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September 5, 2014

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September 5, 2014

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

September 5, 2014
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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?


  1. Dear Duncan,
    Here’s what I think it’s strengths are:
    1. It keeps focus on the most marginalized people and thus forces us to constantly think how work can reach those who otherwise would lose out on its benefits
    2. It puts emphasis on actors: it provides clarity on who has to deliver what in the “social contract” (though admittedly lines can get blurry)and pushes you to analyse what holds them back from fulfilling their responsibilities. That’s for me the hear of any context analysis; after all, it’s people who exercise power and make politics, not faceless institutions.
    3. It provides a clear and accepted basis for discussion and a leverage point for debates on improvements. There is no “would be nice to have” in rights. There are legally protected entitlements.

  2. Thanks Duncan, useful and suitably challenging reflections on ‘a human rights approach to development’ – albeit you identify three variants, so is it perhaps ‘approaches’?

    From a systems perspective, I’m not sure that the emphasis is so much on steering ‘by having a final destination in mind’ – which given systemic complexity is likely to be visionary, virtual or mutable – as on recognizing that solutions based on cause and effect or linear analyses are delusional. This is not to dismiss the power dimension, but invites further consideration of if and how the various actors – rights holders and duty bearers – might re-examine and reframe contentious and conflicted issues. Such processes, as Stephanie indicates, not only promote the active engagement of marginalised folk, but are also open to the application of human rights considerations, legal or aspirational (i.e. human rights and systems approaches need not be mutually exclusive) – hopefully giving rise to more of those life-changing ‘lightbulb moments’ in people’s lives.

  3. Duncan, thanks for the post and for a more critical discussion on the human rights based approach (HRBA). Too often HRBA in my view is treated as gospel without a deeper examination of some its implicit assumptions.

    The most problematic of which for me is the assumption that duty bearers (by and large state institutions) have the capacity, resources and political space to ensure that rights holders’ rights are realised. All too often we know these basic building blocks are absent across the civil, political, social and economic rights spectrum, and to have a narrative that duty bearers should be held to account for something that is patently impossible given contextual constraints, can be counterproductive. (e.g. demands for transitional justice in the immediate aftermath of conflict, right to fair trial where the judiciary is known to lack capacity and independence, I could go on…)

    As a standard setting exercise and advocacy strategy HRBA has powerful value, however as an operational tool, I fear it is used as a blunt instrument, fails to take account of the constraints many governments face and sets an unrealistically high bar that many duty bearers are unable to reach (even if the political will is there).

    The common retort is that the focus should be on progressive realisation of rights, however the HRBA narrative rarely contains such nuance. I am a strong advocate for HRBA but we need to be smarter and more critical in how we use it.

  4. Thank you Duncan for this good wrap up of how many development practitioners probably feel about human rights-based approaches. I think the HRBA concept and its concrete impact on development practice has not nearly gotten the attention it deserves on your blog, perhaps since it has been ‘out of vogue’ for a while now in the UK’s development community, given DFID’s lacklustre interest in it.

    A few points:

    – The risk of ‘revindicalismo’ you highlight often originates from the misleading notion that states have an obligation to provide adequate housing, health care, education, etc. to all their citizen’s under the human rights framework. States do have the obligation to invest in the ‘progressive realization’ of such economic and social rights, and ensure non-discrimination and non-retrogression in the process.

    – Current thinking about how to engage governance and institutional change (Booth, Andrews, etc.) has brought pertinent issues such as complexity, problem-driven adaptation and iteration, local problem-solving, etc. to the table, and rightly so. From these perspectives a HRBA can be seen as an outdated form of donor-driven ‘force-fitting’, which should be replaced by more complex understandings of local contexts and ‘working with the grain’. However, this would misrepresent how, more recently, certain donors have sought to operationalize a HRBA, which – much to the dismay of lawyers and legal experts – is often not strongly based on a legal analysis or processes of legal reform and judicialization. Instead, certain ‘HRBA donors’ have set out a number of generic working principles (‘do no harm’, non-discrimination, participation/empowerment, transparency and accountability) to be taken into account for every project/programme. How substantively these principles are than invested in is highly variable, and will often depend on how international and local implementing actors see them (as mere checkboxes or as crucial pillars of engagement), and how high donor pressure for concrete deliverables is.

    – Obviously, allot of ‘rhetorical repacking’ occurs, and this has probably already caused much of the initial proponents to dismiss the HRBA concept as another fad. Dysfunctional examples of an applied HRBA (eg. a ministry of health which sets up a ‘human rights focal point’ which no meaningful competence whatsoever) add up to the disillusion about the practical value of the concept.

    – Arguably, a pragmatic and adaptable understanding of a HRBA as a set of working principles undermines the strengths of the human rights framework you mentioned (it is precise and binding). At the same time this makes a HRBA ‘workable’ for practitioners who often have to navigate contexts in which the ratification of this or that human rights treaty has very little to do with real-life economic, social and political processes. As such, I think there is still much potential to be discovered from an ‘adaptable HRBA’ which clearly focuses on rights and obligations in certain countries, or substantially invests in core human rights principles in other settings.

