Human Rights and the Review of Australian International Development Assistance

The Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, has launched a comprehensive review of Australia’s aid program to ensure that the program learns from its experience and becomes as effective and efficient as possible.  This is a welcome announcement; the international development assistance budget is expected to double between now and 2015, and there hasn’t been an independent review of Australia’s aid program since 1996. I have real concerns, however, that the review will fail to deliver the best development outcomes if the primary focus is on efficiency and delivering ‘value for money’.  In particular, I am concerned that the terms of reference for the review seem to be based on the flawed notion that economic growth is the sole or primary driver of poverty alleviation.  Whilst economic growth has been one of the drivers for millions of people in China and India lifting themselves out of poverty, this growth hasn’t done much for the ‘bottom’ 20 per cent in both countries, who still live in humiliating poverty.

In contrast, the evidence from other countries in the region, such as Nepal and Sri Lanka, is that targeted assistance and programs, particularly in the areas of health and education, can significantly benefit the poorest, despite relatively low levels of economic growth.  So maybe we shouldn’t gamble too much on economic growth as the main driver of poverty alleviation and instead focus on other issues that seem to be neglected, such as human rights.

Despite the strong links between human rights and development, human rights are not mentioned in the terms of reference for the review.  This is concerning.  The international human rights framework – enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – could and should provide a clear framework to guide the aid program into the future and enhance development effectiveness and efficiency.  Other progressive donors, such as the UK Department for International Development, already use a human rights-based approach to poverty alleviation as a key driver of their programming work.

So what is a human rights-based approach and what implications would it have for the Australian Government’s international development assistance program?

A human rights-based approach to development is based on a belief that people living in poverty should understand their experiences of want, fear, discrimination and exclusion in terms of human rights abuses, violations and exploitations, and not in terms of a consequence of their own failings.  A human rights-based approach is different to traditional approaches to development as a result of its focus on unequal power relations, disempowerment and exclusion.

A human rights-based approach requires three integrated programs.  First, empowerment programs, which build the power of rights holders.  Second, solidarity programs, which build power with and between groups of rights holders.  Finally, campaigning and advocacy programs, which enable rights holders to have power over duty bearers who violate and deny their human rights.  The most effective way for people living in poverty to claim, secure and enjoy their human rights is to have a voice, organise and mobilise with others, and develop their power to negotiate.

An empowerment program is the foundation of a human rights-based approach and its focus must be on working with poor and excluded rights holders and their communities, organisations and movements to enable their collective analysis, the development of an identity, and ultimately enable and empower their actions.

A solidarity program must link citizens, organisations, social movements, and coalitions to enlarge the support, voices and actions that will enhance the power of poor and excluded people.

Finally, campaigning and advocacy programs must be targeted at duty bearers, such as states, non-state actors such as private corporations, institutions and people who violate or deny people their human rights, to ensure that polices, practices and public opinion are changed.

To ensure that these programs can be successfully implemented in a cohesive manner there is a need for a framework which contains the minimum elements of a human rights-based approach.  This framework should include a rights analysis, or power analysis, that has activities which include on-going analysis of power relations among rights holders, and duty bearers and an analysis of the exclusion and violence against women.

The framework should include activities that ensure the agency of the poor and the excluded is central to all development efforts.  Rights holders must be able to organise and mobilise and to articulate their agenda and demand the change that they wish to see.

Women’s rights must be a core component of the framework and there must be activities to ensure women are able to identify and contest different forms of subordination and exploitation which will reduce inequality and transform gender power relations.

Moreover, a human rights-based framework must enable poor and excluded people to have the political space to connect with, challenge and claim their rights from duty bearers, particularly the State.

Finally, it is critical that a framework is focused on ‘changing the rules’.  A human rights-based approach to poverty eradication and development is most successful when there is sustained social change at the local and national level which results from entrenching gains in laws, budgets and institutions at the local, national and international level.

I’m not particularly hopeful that this review will be sufficiently progressive for the government to adopt a human rights framework as the core of the Australian international development assistance program.  I do hope I’m wrong, however, as the combination of bipartisan political support for doubling the budget for the aid program and a Foreign Minister, in Kevin Rudd, who is committed to the principles of social justice, present a unique opportunity for Australia to seize this opportunity to use a human rights based approach as its framework, establish itself a world leader in this field and. most importantly. enable the world’s poorest people to claim and enjoy their human rights.

Archie Law is CEO of ActionAid Australia. Prior to joining ActionAid, Archie worked for the United Nations Development Program and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.