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The rationale rights based approaches

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 3867 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This essay will discuss about the rationale, shortcomings and potentials of rights based approaches to development as a subject. The objective of this essay is to explore the above mentioned in detail as this is believed to help all those involved in development work and to add to the existing debates in this area. The other reason is to clarify this theorisation for actors in the field be it NGOs and government or international agencies dealing with development to really understand what rights based approaches entail.

Rights based approaches to development has become so popular for the past decade, with development agencies and national governments understanding it and implementing it in a diverse of ways. As Hickey put it

“Some development professionals remained committed to the approach, while others were frustrated at the lack of progress in realising its apparent potential. Some academics and activists expressed continuing scepticism and argued that the rights based approach was one more example of northern hegemony”.(Hickey etal,2009:9)

It is against this backdrop that discussing about the shortcomings and potentials of rights based approaches is appropriate. The discussion is hoped that it will help governments and NGOs to take into account the shortcomings and potentials in their development work. The essay focuses on the rights based approaches in generally, for there is need for self reflection so that actors can understand both the negative and positive side of rights based approaches for it to be a helpful tool on the ground rather than theory. This point was emphasised by Hickey saying

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“……….neither praise nor damn rights based approaches to development, and to instead work toward a more balanced understanding of both potentials and pitfalls of such approaches. We hope that this measure assessment will avoid the antagonisms with other new approaches to development for example social capital, participation, in which reasonable disagreements have become running battles, entrenching increasingly polarised positions, clouding attention to facts on the ground and preventing the productive synergies that should develop between opposing views.”(Hickey etal, 2009:209).

To address the issues highlighted in the above paragraphs the essay will deal with the rationale of rights based approaches followed by a discussion on the current debates which will help to highlight the shortcomings and potentials. A comparative analysis with other approaches to development will be looked at and a discussion about the shortcomings and potentials which will be followed by a conclusion.

Various definitions has been put forward to describe what a rights based approach is. As stated in the Human Rights Reference Book, “Human rights to development can be defined as a conceptual and analytical approach to development cooperation, which is based on the standards and principles of human rights and which aims to incorporate these standards and principles in all planning and implementation of development cooperation ”(Sepulveda etal 2004:03)

Others define a rights based approach in what it does to a situation. As stated in Ball, “A Rights based approach helps to uncover the root causes of under development, conflict and even natural disasters such as famine.”(Ball 2005:278).In relation to this essay, the definition as propagated by Sepulveda in the Human Rights Handbook will be used or referred to. For the proper understanding to the readers, there is need to define as well what development is and which definition is applied in this contexts as rights based approach focuses on the way in which development is being approached. The preamble to the Right to Development Declaration states that,

“Development is a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well being of the entire population and all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting there from.”[1]

This definition will be the one referred to in this essay since it cover so many things and it is a consensus from all the nations which fall under the United Nations. Having stated the objective of the essay, given the definitions of development and rights based approach the essay will now discuss the rationale behind having rights based approach to development.

In order to highlight the shortcomings and contributions the fundamental reasons for using a rights based approach to development will be discussed. It is my view that from the past development projects were not incorporating human rights in their agendas. Human development and human rights were seen as separate fields altogether. However it was realised that all the two frameworks are there to promote and secure the people’s dignity and also freedoms. As stated by Nyamu-Musembi,

“A rights based approach adds an element of accountability and culpability, an ethical or moral dimension to development. It therefore, demands a shift from viewing poverty eradication as development goal to viewing it as a matter of social justice, as the realisation of a right and fulfilment of a duty.”(Nyamu-Musembi, 2005:42)

However in relation to NGOs, adopting rights based approach is based on the fact that it is moral right, and widely accepted perception that it brings contributions to traditional approaches which will be discussed in the essay. It was also believed international-wide by authors and professionals that development should have a consideration for rights. It is the writer’s view that human rights and development are more effective together than either one on its own. And this reason of combining a rights based approach to development was confirmed by Theis as he stated that

“Combining human rights, development and activism create a more effective approach than any of them on their own. A rights based approach has a greater chance of achieving results in the fight against injustice, inequality, poverty and exploitation”. (Theis, 2004:13).

