunity for rapid change (whether good or bad). Only when you can ‘see’ power can you really start thinking about how to help poor people redistribute it in their favour.

RTBH diag

Oxfam’s framework for doing so is summed up in a simple diagram, (above) covering accountability’s supply (strengthening institutions), demand (strengthening people’s organizations) and supporting people’s movements to demand accountability from the state.

The learning companion then spells out just how to go about that, with lots of case studies from on-the-ground accountability work around the world, plus guidance on how to conduct a power analysis and signposts to the best sources of further info (even if – shock – they’re written by other NGOs).

The companion is part of a welcome move to publish more of Oxfam’s internal thinking (stylistic warts and all). We’ve done the same thing with our internal research guidelines, which are proving a minor download hit. If you’re interested in how Oxfam goes about its work , or in making human rights a human reality, take a look.

More background from Oxfam governance guru Jo Rowlands here.

4 comments

  1. It doesn’t help the cause that the HR community so often seems to operate with a split personality, where it’s ok internally to speak of gradual realisation etc. while the official narrative is impeded by absolutism and an antiquated perception of power – restricted to top/down and direct only.

    Sorry about the harsh words but it hasn’t been a week since I sat through most of a day’s seminar, which was supposed to be constructively critical -and sort of was judging by the themes- but nevertheless infested by references to ‘Transitional Countries’, side-stepping of its political nature, and what I consider to be absurd claims about the unambiguous liberating power of formally making information more available or changing constitutional rules.

    I suspect/know the HR pundits know better.

    Ah, that feels better. Sorry about the rant. I realise that the barriers of structure, interests and power apply in a Western context too.

    Do I dare read the guide?

    1. Soren, I think you absolutely have to read the guide (which I think avoids these kinds of error), and then tell us what you think!

  2. Thanks, I will then. Also, I should probably promise to take my rants where they belong in the future – I’ll do my best.

    (My best excuse for the outburst would be that we, here in Denmark, are in the midst of changing all our bilateral aid to fit the rights-based approach, which has caused next to nothing in resemblance of open debate. The one critical scholar that did question some of the assumptions had his concerns waived off as ivory tower chatter. Some organisational changes to an advisory board to the Ministry, drawn from Danish civil society and the business sector, on the other hand, … boy, did that cause a stir. Gutted!
    -And that concludes today’s second rant of questionable general interest.)

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