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Human Rights and Human Development

Shanta Devarajan's picture

“Shanta, are you against human rights?” a colleague asked when she saw that I was arguing for the negative in a debate on “Is a concern for human rights needed to achieve human development outcomes?” 

Needless to say, my debate partner, Varun Gauri and I are not against human rights (Varun has written extensively on the subject), but we did argue—based on the evidence—that a concern for human rights was neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve health and education outcomes.  

It is not necessary because countries that score very low on human rights indicators (for civil and political rights), such as China and Cuba, score high on various health and education indicators.  

It is not sufficient because countries that have constitutions with well delineated and judicially enforced human rights, such as India and South Africa, have relatively poor human development outcomes. 

We suggested that the reason for the latter is that making health and education human rights often implies that governments should finance and provide health and education services. 

Yet there is plenty of evidence that governments in many countries do badly at delivering these services to poor people—public financing is skewed towards the non-poor; money fails reach schools and clinics;  teachers and doctors are absent about 20-40 percent of the time; when present, the quality of services they provide is extremely poor. 

It is also true that a human rights approach benefits those who are able to mobilize on the basis of rights and to get into the courtroom; often, these may not be the poor.

In short, achieving human development outcomes requires improving accountability in service delivery, which may or may not be driven by a concern for human rights.
According to a show of hands from the (self-selected) audience in the room, Varun and I lost the debate.  We show it here [the video is long but interesting!]

Let's see what readers of this blog post think.

Picture by Ray Witlin, World Bank


Submitted by Anonymous on
Shanta All you're doing is reproducing the orthodoxy that unless it makes profit for private corporations (FIRST), it is not important. You're doing it in that wonderful rhetoric that economists like yourself use and, if anyone thinks honestly and long enough, and happen to disagree with you, you're shocked, as Oakshott so pithily observed. The World Bank will not stop unless the whole of Africa is like Arizona; run by crude right-wing anti-government types under the rubric of "freedom".... You will not stop until you break the spine of all human resistance to privatisation and slashing of funding for education (like the crushing of protests in Wisconsin) and... placing profits before people. The sad thing is that peaceful protest will achieve nothing - given your power. Recently the president of the US (from whence you take your instructions) said he was not concerned about the recession; yeah, because he has a job, health care for his family and a lot of guns. No wonder he is not scared or concerned. Your sermons to Africans is driven my the same callousness, self-righteousness. You will not stop until you have crushed human resistance to the privatisation of everything in life. At the very time that capitalism is being rescued, because it is unsustainable, and when people are taking to the streets in Greece and elsewhere, against that which people like yourself propagate with religious fundamentalist zeal, you continue to spread market fundamentalism in Africa. You do so, (you go to bed with a full stomach every day) backed by the most powerful forces in the world. Human rights cannot be quantified (why, as Krugman will have it, if it can't be explained by formalist logic, it does not matter. and people have no moral right to protest against cheap/child labour because they have not thought long and hard enough) ) or traded (well, you haven't found a way to do it yet), that is why it is not a priority for you and people like you - economists and "political scientists" along the City of London Wall Street Washington Pentagon Axis. Then again, the biggest problem we face is that our leaders have been seduced into the good life. They will not resist you, because they enjoy the privileges of elitism and the life of the late capitalist janissery. I don't even know why we bother - you don't care because there are no mathematical algorithms in this comment, or because I will not use your economics logic. Just incidentally, I have not, just, crawled from underneath a rock. If people disagree with you, they're not stupid or ill-informed...

Submitted by SALIMA KANE, Political Scientist, Team Leader, UN Harare on
To apply Human rights in any given society, it is important to understand the ideologies behind Human Development. But, let's bear in mind that both ideologies have mixed feelings. When human rights are entrusted to us , giving us the most basic rights and the freedom of speech, life, to defend our ideologies no matter our nationality, origins, race, color and or even our sexual orientation.. these so to speak are our human rights because we do not chose our color, our race, our ethnicity. Human development only plays a role in enlarging and giving us more opportunities to reach out and to improve all these rights. Let me return back to my first comment when I said: both Human rights and Human development have mixed feelings, because we see in many LDC or emerging market countries where Human rights are well enforced, there is equality, women are given more opportunities. I will take the example of China where there an economic Development but, no Human rights, but, I know that this will not last for ever. China has to change its Human rights orientation and give more freedom to its people , if they want to compete truly in the Global economy. The further long they develop economically , the more rights the population will demand. I must say as a woman I am disgusted and appalled by the disrespectful treatment of women in China for not giving them the rights to carry their female unborn child. So this will make me conclude that Human rights are indeed necessary for economic development. There is no way a country can continue a stable economic freedom without giving its people a freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of life. Though the feelings are mixed, but, that is the ultimate goals and this goes to all countries for people from all walks of life and economic strata. It is a must no matter how much economic freedom a country might have.

