We are in the midst of an uprising of nearly half of the peoples of the Arab states protesting about failed economic and social policies and political repression that have been going on for decades. Rather than aiming at comprehensive and sustainable economic and social development to benefit people, state policies were aimed at global markets and macroeconomic growth. National resources were squandered by corruption and outright theft by a privileged few. The price has been high: a noticeable increase in poverty, growing income disparities and near-total political disenfranchisement.
The demands of the Arab revolutions are equality, the rule of law, and social, economic and political justice. They have created a new context, and in this new context foundations need to review assumptions about their role and responsibilities. It is no longer enough to deal with development programmes and projects in isolation from the broader political context and environment. We must put the concept of economic, social and political justice at the top of our agenda if we are serious about achieving sustainable development.
The principles and standards of human rights constitute the substantive content of ‘justice’ that Arab societies are demanding; human rights are in fact central to the achievement of comprehensive and sustainable human development. The UN Declaration on the Right to Development brings it all together in affirming that development is a right, not only a need, and that the human person is the central subject of development. The Declaration further calls on states to ‘… eliminate obstacles to development resulting from failure to observe civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights’.
For it to be sustainable, the focus of development must be the human beings who participate, contribute to and benefit from projects. They can do so only if they enjoy civil and political freedoms. One needs to be able to criticize development policies and practices of government, to associate with others in articulating and organizing alternative modes of development, and to engage as a full and independent partner in development processes. This is the stuff of all human rights: economic, social and political. This is the necessary support that foundations can provide.
The lesson we can draw from recent events in the Middle East and North Africa is that foundations need to approach development from a human rights perspective. But what does that mean for our daily work? Human rights principles provide us with four basic principles to keep in mind when we consider any proposal for a development project.
Four principles for approaching development from a human rights perspective
We must be guided by the principles and standards of human rights
Every development project is related to one or more human right, all of which have standards and criteria and scope, and even restrictions, which we should all know very well. The right to housing, for example, is in fact a right to adequate housing, and adequate housing includes availability of water, sanitation and proximity to transportation, communication and protection as well as access to medical care. The right to health is also not merely a theoretical right to a healthy mind and body, but includes the affordability of medical care.
We must abstain from doing anything that may result in a violation of human rights
The principle of ‘do no harm’ requires this. For example, supporting projects that contribute to increasing discrimination against people on any basis including race, religion, gender, national or social status. If the elimination of such discrimination is not clearly among the goals of the philanthropic or donor agency, then that agency is perforce a participant in deepening discrimination.
Beneficiaries of development projects should participate at all stages
Another principle is participation, which is one of the main elements of the right to development. It means that beneficiaries must participate in a project, from the design, planning and identification of priorities to implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Participation allows the beneficiaries to contribute instead of being mere recipients and to practise democratic participation. It gives them ‘ownership’ of the project and a significant portion of responsibility for its implementation and accountability for its success or failure. It gives the project societal legitimacy. The implementing agency also bears a responsibility to be transparent both before the beneficiary group and before the donor agency.
We need to take a different view of transparency and accountability
Most institutions still require narrative and financial reports as the only means of holding recipients accountable. These are necessary of course, but what about the donor’s own responsibilities? The donor agency must also be accountable for how it performs, not only vis-à-vis the laws of the land, which it must obey, but before the beneficiaries as well. It is common now to speak of those we support as partners but we do not yet have a true and transparent partnership in the unequal relationship between those who support and those who receive that support. It would be interesting to survey how many foundations consult effectively with their recipient partners when deciding funding priorities and focus, or include them in evaluations of their own strategies and methods of work.
How can we integrate these principles?
We can actively integrate human rights principles into the criteria for accepting proposals for funding. In reviewing any project proposal, it is important to rely on those standards as a basis for assessing the viability and potential success of the project in the long term. Relevant questions can be included in application forms and participatory mechanisms can become part of our grant negotiation processes.
Programme officers need to be sufficiently knowledgeable of human rights standards to do their job effectively. It is also possible to establish partnerships between donor agencies and human rights activists and organizations, so that the latter can help build the capacity of staff in foundations, or provide a rights-based point of view for a project assessment.
Workshops for foundations can be organized on general human rights education and on how to develop mechanisms for ensuring effective participation and make them standard practice for foundations. We in the Arab Human Rights Fund are certainly willing to contribute to this.
To summarize, development is a human right, and its various constituent elements are also human rights. The reverse is true as well: in order for people to achieve comprehensive and sustainable development, all human rights must be enjoyed, including political rights such as freedom of expression and the right to participate in the conduct of public affairs.
Foundations can no longer afford to isolate the political from the developmental or the humanitarian. We should start to actively discuss methods of ensuring that our support of development is also ‘political’ in its larger sense of supporting people’s right to democratic process, equality and equity, and self-determination of their present and future.
This interdependence is amply demonstrated by the revolutions that have shaken at least seven Arab states this year. These were revolutions against governments and against repressive and unjust policies, but they also throw down the gauntlet before all of us. They call upon us to constantly review our goals and methods of work in order to clearly aim at social, economic and political justice. Human rights law can be a basis and guideline for this work, and the uprisings remind us that we must put our faith in civil society because people know what they need, and what they have a right to achieve.
1 Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights refers to ‘the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’.
Fateh Azzam is chair of the board of directors of the Arab Human Rights Fund. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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