The realisation by actors in development was to the effect that not all was being done to realise the rights of people and there was need for some comprehensive approach to tackle issues as poverty and address the inequalities involved and this can be done through legal means. Petit said

“Development practitioners have to begun to recognise the limits of their technical and micro-project approaches in tackling the root causes of poverty. They have recognised the need to address deeper structures of inequality and exclusion and to confront these at the legal and political as well as social, cultural and economic levels.”(Petit, p92)

Also according to Gready the realisation of links has led to the issue of rights in development as he stated that

“Recognition of the fundamental links between rights, denial, impoverishment, vulnerability and conflict has led to the incorporation of rights- based approaches into the funding strategies, policy formulations and practice of a diverse range of actors.”(Gready P etal.2005:1).

The other reason for adopting a rights based approach to development was that it uses different lens for the analysis of problems which development seeks to address. The committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have summarised or explained the above statement as follows

“The real potential of human rights lies in its ability to change the way people perceive themselves vis-a-vis the government and other actors. Rights framework provides a mechanism for reanalysing and renaming “problems’ like contaminated water or malnutrition as “violations” and, as such, something that need not and should not be tolerated…..Rights make it clear that violations are neither inevitable nor natural, but arise from deliberate decisions and policies. By demanding explanation and accountability, human rights expose the hidden prioritise and structures behind violations and challenge the conditions that create poverty”[2]

Having looked at the rationale for using rights based approach it is important for this essay to discuss some of the debates which are existing in this field to clearly show the potentials and shortcomings of rights based approach. There has been a debate that human rights based approaches re-politicise development through NGOs work and it is still topical. This was about humanitarian principles applied by international agencies namely impartiality, independence and neutrality which are considered to be political values. Most writers have agreed that development can be re-politicised by human rights based approach especially in relation to to the identification of needs. As Nyamu -Musembi and Cornwall expressed that

“Whereas a needs based approach focuses on securing additional resources for delivery of services to marginalised groups, a rights based approach calls for existing resources to be shared more equally….assisting the marginalised people to assert their rights to those resources, thus making the process explicitly political”(Nyamu-Musembi etal 2004:2).

This debate is now looked at to see if it can highlight some shortcomings or potentials of using a right based approach. In this case I will try and analyse whether being political in the sense portrayed is bad for development. It is my personal view that it is necessary part for rights based approach to be political as this can bring public awareness and include naming, shaming for the governments and development actors for the rights violations. It is my contention that using other methods was leaving behind the issue of power relations that exist in society and this causes them not to look at the root causes of the problems.

Others argue that human rights based approaches are a new form of imperialism used to provide an increasingly intrusive attack on sovereignty, democracy and political debate. Some argue that this issue of cultural imperialism stems from the origins or foundation of human rights which is mainly western in nature. But others also defended the position by arguing that the universal aspect of rights is necessary for it adds legitimacy and that human rights based approaches involves both sides of universality and cultural relativism. Looking at this debate I find it to portray a potential of rights based approach to development.

Those who support human rights based approaches are happy and felt that putting development within the confines of the law is good for it creates a point of accountability, that is obligations and rights or duties mainly on states and all the actors involved in development programmes. As pointed by Gready that

“The value -added of rights based approach can be sought through direct applications of the law, but more particularly through indirect and strategic uses of the law.”(Gready 2008:78)

However there are some who are so sceptical about using the law where there are inequalities and existing power relations which are different.

The existing debates are showing potentials and rationale of human rights based approaches as perceived in the development circles. To real engage in the debate as to whether rights based approach have any potential or has some shortcomings, a comparative analysis will be done with other traditional approaches which were used and in this case sustainable livelihoods and needs based approaches or charity. In relation to sustainable livelihoods it can be said that they can complement each other but it deals with the impact of entitlements whilst rights based deals more with what entitlements the marginalised people should have and focus more on the long run effect. This can highlight the potential made by rights based as compared to sustainable livelihoods approach.

