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The rights of the rich versus the rights of the poor1

John Gledhill

Social Anthropology, School of Social Sciences
The University of Manchester

21-22 February 2005

SARPN acknowledges the University of Manchester as a source of this document.
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I am conscious in framing these remarks that, as a specialist on Latin America, I work on a region of the world which has been particularly receptive to a rights-based approach. Although I will draw my main examples from Latin America, and my general arguments will no doubt reflect the bias of my regional expertise, I am going to begin by using some reflections on how Latin America might fit into a broader comparative context to address some of the possible limitations of universalizing the principles of rights-based development. In the remainder of the paper I will look in more detail at the balance-sheet of the rights-based approach in the Latin American context.

Rights-based development: a bottom up process?

As Molyneux and Lazar (2003: 31) point out, to some extent Latin American receptivity to a rights-based approach is the paradoxical result of a recent history of authoritarian rule. The struggle for democracy was impelled by social movement activism which embraced the global human rights agenda in multiple ways and brought its different dimensions together. Gender issues, for example, became articulated to human rights issues through the public protests of mothers against the "disappearances" of their children. Although the mothers generally began by appealing to patriarchal ideologies in efforts to shame the military, the brutal reactions that these tactics provoked in cases such as of El Salvador drew many of the campaigners not only to a more radical perspective on women's rights but into much broader campaigns for civil rights, justice and an end to impunity (Stephen 1997:275). As global trends combined with regional democratization to create an environment that favoured the expansion of movements for indigenous rights and autonomy in the 1990s, the now well established networks of women's movements and their NGO allies ensured that the indigenous movement could not ignore the need to attend to the position of women within indigenous communities (HernР±ndez Castillo 2002). These intersections between rights agendas are undeniably productive and important.

Yet it is important to recognise that the impulse behind rights-based development in Latin America is not simply a reflection of grassroots struggles and the impetus and support such movements have received from organizations inside the region, such as the Catholic Church, and outside it, such as transnational NGOs and voluntary support networks. Another side of the coin is the transition to neoliberal regimes and the new modes of "governmentality" that they have sought to promote. A "rights-based approach" is not necessarily invalidated by the fact that it has obvious affinities, explored in more detail later in this paper, with those central elements of neoliberal techniques of rule that Nikolas Rose (1999: 49-50; 164-165) dubs "government at a distance" and "active citizenship". Yet in a region in which even the IMF now concedes that "trends in poverty and income inequality have not improved substantially over the past decade" (Singh et al, 2005),2 while more critical commentators emphasise the deepening of economic informalization and violence (Kruijt et al 2002), it is certainly a complicating factor for those who see a rights-based approach as a way of deepening democracy and developing a more inclusionary kind of citizenship in which the poor can participate fully.

The complications are, in fact, multiple. Beyond the obvious scope for questioning the value of an extension of formal democratic political rights to people facing persistent and often deepening problems of economic and physical insecurity, there are issues concerned with the impact of a deteriorating social fabric on the collective mobilizing capacity of the most disadvantaged groups in "civil society" along with the impacts of everyday experiences of injustice and insecurity on the subjective attitudes of "citizens" towards rights themselves. As Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Teresa Caldeira have pointed out, working class Brazilians who are themselves victimized by the inequity and discrimination embedded in the judicial and policing systems of their country do not support the extension of "human rights" to those they consider criminals, seeing justice as best served by violent retribution (Scheper-Hughes 1992: 227-8; Caldeira 2002: 251-252). In adopting this highly intelligible response, "ordinary people" unintentionally contribute, through the capillary effects of a wider framework of structural power relationships, to the reproduction of elite strategies of "containment" of the social problems provoked by a development model that strongly protects the interests of those economic sectors that benefit most from capitalist globalization.

