Throughout the 1990s, debates about human rights and development increasingly converged.
With a renewed focus on poverty reduction, international agencies have moved away from a narrow concern with the poverty line to attempt more directly to understand the underlying dynamics of poverty in any particular society or context. This shift has been supported by the increasing use of powerful analytical frameworks developed from theoretical work by Sen (1981; 1997) on entitlements and capabilities, from the food security literature of the 1980s (Devereux and Maxwell 2001) and later work on vulnerability (Swift 1989; Moser 1998). Significantly, this has moved policy debates away from a focus on assessing and responding to needs, a process that in the past has not necessarily disturbed existing allocations of entitlements (Brocklesby and Crawford 2004a).
During the same period that development agencies have embraced these multidimensional analytical frameworks, human rights concerns have developed from a first-generation “negative” concern with protecting individual civil and political (CP) rights, to a broader and more developmental concern with ensuring economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights linked to poverty reduction goals. Among development agencies, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP 2000) has been instrumental in pushing the rights and entitlements agenda, now widely reflected in development agency discourse (see Cornwall and Nyamu Musembi, this issue). A more recent UN interagency statement (United Nations 2003) of common understanding stresses the need for development cooperation to contribute to the development of the capacities of “duty bearers” to meet their obligations and/or of rights holders to claim their rights (see Piron, this issue).
This convergence of discourse – the developmental approach to rights and the dynamic approach to poverty – enables development agencies in principle to engage with what Moore and Putzel (1999) call the “politics of poverty”. The rights discourse politicises poverty analysis and refocuses attention on the institutions and processes that determine development outcomes. This presents a new set of challenges to development agencies that are not easily addressed. Important factors explaining the continued absence of a rights focus in poverty and policy debates are the language of rights and the politicised nature of rights assessment and fulfilment. This article, through a review of a continuing Department for International Development (DFID) initiative in Malawi and Peru – the Participatory Rights Assessment Methodologies (PRAMs) project – looks at the challenges facing donor agencies as they seek to operationalise a stated commitment to rights-based development. These experiences of assessing rights in practice draw attention to how rights are defined in particular contexts and how the effectiveness of rights in a particular context is mediated by existing power structures, which may be slow to change.
A focus on participatory rights-based assessment ties in with the growing trend towards participation in development processes (see below), with its emphasis on institutional engagement and change and on local ownership. By bringing a more specific rights and entitlements analytical framework, however, a participatory rights assessment approach politicises analysis, highlighting power relations and processes of exclusion and discrimination. Participatory rights assessments have the potential to identify both the institutional structures that define, interpret and implement rights as well as the political processes that define the channels through which citizens can contest their claims. The lessons learned from DFID’s PRAMs initiative highlight both the potential of rights to address the structural causes of marginalisation, and also the complexity of implementing rights-based approaches.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 36.1 (2005) Operationalising the Rights Agenda: Participatory Rights Assessment in Peru and Malawi