Submitted by CTB on
I think that Shanta's explanation that concern for human rights is neither necessary nor sufficient for human development is very useful. As Shanta says, there are several examples of countries that do well on human development indicators but are represive when it comes to freedom of speech, freedom of association, etc. I think we do a disservice to human right activists when we anchor arguments on wrong premises. Human rights are a key ingredient of human wellbeing. To say that people's human rights are taken care of just because they have free education or access to water is simply wrong. This is precisely the argument on which many brutal dictatorships are built.

Submitted by Sara on
I think the last blogger nailed it on the head. If Country A has successfully delivered education and health services to the majority of its population (accounting for attrition and migration), and yet - as happened yesterday in China - when a citizen of Country A decides to exercise their human rights to run for office and gets jailed, or - as happened in the US yesterday - blows everyone up who is on line at a pharmacy with a machine gun, human rights becomes more important, and more concrete, than human development. You can educate and heal all the people in Country A, just to send them off to work as slaves in a factory, or send them all off to war. You can have great stats on schooling and health care ("proof"), and have a society where these means do not erase social exclusion, State violence or their lack of basic human freedoms. The frustration that this question arouses because these are two very different things: one is a means (human development) and the other an ends (human rights) where human rights is a 'moral law'. To answer your debate question, sure, the data for Country A can show high levels of human development without necessarily respecting fundamental freedoms, or even going against them. In this sense, you are right, but so what? Would we ever design a program or policy excluding human rights because human development already is expensive enough? You would never expect Country A and Country B, assuming much different levels of development, history, policy and economy, to approach human development strategies the same way, or even to define human development priorities the same way (i.e., sequencing human development policies the way we need to sequence economic policies). But you would - and we should as a global community with moral obligations - expect them to treat their citizens according to the same moral law. Human rights originates in the idea that people are not a means but an end in themselves. Human development, however, is a means to an end, it is an imperfect, non-linear, contextually specific policy process. My feeling is it's better to stick with a debate that sheds some light, not just heat, and there are plenty, like one of upmost urgency: human development and economic development. Now here's one where you can shed some light! Thanks, Sara

Activism has little bearing with development and good governance. Mugabe was a freedom fighter in Zimbabwe and he believes nobody can run government affairs almost thirty years as President. Examples of failed leadership who were once human rights activists dot the dark continent of Africa. I agree with you Shanta.

Submitted by Raj Raina on
Hi Shanta, Sorry you lost the debate. I do think there is a need for division for labor between organizations and the Bank is already inundated with too many mandates. At the same time we probably need more economist who can understand the human right's language so that we know when we are consciously involved or not. For this reason I abstain to vote. On another note, I wanted to point you to a recent article in the guardian about India being among the top 5 dangerous places for women. Makes me question your statement "countries that do well on human rights indicators, such as India" or question the Guardian article. A quote from the article: "India is the fourth most dangerous country. India's central bureau of investigation estimated that in 2009 about 90% of trafficking took place within the country and that there were some 3 million prostitutes, of which about 40% were children, the survey found. Forced marriage and forced labour trafficking add to the dangers for women. Up to 50 million girls are thought to be 'missing' over the past century due to female infanticide and foeticide, the UN population fund says, because parents prefer to have young boys rather than girls." Should the Bank get involved in such human rights violations? Is this part of our development agenda? I am not sure of the answer. If so, how do we engage a country like India about the above?

Submitted by Anonymous on
Your argument seems to be that the rights based approach leads to government provision of services, which is inadequate. But surely government is also a major provider of services in China and Cuba - particularly Cuba. Where does that fit in with your argument?

Thanks for your question. Yes, it's the government that provides the bulk of health and education in Cuba and China, which shows that governments CAN be (relatively) successful in promoting human development, especially for poor people. The problem is that in India, for instance, government has been less successful in providing (and even financing) health and education. As a result, some 70 percent of curative health spending is in the private sector in that country. The reason is that, under the guise that the government should be responsible for health and education (which is implied by the human rights declaration), the bulk of health and education financing has been captured by the non-poor, who are politically more powerful.

