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Food for a hidden thought


Human Rights Reader 326
-Development solutions of yesterday have literally become our problems of today. (S. Adjei)

-It is often wrongly assumed that improvements in societies’ conditions require constant velocity in straight lines forward, as if we were shooting arrows into the future. (G. Cannon)


1. The human rights-based framework does not simply require that goals and outcomes of development be loosely aligned with those of human rights (HR); much more is necessary.


2. Using the HR-based framework in development work brings up the hitherto hidden and perhaps disconcerting or ignored dimensions of power and oppression. It does away with the harmful divide between what is private and what public, what is personal and what is political. In so doing, it makes the primary goal of development to enhance the enjoyment of HR, of wellbeing and above all of dignity. (The Broker, Issue 25, June 2011)


3. A non-HR centered application of development tools and approaches for sure eclipses the vital issues of context and power relationships; it risks leading to 15 more years of a mechanistic application of top-down, packaged technical solutions delivered in kits.* This, at the expense of actually considering and acting on the power relations imbalance between claim holders and duty bearers. (The Broker, ibid.)

*: The development industry’s ignorant hypotheses conversely tell us that the problem is not that the leaders in poor countries do not know what to do. Rather, it is that that they are unable or unwilling to follow outsiders’ good advice. (How pathetically paternalistic and neocolonial an attitude this is…).


4. We therefore have to be ‘en-garde’ to unmask the new crop of opportunistic self-appointed ‘HR experts’ in the development industry. In reality, in the name of HR, they come armed with all kinds of planning tools that just mainstream the use of checklists, scales and tape measures. Ultimately, these ‘experts’ largely and slavishly end up complying with their own logframes so as to satisfy the needs of aid agencies who want to be seen to really mean HR business –and thus to stay in business. (D. Eade and The Broker, ibid.)


5. By far, the most common buried and untested assumption in development work is that transparent, accessible, ‘evidence-based’ information will (by an act of instant enlightment) generate accountable policies, accountable budgets and accountable state behavior.* For the latter to happen (which it does not), only active work and alliances with organizations that focus on social mobilization at village and city level –and that demand this accountability– will do. In short, what is here meant is that, beyond technical knowledge, in last instance, the application of the HR framework to development will depend on the right leadership and on social action/mobilization. (R. Loewenson)

*: As currently widely applied, development is essentially a bureaucratic response to an issue that requires nothing less than radical changes of a kind that can transform all expressions of power and of inequality. (The Broker, ibid.) [Not being facetious, is the quintessential bureaucrat working in development the officer that converts each solution into a problem? (Albino Gomez)]


The special breed of development economists


6. The division we often see in development economics is between those economists that believe progress in development comes through laissez-faire and those that believe in progress through government action. HR activists would forcefully insist that those in civil society must be added to the equation of development economics for any progress to be made.  In their trade, and to engineer consent, mainstream development economists frequently use (ominous) social marketing techniques (that tell people what to do, but not why). (L. Lhotska)


7. Take, for instance, free trade agreements (FTAs) inconsiderately engineered by these economists: When being pushed into FTAs, countries end up introducing the volatility of international markets into their domestic economy. This volatility does not affect all households the same way: poorer households are clearly the most affected. To shield their most vulnerable people from economic volatility, governments entering into FTAs should –but never do– save and accumulate a precautionary cushion of assets on these households’ behalf.


8. A caveat is due here: Mainstream development successes that shine too much, more often than not, have their dark side. The contradictions that these ‘successes’ are prey-to thwart the possibility of a truly balanced, people-centered development. If unchecked, the dynamics of wealth concentration always ends up having the upper hand over projects of redistribution. As a consequence, the gap keeps widening between the rich and the poor, between regions, between urban areas and the countryside.* (CETIM)

*: I simply do not believe in the possibility of engineering prosperity with good top-down policy advice and support. I consider lost time spent on unimportant disputes to be a key intellectual cause of underdevelopment.


Our challenge is to manage a transition from an exclusive to an inclusive form of development –in a relevant time frame.


-We have been drifting, not navigating. The effort of planning with communities to demand the adoption of the HR framework in development work is much like preparing for a voyage together. (G. Kent)


9. What we way-too-often do not do is to consult with local experts, not just to claim we are inclusive, but because their expertise is often simply superior. (E. Ostrom)


10. As you by now know, in the HR-based approach to development there are explicit linkages to people’s rights, to non-discrimination, to focusing on the most vulnerable groups, to effective participation, to empowerment, to social mobilization and to accountability. Therein lies its difference.


11. Applying the human rights framework effectively requires a high degree of participation, including that of communities, of civil society, of social movements, of minorities, of indigenous peoples, and of women, children, and youth (especially if the country is experiencing a youth bulge in its demographics).


