MAKING HUMAN RIGHTS RADICAL AGAIN: THE ROLE OF SCIENCE, PASSION AND COMMITMENT (A. Atkisson, J.J. Johnson) (Part 1 of 3)

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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

cschuftan@phmovement.org

________________________________________

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.

 

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