A Human Right To Development Rapid Progress And Growing Injustice – Analysis


Attitudes towards human right to development are unusual. There is a general willingness to support such a right in theory, but less enthusiasm in adopting such a right in practice. This does not mean that states ignore the right to development completely in their policies, but rather tend to attach greater focus on the obligations that it places on other states: for developed states this may be due to apprehensions that subscribing to legally binding obligations will limit their sovereign powers; for developing states the issue may be a concern of costs associated with implementing the human right to development nationally. This has led to the current situation of a significant gulf between the rhetoric and practice accorded to the human right to development.


Northern governments recognize the right to development as a human right, but regard it as a right of individuals and not of states. Non-Aligned Movement countries and China, on the other hand, argue that the right to development is a right of states, a collective right of people to development, and that it has an international dimension requiring international cooperation, but it is not just about charity.

These differences in opinion have created tensions between the two groups of states. Further, the differences in opinion have created a dilemma for practitioners who wish to move the human right to development beyond rhetoric and into reality: how to generate consensus between states and encourage them to engage fully with a human right to development.

The UN defines the human right to development as ‘an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human being and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.’

An assessment of the way the human right to development is presented against the way it is practically applied demonstrates how significant the discrepancies are between development-rhetoric and development-reality. This would be the first step to determine why this is in fact the case, and how development practitioners could move beyond these challenges.


The introduction of the UN Millennium Development Goals (UN-MDGs) promote the human right to development, particularly as they recognize that moving people out of poverty requires much more than just money. Targets based on health, education, gender equality and environmental sustainability are included within the UN-MDGs, demonstrating a wide-ranging idea of ‘development’. However, by separating out specific goals from the concept of development more generally, the human right to development as a whole is weakened. In particular, whilst certain targets relating to components of human right to development are set, other components of human right to development are largely ignored.

The 2011 Millennium Development Goals Report is useful for assessing the reality behind the UN-MDGs. The Report describes how the international community is achieving its development goals, in the view of the UN. It is clear from the report that the UN assessment of development is very target-focused, and looks specifically at statistics relating to the UN-MDGs; however, the targets are not necessarily focused on the well-being of the developing world as a whole.


Meeting Goal 1 of the UN-MDGs, eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, by reaching the target of halving the number of people living on less than $1 a day, is reported as: ‘Sustained growth in developing countries, particularly in Asia, is keeping the world on track to meet the poverty-reduction target.’ This demonstrates that the international community may meet its targets for Goal 1 without necessarily improving poverty in all areas of the world. For example, improvements in Asia that go above and beyond what is necessary to meet this UN-MDG target may compensate for falling well short of meeting the targets in parts of Africa.


The Report makes much of improvements in China, where poverty is likely to fall to less than five per cent, and India, where poverty is likely to fall to around 22 per cent, which is down from 51 per cent in 1990. In terms of how the target is being met in sub-Saharan Africa, a prediction that poverty rates will fall to less than 36 per cent is described as being ‘slightly more upbeat than previously estimated’.

It is argued that the World Bank still expects poverty rates to fall below 15 per cent by 2015,‘indicating that the Millennium Development Goal target can still be met.’ Thus, the concern is not with a failure to meet the target in certain regions of the world; rather, it is whether the target can be met more generally and sans a wave of selective progress in one region of the globe and at the expense of another.


This does not mean that there is a deliberate lack of concern with meeting the UN-MDG target throughout the world. Indeed, in relation to many of the other UN-MDG targets, there is at least a greater recognition that sub-Saharan Africa is falling behind.

For example, in relation to Goal 4 of the UN-MDG, reducing child mortality, it is stated that:

‘The highest levels of under-five mortality continue to be found in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in eight children dies before the age of five … With rapid progress in other regions, the disparities between them and sub-Saharan Africa have widened.’

Therefore, there exists recognition at least, of a failing to meet obligations in this region. Additionally, the report engages discussion on what can be done to improve the situation – pointing to the prevention of diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia in sub-Saharan Africa, and post-natal care in Southern Asia. There is no doubt that if more is done to improve these sectors, child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia will improve.

