The last 20 years have seen a growing engagement between development and human rights practitioners. But are we still mainly talking past each other? Or has there been valuable mutual learning with development results on the ground?
Let’s start by clarifying what I mean when I refer here to human rights. Adapted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, human rights are international norms that help to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, economic and social abuses, or, alternatively, which serve to secure and preserve extremely important goods, protections and freedoms in these various areas, for all people everywhere. These rights are now embodied in the 1947 Universal Declaration on Human Rights and nine core international covenants and treaties.
Since 1947 much has happened. And in the last two decades, there has been a growing convergence between human rights and development. Paralleling the broad reach of human rights concerns, the scope of development has also extended enormously. From mainly being concerned with economic growth, the term has broadened to include poverty reduction, inequality, human and social development, the environment, governance and institutions, just to name some. From GDP figures, we now also think about households and the specific needs of specific groups.
As Milan Brahmbhatt and I argue in the latest issue of Economic Premise on Human Rights and Development Practice, the emphasis on human rights thinking has also produced a growing emphasis on participation, consultation and accountability in development projects.
Not everything is rosy, of course. A frequent criticism is that development experts rarely give sufficient prominence to human rights as ends in themselves—that when they are considered it is as means to some other end like economic growth. On the other hand, some development practitioners criticize the human rights approach for its inability to take into account the need for tradeoffs: that getting one thing typically entails less of something else. Shall one community use its scarce resources on malnutrition or HIV retrovirals?
Who is right and who is wrong? The question is really irrelevant if the answers are not applied to what really works on the ground—both on human rights and development. Rather than having grand frameworks, we have to focus both on process and results, as we cannot have one without the other. Thanks to a mutual learning process, development is now broader, incorporating equality, nondiscrimination, participation and inclusion, accountability and the rule of law. But just as important is to focus on impact evaluation to assess how policies and principles are affecting specific individuals, homes and communities.
We still have a long way to go but there’s progress. The global push to achieve the Millennium Development Goals—such as reducing poverty and malnutrition—is a great example where we increasingly draw insights from both development and human rights.