ActionAid is a global movement of people working together to further human rights and defeat poverty for all.

ActionAid’s Human Rights Based Approach to development – what, why and how?

Friday, September 28, 2012 - 17:01

Human rights Based Approach - What is it?

Almost every decade a new approach to development comes into fashion. In the ‘70s the focus was on welfare and charity, the ‘80s are known for the ‘basic needs’ approach and in the ‘90s supporting the empowerment of deprived communities was the trend. Each approach was based on learning from the failures of the previous approach. Yet it became apparent that none of the above approaches focused on the importance of sustainability, equality and participation. They were still short -term initiatives that were not addressing the underlying causes of poverty.  Then in 2003 the UN Statement of Common Understanding  resulted in the Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA), which is still in use today, almost 20 years on. HRBA is built on the universal framework of international human rights standards. In simple language this means that development needs to:

  1. Be based on the international human rights legal framework
  2. Promote the right to active, free and meaningful participation for all 
  3. Address discrimination and prioritise vulnerable groups
  4. Clarify links between rights and duties, and relationships between rights-holders and duty-bearers

Why do it?

There is virtually no aspect of ActionAid's work that does not have a human rights dimension to it. Whether we are talking about peace and security, development, humanitarian action, the struggle against terrorism, climate change. None of these challenges can be addressed in isolation from human rights.

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations

ActionAid was ahead of the the 2003 UN Statement of Common Understanding having already adopted HRBA in the late ‘90s. Our HRBA evolved from previous approaches and is built on the idea that human development is a central concern. It is further influenced by Amartya Sen’s ‘Development as Freedom’ (1999) in which he describes development as a process of expanding people’s freedoms. He advocates that all individuals have a certain skills and capabilities, it is simply a matter of realising these capabilities. This will in turn allow a person to escape from poverty and their state of 'unfreedom'. We at ActionAid recognise that poverty is a human rights violation. Poverty arises because of marginalisation and discrimination associated with human rights violations. Poverty arises when other rights have been denied.  If we want to end poverty it is necessary to protect, promote and fulfil the human rights of people living in poverty. 

How do we do it?

ActionAid works differently from many other development organisations and agencies that have since adopted HRBA. ActionAid does not simply apply HRBA language to its practices, we work in partnership with people living in poverty. Our HRBA flows from our values, principles and our strategy, it builds on international human rights law, but goes well beyond a mere legal or technical approach to rights. We support people to analyse and confront power imbalances, taking sides with people living in poverty. This sets our HRBA approach apart from many other agencies, who use rights-based language but fail to challenge abuses of power at local, national or international level. 

ActionAid puts people living in poverty at the centre of our HRBA. We believe that men, women and children living in poverty can only claim and protect their rights when they organise and mobilise themselves, when they are aware of their rights and conscious of why their rights were or are being violated. For them to succeed they need tools, capacities and knowledge. But even more is needed to challenge power imbalances. That’s why ActionAid links people in the global north and with the global South and together we challenge the structural causes of poverty. Experience has proven that working together in campaigning and advocacy is more effective.  Together we work for change. 

Three key words of ActionAid’s HRBA: Empowerment, Solidarity, Campaigning

For ActionAid a HRBA is not just a development approach, it is a crucial part of our actions and an integral part of our identity. We believe that a HRBA should not just be applied to development policies, programming and organisational practices but should be applied to all our actions as human beings, because respect for human rights by all, and for all, is the key to sustainable human development.  

For more on ActionAid’s human rights based approach check out our new handbook: People’s Action In Practice