"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


what's a human right?

Amnesty International issued its annual report, The State of the World's Human Rights, last week, and among the usual country-by-country hodgepodge of extrajudicial killings, rapes, looting, and other war crimes, the influential organization announced that it now considers poverty a human rights violation. (One assumes this only includes poverty of the non-voluntary sort and not, say, the decision to refuse all assistance from family, friends, and government in order to go off the grid in the desert to make a statement.)

The rights-based approach to understanding poverty is nothing new (it's enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for one thing), but there's some controversy as to whether being poor means that one's human rights are being violated. As Bill Easterly points out, you don't have to believe that freedom from poverty is a human right in order to believe that poverty is a very, very bad thing. He also notes that it's difficult to quantify poverty as opposed to non-poverty and that identifying human rights requires the identification of the source of the violation of those rights. Chris Blattman adds these good thoughts to the debate:
"I could wave aside the philosophical quarrels if I thought the rights approach to poverty worked in practice. Unfortunately, I fear it reinforces all of the mistakes of past aid: it ignores the agency and the incentives of the poor; it focuses less on creating opportunities and structuring incentives, and more on public works and handouts. As an advocacy and fundraising mechanism, however, the rights approach may be unmatched. We can thus safely assume it will be around for some time."
Does it really matter whether we consider non-poverty a human right or not? It will matter, as Blattman notes, for funding of programs, most of which are unlikely to work. A representative of Amnesty responds to Easterly's arguments by pointing out that rights to basic human needs are in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Because we all know that things said in international agreements are a great basis for a logical and pragmatic argument.) Amnesty contends that governments have the responsibility to protect their citizens human rights and that since these rights relating to poverty are in the Declaration, governments have to address those as well in order to protect their citizens.

Unfortunately, we know that governments aren't always the best organizations to help people get out of poverty. Sometimes - in wealthy, industrialized societies that can afford to tax their citizens at 50%+ rates - government can pretty much keep people out of poverty altogether. But elsewhere - in poor, weak states who are dependent on fickle foreign investors and - it doesn't work at all. The only people who escape poverty in those places are either 1) very lucky, 2) corrupt and in a position to steal from public coffers, or 3) beneficiaries of other forms of (often church-based) assistance or entrepreneurs who have done very well for themselves. Almost all of these people succeed not because of government, but in spite of it.

By contending that poverty is a human rights problem that governments have to address, Amnesty is setting up new aid programs for failure. Putting even more emphasis on assisting weak, corrupt, poor governments to solve problems of poverty (which, although Amnesty doesn't like it, is what this argument will force us to do) is a terrible idea that won't help anybody. Of course we need to encourage better governance, etc., etc. But the inevitable resulting focus on government activity will likely only make things worse.


Anonymous the_opportunist said...

Well, you can't exactly expect Amnesty not to place rights at the centre of their assessment can you?!

Like Easterly and yourself, I have serious reservations about a rights based approach to these issues and a number of others. For one, I think its cosmopolitan universalism is insensitive to genuine differences that can and should exist between peoples.

However, I'm not sure that you provide any viable alternative to the role of the State in providing basic services such as access to healthcare and education that (eventually) help alleviate poverty. (If these assumptions are wrong, then we, in the liberal democracies, need to re-think our entire social structure!)

With respect, I would suggest that your conclusion is sloppy: it is not so much that focussing on governments is going to make things worse, its that focussing on a rights based approach in isolation is a diversion from where the true emphasis should be: proper governance to appropriately direct the resources of the state.

Monday, June 08, 2009 3:56:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Fair enough and a lesson that I probably shouldn't write posts late at night. You're right that of course there should be a real and serious emphasis on improving governance and combating corruption.

I do think, though, that the over-emphasis on the state ignores local initiatives and the very good activities of local ngo's, religious bodies, and civil society organizations. These groups often do more with small project grants in five years than governments do in decades with huge, largely conditionality-free grants.

Oh, and I have to add that I've written an entire dissertation on alternative modes of providing health and education services when the state cannot!

Monday, June 08, 2009 6:07:00 AM

Anonymous the_opportunist said...

I'd like to read that dissertation!

Your points are interesting and now I understand more where you are coming from. I think this raises the question as to who should be providing these services vs. who is able to provide these services.

Perhaps I place too much emphasis on the state to ultimately be the providor of social welfare for its citizens. On the other hand, provision of welfare by NGOs or even corporations is not going to provide the basic needs for all, even if they might be more effective in the short term.

Tricky. Is there a way of putting the two together?

Monday, June 08, 2009 7:12:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Well, I think in many places you already have some combination of the two. Take, for example, religious health care systems, which have been around just about as long as modern medicine itself. The way it works in the US is that a religious hospital might be totally independent, or it might have some formal relationship with government (eg, the general hospital in my city is run by a Catholic order). These public-private partnerships seem in some ways to be more effective and efficient than solely public organizations. But you're right; private/NGO ownership will never cover everyone, unless the NGO effectively (and only in part) becomes the state, which is what has happened in a highly fragmented way in the Congo.

Monday, June 08, 2009 7:42:00 AM

Anonymous cpp said...

I agree.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009 1:50:00 PM


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