A Rights-Based Approach to Development

P Uvin


How can the rights-based approach (RBA) change how development is ‘done’, and help practitioners do things better on the ground? RBAs have often been seen as primarily rhetorical and as offering little in hard content. This chapter from ‘Human Rights and Development’ outlines what the RBA means in practice, and how this differs from current practice. It argues that human rights, when deeply integrated with the practice of development, can be a powerful addition and correction to the development enterprise.

The RBA focuses on claims, duties and mechanisms to ensure information, accountability, and redress. It means viewing people as rights-holders rather than beneficiaries and focusing on structural change rather than charity. Methods for holding rights violators accountable are central to this: Both legal justiciability and non-legal mechanisms such as pressure emanating from shared expectations, organized social movements and administrative mechanisms of accountability and redress. This is not merely about asserting legal claims, but political struggles that may put development agencies in a confrontational position towards governments and other actors.

The rule of law at the level of daily life needs to be strengthened: An RBA should include a concern with the creation of systems of accountability, information, control and redress available to all citizens, especially those most subject to exclusion.

RBAs also demand that the process by which development aims are pursued should respect and fulfil human rights. The process of development may be more important in the long term than the product, as the process can accommodate or spawn dynamics of inequality and exclusion.

Several changes to current practice are possible, and some agencies already have considerable experience of them:

  • Knowing the human rights machinery: The spread of these texts can help with the emergence of counter-discourses and add legitimacy to new concerns. This kind of work is popular as it constitutes a safe, technical way of avoiding power issues.
  • Capacity building: Support to local human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is essential, although difficult: Funding decisions here amount to taking sides in contentious and complicated local political debates.
  • Advocacy: International development organisations may themselves engage in more advocacy. Most advocacy by NGOs takes place in northern countries, where power is concentrated. Rights-based advocacy has the advantage of building on a solid conceptual basis and a shared language.
  • The violations approach: Development organisations can implement this by: (i) Carrying out human rights impact assessments of proposed programs (ii) Applying the principle of non-retrogression (existing human rights enjoyment shall not be reduced to achieve a development goal), and (iii) Organisations could open themselves up to occasional outside human rights scrutiny (could be done confidentially initially).
  • The inward look: Development agencies would benefit if they managed to foster an atmosphere of critical debate about human rights with staff and partners. They should also explicitly attempt to comply internally with human rights standards, beginning with the way they hire, pay, promote, protect and fire their employees.

Further points include:

  • Reconceptualisation of the overall aims of development agencies: RBAs have the potential to be broader than current expert-based perspectives. A useful analytical device is the respect, protect and provide approach to rights programming.
  • RBAs encourage development actors to choose different partners.
  • The choice of partners should be through human rights criteria.
  • Relationships need to be genuine partnerships that are more long term and programmatic, rather than short term and project based.
  • Truly implementing an RBA constitutes a radical change: In choice of partners, the range of activities undertaken and the rationale for them, internal management systems and funding procedures and the type of relationships with actors in the public and non-governmental sectors.
  • RBAs will probably be taken forward by NGOs and bilateral agencies, as multilateral agencies with their global state membership and bureaucratic weight – seem unable to do so.


Uvin, P., 2004, ‘A Rights-Based Approach to Development’, Chapter 6 in Human Rights and Development, Kumarian Press, Bloomfield, pp. 122-166