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The limits of a rights based approach

"Approaches" need to be built from the ground up, and not in NGO head offices.

A couple of years ago I helped to do a context analysis for a European NGO in Myanmar.

At the head office level, this NGO had taken on a “rights based approach” and they wanted their Myanmar program to be designed along those lines.

But as I met with their local partners I found that there was actually surprisingly little talk about “rights”.

As I thought more about it, it seemed that there was a problem of bounded participation. This NGO, like many others, was certainly interested in participation in programs, but only within certain limits.

In deciding whether to work on sanitation or malaria, labour policy or women’s leadership, aid agencies are often open to the ideas of their local partners and communities that they work with.

But when it comes to the overall “framework” or “approach” that is taken, that is often pre-defined. So this European NGO had already globally decided that they were going to use a rights based approach.

To be sure, the rights based approach, which emerged a couple of decades ago, has been a fantastic corrective within the aid sector. It has challenged models of charity by reversing the way that we think about aid.

Poor people should not just be thankful with whatever health or education services they can get. No, they are rights holders, and it is the responsibility of people in power to provide those services to them.

So I am not at all suggesting that a rights based approach is a wrong framework through which to understand development.

Rather, I am arguing that it is not the only legitimate framework.

Local partners of NGOs or local communities also have their own ideas about the best “approach”. There are many different ideas about accountability and development - the responsibilities of leaders and citizens, and what entails good governance.

These may not always be easy to access or understand, but they are important.

So when aid agencies talk about participation, this should also include a willingness to be open about the whole “approach” that is taken. Local understandings should not be tucked away in the “informal institutions” section of the RBA format.

“Approaches” should be built in programs from the ground up with partners and communities, rather than decided in Brussels, or Canberra, or Oxford.

A rights based approach is indeed an interesting and compelling way of thinking about development. But surely it too is just a framework. It too should be subject to discussion.

To simply apply it around the world devalues the understandings of local partners and communities that international agencies work with.

They too may have hard won ideas about what development means and what approach should be taken.

Tamas Wells is the editor of the PK Forum

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