Rights based Approach

Explain what international development organisations usually mean when they speak of ‘the rights-based approach’. What is specific about the processes, outcomes and ways of thinking that distinguishes such an approach from a conventional ‘needs-based approach? Is the difference sufficient to be considered significant? Use examples to illustrate your answer.


Traditional meaning of the development was mainly about the economic growth. Many development organizations and actors focused primarily on the particular measures to bring the economic growth to the underdeveloped countries.

With these measures and approaches, they saw the poverty and underdevelopment as the consequences of the lack of capital, goods, and knowledge. So the donor states or international development organizations approached the development problems by providing required capital and goods to the developing countries, which is understood as needs-based approach (NBA).

Even though, billion dollars and many resources were put into the development industries for many years, except in some areas, there were no significant development and progress. Billions of people are still living under the poverty and without access to the basic services, and the gap between the rich and the poor became worse both globally and nationally throughout these years.

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So they reevaluated their policies and approaches , and in recent years, the focus of development shifted more to the human rights and equality, which is called rights-based approach (RBA).

Human Rights, Equality, and Development

Fukuda-Parr(2009) describes that development is not only about the economic growth but also about the redistribution of this wealth equally to the people to meet and realize the rights.

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Unlike the other form of development practices, RBA sees the lack of rights such as rights to education or health, and the inequality are the sources of poverty that is different from the economic perspective on poverty. The increased wealth should be distributed fairly to the poor and marginalized people mainly to increase their capabilities, help them to access the basic services and to fulfill their rights. Economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights are linked and reinforcing each other. Denial of one right can lead to the negative impacts on the other rights, and it can create a vicious cycle ( Fukuda-Parr, 2009). So, development must target to meet these rights, and all development programs should be designed within the framework of human rights. With this point of view, development and human rights are the two sides of the coin and indivisible. Oesterich (2014) describes the linkage between the human rights and development as follow:

“On the other hand, development is expected to promote the human rights; rather than the economic growth or other such metrics; for example development should be taken into consideration women’s rights…[..]…On the other hand, rights are assumed to promote the development: people will be more economically productive if they are not discriminated against, if they feel secure in their person, can speak freely …….”( Oesterich, 2014)

The World Bank (1991) also describes that:

“ Development in a broader sense is understood to include other important and related attributes as well, notably more equality of opportunity and political and civil liberties. The overall goal of development is therefore to increase the economic, political, and civil rights of all people across gender, ethnic groups, religions, races, regions and countries” (World Bank 1991)

As described above, human rights, equality and development are totally related and reinforcing each other. Many development actors adopt the normative frameworks of rights and started to apply these international standards in practical fields. Rights are the international agreed set of norms, backed by the international law. Rights are defined as the entitlements that every human possess regardless of age, gender, race or ethnicity. So, every human beings are the right holders and their governments are the main duty bearers for them to fulfill their rights. Genugten (1997) describes “ Human rights are the expression of a specific social goals: creating legal, economic and social conditions in which persons all over the world can live a life worthy of a human being”. He takes “ live a life worthy of a human being” as a starting point and says that living under (extreme) poverty is a violation of human rights. Poverty can make people struggle to earn some basic income or food to survive, leaving no space for political, social or cultural rights or participation. Then lack of these rights can also affect on their daily lives again.

For example, lack of political rights or participation lead to biased policy making or unequal distribution of resources, and it, in turn, can cause negative impacts on who do not have power, leading to another cycle of poverty. Rights are indivisible and should be taken in holistic ways. From rights perspective, it is very important to make sure that every person in the world should have a life worthy of a human being. To have that kind of life, everyone must have at least necessities such as food, clothes, shelter and basic services of health, education and so on. In one hand, having access to these necessities is the right for everyone, and, on the other hand, there must be someone or group to fulfill these necessities.

Article 2 of the 1986 Declaration of the Right to Development describes “States have the right and duty to formulate appropriate national development policies that aim at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals, on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of the benefits resulting therefrom.” Therefore, it is clear that states are the most responsible for the development. But the government of the underdeveloped or developing countries are sometimes incapable or lack of rescuers to be effective duty bearers.

