Human Rights-Based Approaches to Development: Concepts, Evidence, and Policy

Varun Gauri, Siri Gloppen


This paper assesses the benefits, risks, and limitations of human rights based approaches (HBRAs) to development, which can be catalogued on the basis of the institutional mechanisms they rely on: global compliance based on international and regional treaties; the policies and programming of donors and executive agencies; rights talk; and legal mobilisation. The paper briefly reviews the politics of the first three kinds of human rights based approaches before examining constitutionally based legal mobilisation for social and economic rights in greater detail.

Key findings include the following:

  • Litigation for social and economic rights is increasing in frequency and scope in several countries, and exhibits appealing attributes, such as inclusiveness and deliberative quality. Still, there are potential problems with this form of human rights based mobilisation, including middle class capture, the potential counter-majoritarianism of courts, and difficulties in compliance.
  • The most convincing accounts available to date involve the theory and evidence of treaties and legal strategies. These accounts suggest that, under certain circumstances, human rights based strategies can make a difference. Rights talk is consequential in the long term, but little evidence is available on the short-term consequences of rights talk strategies.
  • Treaty-based HRBAs are more likely to achieve enforcement or compliance at the national level through domestic political mechanisms, such as civil society organisations, courts, and bureaucratic entrepreneurs, than at the international or regional levels through quasi-juridical enforcement. The evidence to date indicates that treaties can have some limited direct, contemporaneous impact on development outcomes. It is likely that treaties have more long-term effects on development policies through constructivist channels; but more empirical work along these lines remains to be done.
  • Policies and programming regarding HRBAs typically encompass a broad array of neighbouring development strategies, so much so that it can be said to be mainstream practice in development organizations. But further work needs to be done to disaggregate the impact of these various approaches to HRBA policies and programming.


Gauri, V., and Gloppen, S. (2012). Human rights-based approaches to development: Concepts, evidence, and policy. Policy Research Working Paper 5938. Washington DC: World Bank.