Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right Economic Perspectives Volume 3

Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right Economic Perspectives Volume 3
United Nations
Cultural Organization
Freedom from Poverty
as a Human Right
Volume 3
Economic Perspectives
Edited by Bård A. Andreassen,
Stephen P. Marks and Arjun K. Sengupta
Series editor: Pierre Sané
Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right
Economic Perspectives
Freedom from Poverty
as a Human Right
Economic Perspectives
United Nations
Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization
Published in 2010 by the
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
7, place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP, France
© UNESCO, 2010
All rights reserved.
ISBN 978-92-3-104144-0
The ideas and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors
and are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.
The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication
do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO
concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities
or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.
Cover photo:
Kuwait, 1991
© Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas images
Typeset by UNESCO Publishing
Printed by UNESCO, Paris
Printed in France
The present publication is a selection of papers commissioned as part of a UNESCO
project on poverty and human rights launched in 2002.* The project focuses on
conceptual analyses of poverty understood as a human rights issue.
The first phase of the project aimed to understand poverty and clarify its
relationship to human rights and corresponding duties from the perspective of a
philosophical analysis. Scholars within and beyond the philosophical community
were invited to analyse the key concepts pertaining to poverty and human rights.
One of the main challenges here was – and remains – to investigate how UNESCO
could stimulate the commitment of the world community by addressing the
moral obligation to take action to eradicate poverty and to contribute to the full
realization of the fundamental basic rights of all peoples without discrimination.
In this context, UNESCO has published the collection Freedom from Poverty
as a Human Right, composed of four volumes, each addressing the issue within a
particular scope. A philosophical approach was developed in Freedom from Poverty
as a Human Right: Who Owes What to the Very Poor, edited by Thomas Pogge; a
legal approach was taken in Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Law’s Duty
to the Poor, edited by Geraldine Van Bueren; a political science perspective was
elaborated in Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Theory and Politics, edited
by Thomas Pogge; and the economics point of view was developed in Freedom
from Poverty as a Human Right: Economic Perspectives, edited by Arjun Sengupta,
Stephen Marks and Bård Andreassen.
The objective of this volume is to contribute to an analysis of the relations
between poverty eradication and human rights. It attempts to answer the question
of how poverty, defined as a human rights violation, can be addressed from an
economics approach, namely taking into consideration economic structures,
processes and policies. This volume gathers the contributions of leading economists
and social scientists who apply their particular modes of analysis to the question,
while linking it to the issue of individual and collective responsibilities in the field
of human rights. As the concern for the fulfilment and respect of human rights
has become central on the international public scene – namely in multilateral fora,
development institutions, academia, the media, and so on – leading economists
and social scientists can contribute significantly to a reflection on this issue.
Moreover, there is an apparent need to explore the interfaces of economic
choices and priorities on the one hand, and promotion and protection of normative
standards on the other.
A given goal does not have a unique economic path. Economic theories
can therefore help address poverty as a human rights violation and facilitate the
search for long-term solutions.
Project originally entitled: ‘Ethical and Human Rights Dimensions of Poverty: Towards a New
Paradigm in the Fight against Poverty’.
Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Economic Perspectives
To be effective, the right not to be poor must become a part of a moral
consensus within society, which means that rights have to become inherent to our
societies and that we accept that responsibility concerns us all. One of the crucial
questions here concerns the source of the moral judgment regarding poverty,
particularly global poverty, and how to deal with the latter worldwide: what kind
of actions should be pursued? By whom? Which actors should be involved and
how? To what level of responsibility? Are aid and debt parts of these actions?
Should one go beyond them?
We also have to look deeply at the reshaping of many legal systems around
the developing world, in particular under the social pressure of civil society actors.
The role and actions of the latter must also be studied and evaluated since it is
fundamental to know how and to what extent they help to foster the efficiency of the
legal structures in favour of the poorest, bringing them ‘into the light’ and allowing
them to be treated and to live as citizens rather than as ‘stigmatized’ persons.
Constitutional rights are of utmost importance, but struggling with efficacy
against poverty also means planning in order to schedule and implement reforms.
Here it is a matter of changing mentalities and behaviours. Democracy can never
be understood as an everlasting good, nor taken for granted. One has always to
fight to keep it alive and efficient for each and every citizen, regardless of colour,
belief or economic status. Given that each citizen is above all a human being, he
or she has to be treated and considered as such by all institutional, state, judicial
and economic structures.