Yet the deep penetration of neoliberal techniques of rule also has a more direct impact on the organizations that promote rights-based development. Social movements and NGOs face increasing dilemmas in deciding how to engage the state in pursuit of their goals as neoliberal governments invite them to enter into "partnerships" that threaten to undermine their capacity to press for structural changes that might have a more radical long-term impact on patterns of social inequality (Molyneux and Lazar 2003: 84-85). Especially when NGOs become substitute providers of services previously supplied by the state itself, they run the risk of becoming parastatal organizations, not simply compromised in their ability to represent demands emerging from the grassroots but also obliged to work with official agendas that may be discrepant with those that originally brought them into existence, in order to maintain their funding streams (ibid: 84).

Yet it is not simply NGOs that originated as promoters of more radical agendas that face difficulties as they become more professionalized and institutionalized within the processes of neoliberal "government at a distance". Where they are not disarticulated by the increasing importance of less radical NGOs as providers of poverty alleviation resources (Auyero 2000: 110), social movements themselves may find their radical edge blunted through institutionalization, particularly when the urban middle class professionals that played an important role in their development under the military gravitate towards more compliant positions under neoliberal democratic regimes. As Willem Assies has argued for the urban social movements of Recife, what were indeed once radical demands for "participation" and "empowerment" began to "blend into a strategy of neoliberal reform" in democratic Brazil as they acquired "connotations of self-advancement and self-reliance to participate as economic subjects" (Assies 1999: 222-223). Recent events in Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia have illustrated the problematic nature of "engagement" with states on the part of social movements seeking alternatives to neoliberal models of development under contemporary conditions, even when their mobilization has succeeded in bringing about a collapse of government. In Argentina, Kirchner's strategy of putting the administration of some work creation programs in the hands of groups belonging to the movement of the unemployed has created sharp tensions and disagreements within the ranks of the piqueteros (Zibechi 2004: 4). The exit of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) from the government of Lucio GutiР№rrez3 was the only means of avoiding the movement's complete decomposition, once the painful incompatibility between GutiР№rrez's neoliberal approach to governance and CONAIE's continuing grassroots commitment to communal organizational principles became apparent (ibid: 3). To these dilemmas must be added, finally, those that arise from the legacies of history that continue to shape the Latin American version of the neoliberal state and national political life.

The practice of rights-based politics is difficult in societies in which rights and the law continue to be routinely disregarded in the case of the poor and the powerless, while the powerful continue to find it convenient to defend impunity and possible to pursue clientelistic forms of politics and backstage alliances and manoeuvres that thwart any democratic popular will. Yet this is also, of course, precisely what rights-based struggles seek to change. More problematic, perhaps, is the difficulty of accessing even imperfect national judicial and administrative institutions in more remote rural areas, irrespective of the potential quality of national legislation and the many barriers that stand in the way of the stipulations of the law being implemented in practice in a way that favours the rights of the poor (Molyneux and Lazar 2003: 83). Here the issue of "state capacity" which the organizers of this conference rightly flag as one of the problems confronting "a model whereby citizens claim and the state delivers" is certainly a significant one, and one that invites contrasts between regions. We need, however, to be careful about how we draw these contrasts.

  1. Paper presented to The Winners and Losers from Rights-Based Approaches to Development Conference, IDPM, The University of Manchester, 21-22nd February 2005. I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) and UK Economic and Social Research Council for some of the personal field research reported in this paper. Draft: Please do not cite without permission.
  2. The World Bank also concedes that the percentage of Latin Americans living below the poverty line failed to show significant improvement through the 1990s, a fact which translates into a substantial growth in the absolute number of people living in poverty in the region. See Although Chile and Mexico saw modest growth in per capita GDP between 1998 and 2003, Mexico's poor did not benefit from this growth. Brazil's curve remained flat and most other countries saw a decline, reaching 2.6% in the case of Argentina (Singh et al, 2005: xiv).
  3. GutiР№rrez was a military officer whose refusal to obey orders aided CONAIE's mass protest to secure the ouster of neoliberal President Mahuad in 2000. CONAIE participated in his government for its first six months.

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