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Food for doing something about a thought


Human Rights Reader 345


-The most important qualitative and valuable change a human rights activist can make in her/his life is to stop judging so as to start understanding. (Albino Gomez)

-It is those human rights activists that apply the correct political perspective and thus have true clarity of purpose who will carry the human rights banner furthest. (L. Padura)


  1. We never stop insisting to human rights (HR) activists that they need to be proactive rather than being reactive in their daily struggles; that they need to strengthen more their action than their reaction capacities; that they must embark more on transformative than on ameliorative measures.


  1. The principles of activism that we constantly try to instill in HR activists include: Channeling our passion, controlling distress and anger and living the personal as political; watching our daily practices, questioning how and why we do what we do and exploring new directions; always tracing the causes-of-the-causes and working on the issues that matter; coming up with scenarios for change that cover both the local and the global (micro and macro; immediate and longer term); using a broad repertoire of forms of action as we work with communities so as to ultimately build a movement; and last but not least, communicating effectively (includes deep listening). (PHM, IPOL 2013)


  1. It is further expected that HR activists question and delegitimize the dominant ideology as needed and forcefully combat patriarchy and excessive materialism and consumerism; build stronger alliances for more coherent action; critique unfair policies; address the structural determinants of inequality; hold institutions responsible and accountable; and, most importantly in their work, do not let impatience become a contagious frustration.*

*: The every day skills upon which activism is actually based include: Working in groups and particularly with communities so as to organize them and raise their level of political consciousness through popular education; organizing the different groups rendered vulnerable and mobilizing the same so they effectively demand their rights; mastering elements of simple financial management and of modern information and communications technology, as well as mastering simple participatory research and monitoring and evaluation techniques. (Mind you, we are not looking for superwomen or supermen…)


  1. Furthermore, gaining authority and leadership as a HR activist is of utmost importance. This presupposes keeping vigilant and being able to react to the very early alert signals of adverse change and to thus alter the course of action as needed, as early as possible. (A. Minc) But beware: Leadership operates worst when using a ‘command-and-control’ style which is most appropriate for hierarchical organizations, but not for organizations using the HR framework. Command and control disempowers actors at lower geographic or organizational levels. For the HR activists to focus on what is actually happening on the ground and testing their initial assumptions is crucial if they want to keep an open learning attitude.


A dispassionate assessment


  1. As of now, there really is no strong global convergence of interests in solving our main HR problems. The conflicts therein need to be faced in a direct way with something more than declarations. Commercial interests have excess influence on governments so they support what interests powerful corporations. Money interests talk. HR activists do not have that influence –but do not have conflicts of interest. (G. Kent)


  1. We are aware that different activists will have their own motives, values or interests and will not always share the same views on HR; there are thus barriers to be overcome to arrive at a joint understanding or common vision if and when the various perspectives conflict –a role for HR learning here! We can expect this to take time. Even as this consensus is slowly reached, activists can target intermediate changes and benchmarks-to-achieve on the path to the longer-term realization of HR. Promoting local accountability by civil society thus calls for setting a number of intermediate benchmarks that will keep track of the accountability of duty bearers towards the progressive realization of HR. (R. Hummelbrunner and H. Jones, IDS)


From static to dynamic HR-based planning


-Being defensive takes precious time that is better spent working together on the offensive.

-Theorists are thinkers, activists are craftsmen.


  1. Plans devised by activists and claim holders should be regarded as hypotheses about program effects to be attained in the future –not as blueprints. Setting objectives with goals and specific indicators may be important, but not as important as setting performance and process achievement objectives. Interventions should thus be designed to actively test the hypotheses. How? By applying an‘iterative’ planning model which foresees the revision and adaptation of plans through successive implementation cycles or collective learning loops. One way to resolve this is to formulate clear principles for action (using ‘if, then’ statements) that will guide implementation and will provide a benchmark for a certain performance in the near future. This gives teams latitude on the approach to follow. The actual strategy to be pursued is to be a mixture of pre-defined intentions and new orientations that emerge gradually as new facts or learning are revealed during implementation. HR activists should thus limit themselves to specifying the framework conditions, but should refrain from interfering in micro-management, leaving the details to the lower levels. This stimulates the self-organization capacities of each level and improves ownership of all activities. Responsibility must thus be transferred to those best placed to identify the challenges and opportunities. Precautions are to be taken against mechanistic implementation schemes.


Actually, the concept of Benchmark Planning applies best to HR-based planning carried out together with claim holders and duty bearers


  1. Always focusing on the HR attainments desired in the longer-term future, plans are elaborated only partially up-front and are then developed gradually. The idea is to get there through progressive steps and processes planned a-few-of-them-at-a-time. Intermediary benchmarks are identified that lead to the desired final objective (which is the realization of a given HR). These annual benchmarks then become the focus of attention, because they are closer to the present and thus easier to identify and monitor –preferably by civil society organizations acting as watch-dogs. Different options to reach a certain benchmark are kept open. This approach thus uses a sequence of intermediary steps between the present and the future. It lays out the HR plans as a series of processes to be set in motion and expected to yield annual outcomes lined up from beginning to end in what becomes the progressive realization of the respective right(s).


  1. For such an approach to planning to become a reality, we are aware there needs to be a shift in the mindset of key decision-makers (e.g., in government, in donor agencies, in program directors). Granted. More so, if one has to cope with uncertainty and complexity.** But attempting to project an image of certainty and control through detailed planning is a fallacy –and this has been amply proven and decision-makers have to be confronted with this reality. Less time and resources should be spent on upfront planning (as we now do) and more on sequencing processes so that feedback from learning from the implementation steps taken (or not taken) can be incorporated into the planning process. (Note that deviations from plans should not be seen necessarily as negative. Unforeseen effects, as well as contradictions can provide useful clues about relevant needed changes). Forces pushing agencies’ staff towards risk-aversion need to be neutralized, as ‘failure’ can also be a trigger for learning. Therefore, integrating a limited and well-calculated amount of risk taking in a plan can, in the end, prove more effective.

**: As a HR activist, I am also aware that this way of thinking is not welcome in this era; nevertheless, I continue to make an effort and swim against the current. (adapted from L. Wittgenstein)


  1. A more flexible approach in planning should also be complemented by more flexibility in financial planning and budgeting. Those who are expected to manage for outcomes to materialize must be given the autonomy to do so, including flexibility on activities, resources and outcomes. Without this autonomy, they can only be expected to manage activities or outputs dreamed up in ivory towers in capital cities.


Worrying about a problem is not the same as doing something about it. (A. Gomez)


-For HR activists, a commitment is a promise and a promise is a debt.

-To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. (Lord Tennyson)


  1. Working on legitimate, well-understood problems within our respective disciplines is not enough; it rather is unorthodox work that creates revolutions in thinking and in action. A new way of seeing revolutions does not come piecemeal. Old problems are seen in a new light and other problems are recognized for the first time. We have to question fundamental assumptions; question the foundations of our social sciences. We need to be not innovators, but solvers of puzzles, to follow not-recognized-as-legitimate-lines-of-inquiry, even accepting risks to our careers. Vibrate with the intellectual excitement that comes with the truly new. (T. Kuhn)


  1. Talk about unorthodox work. Shanty towns, for instance, are a complex atlas with many intermingled maps: the map of indigence, of poverty, of unemployment, of drug trafficking of inequality and of insecurity forever. Why? Because those who suffer from these assorted HR violations do not differentiate among all of them –they just act as if they have no future, no hope*** …and this is a problem for our activism. (B. Sarlo)

***: Often, when one asks claim holders how they are, they answer: “Not well, but used to it”. Human rights activism aims at changing this. (I. Pereyra)


  1. Hope has two beautiful daughters –their names are indignation and courage; indignation at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are. (Augustine of Hippo as cited by A. Stefanini) Claim holders do not (and perhaps should not) invest in hopes and desires in situations where they do not convincingly feel they have power. (A. Gomez) Thus the need for empowerment.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

(Other HR Readers can be found in under No. 69)



-Do you know the rules of the game of checkers? The first is that you cannot make two moves at the same time; the second is that you can only move forwards, not backwards; and the third is that when you reach the last row, you can move wherever you want. (Rabbi Najum of Stepinesht)

-The spirit of a righteous man can rise too high and loose contact with his people. (Rabbi David Moshe of Tchotkov)

-A person who has not even an hour every day for himself is not a human being. (Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov)

-He who believes deeply has absolute confidence; he who does not will consequently have a weak confidence. (Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov)

-The HR activist must see and believe what he sees. (adapted from Rabbi Mordejai of Lejovitz; all as cited by Martin Buber)




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Food for a poor political thought


Human Rights Reader 344

What’s truly lacking
is performance in politics.
Why do good men go and hide? (J. Koenig)


Many politicians oversimplify. Sometimes I think this allows us to talk of ‘political poverty’


Too many contemporary politicians do not know –the problem is they do not know that they do not know.


