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Food for a neglected yet needed thought


Human Rights Reader 280


-Good economic times are especially conducive to the illusion that bad times will never return.  (A. Dixit)

-There is a long, long tradition of development professionals offering development recipes that do not work. Not being facetious, in ongoing development work, the main cause of the problems encountered is the solutions so far applied; wouldn’t you agree? Remember: Neither charity nor a romantic sense of ‘social responsibility’ are sustainable.


1. We have a tremendous underutilized accumulated knowledge on the past and ongoing ‘development processes’ that, for the most part, have been human rights-blind. Allow me just a few examples. For instance, we know that:


  • When roughly 80% of the world’s population has no access to social security, a commonly prevailing myth is that economic growth does automatically imply an extension of social protection. It does not!

Economic growth strategies have no regard for distributional and  environmental consequences. Period.

  • The Northern-led (or pushed?) development drive has never distributed resources and wealth evenly, and has taken our finite environment for granted. But it became even more uneven with the advent of capitalism as the latter:
    • extended private property relations,
    • further skewed the distribution of income and the systems of social, economic and political power and authority,
    • gave free reign to the market system with negative consequences for the environment,
    • limited the capacity of the State to restrict markets,
    • reduced regulation, taxation and public expenditures, as well as

unfairly opened-up national economies to international

operators (D. Tarantola), and

  • relentlessly pursued self-interest and profit which gets in the way of serving the poorer groups in society. (M. Yunus)
  • Although achieving real bottom-centered development requires justice and equality, the commitment to human rights (HR) is merely rhetorical on the part of the Bretton Woods institutions and of other external lenders and donors.* (Development in Practice) [On the other hand, we also have to be aware that it is easier to bitch against the demon of the North than to mobilize the interests of the South… (A. Gomez)]

*: Let me ask you: From a HR perspective, does not our failure to proactively denounce:

    • World Bank country policy advice and influence that has led and leads to the destruction of the livelihoods of millions,
    • the non-regulation of destructive operations of transnational corporations, and
    • the signature and implementation of international trade agreements that inhibit/restrict access to food, to health and to needed resources for vulnerable groups

make us, to some extent, accessory to these consequences?

  • Most poor communities have various levels of poverty, even if they all look relatively poor to the uninitiated outsider. People in them are often overwhelmed-by and suffer the consequences of both local and global economic designs. Nevertheless, they still seek ways to engage-with and act-upon the issues that concern them most directly. True, people prefer visible development realizations over invisible operating mechanisms and policies. But they are, without a doubt, motivated to act as protagonists for positive social change. Let us not forget this! (L. Schultz)
  • Somehow, academics and more traditional development practitioners do forget this. They have problems more seriously considering the power relations that ultimately influence outcomes in the development process. Development is just not party to the ‘neutrality principle’ these colleagues purport regulates the same process; rather, there is always a political objective. In that sense, the social sciences/scientists can only open up possibilities for development; social action at the community level is indispensable to eventually accomplish fair and just development objectives. **

**: The intellectual development worker in her/his ivory tower does not interest us for what s/he does, but for what s/he does for us [–for HR]! (S. Carmichael)  Intellectuals ought to commit suicide as a group if they avoid confronting the social reality that is all around them. (Che Guevara)  The qualities of leaders are not irrelevant for the desired results, but they are also not the sole and decisive factor. (Trotsky)


2. But to HR-proof development plans, we also know what we need-to and are-not doing. Allow me just a few examples here too. For instance:

  • We do not distinguish between what is branded ‘complex’ and what, in reality, is not wanted by the (powerful) Establishment. (A. Katz)
  • We do not make sure that development policies address both interests and values –in equal measure!
  • We do not formulate our development challenges as HR issues, thus ensuring development is people-focused.
  • We do not make sure that human development is complemented by a conceptual framework that shares similar underlying motivations, even if these have different emphases, but ultimately add to the respect and fulfillment of HR. (S. Alkire)
  • We do not shift development from service-delivery-as-a-primary-focus to building-the-people’s-capacity-to-actively-claim.
  • We do not make sure that every relevant decision is taken at the lowest possible level (subsidiarity principle).
  • We do not involve local officials in decision making; they do not only have a more objective understanding of matters local, but they are also more used than us to think in local terms.
  • We do not pay more attention to the processes of how outputs, outcomes and impacts are achieved, and
  • We do not, once-and-for-all, make sure a shared vision of the centrality of HR in development work ‘sinks-in’ by implementing much bolder HR learning measures at all levels.


