By Dr. Gyan Basnet (PhD)
During the past sixty years Nepal has seen considerable political upheaval and transformation. Absolute Rana rule gave way to assertive monarchy; then to a multi-party democratic system with constitutional monarchy; then, after ten years of civil war, to a federal republican system. At the end, there is one soul-searching question: despite the changes, have they really achieved much in the way of economic, social and economic development?
Poverty still predominates in Nepal, and a large section of the population is alienated from government policies and programmes: their concerns, needs and aspirations are largely ignored. Nepal faces an immense challenge if it is to achieve stronger growth and sustained poverty reduction. Despite policies on poverty occupying a central place in the development discourse, one third of the country’s population still lives in absolute poverty and struggles to satisfy even its most basic human needs such as adequate food, shelter, water, health care, and minimum education. The country’s struggle against poverty continually fails because of weak governance. In all sectors the government simply does not understand or does not apply the required accountability, transparency and participation. Social exclusion remains the fate of so many of the population, and Nepal needs a new direction for dealing with this atrocity.
Why Human Rights-Based?
The rights-based approach to development seeks to integrate the principles of the international human rights system into the processes involved in the struggle against poverty. This can only happen, though, if human rights are made central to policy-making and are accepted as the political choice. As Professor P. Twomey insists, people must be granted the means – political, institutional, and material – to claim, exercise and monitor their human rights and to be active participants in the decision-making process. This approach to development and to the struggle against poverty ‘puts people first and promotes human-centred development’. It recognizes the ‘inherent dignity of every human being without distinction, recognizes and promotes equality between women and men, and promotes equal opportunity and choices for all. It further promotes national and international systems based on economic equity in the access to public resources and social justice’. Above all, it promotes mutual respect between people. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has defined the human rights-based approach to development in the following way: ‘A rights-based approach to development is a conceptual framework for the process of human development that is normatively based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights. Essentially, a rights-based approach integrates the norms, standards and principles of the international human rights system into the plans, policies and process of development. The norms and standards are those contained in the wealth of international treaties and declarations.’
The core, then, of the human rights approach to development explicitly refers to human rights achievement as an essential element of the development objective. It provides a structure for human development that is aimed at promoting and protecting human rights. The rights-based approach thus empowers rights holders to claim their rights.
The human rights-based approach to development aims to strengthen the accountability of duty bearers for protecting human rights by, for example, changes in policies, laws and programmes; by more effective enforcement of laws against rights violations; by increases in allocations of budgets and resources for the poor, the marginalised and the at-risk people at all levels; by changes in awareness, attitudes, behaviour, practices, norms and values; by improvements in the quality and responsiveness of institutions and services; by an economy that enables greater participation by rights’ holders in decisions as they are being taken; and, most importantly, by promoting equity, inclusion and non-discrimination. The human rights-based approach to development is guided by a set of inter-connected principles and elements that has been internationally recognised as forming the core of the human rights-based approach. These include the express application of the human rights framework, ensuring empowerment and participation with non-discrimination and prioritization of vulnerable groups, accountability, universality and indivisibility of human rights, and good governance.
It is argued that by framing poverty in human rights terms, the rights holder is empowered while duty holders are immediately made accountable for respecting and protecting his rights. Human rights thus give a voice to the voiceless, and individuals have a right to express their views freely, to organize, and to assemble peacefully. It is a bottom-up effort so that those living in poverty are granted knowledge of their rights and can effectively engage with official institutions. Critic further argues that the struggle against poverty aims not merely to increase material assets but to achieve freedom, justice, and dignity. It offers the best hope of success.
The human rights approach to poverty alleviation furthermore highlights the impact that discrimination, in law or in practice, has in causing deprivation. The human rights approach brings discrimination into sharp focus, allowing acknowledgement of the problem to become an essential first step towards addressing it. The next step includes legislation that guarantees equality and non-discrimination, followed by action programmes to overcome the legacy of past discrimination, and by education of the public to overcome prejudice and bigotry especially where these are rooted in politics and culture.
Inserting Holistic Strategies into Development Policies
Development plans in Nepal have focused on poverty alleviation for decades, and poverty alleviation remains a declared principal objective of government. However, its people are no less poor than they were a decade ago. Each five-year plan has shown a sizeable increase in development expenditure over its predecessor, and each has been financed largely through external aid. Yet there has been no obvious improvement in the standard of living of the population. Other Asian countries have introduced democratic systems under similar socio-economic conditions, and they have ceased to be comparable with Nepal. Their development process has failed to comprehend the essentials of development. There have been frequent interventions and changes, but there has always been a vacuum between providers and receivers, government and users. Government and its ministers have considered themselves to be masters at ignoring the intended target group, the ordinary people of Nepal. Those people are denied the opportunity to review and monitor the whole process of development.
In all sectors the government simply does not understand or apply the required levels of accountability, transparency and participation. Social exclusion remains the fate of some caste and ethnic groups, of many women, and of the population in general in remoter areas. These all remain far behind in terms of income, assets and most human development indicators, and the country will never achieve its development goals if it prolongs the social exclusion of such a large group of deprived citizens.
A human rights legal framework of action in the struggle against poverty would be based on participation, accountability and transparency. It would spotlight its root causes on a non-discriminatory basis with equal opportunity and participation irrespective of race, colour, sex, language, politics, nationality, social class, property, or birth. The struggle against poverty by way of the human rights approach takes the debate beyond disparities in income to disparities in access to basic rights, for example to health-care, education, shelter and social assistance. Is it not time to re-think their attitude to poverty by integrating this holistic approach into their development policies and programmes?
(Dr Gyan Basnet, who holds a Ph.D. and an LL.M degree in International Human Rights Law at Lancaster University, U.K, is a Prominent Columnist, Researcher in International Human Rights Law and a Human Rights and Constitutional Law Lawyer in the Supreme and Subordinate Court of Nepal.)