1. There is a serious danger in transforming politics into a way of acting out a leader’s private ambition.* Many of them just wear ‘a tie of democratic appearance’. Why? Because, in their politics, certain pragmatisms are nothing but different forms of cynicism. Their promises of a better future are too often manipulated at the expense of people being made to accept a worse present. (Albino Gomez)

*: There was a day when the heaven was full of big and small stars and all of them lived in perfect harmony. These days, so many do not want to be a small light and bend in front of a bigger light so that everyone wants to have a heaven for himself. (Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov as cited by Martin Buber)


2. Too many populist politicians use public funds at their discretion. They have no patience with the subtleties of democracy, the economy or the finances. The national Treasury is their private patrimony which they utilize either to enrich themselves or to embark in projects they considers important or glorious, or both –regardless of costs. The ignorance or lack of understanding of populist leaders as regards the economy has resulted in massive disasters of which their countries take decades to recover from. (E. Krauze) So, who lives at the expense of poor people and violates human rights (HR)? Centuries ago it was monarchies; today, it is a good number of populist regimes.


3. When cornered, politicians generally react quickly and give knee-jerk responses. This, many do by expressing doubts about or twisting the meaning of the question they are posed, i.e., in the sense that they give to the question; they thus ‘know’ what they have to respond.** (Is this why many politicians, have you noticed, lose their apparent brilliance when they speak in public unprepared?) Instead, intellectuals, when interviewed, first reflect as if they had not captured the sense of the question or as if they had doubts about their own interpretation of the same. (J. Kirkpatrick).

**: According to Albert Camus, no artist tolerates reality …and this is true for many politicians as well.


4. As regards political decision-making, my firm belief is that scientific evidence is probably necessary, but certainly not sufficient, to move politicians to act. My conviction further is that they move to action when they are scared. (F. Kummerow) So often (too often) decisions taken fall in the category of ‘politics light’ –meaning that they never explicitly address or attack the shortfalls of the neoliberal ideology. I note that these decisions may mention HR, but they too fall in the category of ‘human rights light’ –meaning that the most they can say is: “We mentioned it! What more do you want?!”   (T. Greiner)


5. In relation to the abused excuse of remedial-and-restitution-actions-for-HR-violations-not-being-taken due to a ‘lack of political will’: J.P. Sartre reminded us that decision makers must… make decisions. They can, of course, refuse to make decisions acting as-if-they-were-made-for-them by others. But even in those cases, they are making a decision, i.e., ‘choosing not to choose’. Sartre thought that decision makers thus are what they ultimately make themselves to be; nothing foreign decides what they, in last instance, decide; each of them carries the entire responsibility for her/his decisions; there are no ‘accidents’. Choices not made can be due to inertia, to cowardice in facing the public, or because they give preference to certain other ideological values! Any way we look at it, it is a matter of choice. “If I do not choose, consider me a simple accomplice with no excuse”. The consequences of decision makers’ decisions arise in a situation that they and only they create. They end up with the situation they deserve; they stamp it with their own seal, without remorse or regrets, without excuse. They may remain passive in a hostile situation tearing themselves away from a given responsibility. But they are responsible nonetheless for the very choice of fleeing responsibilities making themselves passive. Refusing to act on issues is still a conscious choice. It is an opportunity neglected. Decision makers are thus not able not to choose on HR related issues. So much for J.P. Sartre. Bottom line: Political will does not fall from the sky –it needs to be proactively built (S. Gillespie), or as I prefer: demanded.


Have you noticed, as I have, that ‘political’ is often a code-word used by some colleagues for ‘ideology with which they disagree’?


Yes, ideological warfare is a kind of guerilla warfare –not involving generals.


6. Most of our colleagues claim to be non-political. But, knowingly or not, they espouse an ideology. The same is true for ‘the public opinion’. I am most probably right if I say that HR are not part of their ideology. Therefore, neither colleagues nor the public opinion are the vehicle for an ideological renovation towards HR. It is not at all clear where the public opinion wants to go, what dreams it has and what it is willing to tolerate. Measuring its ‘heartbeat’ is not indicative of its aspirations, its internal conflicts or its internal dynamics. Surveys and statistics tell us little about these parameters. With its tendency to reduce everything to a minimum common denominator, our societies through its public opinion push towards weak thoughts, soothing ideas and status-quo. By practicing this special type of collective narcissism with which the public opinion resonates (some have called it the ideology of the extreme center), contemporary societies do not allow deviations, originality, creativity and out-of-the-box-thinking. The public opinion swallows all social trauma, blatant HR violations and tensions of all types with incredible ease. It does not forcefully reject anything, being permissive. Bottom line, the public opinion rarely embarks in a true political opposition mode or ‘sticks its neck out’ for HR. (A. Minc)


In the work a good number of us do, it is not (only) about discussing the substantial technical issues, but also the substantive political issues.


Einstein was right when he said that the day technology surpasses our humanity, the world will only have a generation of idiots.


7. All the above said, political issues are indeed substantive. Some of us have taken this to heart and have entered the politics of HR with fiery ideals and often end up as firemen in the-big-forest-fire-of-HR –25% (?) contained. (A. Gomez) Our challenge remains to go from a crusading stage-one by a few concerned citizens to a true popular stage-two movement. (A. Fazal)


8. I talked about intellectuals. As regards them, many of us feel disappointed they have disappeared from the frontline public political debate on HR. This, not because their lack of desire to expiate their past errors or their newly acquired lack of interest about things political in HR, but maybe because workable societal political remedies have ceased to be ‘thinkable’ and achievable for them. (A. Minc) We certainly have to move them out of this apathy.***

***: As regards radicals, in all honesty, we have had splinter groups, among them not only religious fundamentalists, ‘the fascists of the revolution’, and those who embark in ‘the intellectualized praxis of stagnant socialism’ (Julio Cortazar), but also well organized grassroots social movements that are diligently and bravely advancing the HR cause.


9. Now for liberals. Liberals assume that there is no fundamental mistake in our societies; there is only an imbalance; so there is a need to rebalance. (Conversely, radicals see the problems as a symptom of grave social disorders in society; injustice and exploitation are seen as key issues that call for social and political action). Liberalism with its gurus, its oracles and its priests does not function as a global philosophy of how societies ought to function; its philosophy could have a future but, as the market ideology, it will clash with realities that definitely resist its basic tenets.

Liberals tend to be fond of PEST medicines, i.e., for political problems –a bit of political medicine; for economic problems –economic medicine; for social problems –social medicine; for technological problems –technical medicine.****

****: As much as liberals, the so-called popular classes can be reactionary, conservative, progressive, or innovative; it all depends on who ‘feeds’ them. (A. Gomez)


10. We falsely assume liberal governments ought to respond to a just cause like HR. But in reality, many pressures bare on them, powerful traditional pressures and pressures by the business community among them. (making a ‘cash register ethics’ prevail over universal HR and social considerations). This may seem harsh to the uninitiated, but harsh realities like this call for harsh actions, not gentle admonitions. As activists, we will thus have to deal with unholy alliances between greedy businessmen and corrupt and inefficient bureaucrats, with a docile press and with the disenchantment of previous participatory forms of government that have not worked. (A. Fazal)


11. Bottom line, HR must still be politicized in direct response to the respective actual local issues. It is understanding the political incentives of our strategic allies and the motives of our strategic opponents that will result in better strategies for achieving improvements in the HR situation. Linking HR to development also gains greater traction with national partners and is likely to lessen the sensitivity around certain topics. (M. Brathwaite)

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-Harry Truman once said: My two vocations in life were to either become a pianist in a whorehouse or a politician. To tell you the truth, there is not a great difference between both.