Global justice is precisely an issue in political philosophy that stems from
the fact that the world is not a fair one for all. Billions of people are extremely
poor, while a few are tremendously rich; the former often lack the protection of
the law, while the latter are sometimes above the law. Many people still live under
hard regimes. Many are exposed to extreme violence, disease and starvation.
Many die prematurely. How should we understand and respond to these facts?
What do the inhabitants of the world owe one another? What institutions and
what ethical standards should we recognize and apply worldwide? What could be
the foundations for a sustainable respect of socioeconomic rights? Who should be
accountable for it?
Three related questions, concerning the extent of justice, justice in the
distribution of wealth, and the institutions accountable for justice, are central to
the discussion on global justice.
Today, 3 billion people are living below the poverty line established by the
World Bank at US$2 a day. Can we be satisfied when faced with this data? Is this
allocation a fair one? Do the wealthy have a duty to assist the poor, and is aid
purely an issue of charity, not morally required? What institutions would be most
relevant to realize the ideal of global justice?
The international community has set, as a priority for the millennium,
the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the first of which is to ‘eradicate
extreme poverty and hunger’. The quantitative target, by which success in poverty
eradication will be measured, is to reduce by half, by 2015, the proportion of
people living in extreme poverty.
But this approach does not exhaust the issue. For one thing, the intended
target will not easily be reached. And even if it were successfully achieved, the basic
question would still remain untouched: can persistent poverty be tolerated at all?
The problem has to be tackled from another angle. As long as we consider
poverty as a quantitative, natural deficit to be made up, the political will to reduce
it will not be energized. Poverty will only cease when it is recognized as a violation
of human rights and, as such, abolished.
Of the five families of human rights – civil, political, cultural, economic
and social – proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, poverty
violates the fifth, always; the fourth, generally; often the third; sometimes the
second; and even the first. As was recognized at the World Conference on Human
Rights held in Vienna in 1993, there is an organic link between poverty and the
violation of human rights.
Because when we talk about poverty we talk about lack of access, lack of
resources, deprivation of capabilities and lack of power for some, in societies
where others do have access, resources, capabilities and power. We are therefore
talking about inequalities. Inequality is a human rights issue.
When we talk about poverty, we do not talk about groups or classes in society.
We talk about masses, about figures, about people who are voiceless and hence
invisible, in other words people who are denied their individual dignity. Now the
preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights starts by recognizing that
dignity is inherent to all members of the human family. When you take that away
you exclude those people from the human family; here again we are talking about
human rights.
The preamble further states that the highest aspiration of humankind is the
attainment of a world free from terror and misery. That aspiration is blatantly
defiled by the persistence of poverty. Here again we are talking of human rights.
The issue for me therefore is not poverty. The issue is human rights – all
human rights, political and social. It is about achieving universality in the regime
of implementation so that no one is excluded (Art. 7 of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights). It is about monitoring and combating violations so that
everyone can obtain protection and redress under a regime of law (Art. 8). It
is about exercising reason and conscience and acting towards one another in a
spirit of brotherhood (Art. 1). It is about creating a social and international order
that makes possible the enjoyment of all the rights contained in the Declaration
(Art. 28). It is about effective implementation of Art. 30, which stipulates that
nothing in the Declaration can be interpreted as giving a right to anyone to take
an action aimed at the destruction of the rights and freedoms contained in the
Declaration. Such violations must be abolished; poverty therefore must stop. The
claim sounds naïve, and may even bring a smile to many lips.
Condescension would be misguided, however, as well as inappropriate.
There is nothing to smile at in distress, misery, dereliction and death, which march
in grim parade with poverty. We should, indeed, be ashamed. But the issue is also
substantive: the abolition of poverty is the only fulcrum that offers the leverage to
defeat poverty.
Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Economic Perspectives
Leverage, in this case, comes from investments, national and international
reforms, and policies to remedy the deficiencies of all kinds that are the backdrop
to poverty. Fortunately, humanity now has the means to answer the challenge:
never have we been so rich, so technically competent and so well informed. But in
the absence of a fulcrum these forces cannot act as effectively as they might, and
without this fulcrum political will cannot be galvanized to organize redistribution
on a global scale.
If, however, poverty were declared to be abolished, as it should with regard
to its status as a massive, systematic and continuous violation of human rights,
its persistence would no longer be a regrettable feature of the nature of things.
