What value does a human rights-based approach add to development?

There are two main rationales for a human rights-based approach:

(a) the intrinsic rationale, acknowledging that a human rights-based approach is the right thing to do, morally or legally; and
(b) the instrumental rationale, recognizing that a human rights-based approach leads to better and more sustainable human development outcomes.

In practice, the reason for pursuing a human rights-based approach is usually a blend of these two.

The question of adding value goes primarily to the instrumental case for a human rights-based approach. Importantly, a human rights-based approach seeks to build upon and learn from—rather than discard—the lessons of good development practice and strengthen arguments for their more consistent implementation. Empirical evidence and practice show the vital importance to development of many human rights outcomes, such as improved girls’ education, enhanced security of tenure and ensuring women’s equal access to land, and the importance of civil and political rights for good governance. The practical value of a human rights-based approach to development lies in the following:

  1. Whose rights? A human rights-based approach focuses on the realization of the rights of the excluded and marginalized populations, and those whose rights are at risk of being violated, building on the premise that a country cannot achieve sustained progress without recognizing human rights principles (especially universality) as core principles of governance. Universality means that all people have human rights, even if resource constraints imply prioritization. It does not mean that all problems of all people must be tackled at once.
  2. Holistic view. A programme guided by a human rights-based approach takes a holistic view of its environment, considering the family, the community, civil society, local and national authorities. It considers the social, political and legal framework that determines the relationship between those institutions, and the resulting claims, duties and accountabilities. A human rights-based approach lifts sectoral “blinkers” and facilitates an integrated response to multifaceted development problems.
  3. International instruments. Specific results, standards of service delivery and conduct are derived from universal human rights instruments, conventions and other internationally agreed goals, targets, norms or standards. A human rights-based approach assists countries in translating such goals and standards into time-bound and achievable national results.
  4. Participatory process. Accountabilities for achieving these results or standards are determined through participatory processes (policy development, national planning), and reflect the consensus between those whose rights are violated and those with a duty to act. A human rights-based approach seeks both to assist in the participatory formulation of the needed policy and legislative framework, and to ensure that participatory and democratic processes are institutionalized locally and nationally (including through capacity-building among families, communities and civil society to participate constructively in relevant forums).
  5. Transparency and accountability. A human rights-based approach helps to formulate policy, legislation, regulations and budgets that clearly determine the particular human right(s) to be addressed—what must be done and to what standard, who is accountable—and ensures the availability of needed capacities (or resources to build the lacking capacities). The approach helps to make the policy formulation process more transparent, and empowers people and communities to hold those who have a duty to act accountable, ensuring effective remedies where rights are violated.
  6. Monitoring. A human rights-based approach to development supports the monitoring of State commitments with the help of recommendations of human rights treaty bodies, and through public and independent assessments of State performance.
  7. Sustained results. A human rights-based approach leads to better sustained results of development efforts and greater returns on investments by:
  • Building the capacity of prime actors to engage in dialogue, meet their own responsibilities and hold the State accountable;
  • Strengthening social cohesion through seeking consensus with participatory processes, and focusing assistance on the excluded and most marginalized;
  • Codifying social and political consensus on accountabilities for results into laws, policies and programmes aligned with international conventions;
  • Anchoring human rights entitlements within a framework of laws and institutions;
  • Institutionalizing democratic processes; and
  • Strengthening the capacities of individuals and institutions to carry out their obligations as expressed in local, national and international laws, policies and programmes.

Example:   Added value of a human rights-based approach: using rights to influence power

Transforming existing distributions of power—the cornerstone of a human rights-based approach—is not without its challenges. While no two situations are exactly alike, experience discloses a range of ways in which a human rights-based approach has been used to change power dynamics in development work and a range of strategies to help minimize risks:

  • Map power relations influencing the given situation. Power is dynamic, its different dimensions in constant change, relational and not always visible. Historical lack of power can be socialized and concealed within, crippling people’s propensity and ability to accept that they have rights and to claim them.
  • Use language strategically. The language of human rights can be powerful in both positive and negative ways. In some contexts it can “shut you down” while in others it can serve your cause.
  • Gather solid evidence and use knowledge strategically. Document success stories of rights-based approaches, and use your strong and convincing evidence strategically, overcoming disciplinary or other biases (e.g., challenging the assumption that more hospitals will reduce child mortality versus the assumption that realizing women’s rights and empowerment will not).
  • Make, bend and reshape the “rules of the game.” One key aspect of power is the ability to use knowledge to frame the possible, set rules and delimit what counts as knowledge and whose knowledge counts. Making, bending and reshaping the rules of the game are one way for individuals to bring about change.
  • Identify and strategically exploit entry points and hooks matching your or your organization’s comparative advantage with the types of spaces and actors you seek to influence.
  • Build strategic alliances, coalitions and networks with other actors who share a similar vision.
  • Strengthen the capacity for agency. Build the capacity of people in created and claimed spaces to articulate their rights.
  • Walk the talk. Development actors must demonstrate responsibility and accountability in their own actions, if they are to effect transformations of power elsewhere.


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