Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Human Rights and Human Development

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“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


Shanta Devarajan

Teaching Professor of the Practice Chair, International Development Concentration, Georgetown University

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