Submitted by Matthias on
I find it curious that economists are often critical of HRBA to development on grounds that seem very narrow. Take this passage, for instance, 'It is not sufficient because countries that have constitutions with well delineated and judicially enforced human rights, such as India and South Africa, have relatively poor human development outcomes.' Well, having rights in their constitutions, or allowing judicial control of certain constitutional guarantees, is not, in and of itself, coextensive with the notion of a human rights-based approaches to development policy. Both features could be absent, and you could still have a HRBA to development. Both can, and often are, present and outcomes could still be poor. HRBA are not about outcomes only, they are mostly about process (how social policy should be designed and implemented), and about empowerment (treating goods such as health and education as social duties, and not as objects of politically-mediated charity). [On a related methodological point, I find it strange that you take SA and India as examples, for amongst the countries with highest HDI are countries that have enshrined social rights in their constitutions and have aggressive judicial machinery to support such rights; why are cases of shortfalls taken as evidence of the lack of causal link between HR and development, and cases of success ignored?] You then follow with the following assertion, 'the reason [for poor outcomes] is that making health and education human rights often implies that governments should finance and provide health and education services.' That really supposes that any HRB policy to any social service is exclusively state-led, when in practice, that need not be the case. The US has decided to mandate health care for all, through sophisticated -- and contentious -- legislation. This is about creating a regulatory framework in which private service providers and health care users make their choices, and adapt. Ideally, the health care reform is expected to reduce overall costs, and increase coverage. Is this 'government provision' of health care? For some, particularly the poorest, it might be that. For others, such as private insurers, it is about the business model they must have in order to comply with regulations. How the burden is shared among different actors is the crucial role legislation and regulation plays... there is no 'natural' set of regulations, so any allocation of rights through regulation will have costs, but not all of it need be supported by the state. A HRBA to health does not mandate a UK-style NHS. 'Yet there is plenty of evidence that governments in many countries do badly at delivering these services to poor people—public financing is skewed towards the non-poor; money fails reach schools and clinics; teachers and doctors are absent about 20-40 percent of the time; when present, the quality of services they provide is extremely poor.' These are all serious deficiencies of policy. A HRBA to education requires citizen participation in the design and implementation of policy; it requires focusing on the more vulnerable; it requires fighting discrimination (facing a deficit in female enrollment, for instance). That governments are bad in providing services does not mean that we should not require anything from them. It implies rather, that we must set the conditions under which government can deliver better services: this might be through better public policy, this might be by better division of labor between private and public actors (read better incentives all around), etc. So could we please stop with this notion that a HRBA is all about constitutionalizing social rights and having judges define budget priorities? Although those elements might be present in a HRBA, they are neither the only, nor the most important, elements in these approaches. It is also true that a human rights approach benefits those who are able to mobilize on the basis of rights and to get into the courtroom; often, these may not be the poor.

Submitted by Fred on
Without having watched the debate, I wonder how deeply Shanta and his opponents explored into what "human development" actually is. In the summary above, Shanta uses "human development outcomes" synonymously with "health and education outcomes." But why do we value health and education outcomes? Health may be an end in itself (arguably), but education certainly isn't. To my mind, Amartya Sen's definition of development - first given in a series of lectures at the World Bank in the early nineties - is the most persuasive: Development is the extension of vital human freedoms and the removal of nonfreedoms; it is the process of creating the conditions that enable human flourishing. Indifference to human rights tramples on human freedoms. When a government curtails its citizens' ability to think, act, and live in the ways they have reason to value, it takes away the end goals for which development work exists. Human rights violations don't "impede" human development, they are its precise opposite. Shanta's line of argument - narrow, technical, aloof, and distressingly limited in its conception of development - is redolent of everything I find suspicious about the Bank.