12. People that happen to be poor are typically deprived of their right to participation when there is poor governance –and the presence of corruption is an actual tax on those that are poor.


13. There are essentially invited and claimed spaces for active participation.  Social mobilization in spaces outside existing formal spaces is thus an important alternative meant to start exercising power in the quest for equal participation. Ultimately, claim holders must achieve control over the terms of their participation. So, therefore, there are actually spaces to be grabbed; these arise from popular dissatisfaction prompting the creation of social movements that take over existing spaces to make their voices heard and to effect needed structural changes. It is thus important to learn how to map these spaces, i.e., which are highly regulated and which are not. Sometimes, social movements can grab spaces and have quick success; or it can take many years to do so. Sometimes, it is difficult to keep those spaces open. What is clear is that social movements need to be built-up from the ground to infiltrate higher into the system and actively negotiate from a position of strength. It is very important to note that even marginalized communities want to have political voice, i.e., access to decision-making –and power is always a necessary consideration. Without power one cannot make or influence decisions. Participation thus is, by nature, a contested process, because it is about challenging or reconfiguring power.  Moreover, through applying certain strategies, invited spaces can become grabbed spaces. One could argue that, in the long run, spaces must become institutionalized so that followers have somewhere concrete to go to. (L. London)


14. Points to consider when introducing the HR-based framework in development work:


  • The human rights imperative of applying HR-based approaches means that, as said above, particular attention must be paid to discrimination, equality, equity, and to vulnerable groups (not forgetting children, women, minorities, indigenous people, prisoners and groups affected by war).*

*: As there is no universal checklist of who is most vulnerable in any given context,

the rights-based framework requires such questions to be answered locally.

  • Rights-based approaches give due attention to issues of access (including access to development processes), to institutions, to information and to redress or complaints mechanisms. (Be aware that ‘equity’ now is the buzz word used for measuring issues of access).
  • Effective rights-based approaches give due preference to empowerment strategies for local actors.
  • A human rights-based development not only assess the problems (the Whats?), but also the actual respective human rights being or having to be claimed. But that is not all. It further asks Who?, i.e., who is entitled to the right and is not benefiting from development, and who holds/owes the duty corresponding to the identified unrealized rights.
  • The rights based approach then asks Why?, i.e., the root causes of the identified violations, including social practices, laws, leadership, institutions and lack of information.
  • The rights based framework looks at peace, security and stability, without which there can be no hope of development. Issues of peace and security are thus addressed.
  • Corruption saps energy out of society and only heightens disparities and divisions within society. As such, the rights-based framework emphasizes the accountability of those who are (corrupt and) responsible for ensuring that the vulnerable and marginalized enjoy equal rights.
  • The capacity of administrative boards and tribunals, national human rights commissions and ombudsman offices need urgent addressing so as to ensure universal HR standards are translated-into/included-in the local laws and regulations with effective benchmarks set to measure the progressive realization of HR –thus de-facto enhancing accountability.
  • It is a must to assess and develop claim holders’ understanding of their rights and the main obstacles experienced by the poor and marginalized among them.** HR learning processes are key here.

**: In HR work, poverty is measured not just in figures, but rather looking at the

broader lack of basic capabilities to live in dignity. Poverty is about physical and

economic insecurity, about fear of the future and the constant sense of

vulnerability; it is about lost opportunities and about a sense of powerlessness.

  • Capacity in implementing HR principles and standards is an importantly needed attribute of national institutions. It is indispensable to translate rhetoric and mere lip service into action to thus truly protect, promote, and fulfill human rights, as well as providing remedy for violations. HR learning of a massive scale is needed to build this capacity.
  • In the development agenda to come after 2015, the HR framework is to be considered in its entirety; if its standards and principles are not fully adopted and are ‘cherry-picked’ in an ad-hoc manner, it should be clear that true people’s development will be put off for at least another half a generation.
  • Last but not least, development data must be disaggregated by race, socioeconomic status, religion, ethnicity, language, sex and other categories of human rights concern.  (Riffat Sardar, UNICEF- Kampala)


15. So, if you decide to enter work in development as a HR activist, in the name of self-interested pragmatism, ask yourself all the question posed in this Reader. (N. Birdsall)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City


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  1. 1rajeev bharathan

    Development is often looked at by bureaucrats and politicians as an improvement in infrastructure and not of human capabilities or of getting basic needs for every being in this earth(beyond what Marx dreamt).The mindset has to be changed to look at development as a process which guarantees minimum resources for every being to lead a dignified existence. I am including every living beings and not alone the human beings as if we are the goal of this universe.

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