Human rights need not come before development

Attaching political conditions to aid can easily backfire

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After a period of relative silence, rights are once again at the front and centre of development debates.

In the UK, NGOs and activists welcomed Jim Murphy’s first speech as Shadow Secretary of State for International Development last week, in which he suggested that human rights will be central to Labour’s revitalised strategy for investing Britain’s 0.7 per cent of GDP commitment to aid. He committed to creating a new Human Rights unit in DFID headed by a senior official and to tougher aid conditions based on human rights performance.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in his latest book Bill Easterly suggests that if only Gates and other funders would prioritise people’s rights over technical solutions delivered by engineers we could unlock the true potential of development.   

Meanwhile in the global post-2015 debates, some are asking that the new framework does justice to the rights agenda – unlike the Millennium Development Goals, which paid no attention to human rights and political freedoms.  

What should we make of this rights renaissance? I have mixed feelings – and a sense of discomfort. 

Firstly, let me be clear: I care deeply about human rights. Unlike its many critics, I believe that the spirit and the political project of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is still alive and well today, and I believe that the international legal framework – combined with national laws, protection mechanisms and legal channels for ensuring the protection of and respect for rights – is an asset for humanity.

I am, however, less sure that this provides a good basis for the formulation of development policies.

First off, I have become increasingly skeptical of the meaning and value ofrights based approaches to development, what Jim Murphy calls ‘rights respecting development’. Enabling people to realise their rights is a desirable outcome of development, and an international commitment on this would be positive. There are very concrete examples where the normative power of rights combined with concrete constitutional arrangements has made a significant difference in people’s lives, such as India’s Right to Information and Rural Employment Guarantee acts  or the provision on economic and social rights in the South African  and Colombian constitutions. 

I’m not convinced, however, that there is something distinctive about ‘doing development’ from a rights perspective? There’s nothing inherently ‘anti rights’ in technical approaches to development – and indeed, engineers and experts can contribute to realising people’s rights, as Owen Barder recently argued.  The problem with technical fixes is not so much that they don’t prioritise rights as that they overlook the domestic institutional and political dynamics that determine development outcomes. ‘Rights based approaches’ tend not to help in that respect, because they are based on idealistic rather than realistic, evidence-based ideas about what works.

Secondly, and as I’ve written elsewhere, there is abundant evidence that attaching human rights and other political conditionalities to aid often doesn’t  work to improve rights outcomes. To achieve this, much more joined up thinking on how to deploy diplomatic efforts, trade rules and other forms of international pressure is needed - all carefully tailored to the individual countries circumstances – which combined can be more effective mechanisms than aid conditionality alone.

Finally, and most importantly, human rights is a global political agenda: turning it into an issue solely for ‘developing countries’ betrays the spirit of the Universal Declaration. Indeed, if donor countries like the UK care about human rights and are serious about helping to address severe human rights violations, they should start by putting their own house in order – and could start with the following:

Addressing the rights of migrants and refugees. The political context in many western countries has never been as hostile as it is today for migrants, and recent reports suggest alarming situations in detention or transition centres. While the deaths of those in the Mediterranean have shocked many, the conditions under which the ‘lucky survivors’ are kept once reaching the mainland is something the EU and its member states need to take urgent action on.

Making progress on women’s rights and gender equality. Earlier this week the UN’s special rapporteur Rashida Manjoo  argued that sexism was worse in the UK than in other places, and warned that the government's austerity measures were having a "disproportionate impact" on women's risk of violence. And before worrying about women’s rights in developing countries, the UK charity sector ought to take a good look at how it is preforming at home, where the gender pay gap is widening.  According to this recent survey, the median charity chief executive pay is 18.6 per cent – nearly a fifth – less for women than for men. In senior leadership roles, women earn 10 per cent less than their male counterparts.

Protecting workers’ rights. In November 2013 over 5.2 million Britons were earning less than the living wage (currently £8.55 in London and £7.45 elsewhere) with women – and single mothers in particular - once again being hit the hardest:  27 per cent of women are paid the living wage, compared with 16 per cent of men. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, lone mothers can expect to lose 8.5 per cent of their annual income by 2015, equivalent to a month's take home income every year. 

Unfinished business abroad. How donor countries behave overseas remains a key issue. Amidst controversies and outrage, Guantanamo Bay is still open and the images of the abuses perpetrated in Abu Ghraib prison and beyond contributed to questioning the behavior and standards of Western military personnel in conflict. In more recent times, the prevalence of drones in countries like Pakistan sits badly with the human rights agenda:  in 2009, President Obama carried out as many drone strikes on Pakistan as Bush did in 5 years.

Nearly a decade ago, Philipp Alston referred to rights and development as ships passing in the night: while much water has flowed under the bridge since, we’re still not getting rights right. 

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