Rights-based approaches to development: what is the value-added?

Advocates and activists for human rights are currently facing a paradox: the coexistence of profound challenges in familiar territory (civil liberties) alongside expansion into new areas. Rights-based approaches (RBAs) are a part of this latter expansionary stream. This article argues that four kinds of potential value-added can be claimed. First, value-added can be sought through direct, indirect, and strategic uses of the law. Second, value can also be added by re-centring the state and (re)asking the question about its appropriate role in development (delivery, oversight), and strategising engagement with the state. Third, in relation to accountability, RBAs add value by calling the state to account; building capacities of rights holders and duty bearers; and encouraging a new kind of ownership of human rights among NGOs. Fourth, the article explores claims that RBAs re-politicise development, redefining it as rights-based rather than based on benevolence; reclaiming or re-politicising the key (process) terms of development; addressing the root, structural causes of poverty and conflict, rather than the symptoms; and speaking truth to power. Not all of these contributions are unique to RBAs, however, and on all counts it remains to be seen if RBAs will deliver on their promise.