-Although not always true, George Orwell was of the opinion that political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

-The politics of peace is seeded in Human Rights. Where are the sowers? (J. Koenig)

Not so Marginal:

Most world news today either disgust us, anger us and/or bring about a sense of anguish and despair in us. But only rarely do they elicit our personal commitment. We act as passive receptors of the revelations of a reality others are responsible for with us having no say whatsoever. We then face our daily life with the serenity of knowing ‘we are well informed’. We exchange opinions about the day’s happenings either sharing our happiness or our indignation (mostly, these days). But, after a certain time, we abandon the issue –basically out of frustration and/or boredom. (Journalistic accounts are a deplorable literary waste, because they are mostly written to be forgotten, Jorge Luis Borges used to say). We soak up new information quickly, we forget fast and we make room to absorb a new scandal or atrocity that injects in us some more adrenalin and informs us about a new transitory current event. For long now, news seem to be but variations of a same theme: the same actors, the same infamies, the same predictable words and declamations –just never ending new casualties. Things happen in this world that have long stopped to catch our longer term attention, because they do not affect us. Is it just because they have to do ‘with the human condition’? or is it with the political and HR villainies that are still ubiquitous? (S. Zimmermann) Silence’s not golden. It’s an endorsement of sorts. All voices must be heard. (J. Koenig) Plenty food for thought here with Gaza, Ukraine and Irak in the media.




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Food for a make or break thought (3)


Human Rights Reader 343

[These three Readers are a distillation and adaptation of Vol.56, No.1, 2013 of this important issue of the journal Development entitled ‘The Future of Development’ edited by Tariq Banuri. The issue has contributions from 14 authors listed at the bottom. Some text is taken verbatim].


To make human rights radical once again, today we need to refocus it on the long-term vision of the post 2015 agenda


Even qualified scientists are warning ‘game over’ so it is no time for feeble responses.


29. It has always required a certain amount of courage to defend and fight for human rights (HR) publicly. The key questions are: Are the efforts made by our movement too timid? Is the articulating of our views perceived as ‘radically unrealistic’? Yes, HR are radical as they, among many other, call for disparity reduction, for gender equality and women’s empowerment. …Anything wrong then with being radical? These goals are radical, but they are not marginal or baseless: they are enshrined in numerous global agreements, texts and covenants endorsed by most countries. At least, this is what courageous should be –and what it recently has not really yet been.


30. The fight for HR-for-all includes work on education, freedom of expression, equality, justice, access and opportunities for people everywhere. It means meeting the real non–negotiable needs of both people and planet. Without apology, this is the kind of fresh start needed radicals are demanding.


31. This is not an idle debate over broad philosophical constructs. Rather, without such a radical strategic conception, it is impossible to reach social consensus –or even engage in a meaningful political debate and struggle.


32. Some of us, sometimes feel a powerful temptation to sound apocalyptic alarms to awaken the somnolent. Arousing fear, though, without offering a compelling vision of a better path, awakens only dispiriting anguish and despair. This pessimism is not so much wrong as it is disempowering. Pessimists can make a strong case, but this does not settle the matter [not that optimists (if any remain) can offer compelling refutation]. Do not let pessimism rob us of the motive to make change. A culture of despair, which fosters fatalism and complacency truncates possibilities, becoming a self-fulfilling cause of the decline it foresees.


33. In our historical moment, the world has become a single community of fate; catastrophic premonitions must be defied and negated. Scrutinizing world conditions and trends will indeed find considerable support for defeating such bleak outlooks. Good things are happening.


34. Proponents of neoliberal solutions bent over backward to add social dimensions to their promotional language and flagship initiatives, but these simply do not satisfy the desire that the world seems to be expressing for a broader, more inclusive vision of the future. Reduced to old-fashioned neoliberal economics we will be left waiting for market forces, including ‘visible’, as well as ‘invisible hands’, to produce all the necessary transformations. This approach may work to spread information technologies, but it is unlikely to be adequate for disparity reduction and for ensuring the human rights of all people, everywhere, in an appropriately short time horizon.


35. But beware: the very forces driving global affairs are, at the same time, preparing the basis for transcending them. We have become a single community of fate; we have to be prepared and act.


36. Developing countries (lately rebranded as ‘emerging markets’) –and occasional but disruptive social protest movements– have gotten louder and more forceful in their demands. They are reaching towards the peak of their influence and are discovering that this pinnacle is still far from adequate to the task at hand. Therefore, as said, activists must prepare society for change by systematically and repeatedly articulating a vision based on justice and HR to then work planning and implementing a strategy and action plan that derive directly from that vision.


37. Perhaps most unsettling is the apparent helplessness of the political order to act in the face of these gathering threats. Judging by the decades of inaction, the challenge of our time lies beyond the grasp of our current political order. The fragmented and myopic governance institutions we have inherited from the twentieth century are ill-suited for addressing the systemic and long-term predicament of the twenty-first. The debate among them has never been settled, only sidelined, sometimes for decades at a time.


Bottom line, we still can pivot and turn towards a civilization of human rights


38. Rather than a quixotic vision divorced from the real world,


  • HR ideals have become pragmatic necessities for the survival and the flourishing of the human project.
  • HR have become the keystone to a positive resolution of our perilous moment.


39. The question is: Can a global movement for change emerge and consolidate with sufficient speed and scale? Normally, societies develop gradually within resilient boundaries of law, governance, and values. However, when historical continuity is interrupted, old social structures weaken and cultural strictures loosen. In hinge moments, the scope for human choice and freedom to choose expands. Then the efforts of an active minority can amplify and redirect (the) social (r)evolution. This is the meaning of Margaret Mead’s dictum: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’. Ergo, it is collective action that has punctuated human history for long. We must create greater collective awareness and foster broader-based actions powerful enough to bend the curve of history.


40. The road ahead brings opportunities unexpected. But the history of the future will be written by choices yet to be made and actions yet to be taken. It is all about helping establish the sufficient ‘political punch’ for HR.


  • HR cannot appear as ‘neutralized from their real political intent’.
  • HR do not lend themselves to using too simplistic slogans, simply because HR approaches are consciously political in character. (This justifies our call for a holistic and politicized vision of HR as an explanatory and emancipatory framework).


41. For those already embedded in HR, I hope to re-emphasize, re-kindle, re-inspire or even re-imagine HR. For others, I hope to encourage the recognition of the centrality of HR as an organizing principle in society. But this needs removing the naïf guise of neutrality associated with the HR approach.


  • HR offer a normative, justice-oriented project that assumes hierarchies are socially constructed, ethically indefensible and require dismantling to facilitate people’s empowerment.


42. It is the emancipatory element of this project that makes it HR-based. We cannot shy away from engaging with HR directly.


  • HR are ubiquitous. They are multifaceted and not-always-obvious principles in the prevailing social system.
  • HR shape roles, responsibilities and new social expectations. They operate well beyond the local scale, reaching across household, neighborhood, municipal, regional, national and international levels delimiting opportunities and constraints.


43. Giving centrality to HR thus forces us to examine the issues from their ideological tenets or framing which tells us things about what is valid in a given society and how that becomes embedded in existing power relations.


  • HR focus on deeply rooted, socially constructed differences.
  • HR strive to expose unjust subordination and explain why it happens.
  • HR lie at the heart of social relations, driving human interactions with nature and shaping local, national and global politics and what maintains social hierarchies;
  • HR reflect the relative degrees of power associated with rules and the existing political dynamics.
  • HR explore all power laden realms that produce and reproduce discrimination, difference and inequality.


44. Historically, NGOs can be and have been either witnesses, architects or detractors of HR. Because of that, we see a process of civil society fragmentation. We thus need a vast movement of building global citizenship that expresses a supranational identity to reflect shared concerns and a reprioritization of global values.


45. We will need to foster a great deal of HR learning, to encourage the needed enormous change in mindset, to inspire much greater adherence to ethics. Transformative social and economic change in the direction of idealistic outcomes does not come easily; it emerges from hard work and life-long learning, from courage and commitment over decades.


46. A new set of HR values must ultimately displace individualism, consumerism, and the domination of nature. The redesigning of our economies must serve human rights and spare nature, not bloat profit for the few. Only thus will global citizenship become a strong aspect of human dignity, the foundation for strengthening democratic global governance. Are we ready for the needed Great Transition? It is the degree and quality of the social mobilization we will achieve, and its expression as political will that are the primary constraints to this Great Transition –and not technical or policy know-how as so many want us to believe.


47. What is needed politically is a precious blend of awareness, capacity and courage. This is where we are. We who work for a sustainable HR-respecting world have always known this. We must know it again.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City


List of contributors: T. Banuri, H. Clark, W. Bello, S. Alkire, A. Atkisson, S. Fukuda-Parr, A. Yamin, D. Hastings, S. Marglin, P. Raskin, E. Braunstein, B. Armah, A. Hovorka and J.J. Johnson.


What is the single best thing we can do for our health?

