Applying a Rights-based Approach: An Inspirational Guide for Civil Society

Jakob Kirkemann Boesen, Tomas Martin


With its focus on law and the root causes of poverty, the rights-based approach (RBA) releases a new transformative potential for development. This guide provides practical methods for the integration of the RBA into programmes implemented by smaller civil society organisations (CSOs) in poor countries. While it is not a panacea, the RBA has the potential to bring people whose rights are denied by poverty to the centre of development analyses and implementation.

The RBA stresses the accountability of duty-bearers, (including parliaments, ministries, local authorities, judges, police and teachers) and focuses on power balances through the inclusion of inalienable rights. It also offers legitimacy through an internationally-recognised development framework and assists states in fulfilling international obligations. It builds accountable relations between state structures, social groups and the individual, and has the potential to achieve positive changes in people’s lives by focusing on injustice, inequality, discrimination, exploitation and denial.

The RBA enriches and enhances development initiatives by bringing a lot of existing elements of development such as gender, participation, and empowerment into a coherent framework. It also adds a number of missing elements to current activities such as a focus on law, policy and accountability, on vulnerability and on the role of the state.

RBA programming focuses on four areas: (1) the most vulnerable groups; (2) the root causes of poverty; (3) the relationship between rights-holders and duty-bearers; and (4) empowerment. Programming includes:

  • Context analysis: This involves problem identification, problem analysis and stakeholder analysis. Problem analysis should identify the most relevant of the focus areas and develop understanding of specific legal, economic and social inequalities in the implementation target area. Stakeholder analysis explores the characteristics, interests and expectations of groups or individuals with vested interests in the status quo. It includes identification of who is responsible for addressing a given problem in terms of rights and obligations.
  • Programme design: Objectives should increase empowerment and inclusion of vulnerable groups. Root causes and the inter-relationship between rights-holders and duty-bearers should be a central focus of programmes.
  • Implementation standards: Programmes should translate RBA principles into implementation standards that involve engagement with media, other CSOs, rights-holders and duty-bearers.
  • Monitoring and evaluation: M&E involves regular review based on the focus areas and should ensure transparency and accountability. Monitoring should cover both outcome and process. It should include whether rights-holders have become more aware of their rights, better organised and able to claim their rights more effectively.

The RBA is not without challenges: it can be cumbersome and requires long-term planning and capacity-building. It is a tool, not a panacea. However, the RBA is gaining ground in development thinking, because it facilitates new alliances, supports a framework that reaches the web of power relations across all spheres of society, and allows smaller CSOs to adapt RBA thinking to their own environment, needs and capacities. Important principles of the approach include the following.

  • Establish accessible, transparent and effective measures of redress and enhance the oversight and monitoring role of civil society.
  • Use top-down and bottom-up approaches in combination/synergy.
  • Respond to the needs of all groups, including those without immediate ‘development potential’.
  • Consider the full range of rights, although priority setting will be needed. No goal or right can be pursued to the detriment of other rights.
  • Include people as key actors in their own development and seek to expand people’s choices and capabilities.


Boesen, J. K. and Martin, T., 2007, 'Applying a Rights-based Approach: An Inspirational Guide for Civil Society', Danish Institute for Human Rights, Copenhagen