So it calls for the international development organizations to help and support the governments who are lack of such resources or capacity. So, non-state actors come in and fill the gap that is supposed to be done by the governments. There are two key groups in RBA; right holders who do not have or experience the full rights, and the duty bearers who have the duty to fulfill the holders’ rights. In RBA, the two main principles are to make the holders get the full rights by informing, educating and empowering them, and to strengthen and improve the capacities of the duty-bearers to fulfill their duties effectively.

Process and Outcomes of Rights-based Approach

The dilemma of RBA is difficulty to measure the impact as RBA focuses on the law and regulations (Plipat, 2006). Gready(2008) mentions “ RBAs are about rendering the law real in political and social processes, as well as within the legal mainstream and through the adherence to legal obligations”. He also describes that RBA is based on the international standards and norms of human rights and applied them into the principles and process of development ( participation, accountability, nondiscrimination, transparency, and empowerment). All of these principles and process requirements are shaping the translation of laws into every political and social process where RBA development actors work(Gready, 2008). There are action and reaction in this process. Applying of the international norms into the legal process of RBA is action but the results and outcomes will shoot back the question or redefine the norms and standards as sometimes applying these norms directly into local context may be impossible or very difficult; reaction.

For example, while child’s rights in Western countries are very well established and they already have the practical and applicable laws in daily context but apply these child’s rights directly in Eastern countries may not be the simple process or sometimes may not be possible. Swift (cited in Plipat, 2006) argues that human rights are not universal yet and many legal tools have to be redefined, and one main thing is all the human rights are still the Northern-biased. Gready(2008) also describes that applying the international norms into local context needs to negotiate between the cultural relativism and universalism which in turn will generate the new rights or new understandings of the rights. For example, CARE recognizes the right to solidarity with communities and the promotion of social justice (Jones, CARE Rwanda) (in Gready 2008).

Different Policies and Practices of Rights-Based Approach to Development

Human rights became a major focus for nearly every development organizations and actor, and they imply the rights as their tools, instruments or framework for their programs or projects. It is not easy to say what exactly is RBA as different organizations and actors have different approaches, methods and practices with RBA. Cornwall and Nyamu-Musembi (2004) describes “ within as well as across agencies the term ‘right-based approach’ to development is open to an enormous range of interpretations and is associated with a range of different methodologies and practices”. So it is difficult to make generalization about the RBA within the development discourse but based on their practices and intentions concerned with the rights, it can be said that RBA is not about the words or name, it is about the practices and performances. For example, Cornawall and Nyamu-Musebi(2004) describes the different practices of RBA in their works and these are as follow (1)

Sida does not use the term RBA but its poverty reduction program is based on a multidimensional approach to poverty that is strongly concerned with human rights. Its focus is on the power structures and relationship such as discrimination that affect on the poor people in analyzing the poverty. (2) For World Bank, even though it labels its programs as right-based, they get strong criticism from civil societies and UN committee on economic, social and cultural rights for its lack of accountability on negative impacts on the rights e.g., privatization of water services, labelled as rights-based water sharing. (3) For CARE, RBA is about the empowering the poor people to claim and use their rights and develop the capacities required for those responsible to fulfill their duties. CARE has developed ‘benefits-harms’ analysis to evaluate the negative impacts of their works and how their works affect on the different people by same intervention or policy. (4) UNDP has the clear explanation of their perspective on RBA as follows:

the central goal of development has and will be the promotion of human well-being. Given the human rights define and defend human well-being, a rights-based approach to development provides the conceptual and practical framework for the realization of the human rights through the development process. (UNDP, cited in Cornwall & Nyamu-Musebi, 2004)

Different actors have different types of strategies and policies, but there are some common features among these. The two main features of RBA that can be generalized are that (1) it tries to strengthen the capacities of the responsible actors (state and non-state) to fulfill their duties and (2) to empower the citizens or people to claim and exercise their rights by providing opportunities or working along with them (Cornwall & Nyamu-Musembi, 2004). So, RBA gives new practices to the development actors by making them see the poor as the potential ones to develop on their own. Offenheiser and Holcombe (2003) describes “The rights-based approach envisions the poor as actors with the potential to shape their own destiny and defines poverty as social exclusion that prevents such action”.