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A chance encounter with a neighbor walking his dog, reminded me to post this short video by Dr. Mike Evans, a physician with an interest in Preventive Health. It discusses the health benefits of walking. This an activity that requires no special equipment, no special gym, no coach, and no particular training (past age 14 months). You can watch the video on his website at this link or watch it on You Tube screen below. (If you do watch it on You Tube please skip any creepy Pharma ads).





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Food for a make or break thought (2)


Human Rights Reader 342
[These three Readers are a distillation and adaptation of Vol.56, No.1, 2013 of this important issue of the journal Development entitled ‘The Future of Development’ edited by Tariq Banuri. The issue has contributions from 14 authors listed at the bottom. Some text is taken verbatim].


The systems and behaviors that have brought us to this point in history –reaching planetary boundaries and societal breaking points– must change


-True citizens activism will have to question consumerist habits and values, as well as go beyond painting a ‘green’ veneer onto a broken economic system.

-The post 2015 development agenda needs not only go beyond ‘finishing the agenda of the MDGs’, but also much beyond.


14. Better sooner than later, what is badly needed is a more comprehensive paradigm or explanatory framework for why development has not been able to take-off coupled with a concrete plan of action, or roadmap for a new global social contract. Here is where the discussions on the post 2015 development agenda come in. The post 2015 ‘reset’ needed must, nothing less than, reassert a more radical role for the non-negotiable rights of people and of the planet.


15. The challenge is to help along an agenda that will support steady progress, not letting the best become the enemy of the good. Unfortunately, as you know, it is money that buys influence and generates cheerleading around 2015 –mostly, so far, undermining true near-future systemic change.


16. Our role then? We must rally claim holders to demand systemic changes fostering a common cause with other agendas and communities to eventually build strong alliances and movements that prepare us for a rough ride in the next 15 years.


17. Note that using the right human rights language is a necessary, but far from sufficient condition. By itself, it cannot strategically take us where we need to go; the world needs and wants far more than this in terms of the actual mobilization of social forces.  For instance, we can no longer allow the economistic definition of sustainable development to stand in the spotlight and monopolize the stage. Instead, needed are the strong outspoken voices of social movements, of principled political leadership and of idealistic citizen activism. It is this that gives the needed social, political and human dimension to our demands for and beyond human rights (HR).


18. In short, push, pull, solidarize, and rally are the action verbs available to us. But here is the problem: Today, our push is insufficient and incoherent, our pull is often blind, solidarity is only nascent, and rallying is still the exception. Yet claim holders can indeed harness all four elements of such a strategy –push, pull, solidarize and actively demand– and can bring these into an active militant opposition so as to create de-facto political space for the have-nots.*

*: This is quite different from them just seeking mainly to maintain channels open for dialogue rather than actively claiming for problems affecting them being solved.


19. Among other, we must:

  • Raise the level of global ambition and of combativeness to eradicate extreme poverty by actively introducing disparity reduction measures.
  • Better connect-with and positively influence what people are already doing on the ground around the world, i.e., reinforcing bottom-up leadership to build issue-based coalitions. In the end, what will motivate governments to act is the knowledge that there is a groundswell for change.
  • Influence the post 2015 choice of indicators for them to reflect both processes and outcomes that reveal whether a we are moving towards a break with the old structures which are preventing comprehensive, HR-based development. Such an effort must rest on a paradigm that has a critical component and a prescriptive component containing the goals or features of an economy that is considered desirable from the point of view of justice, equality, and sustainability. (Note that HR and the rule of law are across-the-board enablers and a precondition).
  • Do much more to make people understand that entrenched poverty itself is not sustainable and that people who suffer from it are people who are multi-dimensionally poor, a fact that calls for working with people to understand why and how they are poor; showing there is a nexus between poverty, HR and sustainability. So we need to push for voices-of-the-poor-type participatory processes.
  • Foster an engagement of people that brings a shift of direction –only as activists can we become the agents of this needed reversal. What is envisioned is a major cultural shift along with (or resulting from) a popular mobilization for fundamental change in the coming years.


20. Bottom line here: Did the MDGs process foster a global intolerance for still high levels of poverty, inequality and marginalization? One can say yes –and that is good. But yet further considerations in this complex narrative should inform the current process of setting the post 2015 development agenda. In particular, the overarching criteria proposed for elaborating goals and targets in these debates has still been simplicity, measurability, concreteness and achievability –and too few of us are saying how this will clearly pose more than some dilemmas.


21. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: The post 2015 debate is not the end for HR advocacy, nor is it the beginning of the end. It may, however, be just the end of the beginning.


A few words on social protection and HR


22. Comprehensive social protection has been one of the hallmarks of developed societies. However, comprehensive social security systems are under attack in many industrialized countries as part of the current global crisis. At the same time, institutionalization of comprehensive social protection has stalled in the so-called middle or upper-middle income countries such as China and South Korea. In general, as a percentage of GDP, levels of social protection are much lower in Asia than in Latin America and Europe. In many developing countries, social protection mechanisms are very limited or rudimentary, though more and more countries are adopting conditional or non-conditional cash transfer programs to address the needs of the 15–20 percent of the population living in extreme poverty. These are all bona-fide HR issues. Social protection mechanisms include unemployment compensation, old age pension, disability payments, universal health care, conditional and non-conditional cash transfers, and a guaranteed basic income. Social protection systems have been seen not only as mechanisms of poverty prevention, but as an investment in a healthy work force and the maintenance of social peace. (But, foremost, social protection is a HR; no other justifications needed!). The ratio of social protection expenditures to GDP would be one of the measures of a country’s standing in the provision of social protection. Another would be the range of social protection services it supports.


23. One proposal advanced by Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, and Magdalena Sepulveda, UN Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, is the establishment of a Global Fund for Social Protection, along the lines of the Global Climate Fund. This fund would allow poorer States to draw on international funding to meet the basic costs of putting social protection in place. As in the case of the Global Climate Fund, governments could be assessed levels of contribution according to their wealth and measured by their progress in meeting these targets.


Talking about sustainability


A way-of-life is different from making-a-living.

-Note that a non-growing economy also pollutes and draws on fixed resources.


24. The current crises (climate, financial, food…) mark the end of the era of unlimited growth and this is having undeniable political implications. The stream of crises we have confronted has been enough to create an importantly greater gap in equality the world over.


25. The problem this planet faces with sustainability is captured in the parable critics tell about lilies growing in a pond that double in area every day. If the pond is going to be full of lilies on the thirtieth day, on which day will the pond be half full? The answer, counter-intuitive for some, is the twenty-ninth day. The message is simple: the economics of climate change calls for bold actions and not inaction.


26. In the recent past, the painfully slow progress on poverty eradication, on HR and on human development was only made possible, because it did not detract from the wellbeing of the rich and powerful. If limits to growth begin to assert themselves, as they are, tough decisions have to be made. This reminds us of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Be not anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself’.


Talking about gender

We can indeed speak of the neoliberal development’s gendered-employment-and-low-wages effects.


27. Even if we take the literature on the positive impacts of economic growth on women’s wellbeing and gender equality at face value, there are still problems with this logic in the context of the neo-liberal macroeconomic policy environment. For one, the intensity of global competition pushes women workers to the lowest rungs of the buyer-driven global commodity chain. In essence, women’s low wages work the same way as an exchange rate devaluation, but without the associated increase in domestic prices.


28. I have yet to encounter a context where gender does not matter and indeed where inequalities, injustices and women’s rights violations do not exist, at least to some extent particularly to the detriment of women.



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Food for a make or break thought (1)


Human Rights Reader 341
[The following three Readers are a distillation and adaptation of Vol.56, No.1, 2013 of this important issue of the journal Development entitled ‘The Future of Development’ edited by Tariq Banuri. The issue has contributions from 14 authors listed at the bottom. Some text is taken verbatim].


-In the post 2015 development agenda preparation, the temptation, to opt for business as usual with a few cosmetic touches must simply be actively resisted.

-Unfortunately, the varied and extensive online consultation process that has been going on in the post 2015 agenda preparation process has lead to a kind of developmental populism, a nod to every idea under the sun.

-To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing. (R. Williams)


Hope in a time of despair (Paul Raskin)


1. The world’s agenda for the future of development is in a state of flux. New challenges call into serious question the very possibility of a sustained human rights (HR) and a sustainable socio-economic development future.* Why? Because the world is still not really actively engaged in redefining the shape of our future development agenda placing human rights at its center.

*: Note that pitching social versus economic development is a false dichotomy. We are talking about a balance between both –as long as we all understand that ‘the social’ is rooted in power and knowledge considerations.