Another approach to be discussed is needs based, in which case it is mainly based on needs and even selective as to which needs are more important and will be addressed. Looking at a rights based approach it can be compared to a needs based and be found to be better for it addresses the root causes of the problem since rights are indivisible it deals with the situation as it is. A needs based approach no one has obligation and duty unlike in a rights based approach, it entails binding and moral obligations on the actors like government. The other fact about needs based approaches is that like sustainable livelihoods, it focuses on the short term just to address the needs but a right based looks at the long term. I strongly believe that rights based approaches to development has improved the situations and contributed a lot to development as a subject. In a rights based approach the subjects are empowered to claim for their own rights. A table inspired by Save the children will be drawn to show this comparison, summarising the differences between rights based and needs based. It is not disputed that these are good contributions made by rights based approaches to development

Inspired by Save the children and created by the author

The comparative analysis has been done by various authors among them Jonsson from UNICEF stated when comparing needs based and rights based approaches to nutrition,

“…..the essence of the differences is that in the former beneficiaries have no active claims to ensure that their needs will be met, and there is no binding obligation or duty for anybody to meet these needs. In contrast, a rights based approach recognises beneficiaries as active subjects or claim -holders and establishes duties or obligations for those against whom a claim can be held.”(Jonsson 1999:49)

From the above comparative analysis with other approaches or perspectives to development it can be safely concluded that human rights based approaches contributed significantly to development as a subject and has the potential of driving development works in a better direction for the betterment of the marginalised groups.

After having dealt with a needs based approach to show the contributions made by rights based approach another comparative analysis is done with a charity based approach. This approach has been criticised because it give the impression that a problem has been solved, but it does not deal with the root causes as well and it does not give the beneficiaries the opportunity to make decisions. Rights based approach is rapidly trying and replacing this charity based to overcome the shortcomings. The table below also shows the different between charity and rights based approach to development

Inspired by (Lisndstorm -Sarelim and Mustaniemi-Laakso.2007) and created by the author

From the above table 2 it can be said the rights based approaches have contributed significantly to development as a subject.

Despite the theoretical strength of this approach, it is also not free from shortcomings. The following section will explore the shortcomings of the approach without a specific context and juxtapose it with the potentials which will be grouped into four categories namely political, conceptual, organisational and strategic challenges and ideological as well as implementation. All this is done to address the issues as to whether rights based approaches have really contributed or is it is just a failure.


It can be said that rights based approaches sometimes suffer a number of conceptual difficulties, especially in the economic social and cultural spheres. As can be supported by John Farrington,

“The difficulty of systematically incorporating a time frame in the consideration of right, so that for instance they do not illuminate environmental issues such as the appropriate rate of depletion of non-renewable resources. The difficulty of conceptualising an appropriate balance between rights and responsibilities and also the difficulty of defining when cultural specifications override wider good should require suspension of normal rights. The difficulties in resolving tensions among different levels at which rights are conceived”, (Farrington,2001:3)

There is a progressive potential though, rights based approach did position development as being for everyone and not really focusing on the so called poorest people in society. It also gives some political issues into development in the issues be it problems and solutions.

Organisational and strategic challenges

Rights based approach can be said that it gives an organisation a hard time in that rights are indivisible, so they cannot prioritise since all rights are equally important and this is really difficult when the organisation has only limited resources to address the issues at stake. Another issues that in the process the staff is engaged in the politics at a greater stage than with other approaches. This can be against foreign policy and the organisations may compromise the humanitarian principle of neutrality and this can be dangerous to the staff.

On the other hand it can be said the approach is a potential in that this is a holistic approach and can help the development agencies to deal with the root causes of the problem which in some situations would be authorities. It gives a clear planning to organisations.


A rights based approach can be said to have a shortcoming in that it put on the state, as a duty bearer all the burden. And another contentious issue is of taking matters to the courts, in these instances it will be on individual basis and this undermines or destroys the collective struggles. Rights based approach in some instances might be too confrontational a method or a strategy and this takes away or removes the other approaches of negotiation.