Submitted by Riaz khan on
If we look at the issue from an input and output perspective then development outcomes are a function of inputs relating to finance, human resources, logistics, infrastructure, technology, legal and administrative framework etc. These inputs can be provided under a democratic setup or under a dictatorship. Generally such inputs are provided by the civil servants through the budgetary process. Governance plays a major role in determining the outputs and outcomes. The first question to be answered is whether Governance is better under a dictatorship or under democracy. The second question to be answered is whether development under dictatorship is sustainable. The third question is whether form of government is a key variable in determining the outcomes. Shanta is basically running a one variable regression for determining outcomes with a single variable i.e. form of government. Actually Shanta's sample on which he is basing the conclusions is not right. His sample size is only focusing on the less developed countries under dictatorship and countries like India, China and South Africa. If he compares the outcomes/outputs of the developed countries (Europe and US) having democratic systems and the less developed countries with dictatorship and poor governance like Pakistan the results would be different. The democratic countries are doing much better than those under dictatorship. Shanta's argument is only based on a narrowly defined sample size and outliers. If we consider only Africa then most of the countries are not doing well due to dictatorship. Shanta can also argue that a country having access to large natural resources (oil) like Nigeria is doing much worse than countries with no natural resources. Thus the conclusion that can be derived from this limited sample could be that having large natural resources is not good for development. Single variable regression can thus lead to erroneous conclusions. Shanta has also failed to differentiate between genuine democracy and sham civilian dictatorship. Under Shanta’s argument Pakistan would be considered as a civilian democracy but in actual reality it is controlled by other forces. Democracy is a just a facelift. On sustainability the best example is that of the Middle East. In general most of the Middle East is under a dictatorship and it can be argued that the outputs/outcomes are better than the democratic countries like india. However, recent events have shown that the dictatorial institutional structures could not ultimately withstand the forces of democracy and collapsed, leaving the countries in tatters and looking for alternative systems. Dictatorship can be viewed as a private sector firm not publicly listed on the stock exchange (no transparency) while democracy can be considered as a private firm listed on the stock exchange (full disclosure). My feeling is that the publicly listed companies have greater chances of expansion through better access to resources. Many companies go public. Overall Shanta on a limited and selective sample has generalized his conclusion. It would be better to make a list of all the countries in the world and then compare the health and education indicators with the form of government i.e. democracy, dictatorship, civilian dictatorship, monarchy etc. Perhaps he can also add to this analysis why the countries have done well or not done well. Can success be attributed to the form of Government alone? The world started with kings and pharaohs and but over the ages has adopted the path of democracy. If the kings were delivering then every country would now be a kingdom. According to shanta we would be better off under the kings and the British would be better off under a non-ceremonial Queen. It seems shanta’s is saying that since China is doing better than India all countries opt for dictatorship or one party rule. I guess tools of economics are used incorrectly then one can end up with bizarre conclusions

Submitted by Nachiket Mor on
Dear Shanta, I wonder if we are not mixing up what we observe expost with what we should expect exante if we were to start now. The argument has picked two countries which seem to have done well on some of these aspects but it would perhaps not be hard to pick two countries that have had a poor track record on human rights and have not done well on these services either. I think the problem is that one cannot choose one's dictator and ascribe some benign motive to him. You refer to India, a relatively young democracy, as a country that has failed to deliver the goods but do not mention that Sri Lanka has, despite being one. Towards the end of your last comment, you say that the political elite have captured much of the gains in democracies -- I would imagine that dictators would come from this elite group as well and could perhaps be as uninterested in the broader delivery of these services as the political elite are currently. I personally feel that we should not judge too quickly which systems will eventually deliver. In India the political elite are very much at the mercy of the electorate and currently it appears that the electorate are not "demanding" as vociferously the essential services as they appear to be immeidate handouts and a sense of identity. But as education levels gradually head towards a tipping point this could change and that change would perhaps be much more stable than a direction set by a dictatorship. If one feel that the process needs to be accelarated a more fruitful direction may perhaps be tools such as community radio or the mobile phone that can be used to more accurately inform the voters and not moving clearly backwards towards a more dictatorial government. Within India we already see this happening states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala -- these states are larger than several countries and perhaps in the argument should be counted as such. Regards, Nachiket Mor

Submitted by Gabriel Negatu on
I believe it's a false choice we are making by arguing whether HR is necessary to achieve HD. As in everything else in life, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Technically speaking, HR may not be necessary to achieve HD, and Shanta and co have demonstrated that case very well with examples from of why it is neither a necessary nor sufficient. However, it is also true that achieving the HD numeric targets becomes meaningless unless citizens are able to enjoy those achievements in peace and under a predictable environment of rule of law. What is the point of having healthy and well educated citizens if they are all in prison? However, Shanta & co have touched on the key issue of why we need to move away from the notion that governments must always provide such services. The notion of rights is a euphemism for entitlement, and that is wrong. The role of the state in such areas must be limited to areas where others are not able to step-in and provide such services, not as a provider of first and only choice. Cases of failed attempts to provide such services or provision of sub-standard services by the state are plenty. However, and more importantly, we as African citizens need to radically shift away from a culture of relying on our state to be the provider of all services. Our states and their institutions are simply not equipped nor financed to provide such services. There is indeed a role for them to partially finance the provision of such services, and with the right types of incentives and robust regulations and oversight, I believe the private sector can do a better job in ensuring better quality and more efficient delivery of health and education services.

Submitted by George on
No major economy has really escaped it. Western power has set no precedence in this regard. Look at Charles Dickens's England during its most dramatic economic expansion, or for that matter, the United States during late 1800s, early 1900. Unless you are a white male (and there are exceptions even in this case), human rights was merely something defined by some law, but largely unobtainable. This held true for major Western Powers in the 19-20th Century, and it certainly held true for the the Asian Tigers in recent times.

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