Rights-based Approaches and Bilateral Aid Agencies: More than a Metaphor?

L-H Piron


Are human rights-based approaches to development merely a ‘metaphor’, or is a consensus emerging among bilateral donors around the relevance of human rights for aid? This article, based on research by the Overseas Development Institute, illustrates emerging commonalities among bilateral aid agencies. However, donors need to make greater efforts to internalise human rights and to ensure that human rights influence mainstream international development thinking.

Since the early 1990s, donors have promoted human rights through various means, such as the funding of human rights activities, political dialogue, mainstreaming, and human rights-impact assessments. The UN and some bilateral donors, such as Sweden and the UK, have gone further by explicitly adopting a ‘human rights-based approach’ to development, which provides a normative framework to guide the conceptualisation, implementation and monitoring of development aid.

There is considerable controversy over the adoption of human rights-based approaches. Proponents point to an emerging consensus among donors around human rights standards and principles and highlight the added-value of human rights-based approaches, which can be summarised as follows:

  • Provides a clear framework for development aid by setting out universally-agreed standards contained within international law and clarifies both the rights of individuals and the obligations of states.
  • Recognises individuals as active citizens with rights and entitlements, as rather than needs-based approaches that view individuals as passive beneficiaries. This empowers citizens to articulate their rights and participate in decision-making.
  • Improves accountability mechanisms including national parliaments, courts or human rights commissions and community-based initiatives such as public hearings.
  • Focuses on equality and non-discrimination to ensure that marginalised groups are not excluded from the benefits of development. This provides an added-value over poverty reduction strategies which prioritise economic growth and broad utilitarian goals.
  • Encourages dialogue between donors and partner governments on human rights through a partnership-based and contractual approach.

In moving from rhetoric to practice, the key challenges relate to the urgent need to internalise human rights-based approaches within aid agencies and at the same time, to ensure that human rights shape international aid discourse. Donors can contribute to this dual objective by:

  • Undertaking internal institutional reform to move beyond policy statements and facilitate effective policy change.
  • Developing clear policy statements and gaining the commitment of senior officials, including ministers and senior managers, to ensure a coherent approach between bilateral aid agencies and foreign ministries.
  • Promoting awareness among staff who are unfamiliar or reluctant to embrace new trends, including measures to build internal capacity through human rights training.
  • Developing internal guidelines to translate policy objectives into concrete programmes. The UN Inter-Agency Common Understanding on Rights-based Approaches (2003) may provide a useful starting point.
  • Learning from the innovative policies of the Swedish bilateral aid agency (Sida) to operationalise human rights-based approaches by promoting policy coherence and investing in adequate human and financial resources to fulfill policy commitments.
  • Promoting the exchange of experiences and consensus-building among donors. The OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) task force on human rights and development in 2004 provides an appropriate forum.
  • Moving beyond internal activities to ensure that human rights influence the mainstream development agenda at the international level.


Piron, L-H., 2004, ‘Rights-based Approaches and Bilateral Aid Agencies: More than a Metaphor?’, IDS Bulletin, vol. 36, no. 1