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Donor Approaches to Human Rights and Development: Lessons from NGO and Governmental Agencies

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:15

Laure-Hélène Piron
, Rights in Action Programme Manager, ODI
Sheena Crawford, CR2 Social Development
Simon Maxwell, Director, ODI

1. Laure-Hélène Piron began by explaining the background to the study she had led for the DAC's Governance Network (GOVNET) on human rights and development. Despite an increased attention to human rights in development policy and programming over the past 15 years, the DAC did not have a statement on human rights. The GOVNET had therefore established a Task Team on Human Rights and Development in 2003, with a specific mandate to review and synthesise donor experience and produce an action-oriented policy statement.

2. The research exposed a number of commonalities among donor agencies. Most agencies had a policy on human rights and were committed to using human rights positively in their support. However, the majority of agencies had not invested sufficiently in documenting and evaluating their experiences with human rights programming. Many also faced institutional resistance to the implementation of a human rights perspective.

3. Piron described how she had used a five-part typology to categorise the ways in which donors integrated human rights into their work:

i. Some donors adopted an implicit approach to human rights. This meant that they worked on issues or took an approach that had commonalities with a human rights perspective but that they did not talk explicitly about human rights. Piron cautioned that there was a real danger of 'rhetorical repackaging' with such an approach.

ii. Most donors have a number of human rights projects. This is a traditional approach to human rights and is usually limited to projects linked to civil and political rights or to the rights of specific groups.

iii. Some donor agencies were attempting to mainstream human rights. Piron argued that whilst there was mainstreaming fatigue within agencies, such an approach was able to start to address the institutionalisation of human rights by incorporating human rights concerns into the programming cycle of all interventions.

iv. Many donors were using human rights as part of their conditionality and dialogue with recipient countries. Piron suggested that agencies should adopt a consistent and predictable approach to conditionality rather than simply reacting to unforeseen events.

v. A small number of agencies had adopted a human rights-based approach. Again, Piron argued that there was a need for caution. A human rights-based approach demanded both institutional change and a systemic approach to human rights, requisites that most agencies were unable to fulfil. There was therefore a striking gulf between policy and practice in most of the agencies that were reviewed, although UNICEF, and to a lesser degree SIDA, were notable exceptions.

4. Piron presented three future challenges for the DAC. Donors needed to:

consider how they could work on human rights issues in the context of development partners that were either unwilling or unable to protect the human rights of their citizens - so-called 'fragile states';ensure that human rights were not sidelined in current debates about aid effectiveness; and build on their policy statements and ensure that these were institutionalised.

5. Piron concluded by arguing that there was a need to recognise that human rights are no panacea and that a human rights perspective complemented other development perspectives rather than substituted for them. She also stressed that the moral and legal basis of human rights were under challenge in the current international climate and there was therefore a need to bolster the evidence regarding the impact of human rights-based programming.

6. Sheena Crawford introduced the Research and Learning Process that she co-ordinated on behalf on the Inter -Agency Group on Rights Based Approaches (IAG RBA) over the past year. This project was aimed at testing the fundamental assumption shared by the over 100 IAG members that implementing rights based approaches increases impact on poverty reduction and that this can be demonstrated.

7. The Learning Process was based on seven comparative case studies, involving fourteen projects implemented by international NGOs and local partners in three countries (Bangladesh, Malawi and Peru), covering several sectors. The data emerging from the case studies are currently being analysed by a team of national and international researchers.

8. Despite the difficulties in carrying out meaningful comparisons between RBA and non-RBA projects, some commonalities and emerging issues were identified, by adopting a common methodology and framework for analysis based on the key human rights principles of participation, equality/inclusion and obligation/accountability.

9. Crawford explained that the analysis considered evidence in four main areas of impact.

Voice and accountability, which mostly concerned different forms and levels of citizens' participation and their consequences for accountability and transparency. Secondly,
Relationship and linkages, which focused on power issues within partnerships and the ways in which responsibilities are defined.
Institutional response, which dealt with the ways in which organisations have adapted their own practices to RBAs.
The study considered to the extent to which the evidence was pointing to tangible evidence or rights made real, which included contribution towards MDGs, poverty reductions strategies, decreased vulnerability and, more generally, sustainable change.

