Are human rights universal, indivisible and equally applicable everywhere or may local contexts and local decision-making matter more in some situations? This is a hotly debated topic among policy makers and development practitioners. In my country, Denmark, it is currently up for debate because the new Minister for Development Cooperation, Christian Friis Bach, wants to reform Danish development assistance, introducing Human Rights-Based Approaches. That has met resistance from some scholars and in the development community. Typically, the minister’s insistence on a set of values defined in the North is seen as neo-colonialism. Furthermore, it is argued, the approach is unlikely to work. You can read a recent example of the critique on this newly established blog, The Political Economy of the Development in Africa.
I experienced a similar discrepancy between high principles and local priorities first hand a couple of years ago when I visited remote villages, in which NGOs worked to secure women’s rights to land. The women usually appreciated the support of the NGOs. But then they raised the question: Now what? What is the use of land ownership if we have no money to buy seeds? What is the use of a title deed if roads are shoddy and we can not transport our crops to town?
Dorothy L. Hodgson, in the anthology Gender and Culture at the Limit of Rights explores similar dilemmas about the potential and the limitations of the “women’s rights as human rights” framework. In her chapter, These are not our Priorities: Maasai Women, Human Rights and the Problem of Culture, she describes the dilemmas Maasai women activists in Tanzania face when they do fundraising. Western donors and Tanzanian elite groups, based in the cities, typically offer funds for the fight against female genital modification (FGM). The Maasai activists know, however, that if FGM is the main thing on their agenda when they visit Maasai villages, they are unlikely to achieve anything. Instead, they deem support for girl’s education and income generating activities more important. Things which can make women better able to make their own decisions. The activists do not defend female genital modification. But they believe they can achieve more, also in the fight against FGM, using other means.
A colleague of mine has termed the dilemma between high principles and what works on the ground ‘a conflict between the human rights people and the development practitioners’. The disagreement is over means more than over ends. Both groups see a great value in human rights. The question is how to get there. Maybe, the development practitioners suggest, when resources are scarce – and they are in most developing countries – they should be used for what works. And what works may not always be the rights based approaches. It is a dilemma, is it not?