It would become a denial of justice. The burden of proof would shift. The poor,
once they have been recognized as the injured party, would acquire a right to
reparation for which governments, the international community and, ultimately,
each citizen would be jointly liable. A strong interest would thus be established
in eliminating, as a matter of urgency, the grounds of liability, which might be
expected to unleash much stronger forces than those that compassion, charity,
or even concern for one’s own security, are likely to mobilize for the benefit of
The violations of human rights here are the policies, legislations and actions
(or lack thereof) that constitute breaches of the state’s obligations encapsulated in
the international human rights treaties it has ratified. I am speaking here of any
policy, legislation or public action (national or international) that plunges whole
categories of people into situations of poverty, maintains them in that state or
prevents them from overcoming that condition.
By endowing the poor with the rights they are entitled to, the abolition
of poverty would obviously not cause poverty to disappear overnight. It would,
however, create the conditions for the cause of poverty to be enshrined as the
highest of priorities and as the common interest of all – not just as a secondary
concern for the enlightened or merely charitable. No more than the abolition of
slavery caused the crime to vanish or the abolition of political apartheid ended
racism and discrimination, no more than the abolition of domestic violence
or genocide have eliminated such violations of the human conscience, will the
legal abolition of poverty make poverty disappear. But it will place poverty in the
conscience of humankind at the same level as those past injustices, the present
survival of which challenges, shocks, and calls us to action.
The principle of justice thus implemented and the force of law mobilized
in its service are of enormous power. This, after all, is how slavery, colonialism
and apartheid were ended. But while there has been an active struggle against
colonialism and apartheid, poverty dehumanizes half the planet to a chorus of
utter indifference. It is, undoubtedly, the most acute moral question of the new
century to understand how such massive and systematic violations, day in, day
out, do not trouble the conscience of the good people who look down upon them.
While equality of rights is proclaimed, growing inequalities in the distribution
of goods persist and are entrenched by unjust economic and social policies at
national and global levels.
To deal with poverty as a violation of human rights means going beyond the
idea of international justice – which is concerned with relations between states
and nations – towards the creation of global justice and global development, which
applies to relations between human beings living in a global society and enjoying
absolute and inalienable rights – such as the right to life – that are guaranteed by
the international community. Such rights do not belong to the citizens of states but,
universally, to human beings as such, for whom they are the necessary condition
of life on the planet. The principle of global justice thus establishes the conditions
for a fairer distribution of the planet’s resources between its inhabitants in the light
of certain absolute rights, thus making global development possible.
What we must note is that today nearly 3 billion people receive only about
1.2 per cent of world income, while 1 billion people in the rich countries receive
80 per cent. An annual income transfer of 1 per cent from one group to the other
would suffice to eliminate extreme poverty. Yet in fact, the transfer continues
to operate in the opposite direction, despite efforts towards debt reduction and
development aid.
At the end of the day, there is a simple choice. Not between a ‘pragmatic’
approach, based on aid granted by the rich to the poor, and the alternative sketched
here. The real choice is between the abolition of poverty and the only other way
for the poor to obtain rights, which is for them to take them by force. Needless to
say, the latter solution usually causes misery for all: social strife, rampant crime,
fundamentalism, mass uncontrolled migration, smuggling and trafficking are
the only things to flourish. But what moral basis do we have to demand moral
behaviour from people to whom we deny any opportunity to live a healthy life?
What rights have we to demand that they respect our rights? The sombre option
will become increasingly probable if nothing is done – or too little, as tends to be
the case with pragmatism, however deserving.
And what are the threats of this sombre perspective? We are all familiar
with them: security states established to control migrations and migrants, with
those controls eventually extended to citizens; security laws to confront ‘terrorists’
that eventually curtail the freedoms of all; mounting xenophobia, political
alignment with blood, race and religion, which eventually undermine democracy;
and ‘preventive’ wars to grab and control natural resources, leading to chaos,
lawlessness and insecurity for all. Such a global world is obviously undesirable for
the majority of the world population.
The options thus come down to a single choice, which is the only one
compatible with the categorical imperative to respect human rights: to abolish
poverty in order to eradicate it and to draw from this principle all the consequences
that free acceptance of it implies. The proclaimed abolition must, first, create
rights and obligations, and thereby mobilize the true forces that can correct the
state of a world plagued by poverty and injustice. By simply setting an effective
and binding priority, abolition changes the ground rules and contributes to the
creation of a new world. Such is the price to pay to give globalization a human
face; such is also the greatest opportunity for global development that we can
hope to grasp.
Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Economic Perspectives
Ultimately, the way is to mobilize public opinion and the global citizenry
for a universal human rights regime that is within our reach. Its emergence has
been lengthy – very lengthy. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
to the Rome Conference that established the International Criminal Court, the
emergence of universal justice has been defiled by acts of barbarity that have
grossly infringed human dignity. Now, however, the legal instruments are there,
and, step by step, experiments and initiatives give hope. It remains to energize
political will through unceasing mobilization, true thinking, the contributions of
experts and support for the victims.
What promises does such global justice bear? Let me quote Nobel Laureate
Jose Saramago: ‘Were such justice to exist, there would no longer be a single
human being dying of hunger or of diseases that are curable for some but not for
others. Were such justice to exist, life would no longer be, for half of humanity,
the dreadful sentence it has hitherto been. And for such justice, we already have a
practical code that has been laid down sixty years ago in the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights, a declaration that might profitably replace, as far as rightness of
principles and clarity of objectives are concerned, the manifestos of all the political
parties of the world.’
Indeed, all too often we care only for victims of our own creed, of our own
political persuasion. All too often we tend to explain away violations visited on
the other side. The challenge for the Human Rights movement at this historical
juncture and as we celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights, is clearly to stand up against the dehumanization of the other.
From its side, UNESCO does not want merely to inject a human rights
approach into poverty eradication strategies, but, conversely, to bring poverty
into the realm of human rights. The advantage of defining poverty as a human
rights issue means that the response to such questions is political will and the
mobilization of public opinion to galvanize it.
Another relevant aim for UNESCO is to make sure that the poor are really
seen as victims, and not as ignorant people who do not know their rights, and
who would, above all, have to be educated. In this case, the response to poverty
is education. But the poor lack capacity, so empowerment is a paramount answer.
They know perfectly well that when police officers are beating them, their rights
are being violated. They know that they should not be in prison without unbiased
judgment. People know intuitively when their rights are being violated.
In this regard, it suffices to read the reports of the World Bank,** where
we can see clearly that the poor themselves have identified the reasons for the
continuous state of inequality: lack of participation, their treatment by the
police, etc. The issue is not so much one of telling them about their rights.
Another goal is to identify the perpetrators. If we say that a right has been
violated, that there is a victim, then there is somebody who has violated that right.
And there we need to go beyond governments and try to identify those individuals
who have taken the decision. ‘Who took the decision in my country to introduce
Narayan, D. 2000. Voices of the Poor. Washintown, DC, World Bank.
school fees in primary education that I cannot afford to pay?’ Those who signed the
decrees introducing school fees in primary education, and therefore excluded poor
people from primary education, are perpetrators of a human rights violation.
Finally, we must succeed in unifying the different actors. UNESCO cannot
work directly at the community level, but it has to work with governments,
NGOs, and the academic community. UNESCO does not work in villages; NGOs
are better placed to work there. These are the key stakeholders that can develop
campaigns that will change the approach to poverty.
There is an imperative work of awareness-raising on the reality of poverty,
which one often does not know as well as one thinks. It is necessary to think
‘outside the box’, e.g. to understand that although the persistence of poverty does
depend on local factors, it is also linked to the history of inequality among nations
(slavery, colonialism, forced work, apartheid, etc.). Poverty and inequality are
correlated, and current injustices reflect past injustices. We have to remember that
we have a moral responsibility and a legal obligation regarding poverty and the
Several statements have been encouraging in this very endeavour. I would
like to mention a recent Note by the United Nations Department of Economic and
Social Affairs (UNDESA) on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty
and the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where
it is explicitly mentioned that ‘the international community has acknowledged
that poverty is a violation of human rights and that promoting human rights can
reduce poverty.’*** It is also worth recalling the Report of the Secretary-General of
the United Nations on the Eradication of Poverty, in which it was said: ‘The fact
that poverty persists in many parts of the world points not only to an inequitable
distribution of economic, social and political opportunities, but also to a violation
of human rights.’****
Let us hope that these statements will be closely followed by concrete
We must never fail to remember, as pointed out during the celebrations
of the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that
poverty is never just a matter of being deprived of food. It is much more than this
and fully implies all human rights, as well as global ethical governance.
