Putting Development to Rights

David Mepham, “Putting Development to Rights,” Human Rights Watch

… For the most part, development policy and programs have ignored the critical interdependence of economic and social rights with civil and political rights, and so have failed to challenge systemic patterns of discrimination and disadvantage that keep people in poverty. As a result, many poor people have been excluded, or have failed to benefit, from development programs. More disturbingly still, people have been harmed by abusive policies carried out in the name of development: forced from their land to make way for large commercial investors, compelled to toil long days for low pay in dangerous and exploitative conditions, or exposed to life-threatening pollution from poorly regulated industries.

Development can also be unsustainable, achieved at considerable cost to the environment —including carbon emissions, soil erosion, pollution, depletion of fresh water supplies, over-fishing, or damage to biodiversity—which then damage people’s rights, including those to life, health, safe food, and clean water. …

The UN Millennium Declaration of 2000 was strong on human rights and democratic principles. World governments endorsed it in September 2000, asserting that freedom, equality, solidarity, and tolerance were fundamental values. Making progress on development, they said, depended on “good governance within each country,” adding that they would “spare no effort” to promote democracy, strengthen the rule of law, and respect internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Strong words. But the Millennium Declaration’s vision, and the important principles it contained, never found their way into the new Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which emerged from a UN working group in early 2001 and soon became the dominant framework for international development cooperation. …

But development donors and international institutions like the World Bank also shied away from the more complex and politicized approach to development implied by an explicit emphasis on rights. The MDGs, with their stress on measuring development in terms of average or aggregate achievement of particular goals, for example on child and maternal mortality, did little to change these calculations and meant that marginalized communities continued to be overlooked.

Indeed, because it is often more difficult or expensive to assist poor and marginalized communities, the MDG framework may have actually worked against them, incentivising a focus on people who are easier to reach and assist, such as those living in cities rather than far-flung rural areas.  …

Making rights integral to a post-2015 global development framework would have a number of clear benefits, not least by:

  • Ensuring focus on the poorest and most marginalized communities. The MDGs include global targets for percentage reductions of child and maternal mortality and hunger. By contrast, a rights approach to development would need to set universal goals for providing effective and accessible healthcare and nutrition for all women and children, including the poorest and most disadvantaged, alongside specific targets for reducing disparities between social groups and improving the conditions of the worst off. Progress would be greatly aided and incentivised by disaggregating national and international data, making it possible to measure policy impact on different social, income, and age groups.
  • Prompting action to address root causes of poverty—such as inequality, discrimination, and exclusion—by requiring legal and policy reforms and challenging patterns of abuse, as well as harmful cultural practices like child marriage. Governments and donors should be obliged in a new development framework to bring their policies and practices into line with international standards on non-discrimination and equality. Concerted action is also needed to tackle formal, informal, and cultural barriers that prevent women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and indigenous peoples in particular from owning and having equal access to land, property, assets, and credit; inheriting and transferring property; and accessing education and health services.
  • Making people agents and not subjects of developmentby emphasising empowerment, participation, transparency, the rule of law, and access to justice.  A rights approach requires that poor people are fully consulted about development projects or programs that affect them. Indigenous peoples, for example, have the right to give or withhold consent to development projects on their traditional lands before they are approved and after receiving all relevant information. Such safeguards would help prevent the kind of abusive, environmentally harmful patterns of development already cited. But abusive development also occurs in places like China because basic civil and political freedoms are not respected more generally and because the legal system is politicized and discriminatory. Commitments to civil and political rights should be integral to the post-2015 development agenda, including to freedom of speech, assembly, and association, the ability of people to participate in free elections, and access to fair and effective justice systems. Transparency and free flow of information are critical too, creating space for informed debate about use of the national budget, exposing mistakes and environmental harm, and allowing communities to mobilize for social change and redress for abuse and malpractice.
  •  Tackling corruption. Each year, senior government officials or powerful private individuals steal hundreds of millions of dollars that were intended to benefit the poor through development programs in health, education, nutrition, or water. In our 2013 report on Uganda, Letting the Big Fish Swim, Human Rights Watch documented a lack of political will to address corruption and the harmful consequences of this. Ugandan anti-corruption institutions have been crippled by political interference, as well as harassment and threats to prosecutors, investigators, and witnesses. Most recently, US$12.7 million in donor funds was discovered to have been embezzled from Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister. This money had been earmarked to help rebuild northern Uganda, ravaged by a 20-year war, and to help development in Karamoja, Uganda’s poorest region.  Rights-respecting development would help to tackle corruption of this kind by emphasizing budget transparency, freedom of information, and free media; strengthening efforts to prosecute those responsible for corrupt practices, including the highest ranking members of the government; and supporting anticorruption civil society organizations.
  • Bringing rights standards into the work of business and international institutions.In the debate about the post-2015 development agenda, there has been little discussion about the responsibilities of either the private sector or international financial institutions to protect, respect, and fulfil rights. Over the years, Human Rights Watch has documented many cases of corporate complicity with human rights violations, including a Canadian mining company using forced labor, via a local contractor, in Eritrea; out-of-control mining operations fuelling corruption and abuse in India; and sexual violence by private security guards employed by a Canadian company in Papua New Guinea. Governments should introduce mandatory requirements for corporations to report publicly on human rights, and the social and environmental impact of their work. Similarly, international financial institutions such as the World Bank, which influence development in many countries by providing millions of dollars-worth of development assistance and loans, should have to respect human rights in all their work and be held accountable if they fail to do so, as set out in our 2013 report, Abuse Free Development.
  • Strengthening accountability.  Accountability is fundamental to rights-respecting development: rights are of limited value if no one is charged with guaranteeing them or if citizens whose rights are denied have no opportunity to seek redress or remedy. The post-2015 development agenda should therefore require all those involved in development—governments and international bilateral donors, international financial institutions, the business sector, private foundations, and NGOs—to be more accountable and transparent about implementing their commitments and the impact their policies have on the rights of the poor, including through feedback and complaints mechanisms and regular reporting at the local, national, and global level.
  • Affirming the universality of the global development agenda. Low income is not an excuse for governments of poor countries to abuse their citizens’ rights, and many developing country governments have scope to make different choices about how they allocate national resources. Still, low income and limited capacity can make it harder for well-intentioned governments to meet their rights obligations. A post-2015 development agenda should therefore place two important obligations on the world’s wealthier governments:
    • To do no harm, by ensuring that existing policies and practices do not directly or indirectly contribute to human rights violations, unequal development, or abusive development elsewhere, through policies on trade, tax, investment, intellectual property, arms sales, and transfers of surveillance technology. These governments have an obligation to respect and protect human rights and to remedy any violations.
    • To proactively help to advance rights-respecting development in other countries, including through support for inclusive development in areas like health, education, nutrition, and sanitation, as well as support for the rule of law, and police, justice, and security sector reform. …

Read the full article here.