2. To live-up-to and lead this flux in the right direction, what is needed at this time is an unrelenting, focused and widespread collective-criticism-and-push to come from ‘less formal’ fora, i.e., from social movements and organized communities. The biggest obstacle to be overcome in this is the inability to more effectively address the (only seemingly) intractable questions of inequality, of HR violations, of political power, of marginalization and of empowerment. (To many of us, it is remarkable how these seemingly radical ideas have now become the new orthodoxy –at least in lip service). Quite worrisome is the fact that, on these issues, there still is a North-South mistrust that badly needs to be overcome to eventually lead to our joining forces.


3. These days, in the post 2015 development agenda discussions, the questions faced by local communities and poor households are perhaps far more elemental in character than they were before –now pointing more to the very root and structural causes of maldevelopment the previous development agenda never tackled. Ultimately, it will thus be citizens (rather than politicians or policy experts) that must become the alchemists who can convert the many unfulfilled HR of people into a coherent social movement for true change.** (P. Raskin)

**: Put otherwise: The future shape of development remains too big a challenge for policy makers unless citizens take the lead. The capacity to expand sustainability rests not in the hands of diplomats, but in the hands all of us acting as citizens-turned-active-claim-holders.


4. The aims of the neoliberal ideology –the cowboy economics of Kenneth Boulding– must be denounced as harmful wherever they are pursued. We know they are well served by a (mock) democracy with stylized elections on a prescribed schedule. The truth is that little has changed over the years from the Washington Consensus’s macroeconomic policies. Developed countries have continued to privatize success and to socialize their losses.


5. So far, signs are discouraging. We are seeing that the post 2015 debate is centering on a sort of contemporary ‘technology of global governance’ that consists of three pillars, namely indicators, deadlines, and review. After the MDGs experience, we say: Enough of rhetorical ideals, and of the application of the efficiency paradigm! Indicators have wrongly become the technology of governance; and this must be changed. But how?


6. When HR-activists-shunned-from-global-summits meet in side-events and share success stories, many tell of new and innovative policy approaches and show their willingness to collaborate across borders sharing best practices and lessons learned. So here is where we see the post 2015 debate marking a moment of opportunity, a chance for a fresh start.


7. Therefore, activists must yet more decisively prepare society for the un-postponable changes by systematically and repeatedly articulating a vision based on justice, equality and HR and by concomitantly working on planning a strategy and actions that derive directly from such a vision.


Today, tackling the questions of justice, equality and human rights remains the major challenge to concerted global action


These self-same issues have been discussed up and down the policy decision-making chain, but with no real resolution yet in sight.


8. Worldwide, if one can generalize, one would dare say that citizens-as-potential-claim-holders have been and are paralyzed or dormant regardless of whether they wish to oppose, to support or to lead.

On the duty bearers’ side, success has come to mean that critical questions are skillfully avoided (or energies are concentrated in the reiteration of problems rather than the identification and implementation of solutions). This reiteration predictably leads to no more than a ‘visionary rhetoric’ rather than concrete commitments. Often, their decisions are nothing more than the lowest common denominator of stapled-together pastiches of reaffirmations of previous agreements and non-committal acknowledgements of old concerns. The most central of issues are perennially and systematically left to be addressed en-passant.


9. Take, for example, the MDGs; they were a choice of the wrong paradigm (and, worse, not explicitly articulated) and were focused on domestic and technical rather than structural matters. Across the MDGs and the targets they pursued, the key HR concerns of inequality and discrimination were (almost) entirely neglected. So, for 15 years, we have kept marching-on to an almost fated path uninfluenced and unaffected by the cerebrations of successive duty bearers evading or circumventing their HR responsibilities. Many, if not most, developing country governments simply paid the usual rhetorical acknowledgment about the ‘importance’ of the MDGs so that:


  • Visible and overtly political engagement has been and is rather rare. The main forms of engagement have been and are rather plain, technocratic, top-down and routine.
  • The language of change has been and is continually coopted by the mainstream. The development discourse has become and is as disconnected from the development reality as finance is from the real economy, i.e., the rogue, stubborn and pessimistic economic system where, for economists, the community is invisible or, worse, their thinking actually undermines community.
  • Voluntary guidelines set over the years have not held anybody accountable by being overarching rather than specific thus providing a platform for action only by those willing to act.
  • Little is known about the way that global goal setting has influenced shifts in actual policy rather than influenced actions; much less is known of how –if at all– the MDGs have had an effect on furthering a people-centered vision for development as enshrined in the Millennium Declaration where the MDGs were actually extracted from.
  • The MDGs have really distorted priorities by displacing attention from people’s objectives, as well as creating perverse incentives.
  • The setting of the MDGs’ indicators was derived from an exercise of numerical-target-setting making indicators ‘a credible part of a technology of governance’ as measured by these indicators. Result: The MDGs have represented the quintessential use of measurement as a tool of governance to influence behavior.
  • MDG priorities have had a heavy emphasis on ‘basic needs’. This was a simplification that framed development as a process of delivering concrete and measurable outcomes. On top of it, the MDGs set the bar too low, setting minimalist targets. It thus enthusiastically received the financial support for vertical and technocratic strategies that really represented a reversion to 1980’s thinking.***
  • The problem of the MDGs has been that, by framing the concept of development as a set of basic needs outcomes, they missed focusing on the needed process of transformative changes in economic, social and political structures.
  • Once the MDG numerical targets were set, they were perceived to be value neutral. By marginalizing ongoing strategic processes of empowerment, they ended up selectively cherry-picking the broad 1990s development agenda. This has often had unintended consequences, which seem to have undermined or distorted the impact on the intended objectives.
  • The MDGs have had enormous communicative power though. True. But once the goals were defined and the targets set, they began to shape the way that development was understood –with dramatically reductionist consequences.
  • While simplicity helped communicating the urgency of development priorities, simplicity was highly reductionistic. Development priorities are too complex to reduce to a set of goals. The MDGs interpreted its eight goals as hard priorities in the international agenda. It is now painfully clear that goal setting, by itself, is a poor methodology for elaborating an international agenda.

***: If the growing divide between the more immune North and the threatened South is the one which we should focus on, the moral alternative to technological fixes is not inaction, but a transfer of income and wealth, i.e., disparity reduction. Since it is rather thinking at the margins what brings about technological fixes, technological ingenuity is comforting only to true though misguided believers.


10. Bottom line:

  • Social targets are not being met.
  • HR are not being directly addressed.
  • Social resilience, ecological resilience and political resilience are not being addressed.
  • More and more, environmental disruptions and social conflicts are interacting in complex ways.

This all warns us against sleep-walking back into the arms of a new and supposedly improved Washington Consensus.


Development is not so much about fixing deprivation, but more about transformation –structural, institutional and normative


-A simple incorporation of new dimensions is not the answer.

-Export-oriented industrialization no longer works.


11. Many of the MDG patterns have come to the end of their useful life and must be reinvented. Rapidly changing conditions are forcing us to advance these patterns. Simply adding new goals (such as peace, security, and human rights) to the post 2015 agenda is not enough. Neither is it enough to simply ‘add’ human rights, peace and security, however important these challenges are, since more is necessary to point things in the right direction. Why? Because anybody can see we have lived through a strategic development era of obfuscating the structural causes of the manifestations of social injustice. For this reason alone, it is not useful to maintain an MDGs-like structure with stiff, universal targets and deadlines for the next 15-year period.


12. Take, for instance, the economistic interpretations of sustainable development. They have simply resulted in a catastrophic failure to reach the actual goal of sustainability and of the rule of HR. The problem with sustainable development in recent years is that it has not been properly coupled to its actual ultimate goal. It has instead been linked increasingly to a piece of the vision of sustainability considered easier to sell.


13. The question all this begs for is: As activists, have we stopped short of guiding claim holders towards concrete actions and new, more radical commitments? For instance, why has the ‘Occupy Movement’ not managed to get more political traction? Is it because the majority of activists’ responses restrict themselves to individual sectors and/or silos? Or is it because the energies devoted to bringing people together is spent in the hope that perhaps solutions will appear miraculously and spontaneously through the interaction of protesting masses?  Food for a self-criticism thought here.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City


List of contributors: T. Banuri, H. Clark, W. Bello, S. Alkire, A. Atkisson, S. Fukuda-Parr, A. Yamin, D. Hastings, S. Marglin, P. Raskin, E. Braunstein, B. Armah, A. Hovorka and J.J. Johnson.


