Human rights

Human rights


Rights-based approaches

The adoption of right-based approaches (RBAs) in development work has a significant impact on the ways in which development agencies operate. The rapid expansion of RBAs among donors and NGOs has led to considerable debate about whether the operationalisation of rights can be made a reality for poor and excluded people. It is thought that in order to have impact, RBAs must focus on improving relationships and processes, accountability mechanisms and channels for different actors to participate in development. Despite the desirability of RBAs there is still debate as to their impact on development outcomes.

Nyamu-Musembi, C. and Cornwall, A., 2004, 'What is the Rights-based Approach all about? Perspectives from International Development Agencies', IDS Working Paper no. 234, Institute for Development Studies, Brighton
Are rights-based approaches transformative, or merely a new development fashion? What are the implications for donors of adopting them? This paper analyses rights-based approaches in international NGOs, multilateral and bilateral donors. Done well, these approaches can help agencies better achieve development outcomes by moving them away from unreflective patronage to better partnership with and empowerment of beneficiaries.
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Grugel, J. and Piper, N., 2009, ‘Do Rights Promote Development?’, Global Social Policy, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 79-98
How do human rights impact on development? Are rights-based agendas useful for addressing issues of social and economic exclusion experienced by the poor? This article suggests that while the promotion of rights has become intertwined with development, the evidence of their effect on development policy is mixed. Many rights are difficult to put onto the agenda of states. Other arguments for development and justice are therefore also required, alongside sustained theoretical reflection on and engagement with the state.
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Vizard, P., Fukuda-Parr, S. and Elson, D., 2011, ‘Introduction: The Capability Approach and Human Rights’, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, Vol 12, No 1, pp. 1-22
This paper argues that the capability approach provides a useful applied framework for evaluating the human rights position of individuals and groups.
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Page contents

Implications of RBA for development agencies

What are the implications of RBAs for how development agencies function? The rapid expansion of rights-based approaches among donors and NGOs has led to considerable debate about whether the approaches can make rights a reality for poor and excluded people by having a significant impact on poverty reduction. A key discussion amongst researchers and policymakers about rights-based approaches centres upon improving relationships and processes between donors, partners and recipients in order to realise pro-poor outcomes. Principally this implies improving domestic and international accountability mechanisms whereby donors and NGOs can be held to account, and considering the potential effects of interventions upon human rights.

Aid relations and the politics of engagement

Many rights-based approaches involve an understanding that denials of human rights are caused by and perpetuate inequality, discrimination and exclusion based on power relations. In order to successfully support the realisation of human rights in RBAs these efforts need to rest on an understanding of how unequal power relations lie at the base of causes human rights denials and how this is institutionalised through values, rules and practices. This approach involves a need to reform institutions and transforming power relations through enhanced participation, inclusion and accountability, and through compelling organisations to fulfil their rights obligations.

In an international development context RBAs differ from international human rights law, which views rights denials as caused by the unwillingness or inability of governments to meet their human rights obligations. RBAs do also emphasise the primary obligations of governments in upholding human rights. However, they also examine the role of other actors in society, and use analysis of power relations and social and political change.

Piron, L-H., 2005, ‘Human Rights and Poverty Reduction: The Role of Human Rights in Promoting Donor Accountability’, Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London
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Eyben, R., 2004, 'Relationships Matter for Supporting Change in Favour of Poor People', Lessons for Change in Policy and Organisations No. 8, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton
What role does influencing play in making pro poor change take place? Are current international donors spending too much time managing their budgets and not enough time managing relationships? This paper examines the role of organisational learning in improving the performance of international development organisations. A number of approaches are identified for agencies to influence processes that lead to positive changes in the lives of poor people.
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Brocklesby, M.A., Crawford, S. and Harding, M., 2005, 'Making Rights Real: The Politics of Engagement', Workshop Report, 23-24 March 2005, London
Rights based development is a people-centred approach to development based on the norms and standards of international human rights law. This report advocates a move beyond initial rights-based frameworks by focusing instead on the ‘politics of engagement’. Donors and civil society actors should recognise the political nature of development and redefine their strategy of engagement through participation in new networks and alliances to fulfil basic rights and poverty reduction goals.
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Alsop, R. (ed.), 2005, Power, Rights, and Poverty: Concepts and Connections, World Bank, Washington DC
Discussions about power and rights are increasingly taking place in international development agencies, but the activity of those organisations does not reflect this. This report brings together background materials and discussions from a working meeting between the World Bank and DFID that focussed on understanding the conceptual underpinnings and relationships among power, rights and poverty reduction.
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Aid Effectiveness

Accountability is also desirable due to the perceived impact it has on aid effectiveness. In line with both the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, and Accra Agenda for Action which emphasise the need to recognise the ‘centrality of... human rights in development’, a RBA involves respecting and responding to partners' priorities and existing commitments on human rights issues, and being transparent and consistent about donor decision-making processes. There may be a danger, however, on a complete reliance on RBAs to justify development interventions and that that the human rights discourse is employed in a rhetorical manner which offers little in the way of practical substance or change for the intended beneficiaries.

