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The relationship between human rights and development has occupied a prominent place in rights discourse for three decades. The debate has highlighted some of the most controversial issues in human rights including: the legitimacy, priority and justiciability of different kinds of rights; the linkage between human rights and democracy; the relationship between individual and collective rights; the degree to which the international community is responsible for assisting developing countries; and, the benefits and drawbacks of free market and globalized economics. During the late 1970s, the debate was centered in the principal human rights body of the United Nations, the Commission on Human Rights, which recognized the existence of a right to development in 1977. In the 1980s the Commission’s draft declaration was considered by the General Assembly, which adopted the Declaration on the Right to Development in 1986. The debate has continued at the United Nations ever since, as Member States remain divided over the need for a convention and the need to establish institutional arrangements to implement the right to development. With the acceleration of globalization trends and the marketization of economies around the world, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) also began to discuss the relationship of human rights to development and to adopt a human rights approach to its programming during the mid-1990s. The 50th anniversary of the UDHR and the global financial crisis placed the topic on the agenda of the World Bank as well, resulting in its publication of a booklet by the Bank on human rights and development in 1998.

The right to development and human rights impact of the activities of development agencies

Adherence to the traditional development paradigm of equating development exclusively with economic growth, has led international development agencies over the years to administer programs and promote policies that have been detrimental to the social fabrics, human rights situations, physical environments, and livelihoods of certain groups in receiving countries. In response to pressure from non-governmental organizations, United Nations bodies, and governments of developing countries, development agencies have, since the mid-1980s, gradually incorporated issues of governance, equity and the environment into their thinking about development. Throughout the 1990s, as they have come under increasing external pressure to incorporate human rights concerns into their programming and policy recommendations as well, development agencies have struggled to understand the meaning of the right to development and its relationship to their work.

The 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development, a human rights document with direct applicability to international development policy, offers some guidance in this

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regard. According to the Declaration, the purpose of development is to enhance human dignity; therefore, it must promote the full range of universal human rights, and be people-centered and participatory. The Declaration proclaims that States have the right and duty to formulate national and international development policies that aim at the constant improvement of the well-being of all individuals and the fair distribution of all benefits resulting from development.

Human rights activists generally reject the arguments of States seeking to justify their poor human rights records on the basis of insufficient resources and underdevelopment. They also refuse to excuse international development agencies for their poor human rights records on the basis of the constraints imposed upon them by legal mandates and the difficulty of implementing the right to development. They note that human rights standards can be implemented by development agencies in much the same way as environmental standards: by conducting impact analyses of development projects; sponsoring legal reform projects; fostering civil society; establishing and monitoring benchmarks; providing redress to those adversely affected by development projects; facilitating participatory review processes; and helping to create an enabling environment for their full enjoyment. Mobilizing the United Nations system -- including the development agencies and financial institutions -- to act as a system, rather than as a bundle of autonomous agencies, in pursuit of its objective of improving the welfare of humanity is seen by many in the human rights and development fields as the key to effective implementation of the right to development.

A human rights approach to human development

Competing interests among different stakeholders became apparent, when UNDP, the world's largest development agency with a budget of $11.5 billion, began to adopt a human rights approach to development assistance. Non-governmental organizations noted that the agency still had a long way to go, many UN Member States (donors and recipients alike) failed to see why the agency should be involved in human rights at all, and some of UNDP's own field workers complained that the policy changes were too radical and difficult to implement. Three years later, however, most now encourage UNDP to extend its commitment to human rights and endorse its approach to development, which is human-centered, participatory, empowering and sustainable. As it seeks to integrate more fully human rights issues into its development policies, UNDP focuses simultaneously on monitoring human rights performance of aid-receiving States and on protecting and promoting human rights through its own programming.

UNDP's human-centered development strategy has four elements. First, the agency emphasizes good governance, which it understands to entail: effectively

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functioning parliaments, impartial judiciaries, relatively autonomous executive bodies, human rights monitoring systems, enforcement of the rule of law, and healthy civil societies. Second, UNDP works to alleviate poverty, which encompasses the availability of food, shelter, water, sanitation and other survival necessities. The agency treats freedom from poverty as an integral and inalienable human right, which is necessary, though not sufficient, for the enjoyment of other human rights. Third, UNDP seeks to foster women's involvement in decision-making, to help them gain access to credit and to promote their right to ownership of natural resources. The agency recognizes that women play a central role in development and that they have often been marginalized by development policies in the past. Fourth, UNDP aims to protect and regulate the natural environment upon which the existence of human life depends. Given that poor governance, poverty, inequality, competition for scarce resources, and environmental degradation often lead to violent conflict, UNDP's multi-faceted work promotes human-centered peace and security.

