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Are we drifting away from a human rights approach to development?


Our blogger, Abdul Alim, is Regional Social Policy Advisor for UNICEF South Asia. Abdul is committed to Human Rights, Equity and human development as an end in itself.

As an expert working in international development for over two decades, I was recently rudely shocked when during a conference call I noticed that, apart from one cursory mention of human rights, the word “rights” did not come up in the conversation. It pains me to say that we have not significantly advanced on human rights-based programming which has formed part of social development discourse over the past decades. We seem to have drifted away from discussions on duty bearers and right holders – to the current situation where human rights are no longer central to development discourse and to our concerns. I wondered, what has happened, and why are we not paying enough attention to what has been a key component of our development discourse and advocacy strategy for over two decades?

As we continue this disorienting and sad drift away from human rights as a central pillar of development discourse, the world is in a crisis where unbridled capitalism, industrial expansion, corporate greed and a desire for economic growth at all costs have destroyed natural habitats and boundaries between animal and humans. A clear example of this is the current COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence now points to the fact that the profit-driven destructive cycle has led to a situation whereby viruses jump across species living in unnaturally close proximity. Humans have taken over habitats and left no space for nature, including animals and plants, to flourish. We can now see how climate change, pandemics, disasters and migration are all tied together. Rights violations in the name of economic progress are destroying the vulnerable among us, along with nature and the planet.

How does this impact the social protection discourse and practice in low- and middle-income countries?

Early European welfare states were built on a social contract based on Governments guaranteeing political, civil, social and economic rights of citizens based on the principles of respect and dignity, which laid down the basis of sustainable long-term economic progress. Bismarck and Beveridge laid the foundations of social and health security, thereby creating the modern welfare state. Questions about fiscal space were secondary to concerns about social cohesion, maintaining consumption and yes, rights.

Rights are not subject to fiscal space. Fiscal space is subject to meeting rights. I am afraid that when we ask about whether there is sufficient “fiscal space”, we have the question the wrong way around.

We are at an unprecedented moment in history. As an advisor of social policy for UNICEF’S Regional Office for South Asia, it is clear to me that the actions we take now amid this unfolding global crisis will shape the future of millions of people in South Asia for years to come. Children – who comprise 50 per cent of South Asia’s population – will be particularly impacted. After the Great Depression in the United States in 1929, when resources were depleted, Roosevelt did not ask for fiscal space when he signed into law universal old-age pensions (social security) and unemployment programmes. These programmes laid the foundations of modern American progress and were instrumental in reducing widespread old-age poverty and unemployment that hindered the formation of social capital, a necessity for economic progress.

South Asia has one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world. No one asks if we have fiscal space when it comes to manufacturing ballistic missiles. That question is not even raised. But when it comes to finding resources for immunising children, saving refugees, and providing pensions, we are confronted by our partners with questions about whether there is sufficient fiscal space. I understand these concerns, but sometimes I wonder if it distracts us from addressing core issues, such as the realisation of human rights.

Economic and social rights violations have left citizens in South Asia distrustful of their Governments, have led to the social contract being discarded to the bin, and the result can be seen in our dismal performance on human development indices. Our region needs a new social contract – one which builds a Social State in South Asia, and in which Governments can fulfil their duty of care towards their citizens. The implementation of inclusive lifecycle-based social protection systems should be one of the first steps that Governments take to renew this social contract. The issue is not whether there is sufficient fiscal space for universal social protection coverage, but finding the political will to direct resources towards these systems. Only once a relationship of trust has been restored between citizens and the state, can we move into a virtuous cycle of high tax revenue, high investment in human capital and sustained economic progress.

We need to return to our core strength of advocating for human rights. These rights are of strategic importance and not a side talk anymore. We CAN shape new social policies to set South Asia on a course to building a better and human-centred Social State. The COVID-19 crisis could be the trigger that sets Governments on the path to change since, at this moment, Governments are desperately trying to find the right balance. This “right balance” must be understood as the realisation of the right to social protection, which is a core duty of care of the State. If Governments fail to put in place inclusive social protection programmes, I fear that we will be looking at an abyss of social and economic catastrophe from which no-one will recover.

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