Author: Pallavi Chatterjee (Vienna Master of Human Rights) 



Two frameworks and their potential complementarity


A troubled history exists between the human rights framework and the concept of development as a tool for uplifting lower-income countries to similar standards of living as ‘developed’ countries. Much of the criticism focuses on challenges within the present regime, such as the tendency to focus solely on economic growth as an indicator for development (neglecting human factors), prioritizing industrialization and the simple provision of infrastructural implements (such as the number of schools or hospitals built) over assessing their quality or long-term sustainability, and importantly, failing to include local stakeholders in consultative and participatory processes of development planning. Scholars have particularly emphasized the long-term negative impacts of the fundamentally unequal ‘donor-beneficiary’ dichotomy existing between wealthy ‘donor’ states and lower-income ‘beneficiary’ states.

In his seminal work In Larger Freedom, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was insistent in his recognition of human rights, development, and peace and security as the three main pillars of the United Nations framework. A human rights-based approach to development has slowly found legitimacy at the international and regional level, informing the structure and design of programs and projects at the EU– and also national level, such as Austrian Development Cooperation. Many EU-level trade partnerships with third countries include among their stipulations obligations towards upholding key human rights norms as a condition for further business. However, even these conditions tend to overly focus on civil and political rights – such as the right to vote, the right to assembly, association and freedom of speech, and the right to free and fair elections.

While such rights are absolutely crucial within free, fair and liberal democracies, the neglect of economic, social and cultural rights is particularly evident. These rights, for example, include the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to social security, the right to adequate access to healthcare, food, water, and – importantly – the right to fair and equal employment in humane conditions. The goals of development as a concept – reducing poverty, improving skills and livelihoods, providing work opportunities – can thus be linked to the protection of economic, social and cultural rights in this regard.

But on what feet can such development projects stand when prominent examples have been found to worsen existing inequalities in the countries they are ostensibly supporting?


The case of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project

The present article was inspired by extensive research conducted by Professor Yvonne A. Braun of the University of Oregon in her paper titled The Reproduction of Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and the Social Organization of Work at Sites of Large-Scale Development Projects. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) was the subject of her ethnography, analysing the feasibility and sustainability of large-scale development projects towards poverty reduction initiatives in global South countries. While ‘development’ is advertised as a nebulous endeavour towards providing employment opportunities to the local population, the reality was a stark reminder of the reproduction of existing inequalities on grounds of race, class and gender informing such employment choices in the first place.

The Project itself is an $8 billion endeavour designed to sell water from the rural highlands of Lesotho to South Africa; poor planning and management over several years has, however, resulted in thousands losing their land and subsistence livelihoods. As such, dependency has subsequently increased on such large-scale projects to provide employment and livelihood opportunities for the beleaguered local population.

The mission statement of the Project as found on their website includes implementing it ‘through capable and engaged people’; this supposedly does not mean Basotho men, women or even migrants, since the upper echelons of management are occupied by white European and South African men living in luxurious, barbed wire-protected ‘employee villages’ (with spacious homes, electricity, paved roads, a gym, an Irish bar, and tennis courts) – none accessible by the local population. Middle management positions are given to black South African men housed together – 8 to 10  a room – in overcrowded, ‘nondescript trailers’ within the vicinity of the project compounds, lacking heating or electricity. Very few women were formally employed by the development authority, and most work available was ‘…informal, unregulated and low-paid.’ Many have thus turned to sex work as a last resort.

Such limited, precarious work deprives the local population of the Project’s initial promises, such as the assurance that the national income generated would improve the socioeconomic development of Lesotho as a whole. For a rural population struggling to maintain an adequate standard of living amongst challenges such as increasing agricultural competition, declining productivity and generally high rates of unemployment, an open, transparent, and participatory development process is crucial in this regard. Despite ostensibly aiming towards ‘progress, employment and poverty reduction’, ill-managed development projects risk worsening existing racial, gender and class inequalities within local contexts and creating more problems in their wake.


The importance of a human rights-based approach

The experience of the Basotho population is unfortunately not a unique one; similar findings have been reported from the fertile Garbh region of Morocco, from state-funded rural development projects in India, and jurisprudence from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights regarding indigenous populations not consulted by state authorities before initiating mega-projects on their territories.

Many global South countries continue to reel from the deleterious impact of the structural adjustment policies imposed upon them in the 1980s by international financial institutions such as World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. A key characteristic is the consequent widening gap in quality between private- and public-funded services, boding negatively for the protection of essential human rights obligations towards education, healthcare, and social security. Socioeconomically-disadvantaged communities who cannot afford the costs of high-quality private education are thus unfairly denied long-term equality of opportunity due to the deficit in skills required for a rapidly-changing, increasingly technologically-focused society and economy. Within the present COVID-19 pandemic, the threat to their health and security is even more pronounced when one considers their access to such services through insurance and social security.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030 are hailed as a positive change from their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) due to their focus on social inclusion and environmental protection; the same has been described as a key foray of human rights to such projects conducted within all states, regardless of income. Kofi Annan’s UN Reform 1997 called for the mainstreaming of a human rights-based approach in all UN activities, while scholars from the economics and social science fields such as Amartya Sen have demonstrated that the protection of economic, social and cultural rights are preconditions for sustainable development.

A sobering dynamic that emerges from societies mired in armed conflict and humanitarian crises is the enduring likelihood that such conflict has precipitated from violations of fundamental human rights and the experience of deprivation and poverty. When essential rights such as the right to food, water, and just and humane conditions of employment are threatened by external forces in the name of narrowly-defined ‘development’ ideals, it is questionable to what extent any ‘development’ might actually come to be and whether any positive consequences will be equitably distributed.

A number of international bodies have made some promising moves towards integrating a human rights-based approach to all development activities; it remains, however, absolutely imperative that the emerging praxis is centred on the essential principle of protecting human dignity in all its operations.


Details regarding internships

Knowledge for Development Partnership (K4DP) is a Vienna-based non-profit organization, which promotes the global advancement of peaceful, wealthy, sustainable, and inclusive knowledge societies, fosters global knowledge partnerships for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, and implements the Agenda 2030.

– Main tasks:

– Composing grant proposals, fundraising efforts for USAID-led projects for Knowledge for Development Challenge 2021 conducted at Makerere University, Uganda

– Composing concept notes for various projects undertaken by K4D Foundation

– Facilitating multi-stakeholder partnerships and on-boarding stakeholders from McGill University, Hong Kong Polytechnic

– Challenges faced: COVID-19 restrictions

The Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Fundamental and Human Rights, is a centre of competence for human rights work. Internationally recognised experts combine cutting-edge research with practical human rights work making the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Fundamental and Human Rights one of the leading Human Rights institutions in Europe.

– Supervisor/job position: Sabine Mandl (Senior Researcher), Karin Lukas (Head of Department), Giuliana Monina (Head of Department)

– Duration of internship: September 2020 to March 2020

– Main tasks:

  • Development, editing, translating and proofreading of other official policy-level documents issued by the Institute focusing on topics such as prison reform to a human rights-based approach to development cooperation.
  • Contributing to research publications conducted by her immediate supervisors on economic, social and cultural rights in Europe
  • Assisting in the organization and execution of EU-level events and workshops, particularly related to violence against women and persons with disabilities.

– Challenges faced: COVID-19 restrictions