Amartya Sen, Development, Development policy, Human rights, Millennium Development Goals

Rights and choices: the duty of development actors to embrace the unseen

My first OnDev page features my final blog post for Tomorrow’s Youth Organization (TYO), an American development NGO working in the West Bank.  The post opens with an expression of admiration for Nobel prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen, and his vision of development as the enlargement of human choices.  I was subsequently pleased to see David Mepham’s reference to the very same idea little more than a week later, in a blog post for the Guardian in which he advocates for development policy to be predicated upon respect for human rights.

The desirability of these ideas has long been recognised.  UNDP’s Human Development Report 1990 explicitly considers, like Mepham, augmented human choices and respect for human rights as both routes to, and indicators of, human development.  UNDG concretized this idea with the launch of its mainstreaming mechanism for a human rights based approach to development programming, in 2009.  The humanitarian field began a transition from needs-based to rights-based approaches some thirty or more years ago.  The World Bankhas also shown support for the inclusion of human rights considerations in its work,but, as Mepham points out, the organisation has been criticised for failing to safeguard human rights at the programme implementation stage.  The norms are thus well-established; the issue that warrants serious consideration is how to fully and meaningfully implement and safeguard them on the ground.

Believing in the ‘unseen’, or rather, funding it, logically raises questions for donors and practitioners in the development and humanitarian fields.  Let us consider what rights and choices have in common.  Firstly, both are required to be exercised or realised, over and above their mere existence, if they are to mean anything.  Constitutions, treaty ratifications and peace agreements are nominal; it is the active protection or exercise of their provisions on the ground thatbrings them to life.  The presence of rights and choices may be possible to delineate on paper, but their fulfilment and unfettered exercise may effectively remain ‘unseen’ in the absence of qualitative accounts from numerous individuals to evidence their use- presumably highly impracticable, time-intense and costly for practitioners to undertake.  An increase in voters at the polls in a state, for example, may point to an increased realisation of civil and political rights, with self-evident choices in whom to elect.  However, no quantitative scorecard can capture the pressures that may have been exerted on voters, limiting their free exercise of the rights and choices that we may believe have been conferred upon them.  They may have been coerced into voting; others may have been intimidated into staying away.  The direction of voting may have been influenced in any number of ways.  Likewise, the existence of a choice of service providers or products cannot be freely exercised if many of them are somehow inaccessible, either economically, geographically or otherwise.

In this way, rights and choices are, secondly, not fully tangible resources.  They are often more conspicuous by their absence.  This is a critical limitation in the age of results-driven programming and evidence-based policy.  No pre- or post-evaluation mechanism can reasonably account for an individual’s on-going life experiences and myriad daily encounters with opportunities or barriers concerning their enjoyment of human rights and free exercise of choices.  Moreover, a significant amount of time may elapse between the provision of a right or a choice in theory, and its execution in practice.  A donor should not, in my opinion, be persuaded of the viability or success of an intervention purely on the basis of a tick-list of rights and choices that beneficiaries have supposedly gained, because this is not a reliable indication of their ability to freely exercise or access them in the future.  At the same time, I appreciate that donors cannot wait for a decade or so after the fact for a blow-by-blow portrayal of the trajectory of each and every beneficiary’s life.  This could not accurately pinpoint the chain of causation, in any case.  Thirdly, rights and choices are invariably subjective.  Whether we possess them, and in sufficient measure to enhance our lives, is decision reserved only for each of us as individuals, and again, can be tricky for third parties to discern, let alone enumerate in sufficient detail to satisfy donors.

Mepham’s ‘naysayer’ alludes to these sorts of dilemmas.  Her reasoning that technical development activity largely fails to take account of “domestic and institutional dynamics that determine development outcomes” is, in my view, a more compelling reason than any to engage fully with the  complexities of implications of development work for the future exercise of rights and choices, no matter how arduous this may be.  States may be the official duty-bearers when it comes to the fulfilment of human rights obligations, but as Mepham points out, this does not give the rest of us permission to sit back and forget about them, especially when dealing with grassroots initiatives.  Yes, human rights are a “global political agenda” – and so is development.  We may not like it, but we must accept that those who profit from human rights abuses and underdevelopment are probably the same people.  I certainly do not agree with the claim that the Millennium Development Goals “paid no attention to human rights and political freedoms”.  If eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and achieving universal primary education do not embody the realisation of economic and social rights, for example, then I do not know what does.  Believing in the unseen is a tremendous ask, but believe in it we must.  Settling for tick-box results concerning the mere presence of rights and choices is like celebrating winning a race on hearing the starting pistol.  I fail to see a more pertinent raison d’être for doing development than the practical realisation of human rights and the de facto exercise of choices, regardless of whether we work top-down or invest in grassroots movements.  They do not have to be the explicit objectives of development and humanitarian programmes, but there is no logical or practical way of skirting their presence, absence or significance when engaging in development work, and nor should there be.

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