  5. Thanks for a really interesting post, especially as there is a parallel discussion in the conservation sector as the value or not of rights based approaches. One issue we have found that is useful, however, is the clarification of who has duties and obligations. This has been a fuzzy area in conservation where “unjust” conservation remains a contemporary problem with some agencies claiming that it is up to states to uphold human rights and not necessarily the concern of implementing agencies. The Ruggie Principles have taken the debate a step forward arguing that businesses also have human rights duties as a result of their social licence to operate. It can be argued that the Ruggie Principles could be similarly applied to other non-state actors. IIED and Natural Justice have recently produced a discussion paper setting out who has human rights obligations in a conservation context – further info is available here:

  6. Thanks Duncan,
    As a communicator and fundraiser who has spent the last 20 years working in and for INGOs, I’d pick up on Ross’s last point – that whatever the merits of the rights-based approach in terms of determining policy and programme interventions, it is the realisation of rights that is the end goal. The way RBA has become a cornerstone to internal development jargon has really hindered clear and concise communication of that to a wider public audience who don’t live and breathe development as us insiders do. I was once told by a project worker in Malawi when I asked what the benefit to the community had been, “they now know their rights”. An important step in terms of people’s agency, of course, but not a big selling point without any tangible improvement to people’s lives to show for it. Closer to home, the common insistence of rights-based language in public communications probably hinders more than helps.

    BTW, some of that Latin American “revindicalismo” was experienced in South Africa post-election, where the politics of challenging the duty-bearer over rights had been so strong. I remember regional colleagues (I was Oxfam SA programme at the time) commenting on the relative passivity of SA communities that would demand and wait rather than get on with doing something themselves. Different expectations, no doubt.

  7. While I’m quite committed to the RBA (as I call it) I also recognize that access to justice can be an issue: once people understand their rights, there is a huge demand for legal assistance to hold duty bearers accountable in courts that are sometimes rather dysfunctional, for example. We are not always in a position to meet that legal assistance need, or if we can, the process of seeking justice in a weak institution is frustrating. But apart from that, I have had many people describe to me the moments in their lives when they begin to understand their basic rights as domestic violence survivors, indigenous people, farmers defending their land, citizens/youth, etc. These are powerful moments that always make me think we are doing the right thing with the RBA, even if it can get messy at times. Once people see themselves as individuals with rights, no one can ever take that away from them.

  8. Thanks for this post. I think one of the biggest issues with the HRBA approach is its very name. It somehow tends to move the focus away from being people-centred when human rights by their very nature are just that: they’re about human beings. We should forget about the terminology and focus on the advantages of putting human rights at the centre of poverty eradication, One of the principles of human rights is their universality and for this to be achieved, the rights of the very poorest are prioritised. It is also allows us to look at the whole picture becuase human rights are indivisible and inter-dependent. So if we’re putting human rights as our benchmark, we look equally at how people in poverty can get a birth certificate and ID card, the kind of housing, education and health service they receive, the work available to them as well as the possibilities they have to participate in discussions and decisions concerning their development.

    The former Specal Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda, and a number of NGOs, worked successfully with the Human Rights Council for the adoption of Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. A booklet which outlines them can be downloadad:

  9. Nice post, Duncan and useful to review and reflect on RBA from time to time. As with others, I’m deeply committed to it and feel affirmed in that often – both through personal experience and by observing how unmoored are other actors who do NOT having that anchor. As with others, I think there are communications and fundraising challenges with it. The USA has such a rich history of conflict around, and eventual expansion of rights, and yet, I find so many Americans – even very progressive – openly scornful of expanding rights beyond what’s in the Bill of Rights – scoffing at economic and social rights. In all our health care debates over the last decade, you almost never heard an argument based on rights. Sometimes advocates will say, “everyone deserves…” which is pretty tepid.

    That said, I think RBA has problems and faults. You identified one in finding a good nexus with systems theory and complexity. That’s something I’ve been thinking about and am writing a short paper on (food system/food security/right-to-food).

    The other major gap is in the area of public goods and technology. I think Oxfam’s embrace of RBA has actually been a weakness for us in seeing the value in global public goods (think vaccines, climate, public health). I think RBA is also very static and zero-sum, discounting or totally ignoring the powers of technology to unleash value and human capacity. I think a lot of technology is hype and indifferent to or reinforcing status quo power. But some technology can be very powerful in the cause of “freedom” – and some might be inherently so. I think mobile telephony and might be in that category. And RBA can affirm that when it happens, but does little to effectuate it.

    Anyway, happy Friday.

  10. Thanks for the post. I think the RBA is great and have embraced it every since I came to know it in the late nineties. However it has the risk to lead to a high level of individualism and as others have said rights claiming without taking responsabilities. The RBA implicity might lead to a more individualistic (capitalistic??) world. So lets also embrace an obligations apporach:

    Obligation no 1: the obligation to take care of all natural resources and all life
    Obligation 2: the obligation to contintue to learn and take care of ones health and that of others.
    Obligation 3; the obligation to avoid conflict and take care of those affected by crises
    Obligation 4: the obligation to listen and to speak against any human rights abuses
    Obligation 6: the obligation to find the common denominator amongst all people at all times.

    This might help the RBA to be more all encompassing

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