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More About the RBA

Implications of RBA on Development and Advocacy Work

RBA might be the fashion these days for development work. It has already been receiving criticism on how applicable it is to real life development problems. Nevertheless, RBA has already left a big impact on the field of development and advocacy, including the following:

  • The needs-based approach would drive us to deal with specific communities or groups of people. Hence, it pushes to think in terms of isolated cases and groups. The rights-based approach, in the contrary, starts with the universally accepted human rights and drives down to the communities who do not enjoy these rights.

Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. Nelson Mandela in a 2005 speech in London as the G7 Finance Ministers met.

Poverty and Development in a Rights-Based Approach1)

A rights-based approach holds that a person for whom a number of human rights remain unfulfilled - such as the right to food, health, education, information, participation, etc. - is a poor person. Poverty is thus more than lack of resources – it is the manifestation of exclusion and powerlessness. In this context the realisation of human rights and the process of development are not distinct. On the contrary, development becomes a sub-set of the process of fulfilling human rights. In fact, development itself is recognised as a human right2).

  • An increasing number of communities and development groups started to establish the link between what they need to achieve in their development programs and what takes place in political arena. The taboo of “we have nothing to do with politics” has already been broken.
  • Disadvantaged and marginalized communities started to look at their problems as unfulfilled rights! The language of needs has changed to be rights.

Comparison Between Rights-Based Approach and Needs-Based Approach

The following table provides a comparison between the Needs-Based Approach (NBA) and the Rights-Based Approach. It is important to note that this comparison is based on the assumption that the NBA seeks only to address needs. Needless to say, many of the groups that applied NBA have also tried to address systemic problems and their efforts gradually and considerably contributed to the current shape of the RBA. It is the frame of reference that might make a significant difference in the two approaches.

Based on assessed needs Based on established human rights
Needs are the point of reference, which implies interventions at a local or micro level Violations of rights are taken as the starting point, which leads into analysis and actions at the structural and macro levels3).
Needs are pertinent to the group that has such a need Rights are universal and apply to all people everywhere
Considers finding more resources Considers the redistribution of existing resources
Keeps away from politics and policy making processes Politics is at the very heart of the development process
Needs are handled individually Rights are non-negotiable and indivisible.
May be solved by addressing the symptoms (if we provide resources to cover the needs) Must analyze and address structural, systemic, and even, global causes of problems
Asks state officials and power holders for help Holds state officials and power holders accountable
Putting needy people in an inferior position by asking others to meet their needs Helping people to restore their dignity by claiming their rights as human beings and citizens
No obligation to meet the needs. Needs are met when resources are available States, power holders and international entities have obligations to fulfill the rights
Has a tendency to care for those who are in need, but not those who are most needy. (Low cost, high impact preference). Has a tendency to work more with people whose rights are most violated or denied4).
Aims at relieving suffering Aims at addressing structural injustices5)
Usually, it is not legally binding to the stakeholders Carries a legal force to development work6)
Encourages participation from within the community, with possible collaboration with other groups. Forces collective action and alliances from different groups7)

Challenges to Applying RBA

Right Based Approach is not the magic solution to everything. It actually comes with some serious challenges that advocacy workers need to consider before adopting this approach. Following are some of the major challenges:

  • One of the RBA principles, indivisibility, actually presents one of the biggest challenges to applying RBA. Indivisibility means that rights should be taken as a whole. We cannot defend some rights and put aside some others. In real life, attaining all rights at the same time is virtually impossible. With so many rights violated, advocacy and social justice workers need to prioritize their efforts in terms of which rights to start with in a given country.
  • Some groups, especially those who have been marginalized and disempowered for a long time might feel that calling for their rights are too confrontational to start with. Indeed, using the rights framework might sound more confrontational than the needs-based approach. Groups applying this approach for the first time need to pay more attention to the language that they use to reduce the sense of confrontation as much as possible.
  • RBA falls short of expressing some important soft needs. Rights are usually expressed in some so rigid legal terminology that need to be loved and genuinely respected are difficult to capture. For instance, no law or regulation can force a brother to love his sister. Yet, it is a critical and genuine need that all of us have.

Examples of RBA Applications

Basing your actions on the RBA may lead to a different view of the actions to be taken8) . Unemployment is a common problem in most rural areas in many developing countries. In dealing with this problem, and using a NBA, many development organizations saw the need is for young people to learn some professional skills, such as computer and English language, to increase their competitiveness in getting jobs. Many youth joined these training programs and still could not get jobs. Using a RBA, these development groups and the concerned communities, would look at how the policies encourage investment in the rural areas and how to have policies that carry incentives for investors to come to these places and use local people, in addition to providing the necessary training that might increase the competitiveness of local youth.

In many domestic violence cases, a NBA framework would lead to taking actions to raise the awareness of the society, providing therapy for the battered family members, usually women and children, and building shelters for affected individuals. Using a RBA framework, actions might include introducing a new legislation that clearly criminalize domestic violence, and having a policy to include lessons in the school curricula about the right and means of having a safe home environment and ways to report domestic violence cases.

Exercise With your circle of advocacy colleagues do the following:

  • Name one issue you have been working on in your organization(s)/network. Describe how it is currently framed.
  • Using the following chart, identify the rights you can relate to your issue.
  • In the second column, identify the right holders related to this issue.
  • In the third column, identify the principal and the moral duty holders who should guarantee the identified rights.
  • How has working on these details informed your strategy building? Write 3 or 4 tips you are going to use at the time of formulate your strategy.


Brief Description of your issue:

Principal (State) Moral (Non-State)
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .

1) Ljungman, Cecilia M., COWI. Applying a Rights-Based Approach to Development: Concepts and Principles, Conference Paper: The Winners and Losers from Rights-Based Approaches to Development. P. 8. November 2004.
2) The World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in 1993, reaffirmed by consensus the right to development as a universal and inalienable right and an integral part of fundamental human rights.
3) Tsikata, Dzodzi. The Rights-Based Approach to Development: Potential for Change or More of the Same?, p. 3. Center for Developmental Practices
4) Nyamu-Musembi, Celestine; & Cornwall, Andrew, 2004. What Is the “Right-Based Approach” All About?: Perspectives from International Development Agencies, IDS Working Paper # 234, p. 3. Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK.
5) Tsikata, Dzodzi. The Rights-Based Approach to Development: Potential for Change or More of the Same?, p. 2. Center for Developmental Practices.
6) AWID,. A rights-Based Approach to Development, P. 5. Facts and Issues;Women’s Rights and Economic Change, No. 1, August 2002.
7) Tsikata, Dzodzi. The Rights-Based Approach to Development: Potential for Change or More of the Same?, p. 3. Center for Developmental Practices.
9) The Strategy Tips reminders for the team of specific points that they need to take into consideration while formulating the campaign strategy. You will find reference to Strategy Tips in other parts of this manual.

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