Undertaking a Human Rights-Based Approach: A Guide for Basic Programming

Gabrielle Berman


What are the principles behind human rights based approaches (HRBA) to development cooperation? What lessons have been learned from HRBA internationally? This chapter provides guidelines on undertaking HRBA based on experiences from Afghanistan, Fiji, Lao, Mongolia, Thailand, Tonga, and Vietnam. There are two implementation approaches to HRBA: the cyclical Seven Step Approach and the Four A’s Approach. Lessons learned from their application include the necessities of linking programming to human rights instruments, engaging at both policy and local levels, finding commonalities with customary law, and sound monitoring and evaluation.

The Stamford Common Understanding (SCU) on the HRBA to Development Cooperation exhorts development programmes to follow principles recommended by international human rights bodies and mechanisms. To do this requires that development programming be ‘PANEL’ – participatory, accountable, non-discriminatory, empowering, and linked to human rights standards. HRBAs therefore put people at the heart of development.

The Seven Steps Approach to implementation focuses on community participation and involves data collection, consultation, the development of project and village-based action plans, and monitoring and evaluation. It aims to ensure that planning and works are coordinated correctly through informed choice. It covers both the short and long term, and provides for ongoing planning and review.

The ‘4 A’s Approach’ is based on principles directly derived from international human rights instruments. Under this framework, issues of Availability, Accessibility, Acceptability, and Adaptability are addressed. It is intrinsically adaptable, focused on the needs of the most disadvantaged, and makes the development of benchmarks for monitoring and evaluation straightforward.

There are four key lessons learned from the international experience in HRBAs.

Firstly, it is necessary to link international human rights norms, standards, and principles. Linking programming to international human rights instruments provides a legally binding framework that serves as an entry point for duty-bearers at all levels. In addition:

  • Human rights standards help to focus development objectives by defining the minimum content of entitlements and obligations against which duty bearers can be held accountable.
  • Recommendations of international human rights mechanisms highlight the concerns of the international community in any given country. This allows prioritisation of actions and can be a powerful tool for advocacy.

Secondly, both top-down and bottom-up approaches are needed because both community-level and policymakers must be engaged. Programmes that have active government involvement are more successful in the long term. Other advantages are that:

  • Communication between stakeholders creates new opportunities and channels for dialogue that significantly increase impact and sustainability
  • Certain human rights can be easily secured where community will and resources exist, and this can push government to get involved.

Thirdly, local context is important in terms of negative local perceptions of human rights and local customary law. Where human rights are perceived as contrary to customary law:

  • Finding common principles and ideas and reference to national constitution and legislation will help beneficiaries to become involved in human rights without dismissing local relevance
  • Where there is no possibility of marrying international human rights law and customary law, the UN agency must be clear on its position, and develop a strategy to realise the right in question.

Finally, monitoring, evaluation, and evidence are crucial to programme appropriateness, effectiveness, sustainability, and the application of lessons learned to other programmes. Programmes need to be flexible and adaptable. It is essential to identify good indicators and baseline data at the outset.


Berman, G., 2008, 'Undertaking a Human Rights-Based Approach: A Guide for Basic Programming - Documenting Lessons Learned for Human Rights-Based Programming: An Asia-Pacific Perspective - Implications for Policy, Planning and Programming', UNESCO Bangkok