SocMed Uganda 2015 Course – Applications due June 30th, 2014

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Greetings all,

A reminder that our application deadline is quickly approaching at the end of June.  We welcome applications from all interested health professional students.


Michael Westerhaus


On behalf of SocMed, we are please to invite health professional students to apply for the fifth annual course Beyond the Biologic Basis of Disease: The Social and Economic Causation of Illness, a social medicine immersion experience offered on-site at Lacor Hospital in Gulu, Uganda from January 5th – 30th, 2015.  Beyond the Biologic Basis of Disease merges unique pedagogical approaches including community engagement; classroom-based presentations and discussions; group reflection; theater, film, and other art forms; patient clerking and

SocMed Uganda 2015 Poster

presentations; and bedside teaching.  These approaches create an innovative and interactive learning environment in which students participate as both learners and teachers to advance the entire class’ understanding of the interactions between the biology of disease and the myriad social, cultural, economic, political, and historical factorsthat influence illness presentation and social experience of disease.

The course curriculum places considerable importance on building partnerships and encouraging students to

reflect upon their personal experiences with power, privilege, race, class, and gender as central to effective partnership building in global health.  In the spirit of praxis (a model of education that combines critical reflection with action) these components of the course give students the opportunity to discern their role in global health and social medicine through facilitated, in-depth conversations with core faculty andstudent colleagues.

In our annual Uganda course, thirty health professional students enroll each year, with half of the spaces filled by students from Ugandan medical and nursing schools, and the other half filled by international students from anywhere outside Uganda.  Credit for away-rotations can be arranged.

This course is offered through SocMed, a non-profit organization that advocates for and implements global health curricula founded on the study of social medicine. By engaging students though careful examination of the social and economic contexts of health and immersing them in partnership with a diverse group of students from around the world, we aim to foster innovative leaders who are ready to tackle challenging health problems in communities around the world.

More Information and Application Process

Further information and applications can be found in the Social Medicine Course Prospectus 2015 and on the SocMed website:   Please view short videos describing the course, publications related to the course, and advocacy videos created by previous students during the course by visiting the “Resources” tab on the website.

Applications are due June 30, 2014 and can be downloaded from the website.  If you have questions, contact us at

Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions you have.


Amy Finnegan, Ph.D.

Phyllis Kisa, MB.Ch.B, FCS ECSA

Michael Westerhaus, MD, MA

SocMed Co-Directors


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Food for a heart beating thought


Human Rights Reader 340


1. In truly democratic societies, active participation is the means for people to voice their criticism, to open the gates to class actions, to demand justice and to change negative ingrained traditions.


2. But true democracies are a utopia (which we still nevertheless ultimately pursue). On an every day basis, what we see more of instead is that, feeling voiceless, more and more people now demand to be heard, to have a say. With a renewed sense of self-determination and self-confidence* they want not only token participation, but voice and ultimately influence. (J. Friesen)

*: Being illiterate is not a handicap. The illiterate show us, already from the far, that they have important things in their heads…instead of the alphabet. (Carlos Fuentes)


3. Local knowledge is indeed decisively valid. But it is mostly not yet serving the interests of those being rendered poor and marginalized.**  In a world where there are oppressors and oppressed and where knowledge, as much as any other resource, can be and is being used to either subjugate or liberate, we need to look at how alternative forms of widely shared knowledge can be used as a means for social transformation and for the betterment of people’s lives. Ultimately, knowledge sharing boils down to the issue of power since power can be used to maintain ignorance and the status-quo …or be used as a form of active resistance.  Whether visible, hidden or invisible,   mobilized consciously or unconsciously, power remains the lever of action when implementing strategies aimed at challenging or transforming a social and political system with skewed power relations. (B. Kaim)

**: Children and young people with disabilities, as well as other marginalized groups are among the most authoritative sources of information on what they need and whether their needs are being met.


4. This mobilization implies creating new spaces for participation, ergo opening new arenas for the human rights (HR) struggle where relevant knowledge is to be shared.*** The issue remains that, in itself, this does not automatically change the social inequalities and relations of power needed for the fulfillment of HR.  (Gaventa  and  Cornwall). Why? Because the voiceless can still be co-opted or manipulated. We need to be aware that they are limited by the dominance of the ‘old ways’ of interacting in these spaces including the language used. They often also remain silent given their own internalized sense of powerlessness.**** (B. Kaim)

***: Good participatory meetings are about the three Is: Information (being widely shared), Inspiration (coming from those who endure the problems) and Initiatives (that consider and address the concerns and demands of both claim holders and duty bearers). (A. Fazal)

****: I would ask: What happens after people have spoken up, have made alliances, and have had a taste of countering the dominant forces? Is there a ‘memory of power’ that will keep going or resurface at a later time? (B. Kaim) [History does not really give us much proof of such a memory of power…].


5. To recap then, participation is about creating new social modes of living in community –celebrating equality. It is using the language of HR as a vehicle that leads to opening new pathways. This HR language needs to inform and deliver the message of HR making people evoke local images they can identify-with and that will feed not only their intellect, but their soul, their imagination and their emotions helping them set their eyes on the new path to embark-on. So, let the people come up with their own new language, one that applies to their specific HR problems, to the meaning HR has in their daily lives. Participation in HR has ongoing learning at its core!  It is through its language that HR offer a path to another system, another frame of thinking. (S. Koenig)


6. A caveat is called for here: We have to remember that social participation was also utilized as one of the principal political and ideological mechanisms by both German and Italian fascism that put an emphasis on mass mobilization in large public spaces. (This said, the concept of social mobilization actually originated with the efforts of the proletariat to emancipate itself and to build a socialist state). As used by the Nazis, mass social mobilization moved millions of people using special symbolisms and collective rituals although it was executed vertically and hierarchically with only a handful of individuals making the decisions and often exploiting political opportunism with the objective of ideologically unifying the populace through highly ritualized practices. (E. Menéndez)


Human rights will be strong when ‘they beat in the hearts of the people’


Mind you, human rights are no strangers to history, to a country’s situation, to the vocal or non-vocal demands of the people and to the influence that each generation has exercised over them.


7. Among the key lesson from the last decade is the one that tells us that any new global development agenda must be more than just an accord between rich and poor states, i.e., with little ownership by the very people being relegated to poverty in both. International commitments on their own can support, but will never take the place of, effective national and sub-national processes that are crying for change. A new sustainable development agenda based on justice and HR must be understood as an indispensable contract between people as claim-holders, and public and private actors as correlative duty-bearers, i.e., a pact between people and policy-makers that is directly used to transform aspirational commitments into real improvements in all HR. The new commitments must apply in rich and poor countries alike and must be tailored and adaptable to different national and sub-national circumstances, always being of service-to and owned-by the people rendered poor anywhere and everywhere. (CESR)


8. What, to different degrees, both major world ideologies have trampled-on is precisely HR. We are not back to square one though; we are in square two of our search! The challenge of all this transition towards a HR regime really boils down to developing a worldwide social networking scheme that brings about the discussions we so badly need centering them on the meaning of HR to people’s daily lives: A daunting, but achievable task… Key is to decide what will be the message(s) that will keep the focus on what people will contribute/listen-to, making sure they like what they hear and that the same means something to them and to their lives, i.e., that the message(s) thus become personal. They also have to trust what the message(s) say(s) and trust that the ideas make sense to them. Also key will be that people exposed to the message(s) are motivated to talk about it with others and even try to become HR mentors who call on many other people to do the same, because applying the HR framework is indeed their best option. (S. Koenig)


What we have to be up to


Public policy often goes to great lengths to, very elegantly but ineffectually, address the real needs of the people.