Again it can be regarded a potential as it gives and impose obligations also creates duty bearers. It makes the beneficiaries or rights holders to participate in programmes and play a role in the decisions that affect their lives. Its again strengthens the principle of equality and citizenship.


Rights based approach can be said to be supporting the neoliberal agenda or ideas by emphasising on individualism. And the approach does not sometimes take into account different contexts and some ideas may not be good for a certain group of environment, they just applied equal everywhere. On the other hand it can be said rights based approach put development so as to address inequalities and fight discrimination of marginalised groups and address power relations through development on how to distribute resources.

Rights based approach needs adequate resources to be implemented and this sometimes offer a major problem for there can be financial constraints

After exploration of the potentials, shortcomings and the rationale for rights based approaches in a bid to address the issues as a way of self criticism within the approach, it is noble to provide some suggestion so as to take forward the goal and securing more progressive forms of development. Though it has been discussed that rights based approaches re-politicise development, it can be said that it is necessary for development actors to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and marginalised. Also when rights based approaches is focused, there is need to be defined and conceptualised well since there is room for diverse interpretation. I t is also suggested that there is need for self reflection of the rights based to understand the potentials and shortcomings as this will help to move this tool of human rights based approach from being theory into practice, or from theoretical arguments to evidence based arguments.

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Rights based approach is here to stay and be implemented in development projects, however as highlighted in the essay it has made tremendous contributions to development as a subject by bringing into board the issues of accountability, duty bearers, participation of the citizens and dealing with the root causes of the problem. It again tries to address the inequalities from the power relations that exits in society. Like any other approach it also suffers shortcomings from the way it can be implemented, different contexts, political and ideological differences that exist as some portray it as a form of cultural imperialism and some sort of western hegemony. This writer was aware of the existing talks with regard to the approach and have decided to do a rundown of the approach looking into the contributions that has been made and also the shortcomings as a way of helping the various actors involved in development to know more about the approach so as to appreciate it as it is and working towards improving on the shortcomings highlighted. It was also intended to add to the existing debates as to whether rights based approaches have failed or not.


Ball O.2005 “Conclusion”, in P Gready Reinventing development? Translating rights-based approaches from theory into practice (PP278-300)

Farrington J.2001, Sustainable Livelihoods, Rights and the New Architecture of Aid, Number 69, June 2001, The Overseas Development Institute. London

Gready, P 2008 “Rights based approaches to development: What is the value added? Development in practice- oxford p74

Hickey S. and D Milton (eds) 2009 Rights Based Approaches to Development, Exploring the Potential and Pitfalls. Kumarian Press

Jonsson U.1999 Historical Summary on the SCN Working Group on Nutrition, Ethics, and Human Rights.SCN News 18 July, special issue on Adequate Food: A Human Right:49-51

Lundstrom-Sarelin, A and M Mustaniemi-Laasko 2007 Human Rights Based Approach to Development; what is it all about? HRBA in development cooperation: change from needs based to rights based” 27. 09.2007

Nyamu -Musembi C and A Cornwall2004 “What is the rights based approach “all about: Perspectives from International development agencies, Sussex, England. Institute of Development Studies.

Nyamu -Musembi.C2005 “An Actor-oriented Approach to Rights in Development”, IDS Bulletin, Volume 36 Number 1, January 2005 pp42.

Petit Jand J Wheeler, Developing Rights? Relating Discourse to Context and Practice. Institute of development Studies

Sepulveda M,T Van Banning D.Gudmundsclotter,C. Chamoun and WJM.Van Genungten(eds) 2004 Human Rights Reference Handbook, University of Peace.

Theis J 2004 Promoting Rights Based Approaches, Experiences and Ideas from Asia and the Pacific. Save the children Sweden. Keen Publishing.

  1. Declaration on the Right to development, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in resolution 41/128 of 4 December 1986.
  2. CESCR (Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) 1999 International Technical Assistance Measures (article 2).CESCR General Comment Number 2.Geneva.CESCR.


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