10. Crawford identified a number of issues arising from the analysis which posed particular challenges for assessing the actual impact and added value of RBAs. Rights interventions were often encouraged to focus on process rather than impact, which often led to unspecified or non rights-based goals, objectives and indicators. The case studies also suggested a lack of understanding of what significant impacts may be in relation to poverty reduction or sustainable change as well as a perceived conflict between RBAs and targets such as MDGs.

11. A number of trends and findings were emerging from the Learning Process. On the whole, the case studies appeared to confirm that both RBAs and non-RBAs may have had significant impacts in terms of increased assets, human security and reduced vulnerability. RBAs appear more likely to lead to sustained positive change than non-RBAs, by contributing to long-term changes in norms and values, structures, policy and practice.

12. Crawford presented some of the tangible impacts of the RBA projects. RBAs could challenge power relationships, leading to reduced discrimination and greater equity. As RBAs contributed to establishing mechanisms for mutual accountability, citizenship became more active and citizens more aware of their rights and entitlements. This was further strengthened by duty bearers realising the benefits and necessity of taking up their obligations and responsibilities.

13. Crawford concluded by reminding the audience of some of the key challenges which remained to be addressed by RBAs if they were to achieve greater impact. From an operational perspective, more needs to be done to define meaningful RBA objectives, outcomes, impacts and indicators. More broadly, development actors adopting RBAs should broaden their understanding of the nature and dynamics of power within a specific context in order to develop better 'politics of engagement'. More needs to be done to understand the root causes of exclusion and discrimination, in order to identify those at the greatest risk of exclusion and marginalisation.


One theme that emerged during the discussion was the difficulties involved with working with governments who do not themselves prioritise the protection of human rights. This could make the development of common positions on human rights difficult within multilateral agencies, such as the Asian Development Bank. It also raises questions about how to work with developing country governments that violate human rights. It was argued that, when governments lack ownership of human rights standards, it is possible to use human right principles as an entry point, but this considerably weakened the foundations of the relationship. Donors could also apply political conditionality to their relationships with developing countries. However, Rwanda was presented as an example where monitoring of its Memorandum of Understanding was hampered because its terms were insufficiently clear. It also needed to be recognised that domestic human rights concerns were not generally the grounds for suspension of aid.

Another issue that emerged during the discussion was the difficulty in identifying clear operational priorities when adopting a rights-based approach to development. In particular, there were concerns that development agencies could be pushed to address too many different problems, affecting all kinds of groups and individuals, in trying to operationalise human rights principles such as universalism or indivisibility. Different members of the panel felt that both donor agencies and NGOs could be guided by the principle of non-discrimination and equity in identifying their priorities. Furthermore, the notion of progressive realisation and ongoing monitoring could help agencies to make sure that their contribution is actually making a difference.

Finally, issues were raised about the comparative advantages of adopting an implicit vs an explicit approach to human rights in development. It was widely recognised that a more or less explicit approach to human rights would depend on the specific social, political or cultural contexts. However, the consequences of a more implicit approach may not always be consistent with the objective of achieving greater accountability for human rights. In particular, issues were raised on the potential weakened justiciability of the rights dimension if this is not explicitly linked with a set of agreed norms, standards or legislation. Furthermore, if rights and entitlement were not explicitly defined and addressed, it would be harder for development actors - donors and civil society alike - to promote an agenda which included people's capacity and opportunities to claim their rights as a key area of impact.


During 2005, ODI undertook a study for the OECD DAC Human Rights and Development Task Team reviewing and analysing the approaches of different donor agencies to human rights. This study is the most comprehensive and up-to-date of its kind and has contributed to a process that will lead to the DAC's first policy statement on human rights. Also during 2005, a UK NGO Inter-Agency Group on Rights-Based Approaches undertook an evaluation to test the assumption that implementing a rights-based approach increases the impact of their programmes on poverty. In this meeting, the lead authors of these complementary studies presented their findings and recommendations.

Following the high-level events of 2005, it is important for the development community to both sustain momentum and identify strategic priorities. This meeting contributed to this process by comparing government and NGO approaches and examining the evidence regarding the impact of rights-based approaches. It considered the opportunities for the further integration of human rights within aid policies and strategies, and asked whether governments can learn from NGO experiences.