Seeing the Light on a Rights-Based Approach to Development

Today's guest blogger, Tim Ogden, is the editor-in-chief of Philanthropy Action. Bill Easterly has been a frequent critic of the rights-based approach to development, most recently in his article in the FT focusing on the “right to health.” For as long as I’ve known about the rights-based approach I’ve agreed with him. Recently, though, I’ve seen the light.

For those unfamiliar with the rights-based approach to development, it starts with defining inalienable human rights—and then seeks to ensure that those rights are enforced. The idea is that if you help people assert their rights and strengthen relevant institutions to respect those rights, everyone wins.

My epiphany on the rights-based approach came during a conversation with a friend on why practices in some areas are susceptible to evidence while others are not. My friend mentioned a conversation he had recently had with a cardiologist who noted that the practice of cardiology has essentially changed completely in the last five years. Why? Because the fear of malpractice suits made all cardiologists pay close attention to the latest research and adjust their practice accordingly. Simply not keeping up with the latest innovations was grounds for a costly lawsuit. We began joking about how the field of education would change if a parent could sue a school district because their child wasn’t taught to read the using the techniques proven most effective.

That’s when the hidden brilliance (brilliance, I tell you!) of the rights-based approach hit me. As Bill has shown in his books and the Aid Watch blog, practices that have proven ineffective and even harmful remain staples of the development industry for decades. No amount of evidence, or lack thereof, seems to have much impact on practice.

But if we adopt the rights-based approach, think of what we could accomplish! Right now, the poor can’t sue an aid agency or NGO for malpractice, no matter what they’re doing. But if we recognized the rights of the poor as expressed by the rights-based approach, then they could hold aid agencies accountable by suing for having their rights violated. I wonder how many aid programs wouldn’t be covered under the right to freedom from “arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence.”

It goes further. Imagine a world where Ethiopians sue USAID for delivering in-kind food aid because their rights (specifically the right to adequate food) have been violated. Or Kenyans sue DfID because its support for education hasn’t been adjusted to reflect the latest research on what actually helps children learn more (surprise, it’s making teachers accountable to their communities not the civil service!)

Dare we hope for a day when the poor from around the world file a class action suit against the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for advocating a rights-based approach to development without evidence that it does anything other than perpetuate bureaucratese and wasted aid dollars? Finally making aid accountable to the poor is just a few rights away!

All we need now is to really adopt the rights-based approach—and of course a new NGO to handle all the class action suits. Anybody got a catchy acronym?