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Global Poverty Research Group

Re-interpreting the rights-based approach - a grassroots perspective on rights and development

Diana Mitlin and Sheela Patel

Global Poverty Research Groups

June 2005

SARPN acknowledges the ESRC Global Poverty Research Group as a source of this document:
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The rights-based approach is particularly associated with pro-poor development and the agency of the poor. At the centre of the approach is an understanding that successful development requires political analysis and action. Rather than development being reliant on charitable goodwill to meet the basic needs of very poor people, the rights-based approach emphasises that development should be based on a recognition of the equal rights of all citizens to the resources required for material well-being and social inclusion. Within such a conceptualisation of development, the contribution of the state is given prominence. Their role is that of provider, through equal access to essential services, and regulator, through a legal system that ensures equal rights for all. It is anticipated that under such conditions, the poor will experience a more supportive and less discriminatory context, and will be able to take advantage of new opportunities.

Despite this emphasis, SDI, an international group of grassroots organisations and their support NGOs seeking pro-poor urban development (notably secure tenure, basic services and housing), have struggled to work within the rights-based approach. While these groups believe in redistribution, social justice and people's empowerment, they have been criticised by rights-based groups for being "too close" to the state.

The discussion below considers the reasons for this tension, and focuses particularly on two related themes. First, women, who make up the majority of members in the local organisations (savings schemes), do not believe that an openly aggressive and critical campaign against this state is likely to be a successful strategy, given the present imbalance in power. While on occasion, savings schemes may be openly critical of the state, in general they seek to negotiate with local and national government around shelter, service and livelihood issues. Second, the women believe that there is no simple answer to their needs for tenure, basic services and housing that the state will deliver to them in response to successful advocacy campaigning alone. Rather, they believe that new alternatives have to be developed, and that requires collaboration between themselves and relevant ministries and departments. When the women propose and develop such solutions, they seek to build in an active role for local community groups. Strategically, they seek to strengthen local capacity, thereby investing in further opportunities to negotiate for redistribution and social justice, and to address specific material needs.

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