Foresti, M., Booth, D. and O'Neill, T., 2006, 'Aid Effectiveness and Human Rights: strengthening the implementation of the Paris Declaration', Overseas Development Institute, London
How can a human rights perspective be integrated into the aid effectiveness agenda set out in the Paris Declaration (PD)? This paper provides an analytical framework for applying a practical human rights framework to the 2005 Paris Declaration of the High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (PD), arguing this would strengthen its implementation and address its shortcomings. In particular, it recommends strategies to integrate human rights thinking into the monitoring and evaluation process of the PD.
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Uvin, P., 2004, 'A Rights-Based Approach to Development', Chapter 6, in Human Rights and Development, Kumarian Press, Bloomfield, pp. 122-166
How can the rights-based approach (RBA) change how development is 'done', and help practitioners do things better on the ground? RBAs have often been seen as primarily rhetorical and as offering little in hard content. This chapter outlines what the RBA means in practice, and how this differs from current practice. It argues that human rights, when deeply integrated with the practice of development, can be a powerful addition and correction to the development enterprise.
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See also The Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action (pdf, 300 KB).


DFID has developed 'Participatory Rights Assessment Methodologies' or PRAMs, a tool for putting the rights agenda into practice. PRAMs aim to support government, civil society and other individuals in understanding their rights and obligations, and in creating the institutional change necessary to achieve rights. This operationalises a ‘people-centred’ understanding of development which is sensitive to the needs and opinions of people in recipient countries. The attitudes, behaviours and skill sets of the donor community have been put under the spotlight as a result of this thinking.

Brocklesby, M.A. and Crawford, S., 2004, 'Operationalising the Rights Agenda: DFID's Participatory Rights Assessment Methodologies (PRAMs) Project', Centre for Development Studies, Swansea
How successful have rights-based approaches (RBA) been in reducing poverty? How can RBAs best be operationalised? This study assesses the success of its Participatory Rights Assessment Methodologies (PRAMs). PRAMs are intended to create institutional change to ensure participation, inclusion and obligation to all human rights for all people. The study argues that PRAMs re-enforce institutional learning: rights based development brings positive changes in the relationships between people at all levels and stages in development.
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Rights and citizenship

Understandings of rights and citizenship in development have evolved from what was initially a more instrumental approach to participation. 'Citizenship' has entered the development vocabulary during the last decade as part of the return to a focus on state institutions as the locus of development and good governance necessary for implementing successful development-oriented policies. Unlike the earlier term 'beneficiary', citizen connotes an active participant in society who possesses both rights and responsibilities rather than someone passively receiving welfare or accessing services. This shift highlights the multiple lines of accountability between state and citizen, donor and recipient, and a more general shift towards putting ‘people’ at the centre of development.

A common debate about both 'rights' and 'citizenship' is whether these are genuinely universal concepts that make sense for people in all parts of the world or are examples of Western imposition. Again, this brings the discussion around to the need for the international community to be seen as legitimate by building accountable aid relationships which squarely tackle the charge that donors simply export political concepts only of relevance to the Western world.

Kabeer N. 2005 'The Search for 'Inclusive' Citizenship: Meanings and Expressions in an Inter-connected World' in (ed) N. Kabeer, Inclusive Citizenship: Meanings and Expressions, Zed Books, London
What does ‘citizenship’ mean for excluded groups around the world? What do these meanings tell us about the goal of building inclusive societies? This chapter outlines some of the values and meanings associated with citizenship. It considers how debates around citizenship, rights and duties can be interpreted in the light of these values, and discusses the emergence of an explicit rights-based approach in the development agenda.
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Lewis, M., et. al. (eds), 2005, 'Alliances Against Poverty: DFID's Experience in Peru 2000-2005', Department for International Development (DFID), London
Addressing the underlying causes of inequality and exclusion requires donors to engage with political processes. Alliances involving state and society must be strengthened and donors need to play an active role in them. This report reviews the application of rights-based approaches through the concept of active citizenship in a middle-income country context. For the first time it tackles questions of legitimacy, potential and accountability of donor engagement from a donor’s perspective.
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Citizenship is not always constructed through engagement with the state, but is formed at a more communal level (e.g. a societal feeling of belonging). This has significant implications for how we view the role of non-state entities in upholding human rights. If rights (and corresponding responsibilities) are not inevitably constituted by the state, what does this mean the universal applicability of state-endorsed rights? It has been argued that rights and citizenship are constituted not only through the state, but also at community and individual level.

Eyben, R., and S. Ladbury, 2006, ‘Implications for Aid Practice: Taking a Citizen’s Perspective’, Citizenship DRC Synthesis Brief, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton.
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Rights-based approaches tools and guidelines

Donors are experimenting with a variety of approaches to rights-based development. The following aspects are found in some, but not all, RBAs:

  • The belief that development assistance should, and can, contribute to the realisation of human rights
  • The use of international human rights standards as a basis to the approach
  • The application of human rights standards and principles to inform all levels of programming, with corresponding guidelines
  • Support for both rights-holders to claim their rights and duty-bearers to meet their obligations to protect and promote rights.

