How to make a Rights-Based Approach to Development Work: A DFID Perspective

17 February 1999
Public event

Speakers:

Rosalynd Eyben, Social Development Division, DFID.

Roger Wilson, Head, Government Institutions Department, DFID.

Sarah Beeching, Head, Policy Unit, Conflict and Humanitarian Affairs Department, DFID.

Description

This event featured a discussion of DFID’s work on a rights-based approach to development, from a background paper on ‘A Human Rights Approach to Development’, prepared by Julia Hausermann in 1997, through references in the White Paper, to the first annual Human Rights Report, prepared jointly with the FCO and published in June 1998, and the Secretary of State’s speech on human rights in December 1998 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration.

  1. Introducing a discussion of DFID’s work on a rights-based approach to development, Ros Eyben identified a ‘paper trail’, leading from a background paper on ‘A Human Rights Approach to Development’, prepared by Julia Hausermann in 1997, through references in the White Paper, to the first annual Human Rights Report, prepared jointly with the FCO and published in June 1998, and the Secretary of State’s speech on human rights in December 1998 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration. Ros Eyben cited the Secretary of State’s vision of ‘all human rights for all’, clearly linking economic, social and cultural rights to civil and political rights; and also the link to poverty reduction. The relationship between poverty and human rights was a two-way one: poverty was itself a denial of human rights, but also a shortfall in human rights made it more difficult to achieve poverty objectives.
  2. Turning to implementation of the policy, Roger Wilson identified three key questions. The first was the challenge of working with states, especially difficult states. What was DFID to do if states failed to respect human rights, or otherwise neglected their citizens? Usually, performance was uneven across sectors and rights, and all states ‘failed’ to a greater or lesser extent. DFID’s response was to ask about the commitment of governments to human rights, and procedures were being developed to assess that commitment, for example in the context of country strategy documents. DFID’s approach was to look for workable solutions.
  3. The second question was the apparent conflict between entitlement and affordability. On the one hand, a human rights perspective implied formal entitlement and claims by citizens; on the other hand, rights were expensive to fulfil. This was true even of civil and political rights: for example, an election in Indonesia was estimated to cost US$500 million. The legal framework talked about governments providing ‘maximum available resources’, and about the progressive realisation of rights. DFID interpreted this to mean that (a) governments should take on obligations to fulfil human rights, (b) these should be reflected in resource allocation, (c) governments should be accountable, (d) also transparent, and (e) there should be participation. The international development targets provided a useful adjunct to a rights-based approach, particularly in so far as they helped set performance standards for governments and provided a framework of accountability.
  4. The third question Roger Wilson raised concerned empowerment. Here, there was a clear link between developing a rights-based approach and the development of political systems.
  5. At this point Ros Eyben talked about the relationship between rights and politics. It was clear that one of the challenges was to give poor people ‘voice’. However, agencies had to recognise that changes needed to provide rights for the poor might upset the privileges of the rich. There were interesting questions here about the role of external agencies. By the same token, it was evident that rights were linked and interconnected. For example, for poor people to secure livelihood rights meant that they would also need access to the courts (for example, to settle land disputes): the right to livelihood was therefore linked to the right of access to justice.
  6. In implementing rights, Ros Eyben emphasised the importance of standard setting, in order to translate norms into performance standards. However, she also stressed the importance of information: poor people could not participate in the discussion without full access to information.
  7. This was linked to Roger Wilson’s final points, which described the kinds of mechanisms needed to develop a rights-based approach. Standard setting was important, but so was education. The monitoring and reporting of the human rights situation was central.
  8. It was clear from the discussion that a human rights approach raised very difficult questions. Ros Eyben used the health example to suggest that difficult issues arose in connection with rationing – to what standard of care were people entitled? There was also conflict between individual rights (e.g. reproductive rights) and collective rights (e.g. a society’s ability to feed and clothe its population).
  9. A number of issues were raised in the general discussion:
  1. Some participants remained wary about the value-added of a rights-based approach, and wondered whether it was a distraction from DFID’s core task of delivering measures to reduce poverty. Others felt real progress was being made on the issue, and that DFID had advanced substantially since the White Paper.
  2. Some important conceptual points were made about the nature of rights, focussing particularly on hierarchies of rights, and on the balance between individual and collective rights. The dilemmas raised by Ros Eyben were recognised. Some felt the political process might be robust enough to resolve these questions of priority setting; others disagreed.
  3. The question of who were the duty holders was raised. Some participants felt that the international community had obligations with regard to economic, social and cultural rights in developing countries (indeed the relevant clauses of the Universal Declaration made reference to international obligations). These obligations were especially likely to come into play if poor countries did not have the fiscal capacity to fulfil rights.
  4. By the same token, private sector actors, particularly multi-national corporations, also had obligations. Should they be encouraged to sign up as parties to international declarations?
  5. There was a useful discussion about information and rights, with some participants arguing that it was not necessary for rights formally to be ‘justiciable’. Parallels could be drawn with the debate on individual responsibility in war situations.