Pierre Sané
Assistant Director-General
for Social and Human Sciences, UNESCO
**** Observance of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Report of the SecretaryGeneral, 5 September 2006 (A/61/308).
Table of Contents
List of Contributors
List of Abbreviations
Bård A. Andreassen, Stephen P. Marks and Arjun Sengupta
Economic Perspectives on the Relationship between
Human Rights and the Structures of Poverty
1. Attacking Poverty: What is the Value
Added of a Human Rights Approach?
Ravi Kanbur
2. Economics and Human Rights Perspectives
on Poverty Reduction Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
3. Economic Globalization and the Human Rights
of Poor People in Rural Areas Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide
4. The Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction Siddiqur R. Osmani
5. Informality, Poverty and Gender:
An Economic Rights Approach105
Martha Alter Chen
Economic Perspectives on a Sectoral Approach
to Poverty and Human Rights 6. Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom
from Poverty: The Case for a Group Approach
Bina Agarwal
7. Realizing the Human Right to Health in
Low-Income Countries169
Lisa E. Sachs and Jeffrey D. Sachs
8. The Right to Work and the Reduction of Poverty:
An Economist’s View
Gerry Rodgers
9. Social Security and Children: Malcolm Langford
10. Hunger and Human Rights:
The Appealing Rhetoric versus Dreary Reality Dan Banik
Economic Perspectives on Poverty and
Human Rights in the Global Economy
11. Trade Liberalization, Reduction of Poverty
and Human Rights263
Guiguo Wang
12. Human Rights and Extreme Poverty:
An Economist’s Perspective293
Arjun Sengupta
13. Why Should Human Rights Issues be Addressed
by the World Bank?319
Desmond McNeill and Luis Sanchez
List of Contributors
Bina Agarwal (India) is Director and Professor at the Institute of Economic
Growth, Delhi University. Professor Agarwal was educated at the Universities of
Cambridge and Delhi and has held distinguished positions at several universities
in the USA and UK. She has lectured worldwide, and was Harvard’s first Daniel
Ingalls Visiting Professor and a research fellow at the Ash Institute, Kennedy School
of Government. She has taught at Delhi, Harvard, Michigan (Ann Arbor) and the
University of Minnesota, where she held the Winton Chair. She has also been
Vice-President of the International Economic Association, and was elected the first
Southern President of the International Association for Feminist Economics. She
served on the Board of the Global Development Network from its inception until
2006, and is a founding member of the Indian Society for Ecological Economics.
Currently she serves on the UN Committee for Development Policy and the Prime
Minister’s National Council for Land Reforms.
Bård A. Andreassen (Norway) is Professor at the Norwegian Centre for Human
Rights, University of Oslo. He holds a PhD in political science (University of
Oslo) and a Diploma in International Human Rights Law (Institut International
des Droits de l’Homme, Strasbourg). His research focuses on human rights in
processes of democratization in ethnically divided societies (Eastern Africa),
human rights-based development, development assistance and human rights,
international election monitoring, economic and social rights, and transitional
justice. He has been editor of the international research and documentation
project, Human Rights in Developing Countries (project of cooperation among
European human rights institutes), and Editor-in-Chief of the Nordic Journal of
Human Rights. Between 1991 and 2001, and as of 2009, he has been Director of
the Research for the Program on Human Rights and Development at the Law
Faculty, University of Oslo.
Dan Banik is Associate Professor and Research Director at the Centre for
Development and the Environment of the University of Oslo, Head of the
Reference Group at the Norwegian-Finnish Trust Fund in the World Bank for
Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development (TFESSD) and Head
of the Academic Network on Legal Empowerment of the Poor (ANLEP). He
has been visiting Associate Professor at the International Food Policy Research
Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, DC and Senior Research Fellow and Research
Director of the Centre for Development and the Environment of the University of
Oslo. He has published several books on poverty, legal empowerment of the poor
and development. His latest book is Poverty and Elusive Development, published
by Scandinavian University Press (Universitetsforlaget), Oslo (2010).
List of Contributorsxv
Martha Chen (USA) is Lecturer in Public Policy at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit
Organizations at the Harvard School of Government, Harvard University. She
is international coordinator of the global research policy network Women in
Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). An experienced
development practitioner and scholar, she specializes in the links between
employment, poverty, and gender. She is the author of numerous books including,
most recently, Progress of the Worlds Women 2005: Women, Work, and Poverty;
Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture; and Perpetual
Mourning: Widowhood in Rural India. Chen received a PhD in South Asia regional
studies from the University of Pennsylvania.
