A Human Rights Approach to Development

Term Paper, 2005

20 Pages, Grade: 16 / 20


In his book “The Coming Anarchy”, the American journalist Robert D. Kaplan paints a dark picture of the situation in many developing countries in the early 1990’s, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. He describes societies marked by disease, overpopulation, poverty and criminal anarchy, where nation-states are increasingly losing importance and life is controlled by mafia-like structures and private armies(1).

While Kaplan’s book might represent an overly pessimistic view of developing states at the end of the 20th century, it nevertheless constitutes a powerful criticism of orthodox development policies. After the debt crisis of the 1980s, the subsequent pursuit of structural adjustment policies advocated by the IMF and the World Bank resulted for a majority of developing countries in increased debt, social hardship, political tension and environmental degradation(2). To respond to these demoralising results of orthodox development policies, which mostly concentrated on economic growth measured by GDP per capita, a more holistic view of development policy began to emerge in the late 1980s. Through a series of UN world conferences in the early 1990s, the understanding that “democracy, human rights, sustainability and social development are interdependent”(3) gained support, so that the idea that human rights and human development are compatible and mutually reinforcing became the mainstream way of thinking in a number of UN agencies in the late 1990s, most notably the UNDP and UNICEF.

It is on this attempt to construct a comprehensive approach to development policy that this paper will focus. After a contextual overview on the situation in development policies from the Second World War to the 1990s, the paper will examine the theoretical and philosophical background of the human rights approach to development, giving special attention to Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom and to the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2000. In a third part, the paper will cast a look on the outside challenge brought to the new approach in development policy by examining the policies of the World Bank and the IMF in the 1990s and their different underlying understanding of the development process, before finally addressing some criticism from the inside, as e.g. the “Asian Values claim” or the question whether the pursuit of human rights and development are always compatible.

I. From economic to human development – the emergence of a holistic approach to development politics

During the Cold War, a series of different theoretical and analytical approaches have been employed in order to characterize the changing politics of development employed in regard to the developing world. While some differences existed between capitalist and Marxist approaches to development, with the western politics of modernization (4) and later politics of order (5) concentrating more on “the establishment across the world of stable capitalist regimes(6)”, and Marxist – inspired dependency theory emphasising the ongoing exploitation of the former colonies by developed countries, their common concern was political and above all economic development. Development policies concentrated on pursuing industrialization and furthering agricultural production, an overall growth of GDP and agricultural output was believed to find its way to the poor (“trickle down effect”) and to finally enhance the living standards of developing societies as a whole(7).

The perspectives and capabilities of people as individuals were widely neglected. Individuals were seen at most as passive beneficiaries of development and poverty reduction policies, constituting an aggregated mass rather than individual possible actors in their respective societies. This lack of importance accorded to the situation of individuals and to individual agency becomes especially visible in the policies of the World Bank and the IMF during the 1980s, in the aftermath of the third world debt crises.

Due to mismanaged spending, but also to global recession, a rise in world interest rates and low commodity prices, in the early 1980s several developing countries fell behind in the payment of their debts amassed some years before(8). In order to stabilize the international financial system, the World Bank and the IMF linked further loans to these countries to structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), which advocated balancing the national budgets through cutting government spending, opening the countries to foreign investment and exporting primary commodities (so called ‘cash-crops)(9). While the strategy worked insofar as debt repayments have largely been met, the programmes resulted as well in deep cuts in sectors like education, health and social care or subsidies for food and milk(10). Thus, instead of enabling the poor in developing countries to reduce their poverty, the cuts in government spending affected them disproportionately and still increased their difficulties.

In reaction to the negative effects of structural adjustment programmes, a series of new approaches emerged at the end of the 1980s. In 1987, UNICEF published its landmark study Adjustment with a Human Face, a report which highlighted the social cost of structural adjustment and argued for protecting public expenditure in social sectors, such as health and education(11). The report attracted attention to the situation of groups amongst the poor which suffered more than others from cuts in social programmes, such as women and children. It challenged as well the orthodox development approach which concentrated solely on growth of GDP per capita, in emphasizing the importance of education and health care.

A further step into the direction of a more holistic approach to development was made in 1990, when the UNDP introduced the Human Development Index (HDI) to measure the development achievements of individual countries(12). The assessment of different aspects such as life expectancy, literacy and average local purchasing power permitted to widen the perspective of development as well as to enlarge the number of development ends. With economic growth becoming only one variable amongst others, the question of means and ends of development emerged. Under HDI assessments, countries with relatively high rates of GDP per capita suddenly fell in the rankings below countries with much lower rates of economic growth, but higher rates of life expectancy and adult literacy(13). This posed a fundamental challenge to orthodox development policies based only on growth of per capita GDP, because education and quality of life became important ends of development in themselves, requiring a reorientation in the philosophy of development.

During the 1990s, the new approach introduced by the UNDP gained support. The UN World Conference on Human Rights 1993 in Vienna, the World Conference on Women 1995 in Beijing and the World Summit for Social Development 1995 in Copenhagen widened the approach in bringing about the demand for linking human rights and development policy, implying that adequate political and socio-economic conditions were preconditions of the realization of human rights, but also that democracy, human rights and development were interdependent and mutually reinforcing(14).

Especially the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Conference on Human Rights is of interest to our analysis, because it represents both a recognition of the equal importance of all human rights after the divisions of the Cold War(15), and explicitly mentions the close link between human rights and development(16). Furthermore, the declaration asks for international cooperation in the development process(17) and the fight against poverty(18), and emphasizes the statement of the Declaration on the Right to Development that “the human person is the central subject of development”(19).

Debates about the relationship between human rights and development have existed for a long time, as is shown by the struggle for a human right to development. Claimed for the first time by governments of the South at the 1972 UN Conference for Trade and Development in Santiago de Chile, it was finally accepted by the General Assembly of the UN in 1986 in the Declaration on the Right to Development(20). But the content of the right remained unclear, it was often not perceived as a right of its own, but more as a synthesis of all human rights(21). Only after that the Vienna Conference had accepted the right to development as an individual human right was it made part of the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, this underlined the claim made for a strong link between human rights and development.

The Conference in Vienna did much to strengthen the new concept of human development. In the 1990s, this holistic view of development policy which places the human being into the centre of the development process and addresses the economic, political, social, environmental and cultural dimensions of development became the official position of a number of UN agencies, especially the UNDP, the UNHCR and UNICEF(22). But it nevertheless remained contested, both from the outside through competing policies (e.g. the politics of the World Bank and the IMF, which continued to concentrate on economic growth and economic liberalism), and from the inside through challenges to the universality of Human Rights (as brought forward by Lee Kuan Yew and the “Asian Values Debate”) or through the claim that human rights and development (or the right to development) are not always compatible.

However, before turning to the criticism and the challenges of a human rights approach to development, we will consider the theoretical background of the new concept. In doing so we will give special attention to the importance of freedom in providing the capabilities for human agency, to the role of the individual as active participant in the development process and to the role of human rights, democracy and market economy as ends and means in the process of human development. We will focus on Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom, which was first published in 1999 and gives a good theoretical summary of an approach to development based on individual freedoms and human rights, and on the UNDP Human Development Report 2000, which in many points takes up Sen’s analysis and exemplifies the position of the UNDP.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


A Human Rights Approach to Development
University of St Andrews  (School of International Relations)
Human Rights un Theory and Practice
16 / 20
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ISBN (eBook)
File size
520 KB
Human, Rights, Approach, Development, Human, Rights, Theory, Practice
Quote paper
Michael Rochlitz (Author), 2005, A Human Rights Approach to Development, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/50749


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