Brian Pratt’s statement that the rights-based approach is ‘no more than a metaphor; a concept that catalyses a set of values into a phrase that many people can adopt and adapt’ (Pratt 2003: 2) is a damning condemnation of what has been correctly described as a growing ‘rights-based approach industry’ (Theis 2004: xiii).
It echoes Michael Ignatieff’s critique of rights-based approaches as analytically confused, verging on the meaningless (Ignatieff 2003). At the same time, Peter Uvin has issued a strong defence, describing it as ‘the only approach [that] contains the potential to provide the necessary changes in current development practice’ (Uvin 2004: 178).
Are rights-based approaches no more than a metaphor, or do they point to a consensus around a set of desirable changes in the policies, programmes and behaviour of aid agencies? This article argues that a common core can be identified and some transformations are under way. However, much remains to be done to influence not just the behaviour of individual agencies, but also the international consensus on aid and the place of human rights within it.
This article reviews rights-based approaches in development aid agencies. It begins by identifying some of the ways in which agencies can incorporate human rights into their policies and activities. It then examines the extent to which rights-based approaches can be said to have been adopted and the factors that facilitate or constrain this transformation. Finally, it points to some of the current challenges facing agencies attempting to close the gap between their rights-based approaches and mainstream development policy and practice.
This article principally examines bilateral agencies. This is both for practical reasons (narrowing the range of agencies reviewed) and also because these agencies are government departments, sometimes belonging to Ministries of Foreign Affairs or independent Ministries. As such, they should be more directly obligated under the international human rights regime than international or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and can significantly shape the aid discourse.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 36.1 (2005) Rights‐based Approaches and Bilateral Aid Agencies: More Than a Metaphor?