Rights-Based Development: The Challenge of Change and Power

J Chapman


What are the implications of integrating rights into development work? This paper from the Global Poverty Research Group (GPRG) draws on case study material from ActionAid International (AAI) to explore the benefits and challenges of a rights-based approach for strengthening the voice and power of marginalised sectors of society.

Rights-based development is often equated primarily with policy and advocacy work and seen as the sole solution to poverty. This can lead to ineffective strategies, a lack of engagement with the poorest and their immediate concerns, a devaluation of grassroots leadership and organising skills, and a continuing power imbalance between donors, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), popular organisations and social movements. Rights-based approaches need to be grounded in more careful analysis of power in all its forms, and in a more complex understanding of how change both happens and is sustained.

Rights-based approaches hold considerable potential for putting politics and power back into development. AAI’s experience shows that in the best cases they can encourage:

  • Support for more holistic thinking in planning and action;
  • A focus on broader social change processes which promotes links across programmes and strategies to foster short and long-term change;
  • More strategic engagement with various government agencies to strengthen capacity and the political will to uphold their responsibilities to protect rights;
  • Support for marginalised sectors of society, their organisations and related social movements in ways that engage them as innovators, protagonists and colleagues;
  • An increased focus by international organisations on transforming power relations and structures including their own position and relationships with partners;
  • Work on building active constituencies for change in the Global South and solidarity in the North;
  • Support for local groups and communities in their efforts to achieve immediate changes, while strengthening their capacity to advance rights in the longer term.

The positive outcomes of rights-based approaches depend largely on linking them with lessons about participation, empowerment and social change:

  • Balance: Without interdisciplinary skills and the capacity to engage with other types of knowledge and practice, NGOs risk losing legitimacy, support and the ability to drive change.
  • Power: Development organisations need to avoid simply reproducing power structures. The appropriate use of power is key to fostering participation, empowerment and rights, and giving marginalised groups a meaningful voice.
  • Internal investment: AAI needs to be much clearer about its identity, political stance and understanding of rights based development. Staff need more experience in policy analysis, advocacy, government structures and participation.
  • Politics: Rights-based development entails political positioning and analysis of power dynamics and the dangers of political engagement, especially in contexts of social and political violence.
  • Empowerment and organising: A lack of tangible progress can lead to disillusionment and cynicism. There is often no change in power relations and people remain simple beneficiaries.
  • Service delivery: There needs to be a better understanding of the positive relationship between rights-based approaches and service provision.
  • Utopian expectations: More work is needed to conceptualise what a rights-based approach means in countries with failed, repressive or bankrupt states and to clarify how roles and responsibilities might be divided between government, civil society and other players.


Chapman, J. et al, 2005, 'Rights-based development: The challenge of change and power', GPRG Working Paper Series, no. 27, Global Poverty Research Group, Oxford.