In January to March 2005, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) will host a series of lunchtime meetings to examine the relevance of human rights in poverty reduction. It will build on the 1999 series that ODI held at a time when a growing number of aid agencies, including the UK Department for International Development (DFID), were starting to develop and adopt policy statements on human rights. (For a synthesis of findings from the series, see Maxwell, 1999.) The end of the Cold War, the growing consensus on a multi-dimensional conception of poverty as central to development, and greater attention paid to state institutions created a favourable context for making use of the international, regional and national human rights frameworks as a part of mainstream development and humanitarian assistance.
There have been major achievements since that time, with human rights and development/humanitarian action now recognised as mutually reinforcing rather than separate domains. For example, widely accepted now are: the importance of equality and non-discrimination; the equal status of civil/political and economic/social rights; and the need for genuine participation and accountability mechanisms. In 2003, the UN agreed a landmark interagency understanding on the definition of a ‘human rights-based approach to development’ (UN, 2003), providing a shared reference point for NGOs and governmental agencies serious about linking human rights to their poverty reduction initiatives.
The need for this series was, however, prompted by the awareness of a continued disconnect between the human rights and aid communities, and the recognition that there were conceptual and operational divergences between the two fields, as well as a lack of mutual understanding. As Peter Uvin noted recently in Human Rights and Development, ‘As I wrote this book, I was surprised at the amount of skepticism, if not outright hostility, that still prevails in much of the development community toward human rights.’
ODI’s work on the adoption by development and humanitarian actors of human rights-based approaches has reached a similar set of conclusions: whilst there have been a significant number of high-level commitments in favour of human rights over the last decade, translating these commitments into practice faces a number of constraints. Some obstacles may be technical or a result of a difference of language: both human rights and aid discourses can be impenetrable; non-lawyers may have difficulties understanding human rights concepts; development and humanitarian jargons can be confusing. Other challenges are political: some governments may not wish to be held accountable on the basis of their human rights obligations.