Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 36 Nos. 1

Developing Rights? Relating Discourse to Context and Practice

Published on 1 January 2005

Enthusiasm for “rights-based approaches” to development has grown during the past decade, taking on diverse meanings within the policies and actions of development agencies, governments and civil society organisations.

This “rise of rights” (Eyben 2003) has sparked much useful critical reflection about the origins of rights discourses, and what they mean in policy and practice. One of the key concerns, as with all development fashions, is ‘what is really different this time?’ Can this emerging focus on rights within the development arena help to bring about real changes in favour of poor and marginalised people? How do we know that “rights-based development”is not just putting new labels on old wine? Given the experience with other development trends, such as the widespread and often contradictory uses of“participation”, this is a valid concern (Brock and Cornwall 2004). Why have rights been elevated within the development sector at this time and what does a rights-based approach mean in practice to different actors? How do the generalised directives of aid agencies relate to context-specific struggles for rights, rooted historically in experiences of exclusion and marginalisation? Will formal rights policies, and particularly those pursued within a development framework, strengthen existing efforts to realise rights and inclusion, or is there reason for caution?

These questions suggest that there are both dangers and opportunities in this convergence of rights and development and point to the need for deeper analysis and empirical evidence that might help to reduce the risks and build upon the synergies. This issue of the IDS Bulletin responds to this need. It draws together recent insights and research findings from a variety of sources. 1 While it would be impossible to cover all of the issues and debates here, we include diverse perspectives and inquire across a spectrum of current thinking, policy and practice. Comparative and historical analyses of different donor policy discourses on rights (Part I) are contrasted with actual examples of policy processes to implement rights (Part II) and with case studies of bottom-up struggles to achieve rights in diverse contexts (Part III). This juxtaposition of donor discourses on rights with efforts to implement rights through policy and with experiences of social mobilisation around rights, provides a useful space in which to examine the key questions that arise about the pursuit of rights within a development framework (and of doing development through rights).

First, why the rights-based approach and why now? As Cornwall and Nyamu-Musembi argue in this issue, there are important historical and geopolitical forces behind the timing and framing of the rights-based discourse, which bear careful examination. Second, whose rights count? Between formal legal formulations of rights and the actual experiences of making rights substantive, questions of whose rights are being defined and claimed, by whom, and how, all become crucial. The articles in this issue emphasise the central importance of history and context in understanding how rights work in practice. Third, the process of making rights real is a political one, rather than a technical or procedural one, because it entails confronting the structural inequalities that underlie the negation of rights.Understanding how rights can shift power relations is essential to realising the potential of rights to contribute to change. Finally, a rights perspective, when understood within particular contexts and linked to strategies to shift power relations, has the potential to confront some of the most prominent assumptions of development orthodoxy and emerging agendas of security.

Related Content

This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 36.1 (2005) Developing Rights? Relating Discourse to Context and Practice

Cite this publication

Pettit, J. and Wheeler, J. (2005) Developing Rights? Relating Discourse to Context and Practice. IDS Bulletin 36(1): 1-8


Jethro Pettit

Emeritus Fellow

Joanna Wheeler

Publication details

published by
Institute of Development Studies
IDS Bulletin, volume 36, issue 1


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