As a student of development sometimes the ’industry’, viewed through the lens of academic journals, endless lists of statistic and shiny NGO websites can seem to be an almost self-perpetuating entity. Much of its work seeming to focus on providing for basic and immediate human needs but failing to engage on a broader level with the economic and social power structures that perpetuate the cycles of disempowerment and marginalization that permeate many poor communities both North and South of the equator.
Can fragmented funding for small scale agricultural in the Global South have any real effect while the same countries markets are flooded with hugely subsidized produce from the Global North? Can a few hundred million spent on climate change adaption measures make any real difference while emissions continue to spiral out of control in the industrialized World? Is the economic model of unfettered capitalism, and the increasingly gross levels of inequality and environmental damage associated with it, one that can bring any kind of lasting development to the worlds less economically developed nations?
There have undoubtedly been huge gains made in improving people’s access to health care, education and employment in much of the world over the last decades; however, whether this level of gains will continue as we continue to move into a resource depleted, climatically altered future is uncertain at best. If we truly seek a fairer and more just future should we be looking beyond aid funding for the essential but often short term gaols of the provision of basic needs, to achieving a more equitable distribution of power and resources at all levels from the household to the global?
The increasing integration of the perspectives and language of human rights into the development community and its many papers and policy documents is an important step in formally acknowledging some of these broader issues. The distinction between needs based and rights based programming in development work may seem somewhat abstract from afar but in actuality it can have a huge bearing on how aid money, or funding within an organisation, is distributed and on how policy is designed and implemented. I would argue on a broader level a rights based analysis can also challenge some of our fundamental notions about aid and development itself.
The more I study the issues around aid and development work the more I feel there is a need for a paradigm shift away from the notion of giving ‘aid’, rooted in the notion of charity, to a view of development as an obligation to assist in fulfilling the realisation of peoples human rights.
The distinction, as given by the UNFPA, is that where a need not fulfilled leads to dissatisfaction, aright that is not respected leads to a violation, and its redress or reparation can be legally and legitimately claimed. A human rights-based approach to development differs from the basic needs approach in that it recognizes the existence of rights. It stresses the role of duty bearers, domestic and international governments, corporations and fellow global citizens to respect, protect and guarantee these rights.
Where a needs based approach can often frame the ends as justifying the means, a rights based approach considers the means fundamental to the ends, not just hitting targets on a log frame but actively involving, consulting and seeking to empower communities concerned. This distinction in how humanitarian and development projects are conceived can have a huge bearing on how they are formulated and carried out.
A rights based analysis of development interventions can ask some fundamental questions about their aims and purpose. Is the role of the development sector to provide for the bare essentials in people’s lives while at the macro level, governmental, corporate and institutional structures continue unabated in ignoring and exploiting those same communities targeted.
It often seems in development work there is a focus on the micro: from the seemingly exponentially expanding number of small scale NGOs to the focus on particular areas of people’s lives and livelihoods like education, employment or health initiatives, often without any real questioning of the broader position of developments ‘beneficiaries’ in the power structures that perpetuate the cycle of poverty in which they are trapped. Needs based programmes can be implemented in order to provide for basic and essential services but not necessarily impact on what one hopes is the ultimate goal of ending those cycles of poverty and disempowerment to enable communities to stand on their own two feet.
Another important question a rights based analysis of development programmes can pose is how funds are allocated and who should be targeted in a given intervention. Concentrating on the most marginalized people, socially, economically and geographically, is an essential part of a rights-based approach. Organisations often try to reach the greatest number of people they can with the resources they have, this can lead to those who are more difficult to reach being overlooked. Sadly those hardest to reach are often also those suffering some of the most acute poverty. A rights-based approach seeks to identify those who are most marginalized and ensure that their rights are not ignored. These issues will become increasingly important in a not too distant future of severely depleted resources, an increasingly unstable economic system, changed climate and wide-scale environmental degradation. How to achieve more in terms of people reached and targets met, with less funds is, and will continue to be, a serious issue for humanitarian and development organisations.
In trying to come to terms with my own place as a student of development and as a human being hoping to at the very least do no harm in a future career in the sector I feel these issues around how development is conceived of and implemented are fundamental to how I view my role and the role of the ‘industry’. For development to work it needs to first and foremost give voice to those it seeks’ to help. The always insightful Paulo Freire put it pretty succinctly,
‘The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favour without that trust.”