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Human rights and the Millennium Development Goals: contradictory frameworks?

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


Simon Maxwell,Director - ODI

Robert Archer, Director - International Council on Human Rights Policy.


Baroness Janet Whitaker

1. The first meeting in the series was held on Monday 10 January 2005. The meeting was chaired by Baroness Whitaker. The two speakers were Simon Maxwell and Robert Archer.

2. Simon Maxwell opened with two challenging questions. On one side, if we had the MDGs, was the rights-based approach superfluous? Or alternatively, if we had a rights-based approach to development, could we dispense with the MDGs ?

3. To begin answering these questions, he referred to the last ODI meetings series on rights, held in 1999, on the theme 'What can we do with a rights-based approach to development?. As summarised in a Briefing Paper, this had concluded positively that a rights-based approach could be useful, but also identified challenges such as:

  • how to balance individual and collective rights?
  • how to operationalise the concept of 'progressive realisation'?
  • how to specify the obligations of non-state actors?

4. A key issue was that the discourse on rights was informed by two very different positions: one built around struggle, with rights used as a vehicle for mobilising people; the other as fundamentally legalistic, centering on the justiciability of rights. 

5. Maxwell reviewed subsequent work by ODI's Rights in Action programme, and also the experience of different donor agencies. He referred especially to an ODI review of DFID's work on human rights, which provided a useful compendium of practical experiences covering both the mobilization and justiciability approaches.

6. He then turned to the MDGs, setting these in the context of a wider construction on poverty reduction, and of current work by the Millennium Project in New York, whose report was shortly to be published (http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/html/about.shtm). He noted that human rights were not the 'driving motor' behind the MDGs and were relatively little discussed in the Millennium Project task force reports (except land and water rights and reproductive health and HIV-AIDS issues).

7. The MDGs could be seen as oversimplified targets, with an instrumental understanding of citizenship and participation, and lack of clarity as to the 'right' to expect support from donors. However, a broader view of poverty also included concerns for inclusion and participation; these were not simply rights-based values. Human rights were more comprehensive than the MDGs. Did it matter that the MDGs were selective in order to be practical? An open-ended commitment to 'progressive realisation' could at times be a bit 'fuzzy'. The MDGs, though optional, relied on political leadership though the lack of embedded accountability and obligation was a weakness.

8. Concluding, Simon Maxwell identified complementarities between the human rights and MDG agendas. Rights advocates could gain from the MDGs' emphasis on short-term targets and from approaches to contractual partnership developed between aid donors and recipients (e.g. Cotonou Agreement). MDG specialists could make use of the more comprehensive normative framework of rights-based approaches and of the notion of legally enforceable obligations on duty-bearers. A synthesis would benefit both sides.

9. Robert Archer agreed that it was difficult to reconcile the historically different positions between human rights and other disciplines. He argued that we were not well equipped to talk across institutional and disciplinary boundaries. This was not only because of our intellectual starting points, but also because of organisational cultures and disciplinary histories. In the context of human rights and development agendas, we were still near the beginning.

10. Archer claimed no inherent conflict existed between the MDGs and human rights but the MDGs had to be understood in their historical context. Their precursors, the international development targets, had been voluntarily agreed by donors, representing the limits of the 'politically feasible' at the time. Yet, NGOs felt uncomfortable with governments 'stealing their values', such as participation and ownership. The MDGs by contrast had been adopted by all heads of states, at a time when the UN was trying to 'mainstream human rights'. The process was difficult because institutions were not ready or equipped to operationalise human rights principles.

11. The MDGs were hybrid: like the IDTs, they were practical and political, but at the same time they represented inadequate global aspirations, such as to only reduce by half the number of people who are destitute. They needed to be read alongside the Millennium Declaration, and be seen as 'tactical ambitions, way-markers along a road'. Their quantitative language must not narrow our understanding of development which had been broadened over years. The Millennium Declaration should likewise be seen for what it was: an important statement of consensus but imperfect and unbalanced, failing to reflect the systematic character of the human rights framework.

12. Archer then turned to the place of rights in poverty reduction strategies (PRS) and the importance of the qualitative dimensions of development. Human rights were making a claim for intellectual leadership. There were two schools: 'conversion' or 'convergence'. Whilst the former considered that human rights should trump other values, the latter emphasised the compatibility with other policy frameworks, such as governance. A convergence model highlighted:

  • the normative contribution of human rights to assess PRSs. Its holistic framework provided a way of assessing social policy and participation: whether decision-making processes were participatory, inclusive, non-discriminatory or consultative. This was done on the basis of universal, fair and legitimate standards with legal status;
  • the value of human rights principles and methods to highlight and protect the needs of marginalised individuals or minorities. Development was a long, large, and mucky process where some interests were progressed while others not. The human rights framework enabled planners and observers to do something when particular interests or prospects suffered by requiring authorities to identify people at risk and assess the cost and damage they had suffered.
  • the core human rights principles of accountability and transparency. As with participation, these were shared with other approaches but the value added of human rights lied in the importance of justiciability (though as a subordinate one); legal precision and authority; political and public legitimacy; and the emphasis on fairness and equity. As a result, someone could be held responsible or a remedy offered when a rights violation or omission occurred.

13. Archer was also candid about three weaknesses of human rights analysts: the emphasis on violations in the present, rather than balancing benefits over time; the difficulty of negotiating with other (non legal) frameworks; and, because of the principle of interdependence, the difficulty of choosing between goods in a world of limited resources. Two other criticisms were not seen as serious: that human rights were political and normative.

14. Archer concluded there had been enormous progress but still a long way to go. Like Maxwell, he stated that there was still a wide gap that needed to be bridged, with more practical testing to find out where human rights values and methods were most useful. What we need is more exchange of practice not more theory.

15. During the discussion, several participants called for a common language to be found across disciplines. There had been progress in the integration between human rights and development, but still opportunities for development actors to learn to use human rights accountability mechanisms and human rights experts to engage in development processes. For example, the UN Treaty Monitoring Bodies too often ignored the MDGs. The importance of 'human rights and development' education was noted.

16. There was agreement that human rights held resonance with excluded groups and vulnerable minorities because of its call for targeted frameworks, disaggregated data, budgeting for accountability and monitoring of spending in development. It was claimed there were in fact a hierarchy of rights which favoured the rights of some and not others. For example, the rights of the elderly were not as well protected as that of children.

17. There was some discussion about the appropriate level of obligations and how to link the global to the local. Current development practices, for example PRS, were putting the onus on developing countries and we had lost our international sense of responsibility. Donor organisations and other high level bodies, such as the Millennium Project, were particularly singled out. Consultations with human rights organisations as part of the norm were suggested. Rights should also form a serious part of discussions on donor conditionality.

18. An argument was made for looking down as well as up, reflecting the fact that most poor people experience problems of rights at the very local level. These tended to be 'dependent rights' rather than the 'autonomous rights' assumed in the conventions. Duty-bearers needed to reach the non-poor in developing countries who also had obligations to the poor.

Ursula Grant
January 2005


This session considered the extent to which the Millennium Development Goals and human rights are compatible frameworks, where they differ and where they complement one another. It debates the usefulness of explicitly adopting a human rights perspective to achieve poverty reduction objectives, and the dangers of diluting the MDGs by 'adding' new considerations.