3. Although these lists are just an arbitrary sampler from my end, two special additional issues fall in the realm of ‘need-to-do’, namely:




Bureaucratizing morality  gives us a sense that we are exerting close control….this really is nothing but a superstition. (D. Weinberger)


4. Since the issue of accountability is the key to effective development, getting it right can and will unlock progress that is otherwise stalling. Too often, accountability is seen solely as a set of complex tools for auditing and incrementally improving development in its current configuration within the old paradigm. (A. Litovsky)  But in HR work, accountability is really to settle about-nothing-less than renegotiating the global social contract, i.e., to‘civilize power’! *** (T. Burgis) With HR violations well assessed, we have to mobilize claim holders to demand duty bearers are kept accountable.

***: A caveat here: When accountability is built on myths of precision (becoming rather too picky), the important systemic, structural failures are missed; this has been called  ‘accountabilism’.


Development budgets


In a way, government budgets and their execution are a truer measure of their commitment to the realization of human rights than are its (on paper only) policies and plans.


5. The role of government budgets in causing and potentially resolving an issue is considered crucial in HR work. Budgetary items relating to economic, social and cultural rights should be (and more often are not) prioritized in all government budgets.


6. The UN Convention of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) prohibits the diversion of resources that ought to be devoted to HR covenant-related issues. Also of UN concern, is the non-utilization of budgetary items earmarked for social expenditures since these funds should be fully spent.


7. Governments have the obligation to ensure people participate in defining the problems and the solutions related to access to social services that governments seek to resolve through their budgets. The problem is not the budget figures themselves, but people’s exclusion from the budgeting process and from full access to budget execution information.****

****: Never forget: When fifteen things need to be done, doing three of them is not going to get you 20% of the way there. It is going to get you much less. You will need to get 15, or at least 13 or 12 of them done, before you start to see any big effect; we call this strategic complementarities –and the budget implications of this should be clear.


8. How the budget discriminates can be easily spotted by calculating per capita allocations or, better even, per capita expenditures, for example, for ethnic minority groups; or, by checking whether the government has allocated adequate funding to allow HR regulatory bodies or agencies to operate in an effective way.


9. Let us remember here that States are obliged to ask for international cooperation if domestic resources are insufficient to assure the fulfillment of HR.


Which then are the HR-in-development priority challenges?


10. The response to this question depends on which HR are unfulfilled or being violated and on the causes of the local development failures that have been collectively identified; it also depends on who selects the priority challenges.  But beware, defining development challenges as a lack of something here and something there risks focusing on overly simplistic solutions that prevent further analysis of the structural causes of the problems at hand. When searching for the linkages between levels of causality, the key cascading question to be asked over and over in the causality analysis is: Yes, but Why? After every answer, we have to keep asking this until we get to the bottom-of-the-bottom causes. (D. Werner)


11. If everything in the current approach to development was bad, solutions would be easier. The difficulty is in identifying and countering the bad which has been based on way-too-much ‘professional knowledge’ and endless failures in  application. For instance, we see failures when providing support to groups of population that do not need it so badly while withholding the same support from people who need it more badly; costly errors are generally made when  doing so. Conversely, fostering the HR framework makes development most-vulnerable-people-centered. (A. Mulley)


12. Bottom line, the human rights-based approach rights-proofs development plans by struggling for social justice through all-inclusive, participatory development policies.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City


Adapted from D+C  36:9, Sept. 2009; D+C, 36:12, Dec. 2009; D+C 37:9, Sept. 2010; D+C, 37:10, Oct. 2010; D+C 37:12, Dec. 2010; F+D, 47:2, June 2010, F+D 47:4, Dec. 2010; The Broker, Issue 24, Feb/March 2011, Development in Practice, 19:8, 2009; FAO: Budget work to advance the right to food 2009; and UNFPA  A HRBA to Programming: Practical implementation manual and training materials, 2010.


Postscript: It is rightly said that we are what we do. But we should add that we also are what we do not do, what we say and what we choose not to say. (A. Gomez)



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