This can be contrasted to Goal 1 of the UN-MDGs, where the overall target is likely to be met without particular attention being paid to sub-Saharan Africa. However, it is worth noting that the report discusses the reasons why there are discrepancies with child mortality rates within countries, suggesting that there is some concern about this issue, even if it is not directly related to meeting the UN-MDG target.


The UN-MDGs fall subject to criticisms that they are conceived mainly in terms of development outputs while the right to development paradigm aims to put the same relevance on development-outputs and development-processes. Consequently, the UN-MDG framework fails to recognize the importance of participation in the development process and hence miss out a number of important components of the overall right to development. This is not to say that the UN-MDGs are not improving development in many areas of the world; however it is probably fair to say that they are not engaging people in the same way as a full human right to development would.


The Development Cooperation Forum (DCF) was set up following the 2005 World Summit. The DCF through the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UN-ECOSOC) is useful in contrast to the UN-MDGs in terms of how its development rhetoric is engaged against reality.

The two mechanisms work in different ways although there is clearly some degree of overlap: whilst the UN-MDGs have clearly defined targets, there are no such targets to be enforced for the DCF; and the DCF cannot compel the international community to act in a certain manner. However, unlike the UN-MDGs, the DCF’s mandate is wider – it has the ability to consider more fully all aspects of the human right to development.

MDGs versus DCF

A first glance at the 2010 Development Cooperation Forum Report reflects that a much wider concept of ‘development’ is being assessed than that of the UN-MDGs alone. For example, the Official Summary of the UN-ECOSOC President addresses issues that include promoting coherence among the various states and organisations that deal with development, increasing aid and ensuring that aid is made use of effectively, the responsibilities of both providers and recipients of aid, and identifying best practices for going ‘beyond aid’ in terms of meeting the UN-MDGs.

In looking at how to best make use of aid, and how to provide accountability for all parties contributing to the development process, it is evident that the DCF is doing more than simply assessing how far the international community has come in terms of meeting specific targets – it is looking beyond actors only, by consideration of the processes involved, giving it the potential to do more for the reality of development than the UN-MDGs.

However, the UN-MDGs carry the merit of being legally binding, hence unless the DCF is doing more than simply issuing recommendations that are largely ignored, it too may be considered only amount to rhetoric.


One of the advantages that the DCF has over the UN-MDG system is that its reports are able to highlight particular policy issues and provide solutions to the difficulties being experienced. For example, the 2010 Report selects ‘allocating resources among competing needs’ as one such issue. It is noted that the global financial crisis means that ‘declines in aid flows in the years ahead can be expected – at exactly the time when the financing needs to achieve the UN-MDGs will become more urgent.’

The 2010 Report suggests that the developed world still needs to meet its commitments – and aid to the least developed countries, and most vulnerable groups, needs to be increased most urgently. However, it is noted that ‘capacity development’ will enable the recipients of international aid to contribute more to their own development, and, additionally, ‘financing gender equality and women’s empowerment’ is considered an integral part of the right to development as a whole. It therefore becomes evident that the DCF views the right to development as a wide all-encompassing human right.


Clearly, the DCF does much more than the UN-MDGs in terms of looking at development processes. It is also useful in bringing together the international community to discuss development issues, and to learn from each other.
However, it is not clear whether the rhetoric of the DCF is passing over into reality. Just as many of the UN-MDGs are not likely to be met, development as a whole is not progressing as quickly as it could or should. Until there begins to emerge evidence of the DCF making a sustained contribution to development in practice, it is best considered to be not more than rhetoric. However, the value of the DCF as a system should not be dismissed outright since it is a useful platform that can be strengthened and expanded upon to contribute towards the full realization of the human right to development.

This article appeared in The Daily Mirror and is reprinted with permission.

Salma Yusuf

Salma Yusuf is a Visiting Lecturer, Masters in Human Rights, University of Colombo and University of Sydney; Visiting Lecturer, Bachelor of Laws, University of Northumbria – Regional Campus for Sri Lanka & Maldives; LL.M, Queen Mary, University of London; Queen Mary Scholar 2008-2009; LL.B (Hons), University of London. She provides legal and policy advisory services on both national and international programmes in the fields of human rights law, transitional justice, comparative social justice, and peace-building. She has authored publications for the Sri Lanka Journal of International Law; the Seattle Journal for Social Justice; the Complutense University of Madrid; the Institue of Human Rights; and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Email: [email protected]

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