Claudio, Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City


The Paris Declaration-proposed reforms are just not working; they have failed to tackle the root problem of making development a human rights (HR) matter. Harmonization gets all the limelight and the spending –although it is not working consistently either. There are simply too many aid agencies for all of them to understand and to be convinced that they have to heed the political quest called-for. (*)

The Declaration has actually increased the cost of administering development cooperation, has led to a new planning euphoria among agencies as donors seek a common denominator among their diverse interests…and HR are still neglected in that common denominator!

Conventional wisdom is that technical cooperation is expensive, and not very useful (**). A sizeable amount of Western aid is as good as wasted.
But, mind you, no donor agency ever exits the system because of inefficiency or lack of effectiveness, nor do the best donor agencies get additional resources to expand. The majority of these agencies lack real accountability as relates to the HR (or any other?) impact of their work: …after all, there is safety in numbers…and they can hide behind some convenient statistics. They feel no pain from their failure either (if they even perceive the latter). But this does not mean they should not be held accountable for their neglect of HR –beyond the achievement or non-achievement of their individual project objectives.

This is why to debunk current foreign aid and to reorient it especially in the health sector, HR work needs: A joint agenda, a division of tasks and a relentless focus on the issues of HR. Unfortunately, we do not have such an agenda, division of tasks or dedicated attention to foreign aid as a HR issue in the HR community.
The time has come to do so. What follows is a South-South call for this to be heeded.

(*): There are 46 government-run bilateral foreign aid programs; 233 multilateral development agencies; thousands of INGOs, tens of thousands of developing countries’ NGOs; hundreds of thousands of community-based organizations.
(**): Often, cash transfers are a better option than the delivery of supplies or of technical assistance; it is easier and more transparent to give money than to provide food, for example. But cash transfers should not be conditional since most conditionalities have a ring of paternalism and lend themselves to clientelism. (International Poverty Center, Brasil, 2008)

[Adapted from D+C 35:2, Feb 2008].


A sound analysis around the new Human Rights-centered development approach is needed to arrive at a collective platform for the South. This is needed as part of the South countries’ quest for solidarity and cooperation –in their endeavor to follow a genuinely people-centered development path.

It is our collective responsibility to organize up-to-date analyses –analyses by the South, for the South– specifically on HR issues. The countries of the South will be able to act together only when they have a shared understanding of the Human Rights framework. Global action in the field of HR is needed to serve the people in the South.

The economic and political forces that have the knowledge, the skills and the capital necessary to make a difference in HR worldwide have far-reaching and excessive power over those who lack these assets. No country escapes the effects of these powers.

We in the South, must understand what it will mean not to adopt the HR-based approach.
It is imperative that the South understands its own needs in HR as distinct from the needs of richer, more developed countries; only then can we negotiate from a position of strength.

Countries in the South need to act together and bargain hard in international negotiations related to HR. Central to this action is to work towards a common position on HR for collective consideration. Such a shared position paper is to analyze the key HR issues for the South; it is then to recommend to the countries in the South what actions they should consider taking, separately or –better even– together.

Articulating the South’s common HR interests does not necessarily imply seeking confrontation with the countries of the North. As a matter of justice, the imbalance of power in the world imposes an obligation on all of us to continue the endeavor to reduce the same. Actions of the rich and powerful countries often have a greater effect on poor people than actions taken by governments and elites in poor countries. That is the everyday meaning of the imbalance of power. Within this imbalance, different degrees of interdependence have always existed. For the weak, the effects have been and are catastrophic.

Therefore, we in the South must be able and ready to speak for –and more often to defend– our own HR interests as these power-induced changes actually take place, and/or as we are collectively threatened by them. Ultimately, progress can only take place on the basis of respecting human and international equality.
Neither HR nor development can be based upon the oppression of might, whether this be economic, scientific, political or military might. [Nor can the current tacit acquiescence and silence on the part of those whose HR have been and are ignored and violated continue! They have to start to arguing and protesting].
As members of civil society, we need to say these things (!)

As activists, we thus have to work towards making the recommendations for possible action by the South in the realm of HR. But then, it will be for the governments and the people to ultimately determine what actions they wish to, can and will take. We can then only persistently lobby. An instrument becomes useful only by it being used!

It is an understatement to say that the values and aspirations of the South are ignored as if they were unimportant.
Countries in the South can exert the collective power needed for change on the issues of HR only if and when they act together, in a coordinated effort. We do not have to be ignored. We are too many to be ignored. If the South wants to count, it must stand up and be counted!
To focus on the most important HR issues requires political, diplomatic and intellectual support from the South governments and from non-governmental organizations; it also requires financial support from the South.

Our capacity to achieve the goals of the South will depend on the support these goals receive from the countries of the South. Assistance from friends in the North will, of course, be helpful. But we in the South must continue to be the prime engine.

[Adapted from Mwalimu Nyerere’s address given at the South Center in Geneva, Sept.18, 1995. (South Letter, Vols.1+2, No.37, 2001)].


International aid is purported to help in the quest to improve HR. But the crucial flaw of international aid overall is that states cannot be made to work from the outside. So, are donors looking-at or focusing-on the wrong side of the coin?
[Aid has increasingly moved away from lower to middle income countries; it is becoming a window dressing since, compared to their income, rich countries give only half as much foreign aid as they did in the 1960s].

