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From charity to human rights-based approach to development

According to the very old saying, attributed to Lao Tseu [1], „If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime“. But what if this man, or actually this woman, is simply prevented access to the pond or river?

Fishing in Senegal

Rybaření v Senegalu


As Duncan Green points out in his book „From Poverty To Power“, this man or woman must have rights to fish in the first place. He quotes a village leader from Cambodia:„That woman already knows how to fish. She would like her river left alone by illegal companies or fish poachers. She would prefer that her government not build huge dams, with the help of the Asian Development Bank, dams that have damaged her livelihood. She would prefer that the police not violently evict communities to make way for the dam. She doesn´t want charity. She would prefer respect for her basic rights.“

Both Lao Tseu’ proverb and Duncan Green’s quote provide an illustration of the changes in development discourses and practices since its beginnings in the 1950s. This started with an “aid” or “charity” approach, aiming at delivering a service (fish distribution) and has since transformed into a “livelihood” approach (teaching how to feed oneself by directly catching fish or raising incomes from selling the catch) and has now shifted further towards a “right-based” approach to development (ensuring that the conditions are in place for the person to secure its livelihood). In this article we will review the trends in development thinking that have characterized the last century and the emergence of a “right-based” approach since the 1990s.

The history of development is one of constant evolution. As Paul Gready and Jonathan Ensor notice [2], a series of trends in development practice can be broadly associated with the last five decades of the twentieth century. At the end of the colonization, aid was considered as a transitory arrangement which would help inducing “take-off” of the ex-colonies´economies. Far from being targeted at individuals as our fishing example could suggest, official aid was actually focused on supporting growth, with the assumption that the positive benefits would eventually trickle down to the poor. Within a short period of time it became clear that, if happening at all, growth was still failing to ensure the welfare of the poorest.

This failure of aid forced donors during the sixties to reassess the purpose of assistance and to think about it on a longer time scale. This shift gave birth to the longer term goal known as “development”, with less focus on large scale infrastructure projects and more focus on smaller welfare ones, which better targeted poorer people. The 1970s reinforced this trend called the “basic needs” approach. The focus on poor people became stronger, with programmes aiming to increase income for the poor through labour intensive production, promotion of public services, and encouraging increased participation.

However, the debt crisis of the Southern Government quickly provoked a retreat from the ‘basic needs’ approach. Structural adjustment programs (SAPs) designed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund characterized the 1980s, forcing states to restrict public spending (on education, health, agriculture,…) and raise more incomes (from production of tropical commodities or raw material). To quote Gready and Ensor developing countries were “required to enter into supposedly palliative financial administration in order to qualify for aid. Four decades of development had, therefore, been sufficient for aid policy to turn into full circle, from the failure of economic growth strategies, to poverty alleviation and back to growth”[3] , which produced damaging results for the poor. This last trend contributed to an even more critical reflection on development perpetuated by academics, non-governmental organizations and media personalities. A particularly strong driver of the debate was Amartya Sen, Indian economist awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic science in 1998 [4]. Sen made clear that poverty could no longer be regarded as a purely economic problem that could be measured in term of income alone. Rather it is a lack of assets, opportunities and entitlements that prevent the well being of people. Poverty is both induced by human rights violations and in turn becomes a root cause of several human rights violations, as the quote from the Cambodian villager expressed.

From this more complex picture of poverty, two newer trends emerged in the nineties, a “livelihood” approach and and a “human rights based approach to development”. The livelihood approach, emanates from the 70´s “basic needs” approach and focuses on the household´s ability to manage its resources in the long term. The human right-based approach (HRBA) roughly goes in the same direction: towards enabling the poor (especially the poorest) to be driving his or her own development. The main differentiating characteristic of the HRBA is to work on the relationship between rights-holders (those entitled to rights) and duty bearers (those in charge to protect fulfill and realize rights, primarily state actors). In doing so as they try to enable rights-holders to hold their duty bearers accountable and support duty bearers in being so. HRBA thus re-affirms the role of state and citizens as central in development.

Although the link between human rights and development existed since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human rights, it was played down in a context of Cold War. A polarization between political and civic rights (identified as core human rights) VS economical, social and cultural rights (closer to welfare or development ideas) contributed to keeping these two domains apart. The fall of the Soviet Union led to a reaffirmation of the indivisibility of human rights and a more complex understanding of the causes of poverty developed. This meant that “right-based” approaches took a more prominent place in the official development agenda especially for UN agencies, a few donor countries and a growing number of international development NGOs.

The decade which has just elapsed has been mostly dominated by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGS), gathering efforts of the entire international community with around 8 defined goals. Although non explicitly, in the light of their intent, MDGS directly relate to human rights. Yet their implementation has been more combining core aid-, needs- or livelihood approaches than a right-based approach. The past decade and the one which has just begun will see a combination of different approaches to development. The recent financial crisis currently tends to push the international community to favour more of a growth approach, it has also shown how supporting poor people, who disproportionately felt the crisis, to secure their livelihoods and rights, is paramount to get them sustainably out of hunger and poverty. It is up to us all to help finding and applying the right balances.

[1] Chinese wise man who lived at the VI century before Christ

[2] Ensor, J. and Gready, P., Reinventing development translating right based approaches from theory to practice, 2005

[3] Ensor, J. and Gready, P., ibid, p 19

[4] Two publications in particular contributed to the debate: 1) Poverty and Famines: an Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981) and Commodities and Capabilities (1985)