Over the last several years, a growing number of development and human rights organisations have begun to critically reflect on the impact of their work.
With inequality and poverty deepening in many parts of the world, development organisations have been exploring shifts in their strategies with the aim of better addressing structural, systemic causes of poverty and exclusion. And while human rights organisations celebrate advances in strengthening the international human rights framework, they also recognise the need to do a better job of ensuring that formal rights are actually realised in people’s lives. At this critical time of taking stock, each community – human rights and development – brings different strengths and visions to their work, yet opportunities for substantive dialogue between the two are rare, especially among practitioners. Rights organisations bring their work with governments and the international human rights system on issues of state repression and legal reform, while development organisations offer their experience with grassroots groups and in some cases local governments in promoting participation in economic and social programmes.
These conceptual and strategic questions and shifts have been further shaped and stimulated by the emerging trend known as “rights-based approaches” to development.As development actors have expanded opportunities to engage with governments and multilateral institutions, they are strengthening their policy work and embracing and using the human rights system to lend legitimacy to their claims. At the same time,more human rights organisations are seeking to learn about community development and participation, which they have come to see as critical for engaging people in claiming and exercising rights. It is in this convergence between strands of rights and participation approaches where we see the most potential for “rights-based approaches”. Yet, despite its potential and its popularity, confusion abounds as to what rights-based approaches means in practice, what lessons it draws from rights and participatory approaches, and how it relates to questions of power, empowerment and “good governance”.
This article shares insights and questions generated by a series of interviews with staff and activists involved in US-based international human rights and development organisations as well as practical experiences over several years with both development and rights groups in numerous countries. The tentative conclusions we draw from this study underscore promising directions and synergies in efforts on rights, participation, governance and citizenship as well as raising important concerns and challenges.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 36.1 (2005) Rights‐based Development: Linking Rights and Participation — Challenges in Thinking and Action