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Food for a thought elites will have to abide by

 Human Rights Reader 238

 – If the people will lead, the leaders will follow. (M.  Gandhi)

– Changes in human rights are hardly ever achieved in a simple straightforward way –they bring about interior power struggles and resistance which need to be dealt with people’s counter-power. (F. Holtmeier) It is thus people’s counter-power that has to create demand for change.   

– In human rights work, participation is not about pointing our fingers, but about raising our hands to be counted. (S. Koenig)

I have gathered many statements about participation and empowerment (by far not all my own) that I think qualify for the status of ‘iron laws’ in our human rights (HR) work. Here they are:

1. Participation is not just a consultation process; we understand it as an empowerment process. (Reminiscent of the principle of magnetic resonance, empowering participation seeks ‘social resonance’).

2. People need outlets to voice their complaints about the injustices and HR violations they are subjected to.*

*: For instance, community-based health committees attached to health facilities should be able to hold doctors and health staff accountable and, if necessary, request they be replaced.  (P. de Vos)

3. In HR work, we must guarantee that the voice of those whose HR are being violated is heeded. But it is not only having voice: It is getting to the position of having influence.

4. The challenge of actually ‘taking part’, is thus ultimately the challenge ‘to be counted’. Ergo, making decisions is what makes people’s participation effective; only then can their informed participation be used to counter- power.

5. Civil society definitely has the capacity of making the arrangements for participation to become empowering. The power gained is to make a measurable difference in public service provision as service providers are to be made accountable at multiple local levels. (G. Kendra)

6. Since laws and policies are mostly instruments for the arbitrary discharge of office holders’ power to make solo decisions (rather than a means to help hold these officials accountable), the prevalent local notions of the HR-fairness-of-laws-and-policies can only be changed by engaging the active participation of local communities. It is them who have to proactively demand laws, policies and regulations be changed, be scrapped or be put in place to make sure they are fair in a HR sense. (In this process, using the pertinent UN Covenants and General Comments should be the basis).**

**: In defusing HR violations , new/amended laws will, most probably, be necessary to define new duties and obligations of institutions and of actors. As HR workers, the problem we face is the current lack of a moral-political framework for solving social justice- and HR-related problems. (H.P. Ruger); the introduction and widespread dissemination of such a framework will have to antecede actual legal work –hence the importance of HR learning.

7. The difference between participation and empowering participation is the latter’s explicit orientation towards social and political change.***

***: We note that, for instance, the World Bank-hijacked concept of empowerment does not consider increasing the capacity of individuals to make their own choices in relation to the actions and outcomes they long for.

8. The HR-based approach (HRBA) actually evolved from the concept of empowerment. It adds to the concept of empowerment the attributes of being entitled to the universal-right-to-seek-accountability through varied mechanisms and of having equal-rights-to-claim, to-demand-and-to-seek-redress. (P. de Vos) 

9. The type of empowering participation the HR framework fosters starts with claim holders understanding how final decisions are made (who? when? using what criteria?)

10. In empowering participation, calls for fairness that do not, early on, name who-is (i.e., the pertinent duty bearers) and what-the-forces-are behind the perpetuation of inequities and HR violations, are not really empowering. (A-E. Birn)

11. Achieving an empowering participation in the HR sense is ultimately going to be a block-by-block, household-by-household seven-days-a-week job.

12. Empowering participation processes are not cost-free; they need sustained funding. Moreover, keep in mind that empowerment processes are not linear; they evolve in quantum leaps.

13. When fostering empowering participation in HR work, we will face both contingent and organizational barriers that will attempt to prevent us from introducing the HR framework as the basis of our work.****

****: In the health professions, the biomedical training students get fosters hierarchical attitudes that act as further barriers to participatory approaches. (L. Morgan)

14. To tackle the organizational barriers, we have to start by identifying what impacts and worries people so as to link and translate those worries to concrete violations as related to the precise wording of UN HR covenants’ clauses.

15. Also early-on in empowering participation, it is necessary to talk about the ‘HR debt’ of governments and about the need for a change of paradigm that introducing the HR framework is all about. (M. Ovalle) 

16. Thereafter, still using the HR framework, the sequence of activities to follow will be: to inform, to educate, to empower, to set an agenda and to mobilize.

17. Genuine people’s empowering participation is that in which the most disadvantaged social classes and groups –those underrepresented in society– are duly represented in leadership; only this ensures the active engagement of marginalized and discriminated groups in gathering and achieving the needed  counter-power. (Caveat: This representation does not automatically decrease the risks of paternalism, patriarchy and bureaucratic overpowering).

18. As regards adapting women’s participation to make it empowering, you will have to read between the lines…since there rarely are more than a couple lines in conventional development plans when it comes to women’s issues. (I. Allende)

19. Participatory-Budget-Analysis, Participatory-Village-level-Social-Auditing and Citizens-Report-Cards are relatively new working tools with immense potential in HR work.

20. Monitoring is also an activity to be made participative; it entails embarking, jointly with beneficiaries, on monitoring the overall direction in which development interventions are being steered, their performance, the processes being applied and, last but not least, the outcomes.

21. Bottom line, empowering participation fosters enough collective strength to influence power relations. Ultimately, the process seeks to challenge the powers-that-be responsible for the status-quo of which HR violations are  part and parcel.

22. Genuine people’s participatory processes also beg for solidarity. Solidarity work is a) to be seen as a further political and HR task that supports the development of a strong democratic citizenry, and b) to be used to support, replicate and multiply citizens organizations and to mobilize them around HR principles so that a wide HR movement can be consolidated.

23. HR work thus capitalizes on the ethical sense of solidarity as it promotes a new image of a fair and just society by opening the doors to a new reflection about the transformative power of the application of the HR framework.  And finally,

24. Since there are a host of new possibilities for political participation and solidarity, internet communications have become an important political factor in HR work –a factor to reckon with and to take advantage-of.

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City   


Partly taken and adapted from D+C 36:2, Feb 2009; D+C, 36:5, May 2009; H. Potts, Participation and the Right to the highest attainable standard of health, HR Centre, University of Essex, 2008; Campania 2007 por el derecho a la salud en Uruguay, diciembre 2008; and L. Weinstein, Ed. Multiversidad, Editorial Universidad Bolivariana, Coleccion Nuevos Paradigmas, Santiago, Chile, Mayo 2009.

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