Integrating human rights into the work of the World Bank

Like UNDP, the World Bank is gradually adopting a more humanistic approach to development, and, as a result, is becoming involved in areas once thought to be outside its purview. The Bank's Articles of Agreement explicitly state that the institution shall consider only economic criteria in lending decisions and shall not intervene in the political affairs of States. Yet, during the last decades the Bank has slowly had to come to terms with the fact that development -- paradoxically, the only right to which the Bank is committed -- is an all-encompassing process, with social and political, as well as economic dimensions. The recent Asian financial crisis and the political instability it produced were particularly jarring to the Bank, prompting it to admit that the distinction it had made since its inception between economics and politics was essentially artificial.

The Bank's social agenda has been similar to UNDP’s, although with a lag of several years. This agenda emphasizes good governance, through legal, judicial, and civil service reform; anti-corruption measures; poverty alleviation; and special support to health, education, and elimination of particularly harmful forms of child labor. The Bank has sought to implement its social agenda by issuing guidelines to its employees on such topics as: fostering public participation, working with non-governmental organizations, monitoring involuntary resettlement programs and showing sensitivity toward indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups. The Bank has also conditioned some development loans on minimal social criteria. In response to demands by NGOs that it be more transparent and accountable, in 1993 the Bank adopted a policy according to which it began to disclose more information about the projects it funds. In 1994 it established an independent

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inspection panel empowered to conduct hear complaints and provide redress to those negatively impacted by its projects. The process of renegotiation which takes place every three years between the Bank and borrowing countries over future development strategies, is no longer secret and is increasingly participatory.

The current President of the World Bank Group, James Wolfensohn, has done a great deal to advance the Bank's social agenda and help put a human face on its development policies and practices. While it remains to be seen whether the institution as a whole will also succeed in translating its new rhetoric on human rights into reality, Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has signaled her willingness to give the Bank the benefit of the doubt. In her introduction to the Bank's 1998 booklet on human rights and development, Robinson calls attention to the important role the Bank can play in promoting and protecting human rights and praises its stated intention to do so in the future.

Conclusion: Old wine in new bottles or real change in policies and practice?

The relationship between human rights and development raises difficult questions regarding the extent to which international organizations are subject to external judicial review; and are bound by international human rights instruments, to which they cannot be parties. The World Bank, for example, argues that it is bound only by its charter as interpreted by its own legal counsel. Many disagree, however, maintaining that the Bank is also bound by the UDHR — because its tenets have acquired the status of customary international law — and by those human rights treaties to which its Member States are party — all of which were adopted later than the Bank's Articles of Agreement. Some maintained that the right to development — as a synthesis of rights contained in the International Bill of Human Rights (the UDHR and the two Covenants), and as the subject of the 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development — has also become customary international law. Whether the right to development is viewed as legal or aspirational, there is support for the establishment of a working group to draft a convention on the subject. Those favoring this idea argue that the drafting process would clarify the content of the right and the adoption of a convention would clarify its legal status.

Regardless of the status of the right to development, the development agencies must effectively incorporate human rights considerations into their policies and practices of partnership with the receiving countries. Conditionality of development assistance on respect for human rights remains controversial and many development agencies — the World Bank in particular — continue to resist explicit conditioning of their assistance on compliance with the full range of international

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human rights standards. Development agencies still argue that many human rights criteria are political in nature and thus outside the scope of their mandates. Because it has traditionally defined good governance in exclusively economic terms, the Bank has claimed that its lending policies need to reflect human rights concerns only in so far as they are directly related to economic concerns — corruption, for example. As the Bank slowly broadens its definition of good governance to incorporate more social and political issues, its lending policies would have to reflect human rights concerns in connection with a wider range of issues. Just how wide that range should be — should it be limited to issues seen as having particular relevance to development (such as freedom of the press), or should it extend to more general human rights issues (such as reservations to human rights treaties) — remained a subject of controversy. However, recent remarks by World Bank President Wolfensohn and other development agency officials regarding the inextricable linkage they now see between economics and politics enhance the prospects for a constructive linkage of human rights and development.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | März 2001

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