Bare necessities: have human rights been effective to secure basic needs?

Worldwide consensus expressed among others in the Millennium Development Goals demands a considerable reduction if not eradication of poverty and hunger in the world. One of the attempts to come closer to the fulfilment of these desires is a shift in development cooperation initiatives from ‘needs based’ to ‘rights based’. This shift is motivated by the conviction, voiced most prominently by Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen, that in most cases hunger is caused not by an overall quantitative lack in availability of food, but by exclusion of the poor from access to food. It is believed that access to the necessities of life, including food, can be improved by promotion of recognition of human rights.

The paradigm shift in development cooperation is expressed in the label ‘(human) rights-based approach’, which implies stipulating a set of good practices in development policies or programs to include express linkages to international human rights law, empowerment, participation, non-discriminations and equality, accountability and attention to vulnerable groups. The approach also asserts a methodology of development not simply in terms of human needs, but in terms of state’s obligations to respond to inalienable rights of individuals. The aims is to empower them to demand their needs, as entitlements not as a charity. By stipulating these requirements, development cooperation ought to go beyond material outcomes, such as meeting basic survival needs, and include establishing individuals as the centre of development processes and enabling them to be the main actors in development processes.

While a shift to integrate the rights-based approach into development cooperation is openly advertised, we believe there to be a second, less advertised, shift which is in aid relations, as it is mainly the case with development cooperation. A focus on aid relation in the integration of human rights in development cooperation may imply a technical relation, thus needs-based approach, between the individuals, the recipient’s state and the donor (state or non-state).

One reason is as follow. In the needs based approach, the key relation is between the donor and the recipient (of the donor’s charity). Here a direct connection between donors (who work based on a state’s license) and the individuals (may be represented by non-governmental organisations) largely circumvents the state. This implies there would be no need to impose a state obligation of human rights in such relationships (see figure 1: needs-based approach 1). Another reason is due to donors’ main relationship to the recipient state, which may also encompass as charity character, e.g. without a focus on accountability for both donor and recipient states. In consequence, the recipient state would still have the discretion to manage the fund for the individuals. And that state could maintain a technical and charity character in its relation to individuals.

The expected ideal situation according to the normative thinking of the rights-based approach in aid relations is that direct livelihood support is no longer provided by the donor to the individual but should be demanded by the individual from her/his state and/or provided by the state as an execution of its obligations, in which certain limitations and standards apply. This too in reality can imply a different technical relationship. Recognising needs as rights implies an emphasis on the relationship between states as duty-bearers and their citizens as the right-holders. With a focus on state obligations, the rights-based approach opts for strategies that demand more state measures in the protection of human rights in development processes. Therefore the focus from the donor may take the forms of assistances and advocacies for promoting participation, empowerment, or accountability. Individuals are assumed to become empowered and able to claim their entitlements

Improvement on the ability to claim for and demand protection, however, might be responded to as a request for more state initiatives that could imply more extension and accumulation of state power. Ultimately, the rights-based approach runs a risk to make the individual more rather than less dependent on the good will of the state.

There is, therefore, some reason to doubt the effectiveness of the rights-based approach in securing livelihoods. Human rights principles, the source of inspiration for the rights-based approach in development cooperation, are being addressed in different ways at the international level and at the national level. At its place of birth, the international level, human rights are legal principles adopted by using the political machine of, usually, the United Nations decision making systems. States’ political commitments in the form of ratifications, signatures or adoption of human rights treaties, declarations and resolutions are expected to serve as guidelines for the implementation of human rights in, relevant to our topic, national development processes. Also internal national regulations and policies are presumed to be executed in line with the principles.

In reality, it is far too optimistic to maintain the linear trajectory for the implementation of the rights-based approach in development process. In order for declared rights to be able to be acquired for the right holders a practice of enforcement is required. That ensures legal responses available for the application of rules and regulations and, if necessary, penalties, which can assure compliant behaviours. Experience reveals that achieving such a situation has been relatively easier if the rights in question hold certain attributes.

In the Northern Atlantic part of the world human rights have acquired an impressive track record in securing civil liberties. Values such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion are well established. Citizens can employ human rights to effectively protect themselves from undue interference by their governments (overruling if necessary the government’s policies with the help of the courts). In this situation the word ‘rights’ in human rights relates to the legal power of what people can ‘do’ and ‘act’ in ways that conform best to their individuality, identity and being. Here, legal rights assert legal duties, a limitation of what state can do and guide what state should do. The realisation of human rights is decidedly less advanced in contexts where ‘right’ stands for people’s entitlement to ‘have’ or even ‘receive’ the bare necessities to sustain their daily livelihoods, for example in relation to access to food or housing. Generally human rights seem less effective in enabling citizens to make successful claims from their governments.

Notably, the legal dimension of human rights is procedurally stronger when the rights in question entail negative obligations, to which judicial actions are feasible. Legal duty for, more or less, positive actions from the state side inherently entails more obligation to provide or to facilitate, which concretely reflects a ‘needs-based situation’. They entails state, inter alia, to adopt certain policies. A reality in which demanding a legal accountability of the state becomes problematic. This, as mentioned can create more people dependency to state and eventually result in the accumulation of state power.

In this regard, whether this paradigm shift of incorporating human rights into development processes will improve the ability of individuals to sustain or at least secure their livelihoods is the centre of this research. Against this line of thinking, we will therefore test the validity of the global assumption that human rights hold the potential to secure livelihoods. If indeed they do, a focus on them in development cooperation in general and in aid relations in particular may prove beneficial. If they do not, the rights-based approach might be an improvement for the worst, and therefore we would like to investigate the correctness of the underlying assumptions.

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