Rights-Based Approaches to Development: Exploring the Potential and Pitfalls

Mitlin, Diana
Hickey, Sam
Kumarian Press, Sterling, VA, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-56549-272-1, 245 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Daniels, Natalie

This book is a timely volume which explores how human rights and development work might dovetail. Does this process yield an answer to the question of what a rights-based approach to development is, or how to enact it? Reassuringly it outlines many answers and poses many more questions. With 17 authors and 12 chapters on a broad range of issues, possibilities and precedents are thoroughly explored, and the results are diverse, unexpected, and enlightening. In 2005 the University of Manchester's Institute for Development Policy and Management (IPDM) organised a conference entitled 'The Winners and Losers from Rights-Based Approaches to Development'. Those gathered at the conference were a mix of academics and NGO representatives, and the debates in which they engaged ranged from theoretical modelling of the issues to their practical manifestations. This book is a compilation of those debates, rather than a methodical, exhaustive, dissection of the existing literature. All contributors to the volume share the view that a concern for rights should be included in development, yet they come to no consensus around a singular approach to rights-based development.

The editors' incisive summary and analysis is commensurate with the scholarship that they are assessing. Their organisation of the sprawling erudition in this volume allows the reader to make thematic connections between issues and case studies. The chapters are grouped in pairs to highlight different perspectives on similar issues. These paired contributions do not have a conversational relationship, but the thematic dialogues between them, and the striking differences in the manner and voice of the authors, do clarify the breadth of justifiable positions available on the topic in question. The themes of this book reflect the Zeitgeist of humanitarian action and study, as good governance becomes an increasingly entrenched objective. How rights relate to government and citizenship, poverty reduction, and the agency of the poor, and how they can be enabled effectively within operations, are all assessed.

The changes in authorial voice are refreshing and ensure a consistent level of energy throughout the book; but, when combined with the density of all the chapters, they can feel like an obstacle to immersion. While the reader is in the midst of the varying, detailed case studies, analysis, and voices, the patterns can seem dormant, although their pertinence is constantly apparent. The chapters by Mitlin and Patel, Drinkwater and Munroe are particularly successful, as they have an incandescent intensity but remain immensely readable.

These authors present strong opinions carefully based in solid precedents, and allow us to hear the voices of local people experiencing rights-based approaches to development. The distinctive, clever, non-confrontational tactics advocated by Shack Dwellers International are critically but empathetically assessed. Munroe scatters searing stories from the field throughout his honest article. When Drinkwater talks about identity and power in gender relations, he uses women's voices to succinctly articulate the issues; a local woman's assessment of the programme's limitation being that, 'Men still think they are men'. Throughout the book, people's voices are used sparingly, ensuring that they remain powerful and poignant. In chapters where these voices were muted - given the book's subject of empowerment - turning up the volume may have aided the clarity, reach, and impact of the arguments.

The authors make their arguments using case studies from around the world, but mostly from the global South. Although the journeys to these locations are fleeting, they are grounded by lucid translations of the genius loci, as all the authors respect the importance of specific historical, social, economic, political, and legal contexts in the understanding of the issues. Gledhill's precise summation of the relevant political developments in Brazil starts in 1888 and goes through to the present day. This far-sighted view gives coherence to the assessments of the possibilities and constraints of rights-based approaches in this context.

The eagerness of the authors to prise open complex layers of social context means that relevant discussions of identity - both individual and collective - and self-reflection burst out throughout the book. Driving the intense, complicated, academic article of Masabli on 'Free, Prior and Informed Consent' is the emotive insight that empowerment can be truly achieved only through a humane recognition of people as they are, and the forms of citizenship that they choose to adopt. It is suggested - and it could be more forcefully expressed - that NGOs and the individuals within them should seek to recognise their own motivations, power, and identity. This is a crucial and continuously relevant topic, as NGOs try to improve their own transparency, and it is discussed in terms of agency (Cleaver), and NGOs' role within legal and advocacy work (Hickey et al.).

The editors successfully tie the book together with scholarly insights and an extensive index; and they capture the essence of the chapters with statements such as, 'Rights are not fixed or given but become real by being selected as an arena of struggle by social actors'. This is an important work, both within the specific field where rights and development merge, but also in these two spheres independently, as a book of rare breadth and depth. This extensive, sprawling, erudite, and dense volume can enlighten students, researchers, human-rights lawyers, NGO workers, academics, and perhaps voracious readers from other fields.