Heather Grady: Putting people at the centre

Development Policy21 Jun 2009Heather Grady

Yesterday I proposed that strengthening a human rights approach within the MDGs would go far in overcoming the generally-agreed weaknesses of the MDGs. But how difficult or easy would it be to make that happen?

There are many civil society organizations around the world that have this expertise; every UN and donor agency has staff who have thought about, if not worked actively, on a human rights-based approach to development; and the world’s most famous human rights organization, Amnesty International, is taking this approach with their recently-launched Demand Dignity campaign. There is great potential in using a human rights and justice framework. It puts the spotlight on discrimination, for example, which accounts for the social exclusion that Realizing Rights and Amnesty have noted as the most significant gap in the current MDG process. It would provide an agreed and universal code for determining priorities, and for identifying what is missing from the current efforts. It would also push for the active participation of those living in poverty in defining solutions themselves. Finally, it would offer opportunities to confront the thorny issue of accountability – how can we ensure governments better meet the commitments they have made? A human rights approach clarifies both government obligations for fulfilling human rights, and the claims that people can make to realize their rights. In turn, the MDG process provides lessons that can be applied to measuring the progressive realization of economic and social rights for resource-constrained governments.

Exploring the nexus of development, MDGs and human rights is nothing new, but there is huge interest now amongst governments, civil society and even the business community as the relationship becomes more evident.

Much analytical work remains to be done. First, and crucially, there is the problem of social exclusion – that those worse off, and members of disadvantaged groups, are in too many cases not making progress, even where aggregate data show overall improvement. A UN report of September 2008 noted: “… the results to date show that, in most countries, there are usually segments of society that do not share in the benefits without targeted actions to reach them…” More attention to issues of discrimination and equality would help to address this.

Second, the success of development efforts depends a great deal on mobilizing civil society to work with each other, and with governments, to find solutions. How can a stronger focus on human rights give greater scope for such mobilization – moving away from the ‘name and blame’ approach to one that is constructive and embeds accountability? There are examples of successful partnerships, and countries where civil society has mobilized around MDG targets. But transparency, freedom to organize, access to information and related rights are essential for this to work.

Third, the forces that impact on development are often beyond the power of individual governments acting alone to shape or influence, like climate change, international trade and foreign investment. The human rights framework, which all governments have agreed to since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948, could provide a benchmark for judging the appropriateness of such policies. It might also bring a stronger focus on the problem of accountability where policies of one country impact negatively in others.

As we and our partner WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment Globalizing Organizing) have noted, it is ‘voice, visibility and validity’ that help informal workers overcome poverty. As Andy Sumner wrote, development is non-linear in case and effect, and plan-driven and top-down approaches contradict important discourses on rights, participation, empowerment and citizenship. Furthermore, a ‘one-world approach’ needs a globally agreed framework, as we have with human rights, and one that puts people at the center. I think this is the starting point in looking beyond 2015.

Heather Grady interviewed at the Brussels Forum (Courtesy of Euforic)