In this view, it is assumed that the poor have the potential, but their initiatives and strengths are blocked by the structural barriers or systemic challenges such as religious or ethnic discrimination, apartheid and lack of access to basic services (Offenheiser and Holcombe, 2003). So, the rights-based approach is about helping the poor by making them sure to access to the basic services, improving their capabilities, and preventing from social or political exclusion, by standing on the doctrine of the human rights and socio- economic rights.

Needs-Based Approach and Rights-Based Approach

RBA and NBA pursue the different policies and pathways to development. In NBA, the focus is paid only to the superficial problems and needs, not the root causes which create these needs. The needs are identified, which may be capital or foods or medicine, and are delivered by the donors. Even though it allows the beneficiaries (receivers) to participate in identifying the needs, the development organizations and NGOs never interfere with the governance or the domestic politics of one country. They tried to solve the poverty by more focusing on the poor people, less dealing with the policy makers or politicians. Before 1990s, the development projects were mainly influenced by the welfarist model or NBA. But it was found out that NBA could not bring the actual development and it worked only for the short-run as the poverty problems could not be solved even though billions of dollars were poured into the development industries year after year.

With the rights-based approach, the development organizations and actors address the lack of rights or failure to fulfill the rights as the root causes of poverty, different from the welfarist or needs-based approaches. For example, RBA focus on the underlying causes of poverty rather than focusing on the poverty reduction or alleviation. While poor are seen as victims in NBA searching for helps or assistances, RBA helps to transform the poor into the capable ones who can participate in decision making, demand their rights. Again, one important aspect of RBA is the identifying the power relation and structures, it helps to redress the unequal distribution of power by empowering the people while NBA has no action concerned with power or distributional systems.

While NBA deals the development problems only by technical supports or assistances, in addition to these supports RBA helps the poor to claim their rights to their governments or duty bearers. While NBA sees the problems as needs, RBA sees them as the lack of rights. For example, with the NBA it sees that the children need the good classroom while the children have the right to have a good classroom. Again, in the area where the girls are discriminated not to have the education, NBA will claim that the girls need the education while RBA says the girls have the right to education. There are still many differences between RBA and NBA, like accountability, participation and so on.


Most of the development actors, INGOs and NGOs adopt RBA as the new development platform and but there is no generalization about what is RBA or what RBA should be.Again even RBA is different from NBA in above ways, there is no significant evidence that RBA is better than NBA. There is no concrete study to show that RBS is more effective or sustainable than the traditional approach of development (Pilpat,2006).

Theoretically, RBA contributes many changes in development discourse but in practical, RBA still has so many weaknesses as there is not enough effective legal framework to support RBA, and Johnson(UNICEF) (cited in Gready, 2008) argues that human rights standards are not precise enough to be used in development practice. So, even though RBA contributes values added to development discourse, so many works still have to to be done to apply and integrate human rights into the development successfully.


Cornwall, A., & Nyamu‐Musembi, C. (2004). Putting the ‘rights‐based approach’to development into perspective. Third World Quarterly, 25(8), 1415-1437.

Fukuda-Parr, S ,2009, Human Rights and Politics in development, Goodhart,M (edn), Human Rights: Politics and Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Genugten, W. V. (1997). the use of Human Rights instruments in the struggle against (extreme) poverty.

Gready, P. (2008). Rights-based approaches to development: what is the value-added?. Development in practice, 18(6), 735-747.

Oestreich, J. E. (2014). The United Nations and the Rights-based Approach to Development in India. Global Governance, 20(1), 77-94.

Offenheiser, R. C., & Holcombe, S. H. (2003). Challenges and opportunities in implementing a rights-based approach to development: an Oxfam America perspective. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 32(2), 268-301.

Plipat, S. (2006). Developmentizing human rights: how development NGOs interpret and implement a human rights-based approach to development policy (Doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh).

World Bank. 1991. World Development Report 1991 : The Challenge of Development. New York: Oxford University Press. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/5974 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.

Updated: Jul 07, 2022
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Rights based Approach. (2016, Sep 09). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/rights-based-approach-essay

Rights based Approach essay
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