9. Too much ‘social silence’ is accepted without scrutiny and discussion. People often remain silent when they really have no confidence in the capability of authorities to deal with their problems; somehow, the ‘costs’ of complaining are deemed too high. A paternalistic society has taught people not to rock the boat. The control of information and the use of powerful advertising seduce people and pull them into a false sense of comfort. Too many people are asleep; the problem we thus need to combat is apathy; everything possible has to be done to awaken them so that, together, we can progressively master the skills to act, at the same time –being both brave and angry. Victims have to get together, i.e., bring together the blood, sweat and tears of farmers, peasants, blue collar workers and ordinary people. We will also have to bring together the ‘your obedient servants’ who control institutions, i.e., the public servants nationally and internationally. (A. Fazal)


10. There are thus millions of people who do not act as militant citizens –I do not mean as members of a party; I am talking about social militancy meaning citizen that understand that individually they can do little to change and right what does not work in their respective societies. (Albino Gomez)


11. It is only with the duty bearers’ finally understanding that power will now have to be redistributed and exercised that power can be eventually taken away from its current ‘slippery center of gravity’. It is only then that any sustainable political step in the direction of HR can be brought to bear. (We are aware that, as soon as there are negotiations on this, traditional high-end power brokers begin to find loopholes to get the upper hand in such negotiations). The negotiations to be held and the deals to be struck here are clearly political.***** So, where previously international-donor-community-members may have been able to describe themselves as being politically ‘neutral’, i.e., purporting that foreign aid just needs to provide technical inputs, they now must become political actors fully aware that, in so doing, foreign aidwill only do more harm by maintaining or worsening inequality.  (S. Stuart)

*****: We are talking here, for instance, about resolving these issues by adopting participatory budgeting and planning, holding local assemblies or ‘dialogue days’ between local elected officers and communities (with quotas reserved to ensure the representation of women, of traditional authorities and of minorities). The use of social media and new IT technologies can and should encourage such participation, as well as encouraging different kinds of referenda or popular consultations.


12. Resistance is not only a political statement, but also a culture. To resist is not to be against, but to create something new. This means that we should not concentrate on sterile disputes, but rather widen our scope and open up new pathways. In our case this means creating a culture centered around HR. This reflection does not minimize the meaning and the importance of politics, but it potentiates it when applied to acts of resistance. To create new structures to resist together and to protect each other collectively is the most effective way to protect our rights. In such a community-based action path one brings together ethics, communications and economics, all essential factors to resist. (It avoids the trap of falling into a simplistic ‘oppositionism’). Undoubtedly, by forging a new collective reality, what happens is that social resistance, gender and social relations and a collective identity reinforce each other. So, let us get it into our consciences (and let it beat in our hearts) that resisting is creating a culture in which our strategies are in tune with the principles and standards of HR. (C. Calle)


Bottom line


13. If we are to build a nurturing and growing social movement, we must all catalize the emergence of a common conscience of solidarity. Yes, the arena for our HR work has expanded. Yes, the actions have taken on new dimensions. Yes, we have new actors. Yes, they network and participate actively. Yes, this has brought us more solidarity. The thrust has been amazing. The movement has newfound strengths. People’s power must now be driven by a new spirit. HR mentor-activists have to nurture the future ‘HR rebels’. (A. Fazal)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City


[previous Human Rights Readers can be found in under Nr. 69].



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Food for an extreme thought


Human Rights Reader 339


A specter is haunting (not only) Europe: The specter of human rights.


The MDGs never were a global agenda for development; now we need one

-Even The Economist recognized that the MDGs are actually ends without means.

-In many countries, the MDGs are a too distant reality for ordinary people. (UNFPA)


1. It is never too late to recap on the MDGs. The question is: Are we going to learn? In ‘the post 2015 era’, we cannot simply extend and supplement the MDGs. It is not about reformulating, dropping or adding goals, but about a global systemic reform to remove the major constraints to development as we have them now. Development is much more than the sum total of the MDGs…or any collection of specific targets.


2. Only if and as necessary, should progressive-realization-of-human-rights-action-plans aimied at post 2015 structural changes be supplemented by specific goals and targets. Targets by themselves simply reinforce structural inequalities and social exclusion, i.e., they may bring a statistical victory, but a moral failure since the patterns of exclusion are perpetuated. Enduring inequalities can be and have been overlooked by all MDG targets even if deemed to have been met –and some of them have. Paying too much attention to individual MDG indicators has led us to a kind of ‘anxious disaster relief mentality’, namely applied in haste, geared to immediate results and revocable when funds run short. (D+C 37:12, Dec 2010) Actually, as we get closer to 2015, it is now evident that many efforts to achieve the MDG targets are focusing on the ‘low-hanging fruit’, bypassing and even further excluding the poorest and most excluded populations.


3. This time around, the corrections we need to introduce to foster inclusion will simply have to address the causes of the causes.


4. The MDGs actually tried to combine normative statements of what is desirable with a political statement of what is probably feasible. But, in doing so, the MDGs did not change the discourse of development. They crowded out the basic idea that development is about economic transformation. (For instance, disparity reduction rather than poverty reduction would be part of true economic transformation!) The MDGs failed to distinguish between human rights (HR) and social welfare –the latter seen as raising the standards of living ‘in the colonies’ through economic growth and development. (M. Montes) In short, the MDGs have not been an effective tool, but more like a bandage applied to a malignant tumor. (D+C 37:7-8, July/Aug 2010).


Righting the MDGs (M. Langford)


-There is no use to be in the driver’s seat when one is not the owner of the bus.


5. The HR framework sees the achievement of the post 2015  social development goals.* The SDGs are supposed to ‘replace’ the MDGs as a necessary, but not sufficient condition for disparity reduction. Moreover, poverty reduction is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for human development –and human development is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the realization of HR. Therefore, the achievement of the MDGs in parts of the world have rather been a necessary, but far from a sufficient condition for the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights. This has also meant most of the MDGs can be and have been achieved without any (or only a passing-by) reference to HR.*

*: As relates to the basic needs approach and the HR-based approach to development, while the first approach, including the conventional MDGs approach, is at best based on international agreements of keeping-a-promise, the second approach is based on international agreements of meeting-legal-obligations. This is and will continue to be the fundamental difference between the achievement of the MDGs and the realization of HR. (U. Jonsson) The SDGs proposed in the Rio+20 Summit do have a greater HR nexus, but it remains to be seen how this will play out as we get closer to 2015.


6. A lot of intelligent things are being said about the MDGs –some of it rightfully good. The question is whether good words are followed up by appropriate action, even in the year we have left to 2015. The huge MDGs backlog remaining is frustrating, quite surely due to the fact that the link between the sustainability discourse and the MDGs agenda has been missing all along.**  That is where we have to start. Waiting till 2015 is already a travesty. (D+C, Vol.37 No.10, Oct 2010)

**: Think about this: Is there a certain ‘tribalism’ of the professions as regards MDGs thinking? How responsible are the shortcomings we find in medical, health and other professionals’ education of the gaps we now find in the MDGs? Are we keeping our students ignorant about the role of the social determination of development outcomes?


7. Regrets: The 2010 MDG Summit could have been used as a game changer by accepting the value shifting role of HR as a pre-condition to achieve the MDGs. But it was not. A certain shift from quantity to quality and the participation of those rendered poor in the MDG process would have been necessary for that. (M. Darrow) Keep in mind that the HR framework puts much more emphasis on the areas neglected by the MDGs such as equal access to social services, to justice, to the rule of law and to good, democratic governance. (Getting the MDGs right: Towards the founding of an operational framework for the MDG-Human Rights Nexus. Copenhagen , Nov. 2010)


One concern we should not underestimate: We do run the risk of bureaucratizing human rights


8. These days, everybody is calling for participation. Fair enough. But if participation will be called for arriving at some 15-20 post 2015 outcome goals and not on the means to be used to reach development outcomes, we will, as in the MDGs, end up again addressing symptoms and not causes; certainly not the causes of the causes.


9. That is why, in the post 2015 debate, toning down the HR and equality language in an effort to reach consensus will not lead us to the quantum leaps needed, or only to semi-quantum leaps that only go half the way. Not again! Is this what we want? Or is it better to talk straight? ***

***: Remember the fable of the turtle in the race that, in order to get to the end line, it always had to go half the way left it to go; always going for half leads to infinitum and never to the end line.


10. At a minimum, many claim the MDGs have given us a shared language and some sense of priority. Yes, but how relevant is this for the post 2015 debate? From what I see so far in the post 2015 debate, and realistically speaking, as a HR activist I contend we are most probably in for another 15 years of struggling from the barricades of the opposition. (I am not sure if this is an optimist’s or a pessimist/realist’s view: Great things can be achieved from the opposition…).


No longer a re-action capacity only, but an action capacity


11. Among other, a three-pronged approach has been suggested:

  • Civil society must assume a watchdog function and blame and shame when necessary.****  Why? Because holding people and organizations to account requires teeth, especially in young democracies and fragile states with no mutual checks and balances. Whistleblowing and naming-and-shaming may be the only option when dealing with corruption. (R. Bourgoing)
  • United Nations agencies must carry out annual HR rankings of countries and of corporations (like UNICEF did for children’s issues in the past in its ‘Progress of Nations’ short-lived series).
  • The Universal Periodic Review of the HR Council must also review UN agencies and international financial institutions (IFIs).

