Rights-based approaches

The adoption of rights-based approaches (RBAs) in development work – that is, approaches that are informed and guided by the framework of international human rights law, and the values that underpin it – has had a significant impact on the ways in which development agencies operate. RBAs emphasise the centrality of power relations, and the core principles of participation, accountability and non-discrimination. RBAs draw attention to the responsibility of duty-bearers to uphold human rights, and seek to support rights-holders to claim their rights.

Gauri, V., & Gloppen, S. (2012). Human rights-based approaches to development: Concepts, evidence, and policy (World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 5938). Washington, DC: World Bank.
This paper reviews empirical evidence on the benefits, risks, and limitations of human rights-based approaches to development (HRBAs). Four types of rights-based approaches are identified: global compliance based on international and regional treaties; human rights-based programming on the part of donors and governments; rights talk; and legal mobilisation. The latter is increasing in frequency and scope in several countries, and exhibits appealing attributes such as inclusiveness and deliberative quality. However, there are potential problems with this form of human rights based mobilisation, including middle class capture, the potential counter-majoritarianism of courts, and difficulties in compliance.
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Uvin, P. (2004). A rights-based approach to development. In Human rights and development (pp. 122-166). Bloomfield: Kumarian Press.
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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Magesan, A. (2013, May). Human rights treaty ratification of aid receiving countries. World Development, 45, 175-188.
Does ratification of international human rights treaties affect aid receipts and / or domestic human rights institutions? This paper uses statistical analysis to examine the empirical relationship between foreign aid, human rights, and participation in the United Nations Human Rights Treaties (HRT), using a sample of 83 countries from the period 1972-2006. HRT participation has a significant positive effect on a country’s foreign aid receipts, but precipitates a decline in domestic human rights institutions. The results suggest that rewarding participation in international human rights agreements with foreign aid is detrimental to human rights in recipient countries.
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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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Hickey, S., & Mitlin, D. (Eds.). (2009). Rights, wrongs and realities: Exploring the potential and pitfalls of rights-based approaches to development. Boulder, CO: Kumarian Press.
This book brings together twelve chapters exploring five themes: the evolution of the rights based approach; identity, inclusion and non-discrimination; the interface between rights and collective and/or individual strategies for poverty reduction; the contribution of rights to strengthening the agency of the poor; and rights-based approaches enable agencies to be more effective in reaching low-income groups and addressing poverty.
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Implications of RBA for development agencies

What are the implications of RBAs for how development agencies function? A key discussion amongst researchers and policymakers about rights-based approaches centres on improving relationships and processes among 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. Another key area of debate is the relationship between rights-based approaches and results-based approaches, such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Langford, M., Sumner, A., & Yamin, A.E. (2013). Millennium development goals and human rights. Cambridge University Press.
How should we understand the relationship between the MDGs and human rights from different perspectives? What has been the actual relationship between the MDGs and human rights in practice? And how can the two paradigms be integrated in the post-2015 development agenda? This edited book tackles these three questions with contributions from a wide range of authors.
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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, development efforts need to rest on an understanding of how unequal power relations underpin human rights denials, and how this is institutionalised through values, rules and practices. This approach involves a need to reform institutions and transform power relations through enhancing 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.

Nielsen, R.A. (2013). Rewarding human rights? Selective aid sanctions against repressive states. International Studies Quarterly, 57(4), 791-803.
Do foreign aid donors use sanctions to punish repressive states, and if so, why? This study analyses data on bilateral foreign aid to 118 developing countries from 1981-2004. Results show that donors impose aid sanctions selectively: aid sanctions typically occur when repressive states do not have close political ties to aid donors, when violations have negative consequences for donors, and when violations are widely publicised.
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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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Groves, L. and Hinton, R. (Eds.). (2013). Inclusive aid: Changing power and relationships in international development. Abingdon: Routledge.
This book is about the need to recognise the complex, non-linear nature of development assistance and how bureaucratic procedures and power relations hinder poverty reduction in the new aid environment. The book begins with a conceptual and historical analysis of aid, exposing the challenges and opportunities facing aid professionals today. It argues for greater attention to accountability and the adoption of rights based approaches. In section two, practitioners, policy makers and researchers discuss the realities of power and relationships from their experiences across sixteen countries. Section three explores ways forward for aid agencies, challenging existing political, institutional and personal ways of working. Crucially, the authors show how translating rhetoric into practice relies on changing the attitudes and behaviours of individual actors.
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The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (2005), the Accra Agenda for Action (2008) and the Busan Partnership Agreement (2011) all emphasise the centrality of human rights in development. A rights-based approach involves respecting and responding to partners’ priorities and existing commitments on human rights issues, and being transparent and consistent about donor decision-making processes.

See The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action and the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation.

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. This highlights the need for the international community to be seen as legitimate by building accountable aid relationships.

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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Cornwall, A., Robins, S., & Von Lieres, B. (2011). States of citizenship: Contexts and cultures of public engagement and citizen action (IDS Working Paper 363). Brighton: Instutite of Development Studies.
Drawing on case studies, this paper calls for mechanisms aimed at enhancing citizen engagement to be based on a deeper contextual understanding of citizenship experience and practice in different kinds of states.
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Citizenship is not always constructed through engagement with the state, but is also 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 for the universal applicability of state-endorsed rights?

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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Davy, U. (2014). How human rights shape social citizenship: On citizenship and the understanding of economic and social rights. Washington University Global Studies Law Review, 13(2).
This article reconceptualises citizenship, a notion usually tied to the nation state, as ‘layered’. Human rights may serve as the international ‘layer’ of citizenship, addressing nationals and non-nationals alike. Poverty mitigation is now the human rights core of ‘social’ citizenship. The article argues that social citizenship is increasing in importance and in practice.
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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.

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 and the Busan Partnership Agreement. Practical guidance has often been developed 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 d) 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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Additional information

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