RBAs are increasingly being used in the design, monitoring and evaluation of programmes. This is particularly the case in governance reform interventions, in which good governance and human rights are seen to be mutually reinforcing; in directing efforts towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); and informing the country programmes or strategies of bilateral donors.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), 2003, 'Human Rights-Based Reviews of UNDP Programmes. Working Guidelines'.  UNDP, Geneva
The UN operates a Common Understanding of the human rights-based approach to development (HRBA). This paper sets out working guidelines for a human rights-based review of UNDP country offices and projects based on the Common Understanding. The guidelines aim to support reviews at each phase of programming, strengthen existing activities and assist in the design of new programmes from a human rights perspective.
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United Nations Development Programme, n.d., Human Rights-Based Approach Checklist for Programme Staff, UNDP
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OHCHR, 2007, ‘Good Governance Practices for the Protection of Human Rights’, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, New York and Geneva
How can governance reforms contribute to the protection of human rights? How are governance and human rights linked in the areas of democratic institutions, state service delivery, the rule of law and anti-corruption measures? This publication uses 21 case studies from around the world to show how governance interventions by a range of social and institutional actors can implement human rights principles. Good governance and human rights are mutually reinforcing.
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UNDP, 2007, 'Human Rights and the Millennium Development Goals: Making the Link', Primer, United Nations Development Programme, Oslo
While policies of aid agencies increasingly emphasise the connection between human rights and development, in practice the concepts often remain on separate, parallel tracks. This paper provides guidance for development practitioners to link human rights with the design and implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The human rights framework can help achieve the MDGs in an equitable, just and sustainable manner and ground development work within a universal set of values.
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SIDA, 2003, 'Country Strategy Development: Guide for Country Analysis from a Democratic Governance and Human Rights Perspective', Swedish International Development Agency, Stockholm 
Democratic governance has become a priority in donor policies. This guide aims to assist the analysis of country strategies from the perspective of democratic governance and human rights and guide donor intervention. It is important to adapt to the reality of each country and to guarantee synergy between the priorities of partner countries and donors.
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NORAD, 2001, 'Handbook in Human Rights Assessment. State Obligations, Awareness and Empowerment', Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, Oslo
How do you enhance the human rights profile of development programmes? How do you identify the need for human rights impact analysis? This handbook assists the user in addressing human rights concerns by recording the potential, planned or likely positive or negative effects of the programme under review. It is not a manual on how to conduct a full-scale human rights impact analysis but a guide to identifying the need for such analysis.
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Practical guidance for RBAs

As indicated, implementing a human rights-based approach in development cooperation is – at country level – being viewed in conjunction with commitments made as part of the Accra Agenda for Action in 2008. Although there is practical guidance on how to approach these emerging development aid principles, there is still a need for practical guidance on implementing human rights at programme and project level. This has often been done on a ‘lessons learned’ basis, leading to the development of general principles, tips, and implementation tools in terms of the following: a) project/programme design, planning and implementation; b) situational analysis; c) capacity building; and monitoring and evaluation. This guidance is also tailored according to particular human rights concerns (e.g. women and children) or sectors.


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
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Boesen, J. K. and Martin, T., 2007, 'Applying a Rights-based Approach: An Inspirational Guide for Civil Society', Danish Institute for Human Rights, Copenhagen
With its focus on law and the root causes of poverty, the rights-based approach (RBA) releases a new transformative potential for development. This guide provides practical methods for the integration of the RBA into programmes implemented by smaller civil society organisations (CSOs) in poor countries. While it is not a panacea, the RBA has the potential to bring people whose rights are denied by poverty to the centre of development analyses and implementation.
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BMZ, 2010, ‘Human Rights In Practice: Fact Sheets on Human Rights-Based Approaches in Development Cooperation’, Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Berlin
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Theis, J., 2004, 'Promoting Rights-Based Approaches: Experiences and Ideas from Asia and the Pacific', Save the Children, Stockholm
What is a rights-based approach (RBA)? How can rights-based programming be translated into practical project and programme tools? This manual is a collection of articles introducing RBAs and presenting practical advice on application, case studies and innovative tools for implementing RBAs. It concludes with a list of web resources on rights-based approaches.
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Save the Children, 2002, 'Child Rights Programming: How to Apply Rights-Based Approaches in Programming', Save the Children, Stockholm
What is the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and how can it be used in development programming? This handbook demonstrates how the CRC can be used as the basis for the project cycle and efforts for advocacy and change. It promotes the Child Rights Programming (CRP) approach and provides guidance about how to use this approach in practice.
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Gender and reproductive health

UNFPA and Harvard School of Public Health, 2010, ‘A Human Rights-based Approach to Programming: Practical Information and Training Materials’, UNFPA, New York
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Additional information

See also the UN Portal on Human Rights Based Approaches (HRBA)