****: Watchdogs are a man’s best friend: dogs bite. Watchdog civil society organizations are to watch like ‘white knights fighting the dark forces of development aid, corruption and incompetence’.


12. Since it is distributional processes that lead to distributional outcomes, we will simply have to work harder:

  • to create an international environment for sustainable, human rights-based development;
  • to change the unfair rules of the current development game; *****
  • to topple and replace the prevailing development paradigm; and for these three to succeed,
  • to revert the prevailing attitude of being silent on means and focusing on ends.

Nothing new here, is there?

*****: A point in case: we need to go from poverty eradication to disparity reduction, from charity to dignity.


13. Questions remain as to how much hope we can place on the extra-territorial obligations (ETOs) in the HR realm and on badly needed mandatory global financial regulations being enforced. Will these be coming our way after 2015? Certainly not if we do not decisively push for them.


14. What then are the core non-negotiable points for the post 2015 agenda? We have to include the reaffirmation of the primacy of HR and their practical implementation; we need clear lines of HR accountability and firm benchmarks for disparity reduction and for the progressive realization of all HR worldwide. Without the full operational inclusion of these principles, any post 2015 agenda will replicate the shortcomings of the MDGs. Mark these words. Therefore, civil society organizations must be careful not to take part-in and accept processes that do not meet these fundamental standards. The formulation of any new global goals must include clear steps and annual benchmarks for the progressive universal realization of HR in the longer run. This must be accompanied by a commitment to implement effective measures to end the impunity of those who violate HR. Furthermore, a stand-alone post 2015 equality goal is essential with specific year by year benchmarks to be set as part of national progressive realization of HR plans. (Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2013)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



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Food for thought about a state of mind


Human Rights Reader 338
[Variations on a theme by Franz Kafka. Inspired, extracted (plagiarized) and paraphrased from his short stories "Un Medico Rural” and “El Pueblo de los Ratones”, Biblioteca Pagina 12, Alianza Editorial, Buenos Aires, 1970].


A cautionary tale:


1. Before the law, there is a sentinel. A peasant approaches this guard and requests the permission to enter the law. But the guard responds that, for now, he cannot let him in. The man takes a moment to think and asks if later the guard would let him in. “It is possible”, says the watchman, “but not now”. The peasant had not foreseen this difficulty; the law should always be accessible to all, he thinks. The guard gives him a little stool to sit on. There, the peasant waits days, months and years. He tries to bribe the guard who accepts the bribes and says: “I accept your gifts so you do not think you have omitted any attempt and effort for me to let you in”. Time passes until he has only little more time to live. Before dying he asks the guard to come closer. “What do you want now?”, he asks. “Everybody seeks the law but, in all these years I have seen nobody else coming to this gate, how come?”, the peasant asks, to which the guard replies: “Nobody could, because this gate has only been for you, and now I am going to close it”.


2. One cannot say that the guardians of the prevailing paradigm utilize violence as such (with exceptions); they simply take control of things and most people step aside and let them do so. There is some kind of an awful misunderstanding here, and that misunderstanding will become most people’s greatest mistake in life.*

*: Albert Camus was of the opinion that in a world of conflict, of henchmen and of victims, the thinking man must never be on the side of the henchmen.


So, if the peasant is allowed in, then what?


3. For the guardians of the law (of the paradigm) finding any ‘way-out’ to the problems of our-troubled-world-of-conflict is indeed diametrically different from applying the human rights (HR) framework… Their ways-out often deceive claim holders, i.e., few duty bearers honestly promise ways-out in which the gates will be truly opened. (Promises are typically made when social pressure rises, especially in the areas where claim holders had, in vain, sought action for long). Duty bearers are inclined to just slightly modify previous approaches when they promise/propose solutions, applying their limited understanding of what ‘humanly reasoning’ is. They simply stay very far away from seeking a way-out using the HR framework.


4. So, are our efforts to seek a way-out using the HR framework falling into deaf ears? It is not the attitude of reluctant duty bearers that should guide us. Period! We have said that HR learning is the greatest challenge we should tackle vigorously. HR learning is the action to contribute to the awakening of people, making them understand and even muster in them a creative anger that prompts them to act. In Kafka’s words: exorcise in them the merry scream of ignorance.**

**: The motive is not clear, but the fact is undeniable that ordinary people are not prone to unconditional adherences; they prefer innocent small talk. This is indeed a problem (although we should not exaggerate the consequences of this generalization) given the so many miseries people are exposed to. With some needed incitement, they will eventually understand they must join-in.


In times of agitation


5. Every day, life brings us new surprises, fears, hopes and scares that we can hardly take as isolated individuals if we could not, day and night, count on the support of all our comrades. Sometimes, in times of agitation, we face great inconveniences, worries and dangers that force us to follow divergent pathways.  (There are also days when bad news abound including those that are false or only half-true).


6. Despite the best of our wishes, we cannot band together fast enough; this forces us to wait a certain time. The challenge is to wait without abandoning our ultimate aims and objectives. We simply have to network until we reach the needed threshold for action to happen. Why? Because no one individual can achieve what, in this sense, can be achieved by all claim holders acting together. The difference between the power of one individual and that of a united and organized group is nothing less than immense.***

***: Beware: Resistance may or may not imply rebellion.


Claim holders too often think that the State truly protects them


7. Claim holders think that the State saves them from political and/or economic crises or, at least, gives them force and hope (via promises) to withstand these crises. But, more often than not, the State does not really do this; it prefers to remain silent or, at best, ambivalent; it looks upon its people like its flock. In reality, it does not save claim holders nor does it give them any strength. It is easy to adopt the role of a savior of those too used to suffer but who, time and again, have proven that they are not timid and can save themselves –no matter at what cost and sacrifices that have even surprised historians.


8. There are too many things the State does not see or want to see; it is part of its self-appointed sense of superiority –as always surrounded by a hive of yay sayers who are worried about other issues than the miserable existence of so many people.


9. So, threats constantly hover above claim holders; enemies are too many; the aggressions come from all sides (and this brings consequences). These threats may silence and humble them temporarily making them more docile to domination. Nevertheless, the threats are too serious to loose time in just talking and engaging in empty rhetoric. Assemble and raise the political consciousness of claim holders we must!


10. At the time of making grave decisions, claim holders face a hostile environment. Beyond their control, projects are approved and an attempt is made to implement them, but soon all comes back to where it was before.


11. As time passes, and before becoming de-facto claim holders, I see too many people becoming prematurely old in their attitudes. There is a certain tiredness and some desperation that mark them in a visible way. I see too many just futile attempts at resisting. Actions within the ruling paradigm, as Kafka says, are eroding people’s unending capacity of hope.


Looking ahead


12. Coalescing groups of claim holders are beginning to pick up their long held hopes though and, in the brief intervals the everyday struggle allows, are beginning to dream –achievable dreams. The hardships of everyday life fade to the background and they gather new forces (although this can take a while to catch the attention of a surprised group of guilty duty bearers often hidden in secure places and ready to silently escape protected by their bodyguards).


13. With forceful claim holder demands in place, duty bearers can no longer do what they please –as they often did surpassing their jurisdiction– and can no longer act beyond the law to the detriment of the people. Does this envisage a surrender? Not necessarily, but slowly, they begin to reach other conclusions and cannot any longer refute the implication of their actions. They may retreat. But beware: often only to return to the offensive since their power seems to them inextinguishable.


14. The latter is regrettably true. Claim holders have to resign themselves to win long term or die. Important is the fact that they must be capable to oppose injustice implacably –the more so as duty bearers fall back on paternalistically ‘protecting’ them.


15. For claim holders, it all has to come from an ardent desire to bring to an end the submission they have lived under for generations. (Is there a limit to the sacrifices they will have to go through to accelerate the process in which they deliver the final blow to the prevailing unfair social system?).


16. Claim holders are tired of always giving and never receiving, but nevertheless push forward. Their struggles have been growing in the last years; it started by being mainly verbal struggles, but now they already start to use other more efficient means. This only makes duty bearers use even the most despicable methods since they feel that their ‘rights’ are unquestionable. (Therefore, what does it matter to die-hard-duty-bearers how they impose their way? After all, in this world, licit methods are doomed to fail, they reason; any means are thus valid).


17. In the coming chapter of history, claim holders will overcome their losses. History will no longer abandon the forgotten multitudes and will sing the songs of the unsung heroes seeking redemption.


18. But for the latter to happen, nobody can stay indolent and apathetic delving into reading books about development and about HR under the soothing light of a lamp, far from the noise of the every day struggles. You understand more is needed: from you.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City