Rights-Based Approaches in Development – Old Hat, fashion trend, or essential workwear ?

Simon Eccleshall

13 Dec, 2018

The Code binds members to demonstrate an organizational commitment to human rights, as well as contributing to the realisation of human rights through their programming.

There are mixed feelings of many within the aid and development sector about the usefulness of Rights-based approaches (‘RBA’) and their relevance today. This was clear when ACFID’s Development Practice Committee (DPC) - the expert NGO advisory group on international development -  hosted a session at this year’s ACFID Annual Conference titled “Rights-Based Approaches in Development - Old Hat, fashion trend, or essential workwear”. 

In a global context where human rights are being actively suppressed by states and where many major actors in humanitarian and development space are not held to account on implementing a rights-based approach – is wearing human rights on your sleeve no longer appropriate dress?  Are rights so unfashionable that rights advocates risk being marginalized or excluded in discussions and decisions about official development assistance (ODA)?  For ACFID members, this is where the analogy wears thin.  Human rights are not as easily discarded as yesterday’s clothes, contributing to the realization of human rights is core to our principles and values, it is part of our DNA.


Whilst the Code does not explicitly require all members to take a rights based approach to programming – the Code embodies and prescribes principles of participation, accountability, non-discrimination and equality, empowerment and legality – which address most of the elements of a rights based approach. This underlines the reality that taking a rights based approach looks different from agency to agency and is adaptable to context.

The DPC is deliberating on whether or not we should revise and update the 2009 practice note on RBA based on a decade of learning, or seek to replace it with a new rights narrative more relevant to contemporary and emerging issues, or to do nothing – recognising that while rights are critical within an effective development approach, in the short term there is a need to focus our time on more pressing existential issues (shrinking ODA budgets and public support for humanitarian and development assistance, amongst others).  This blog is intended to provoke discussion on where to next for RBA.  As part of the Spotlight on the Code series, we have added some useful references to the Code as text boxes into this blog. DNA. 



Since the nineties and perhaps more profoundly in the last decade, RBA has been overshadowed by a number of drivers for change in the humanitarian and development sector, and the emergence of actors for whom rights is a lessor priority.  We see three main drivers:

  • The politicisation of aid characterized by a global retreat on human rights and multilateralismpolarized spheres of influence, and foreign policies that state trade agendas as more important than human rights Counter-terrorism controls increasingly affect where aid goes. 

  • The emergence of new actors in humanitarian and development space – such as, military, civil protection, private funds and foundations, banks and insurance companies, social enterprises, tech companies – are not signatories to many of the rights-based humanitarian principles, standards or codes of conduct that guide us as a sector.  The tied aid, trade and military objectives of states including increasingly the Government of China (conditional loans).  Localisation – encouraging and empowering states to take greater responsibility for coordinating aid and development assistance. However, State assertiveness and control and high sensitivity to criticism is limiting the role and reach of civil society and INGOs. 

  • Localisation – encouraging and empowering states to take greater responsibility for coordinating aid and development assistance – has risen. However, state assertiveness and control and high sensitivity to criticism is limiting the role and reach of civil society and INGOs. 

In the last decade there have also been drivers for positive change and opportunities to deepen our understanding of how to apply rights principles and empower rights holders. 

  • The emergence of other frameworks that build upon RBA – strengths based approaches, the “Doing Development Differently” manifesto, adaptive development approaches, problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA).  Deep analysis of local context, experimentation, and a redistribution of power and resources in favour of the poor and marginalized.
  • Systems thinking – more complex models for understanding the development paradigm. The importance of contextual analysis and recognition that complex problems require complex solutions.  Reconciling individual vs collective rights and economic social and cultural rights – targeting our development efforts towards the progressive realisation of rights. 
  • The Code requires that members who undertake advocacy or campaigning have in place a planning approach that incorporates analysis of risks, with a particular focus on the safety and rights of primary stakeholders.

    Technology and innovation – social media has emerged as a powerful space for rights activism and coordinated action. INGOs no longer in the centre for championing the needs and rights of those we seek to serve.  However, noting the risk that States may use technology to suppress rights and freedom of speech. 

The commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 presents transformative potential – global consensus, addressing social, environmental, political, economic goals, and by “leaving no-one behind” the SDGs put equity and justice front and centre.  More than 90% of the SDG targets are linked to international human rights and labour standards

The current thinking of the DPC is that ACFID members and others in the sector may be well served by the promotion and strengthening of organisational capacities to move beyond consequentialist approaches to RBA (if we do X, then Y, then human rights will be strengthened) to relational approaches to RBA (if we bring different actors and approaches together, then human rights may be strengthened).  This new narrative would present the convergence of various rights inspired frameworks and bring power and politics to the centre, abandon linear and reductionist approaches, recognize inherent complexity, promote work in new cross-sectoral partnerships and alliances, use convening power and process facilitation, link more strongly to the SDGs, and include some systems thinking to incorporate issues of structures and power relations. 

We are also considering the need for a more pragmatic piece on applying rights based thinking.  Including on how we communicate about rights to different stakeholders.  Separating what we do (using rights-based thinking/approaches), with how we communicate it within communities in which we work (perhaps not being so explicit about rights, but enabling people to understand them and access them through a more integrated approach e.g. Strengths-based).  Stress the importance of maintaining rights-based language within our internal systems so that it’s not forgotten.  Consider providing guidance on emerging challenges in the Australian context – including “rights vs beliefs”. 

The Code’s Good Practice Indicators encourage staff and volunteer training on RBA and that rights issues are promoted to the public and external stakeholders.


What questions about RBA have emerged from your work and practice?  Over to you for comments and your suggestions on the best way forward…


  • Simon Eccleshall
    Simon Eccleshall

    Director, Programs and Institutional Relations
    Islamic Relief Australia

    Simon is an experienced senior manager and technical advisor in humanitarian and development assistance, with over 25 years’ experience in planning, implementing and evaluating programmes and policies related to disaster preparedness, response, recovery, risk reduction and sustainable development.  Simon has more than 10 years’ practical experience in managing disaster and conflict response operations in the field including refugee and IDP camp management, storms and floods operations, tsunami, drought and disease epidemics – across the Asia-Pacific region, in Africa and in the Middle East.

    Simon holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies from Murdoch University in Western Australia and a Bachelor’s Degree (with Honours) in economic development and political science from the University of Sydney. 

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