Corruption is linked to foreign aid. Internal tax revenue declines when countries receive grant aid. But uprooting corruption is not a solution to HR violations per-se. A rights-respecting democracy requires more than that… and more than just formal elections. Governance by manipulative means is endemic in many societies with large marginalized populations, because institutional tools of formal democracy are unable to function (precisely because of the poverty and economic dependence of the many).

So, yes, democracies are flawed and imperfect. Under such circumstances, to claim that they can do something more than trial and error is an exaggeration. True reform processes take more than that. Giving potential claim holders legitimate-and-forceful-claiming-capabilities depends on whether we can provide them with new prospects –and creating a consensus on these prospects is a political task.

The corollary of this is that building participative systems of social decision-making is the way ahead to revert HR violations. Beneficiaries may not always ‘know best’ but, given their life experience, they sure do know best who is likely to gain or lose from reforms in the making. We must not give-in in these efforts even if we cannot easily reach the end goal. [(The progressive control of more of the needed development resources through active social mobilization is actually a ‘weapon of mass salvation’ (Geoffrey Sachs)].

[States do not fail, political leaders and systems do, either because they are corrupt, or are incapable, or because they claim ‘underlying conditions are too unfavorable’…But the latter must always be critiqued by claim holders until proven true].
Reforms in the HR area have sometimes been implemented piecemeal, tried out on a small scale, and most often not expanded if they work. We often also fail to realize that institutions that we have to deal with in HR work are often a proxy (just a front) for the political and economic forces behind them. Too often, these institutions try to make us accept that resource constraints are immutable, so we wrongly engage in various forms of pat solutions.

We must rather:
– become directly engaged in the ongoing, local political debates, and
– struggle for the reforms that tackle the redistribution of resources –keeping in mind, the economy is for the people and not vice-versa!

Our closest partners in HR work are thus, above all, people, people’s movements and organized communities, trade unions, health workers unions, teachers unions, civic associations, public interest and consumer groups, and other such.

[Our allies are not the 3,000 CEOs of the world’s trans-national corporations and business-interest-NGOs or their proxies that meet at the yearly World Economic Forum… Moreover, UNICEF and WHO should be at PHM,s People’s Health Assembly and at the World Social Forum and not at the Davos meeting every year. (A. Katz) Furthermore, WHO country representatives need to be made to understand by the Director General that not only governments and ministries of health are their working partners, but also local civil society organizations and local people’s movements].

It is our turn to make the difference. With no grassroots involvement, we will go nowhere; with it, we can stop or launch anything. So, if the determinants of health and nutrition are social and political, so must be the remedies.

[Mostly adapted from Development and Cooperation (D+C) 31:11, Nov 2004; 31:12, Dec 2004; 32:1, Jan 2005; 32:2, Feb 2005; and 32:3, March 2005; and Finance and Development (F+D) 41:3, Sept 2004; and 41:4, Dec 2004].


In international law, a violation of HR is deemed to be an offence, not only against the state, but also against all members of the international community. But unfortunately, this does not necessarily imply an international crime, so that many HR violations do not actually call for public/worldwide action. Ergo, sanctions cannot be used in the case of despondency towards clear-cut human rights violations. For example, the question arises: Does the international community have the responsibility to intervene legally in cases of clear violations of the right to health? In a utopian world, perhaps yes. However, HR are applied ‘softly’ (if at all) by international development organizations instead.

This vagueness in the language of international law is problematic, because it allows for the manipulation of this inexactly-defined-body-of-laws. There is an urgent need for further codification of this body of international law related to HR, primarily at national level. But, in today’s world, such a codification of international law is a reality we can only dream about. Moreover, the US, for example, is consistently disrespecting international law by not ratifying treaties it has signed. The US will certainly veto any codification of international law that may hold it responsible for its actions, both domestically (e.g., CO2 emissions) and overseas (e.g., the International Court of Crimes Against Humanity). This begs the question: If there is no codification and no means of enforcing it, what is the point of this aspect of international law? From unenforceable laws come no rights!

International law is subject to individual countries’ recognition of each norm as being a legally binding norm. Because the international community lacks a central authority, the creation of international law is consensual through treaties. Treaties are documents bilaterally or multilaterally signed that are agreements by governments who consent to be bound by their contents. Treaties fall into the category of ‘soft law’ (documents that are not directly enforceable in courts and tribunals, but that nonetheless, have an impact on international relations). Many such international agreements may prove useful and may serve as a basis for future legally binding agreements.

However, the name given to these ‘soft laws’ is inherently problematic, because soft law is not law at all. Essentially, soft law is comprised of declarations of principles, codes of practice or conduct, recommendations, guidelines, standards, charters and resolutions. These instruments have no legal authority, but there is an expectation they will be respected and followed by those countries and governments who have signed them.

One problem with non-legal instruments is that countries can sign on to them without the fear of having to be held accountable – legally. Pressure comes (or is supposed to come) from the international community. But it is only an assumption that, if a treaty is signed, a country will do everything in its power to maintain the integrity of the contract.

Treaties signed by governments put forth by the international community serve as the line equivalent to a speed limit sign, in a way serving the same purpose. (*)

(*): If the speed limit is 100 km/hr, why do people drive 5-10 km/hr faster? Because, if there were no speed limit signs, people would drive at 120 or more km/hr. The speed limit signs work as a limit of what is acceptable.

[Mostly taken from a 2004 course term paper by Noah Levinson, gbnl@aol.com].

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