Rights-based Development: Linking Rights and Participation – Challenges in Thinking and Action

V Miller et al


The growing interest in pursuing rights-based approaches to development raises questions about how these two broad traditions – human rights and development – can best work together in practice. This article from a joint 7-country action research initiative carried out by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and Just Associates, outlines the challenges and opportunities of this emerging trend.

Rights-based development aims to combine the community-level, participatory focus of development organisations, with the legal and institutional expertise of human rights organisations. There is much potential for increasing the impact of both human rights and development programmes by integrating these very different approaches. However, greater clarity on the objectives, strategies and limitations of rights-based approaches to development is needed. Some outstanding issues are outlined below:

  • There are multiple understandings of rights and participation. More systematic thinking and ongoing dialogue is needed to clarify the meanings of these concepts and related terms of empowerment and rights-based development.
  • Participation is often framed as a methodology to improve performance rather than as a process of fostering critical consciousness and decision making as the basis for active citizenship. Ultimately, participation that advances more equitable development and rights should be as inclusive and transparent as possible.
  • Rights groups tend to take a discussion of law as an entry point rather than starting with people’s daily problems. The scope of recognised rights and the degree to which people can claim and exercise those rights is forever shifting in response to shifting power dynamics.
  • Work on participation and rights is ultimately about challenging and transforming power relations and creating new values based on solidarity. Forces of power can be clearly visible, or hidden, operating at a psychological level and creating a systemic bias. Understanding and altering these power dynamics is critical to genuine participation and the fulfilment of rights.

Strategies and approaches that seek to build consensus and legitimacy about newly emerging rights and forms of participation are needed. Practitioners that understand the principle issues of rights-based approaches still struggle to operationalise and integrate rights and participation on a practical level.

  • Achieving a satisfactory integration of rights-based and participatory approaches will require a long-term commitment. Organisations that have been used to aiming for short-term results may find it hard to commit to the necessary long-term vision of change.
  • Rights-based approaches necessarily demand taking sides between conflicting notions of whose rights count. Organisations need to be prepared for this potential conflict and be clear about the most appropriate strategies.
  • Linking rights and participation involves not only strategic adjustment but also organisational change, which can be a very slow process. A shift to rights-based approaches may also require different skills-sets among staff.


Miller, V., VeneKlasen, L., and Clark., C., 2005, 'Rights-based Development: Linking Rights and Participation - Challenges in Thinking and Action', IDS Bulletin, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 31-40