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Rights and Development

Anupama Dokeniya's picture

There is increasing convergence between the goals that human rights advocates aspire to, and the development work of the World Bank. This was the consensus reached at a panel discussion on Integrating Human Rights in PREM's work, organized as part of the Conference organized by the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management (PREM) network on May 1 and 2, 2012. The panel included Otaviano Canuto, Vice President of the Network, and other experts at the Bank working on labor, justice, poverty, and governance issues from a rights-perspective. It was moderated by Linda van Gelder, Director of the Public Sector and Governance group.

The panel showcased innovative ways in which a human rights perspective is being integrated into the Bank's work. In Vietnam, the governance team has engaged the country in looking at how right to information can further transparency and how awareness of rights can make the state more responsive to citizens.  A team in PREM is looking at the Human Opportunity Index as a means of assessing inequality of opportunity among children. The World Development Report on Jobs emphasizes the concept of ‘better jobs’ that improve societal welfare, not just ‘more jobs’. Several of these programs are supported through the Nordic Trust Fund that furthers a human rights approach to development issues.

The panelists emphasized that the Bank had progressively integrated a more expansive view of development in its work, and one that enables the realization of several of the rights enumerated in the international human rights framework. The introduction of stringent social and environmental safeguards to ensure that Bank-funded development projects protect the right to existence and livelihoods of communities affected by these projects – is a prominent expression of sensitivity to protecting the rights of communities and individuals.

The Bank has also expanded much beyond a focus on aggregate macroeconomic indicators of growth such as GDP, to looking at welfare outcomes at the individual and household level – a basic driver of this shift in emphasis is the recognition of the individual’s right to development. Concerns about equality have driven the development of disaggregated indicators looking at disparities in outcomes for specific sub-groups and households.

An increasing proportion of the Bank’s lending now goes to social sectors - towards improving access to health, education, access to social security, and adequate standard of living – all areas that improve quality of life of the individual and are recognized as fundamental dimensions of human rights in the UN Convention of Social, Economic and Cultural Rights. The Bank works actively for the realization of the Millennium Development Goals, which also contribute directly to the realization of the fundamental rights enumerated in this Convention. An implicit commitment to social and economic rights has undoubtedly been very significant in this shift towards a more expansive view of development.

Over the last decade, the institution has also accelerated its engagement on governance, social accountability, and transparency as necessary conditions for better delivery of services, and more effective outcomes on development. Accountable governance requires that citizens have the right to access public information necessary to effectively monitor public expenditures and performance, to participate in policy-making processes, and form groups and coalitions to monitor the delivery of services and provide a check on corruption. Supporting these outcomes necessarily furthers essential rights recognized in the international human rights framework.
Potential points of tension between the human rights and economic policy approaches remain, however. Economic policy is inevitably about choices, prioritization, and trade-offs in the face of resource constraints. Policy interventions supporting outcomes that might enable the realization of one set of rights might mean that programs directed towards the fulfillment of other rights are left unfunded or under-funded. For instance, limited resources directed to making AIDS vaccines available to a poor neighborhood in a city might mean that a village does not get clean water in the short term. Economic policy seeks to resolve these dilemmas using tools such as cost-benefit analysis, but this would fly in the face of the foundation of a human rights approach – that rights are indivisible and inter-dependent. Leaving room for prioritization and the progressive realization of rights might be the workable compromise on such issues.

The tension might be further precipitated when judicial decisions on the enforcement of certain rights might conflict with the policy priorities set by the Executive, creating a conflict between the obligation of the judiciary to enforce rights, and the resources available to policy-makers to further some rights and not others. To the extent that rights are legally enforceable, the ability of governments to implement what they see as the policies that create maximum net welfare might become constrained by judicial decisions. One approach is to look at rights as priority goals, rather than binding constraints for government action.

Despite these open questions, the panel concluded that engagement between the human rights and economics approaches and disciplines continues to be important. Economic policy offers tools and instruments that can achieve the goals enumerated in the international human rights framework, which might lack the policy prescription to accomplish the goals. At the same time, approaching development issues from a human rights lens can help strengthen the design of development programs in a direction that increasingly improves welfare, empowers individuals, and furthers what one panelist called the ‘self-esteem agenda’.

Photo Credit: Curt Carnemark, World Bank

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