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Human Rights for poor People – who decides?

Response to the DFID Consultation Document Human Right for Poor People, February 2000

by George Clark of the Caledonia Centre for Social Development, April 2000

The consultation document eloquently and authoritatively sets out the value system into which I was born and to which I still owe a deep and heartfelt allegiance. However, the thorough strenuousness of the document might be seen as a weakness rather than a strength. There is the danger that, in failing to problematise the foundations of Human Rights thinking, readers from other cultures and value systems may feel alienated.

When in the South Sudan as an Education Adviser I addressed the problem of universal primary education with elders representing a large tribe of nomadic pastoralists (the Dinka). Given their values, traditions and way of life they could see only the downside of sending their children to missionary run primary schools. The knowledge skills and attitudes which were acquired turned the young people against their traditions without, in the majority of cases, enabling them to acquire anything more than a squalid and undignified existence among the sedentary people. The elders were not impressed when I admitted to there being no Dinka on the committee that first put together the master list of Human Rights.

"DFID will prioritize the development of participatory methodologies to provide information on poor peoples’ own assessment of their human rights situation" para 6.5

If there is to be genuine participation then there will have to be give and take on both sides. Negotiation has to be possible. ‘Inalienability’ is not a useful concept in this context. But this is the tone of the document which speaks with the voice of Sussex Man, "Be reasonable, do it my way." Surely the higher reason is that which values all points of view.

"At local, national and international levels there are choices to be made as to whom we should work with and for which purposes." para 5.4

Nomadic pastoralists may be a unique case but they serve to point to other valid value systems which are not rooted in "the philosophies of law produced by the intellectual revolution in Europe in the seventeenth century with Grotius and Locke, developed in the eighteenth century by the encyclopedistes, Montesquieu and Rousseau, followed by Kant and taking on yet another dimension with philosophical utilitarianism." (Ref: Ricoeur P (1986) Philosophical foundations of human rights; Unesco)

The tradition of thought to which the Human Rights legislation belongs gives power of decision to the individual rather than to the family, tribe, society or state. This is philosophical atomism and it is not an absolute. It might be argued that it is the root of selfish consumerism and single parent families and it inarguably leads to problems for those who would promote the social good.

Earlier statements were concerned with the Civil Rights of individuals and laid largely negative obligations on the state. Later statements are concerned with Cultural and Social Rights which put positive obligations on the state in that they demand social action. This leads to greyness when individual (and/or group) rights conflict with social (and/or state) goals. Where should the balance lie? Who should be called upon to decide? What protection do the Dinka have against the state not providing what they want (better veterinary services) and insisting on providing what they do not want (universal primary education)?

The Consultation Document gives the impression that Human Rights are inalienable, unambiguous and therefore non negotiable. The message is that recalcitrants (poor people and perpetrators of bad governance, especially those in the third world) are obliged to participate in being included in the historic quest to ‘become like America’ – whatever that might mean in these heady times of green politics, feminism and rampant globalisation.

"If national governments lack this commitment then civil society must press them to take action as without a local lead progress cannot be achieved." (Foreword)

"The human rights approach to development means empowering people to take their own decisions about their own lives, rather than being the passive objects of choices made on their behalf. The objectives of the DFID Human Rights Strategy is to enable all people to be active citizens with rights, expectations and responsibilities" pi –

What – even the Dinka?

The Papers can be found on the DFID internet website ( www.dfid.gov.uk ) under 'what we do' followed by 'strategy papers'

About the Author:

For the past 25 years George Clark has been engaged, mainly through DFID, in educational and social development in various parts of the world. He presently lives in NE Scotland and cyberspace where he is Convener of the Caledonia Centre for Social Development ( www.caledonia.org.uk ) and Director of Seafield Research and Development Services (www.srds.co.uk ).



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