Before and after 2015: let's include and act on human rights!

Angela Melchiorre | September 24, 2010
This is most interesting, Professor Waage, especially for the insights from a cross-cutting analysis of all the MDGs. The three areas of common problems that you and your team have identified are exactly what is needed to make us think carefully about both short and long-term strategies. I wonder if, in so doing, we should perhaps also think about another area of common problems for all the MDGs: the missing link with human rights.

As the world’s attention focuses on development investments, economic growth and where and how to best direct resources, I think it is worth recalling that sound economics and human rights support, rather than contradict, each other. Yet, this connection is seldom acknowledged and needs further attention. If we take the right to education as the basis for a cross-cutting analysis, for example, it becomes evident that there are major gaps and that we miss important synergies and areas of intervention.

1) In addition to the under-emphasis on secondary and tertiary education that you fittingly mention, other gaps include: no reference to free and compulsory primary education (an immediate obligation under human rights law), no reference to the full spectrum of education (from early childhood to adulthood, from formal to informal programmes) and no reference to the need to align the age for the end of compulsory education with the minimum age for employment and marriage. All these gaps undermine the progress and achievement of (at least) MDGs 1-5. Without an education that is free and compulsory (at least at the primary level), that is of good quality at all levels and relevant for job prospects and the full human development, and that is safeguarded from exploitative labour and early marriage and child bearing, success on MDGs 1-5 will inevitably be limited.

2) Another major gap is the total lack of accountability. The main issue with the MDGs is that they are just political promises, based on good will and for this reason susceptible to being broken with impunity. Who is actually accountable for slow progress or failure? The governments that signed up to them? They and their policies change every few years. The international community? You have already explained the difficulties there: a myriad of States, inter-governmental bodies, financial institutions, donors, the private sector, civil society, at times competing with each other, with very little mutual accountability. Integrating a human rights perspective in the MDGs would introduce a more effective element that can remedy these shortcomings: accountability through legal mechanisms for redress if the promises are not kept. It is amazing how much can be achieved by recurring to the law!

3) You correctly highlight “a lack of ownership”. As long as the key decisions are made at the highest political levels with very limited consultation with those who should benefit from the MDGs, there is little hope for effective planning and delivery and for overall genuine progress. Active and meaningful participation in decision-making is recognised as a right in the main international human rights instruments but is lacking from MDG strategies. However, examples of social mobilisation show that the MDGs can be successful where there is national ownership and where civil society, community-based organisations, social movements or inspiring individuals are involved in the development, implementation and monitoring of plans and strategies.

4) Too much focus on time-bound and quantitative targets and little attention to quality, immediate obligations and progress for all without any discrimination perpetuate what you acutely identify as “a problem of equity”. We still think in terms of ‘reducing’ or ‘halving’ this or that target, whereas human rights apply to everybody all the time, without any discrimination (another immediate obligation) or half-way measures, however pragmatic: even if only one person remains out, the right is not fulfilled and progress is only partial.

5) You encourage us to realise that “in the future, we need development goals that address these problems”. How can we ensure that this happens? Regularly monitoring both quantity and quality of education (as well as progress on other MDGs) by using rights-based indicators, fully disaggregated by the prohibited grounds of discrimination, would certainly help identify excluded groups and carry out more effective practical policies.

The human rights framework, to which all states in the world have already signed up by ratifying at least one human rights treaty, provides guidance, guarantees and clear responsibilities. The fundamental and interlinked principles of non-discrimination, accountability, participation, empowerment and a strong link to the law should infuse “future goal planning” and help us make sure that this is truly “developed from a consideration of all the factors that affect human well-being”.

For more information and material, please visit

Angela Melchiorre
Right to Education Project