Asbjørn Eide (Norway) is Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Norwegian Centre for
Human Rights, formerly Torgny Segersted Professor of Human Rights at the
University of Gothenburg, and presently visiting Professor at the University of Lund,
Sweden. He was the Director of the Norwegian Institute (now Centre) of Human
Rights since its inception in 1987 until 1998. He has been a member of the United
Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights for 20
years, Chairman of its working group on Minorities, and President of the Council of
Europe’s Advisory Committee on National Minorities. His main publications deal
with the development of the international system for the protection of human rights,
in general, and on economic and social rights and minority rights, in particular.
Wenche Barth Eide (Norway) is an Associate Professor at the Department of
Nutrition, Faculty of Medicine, University of Oslo. With a background originally
in biology, she was instrumental in developing the specialization for study and
research into ‘public nutrition’, which focuses on nutrition as a societal concern,
related to human and national development and the processes of globalization.
In this context she has been among the pioneers in giving content to the right
to adequate food as a human right, and has worked and published widely in this
interdisciplinary area. She served for several years as the first technical adviser
in nutrition to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in
Rome. She has been a member of the Board of Trustees of the International Food
Policy Research Institute in Washington DC and is currently a Trustee of the
International Foundation for Science in Stockholm.
Ravi Kanbur (United Kingdom, USA) is T. H. Lee Professor of World Affairs,
International Professor of Applied Economics and Management, and Professor of
Economics at Cornell University. He holds an appointment tenured both in the
Department of Applied Economics and Management in the College of Agriculture
and Life Sciences, and in the Department of Economics in the College of Arts
and Sciences. Professor Kanbur holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from the
University of Cambridge and a doctorate in economics from the University of
Oxford. He has taught at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Essex, Warwick,
Princeton and Columbia. He has served as Economic Adviser on the staff of the
World Bank, and Senior Economic Adviser, Resident Representative in Ghana. He
Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Economic Perspectives
has been Chief Economist of the African Region of the World Bank, and Principal
Adviser to the Chief Economist of the World Bank. He has also served as Director
of the World Bank’s World Development Report. Professor Kanbur’s main areas of
interest are public economics and development economics.
Malcolm Langford (Australia) is Research Fellow at the South Africa Programme,
Norwegian Centre for Human Rights and Research Director of the Human Rights
and Development Research Group at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo.
Langford is MDGs Advisor to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for
Human Rights.
Ajay Mahal (India) is Associate Professor of International Health Economics at
the Department of Global Health and Population, School of Public Law, Harvard
University. Dr. Mahal’s research uses economic analyses to influence public health
policy in developing countries. He is especially interested in policy issues related
to the HIV and AIDS epidemic, resource allocation in the health sector, ageing,
human resources and decentralization and empowerment.
Stephen P. Marks (USA) is François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of Health and
Human Rights in the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard
School of Public Health and a Senior Fellow at the University Committee on
Human Rights Studies at Harvard. The emphasis of Professor Marks’s work is on
human rights, public health, international law, international politics, international
organizations, economic development, peace, and conflict studies. He has been
a consultant to the United Nations Development Program, the World Health
Organization, UNESCO, and UNICEF, as well as to several foundations. He
co-directed, with Arjun Sengupta, a project on the right to development and is
the current Chair of the UN High-Level Task Force on the Implementation of the
Right to Development. His other current research interests include human rights
and tobacco control, poverty and human rights, and access to essential medicines,
and human rights indicators to advance the rights of the child in the context of
poverty reduction.
Desmond McNeill (UK) graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1969,
and received his PhD in economics at the University of London in 1988. He was
Lecturer at the Development Planning Unit, University College London from
1976-84; and Lecturer at the Department of Economics, University of Edinburgh
from 1985-87. After moving to Norway he worked as a consultant and later adviser
to NORAD. From 1992-2001 he was Director of the Centre for Development and
the Environment at the University of Oslo, and is now leader of the Centre’s research
area ‘Governance for Sustainable Development’. He has written several books on
multilateral organizations including Global Institutions and Development: Framing
the World? (Routledge, 2004) and Global Poverty, Ethics and Human Rights: The
Role of Multilateral Organizations (Routledge, 2009).
List of Contributorsxvii
Siddiqur R. Osmani (Bangladesh) is Professor of Development Economics,
University of Ulster, United Kingdom. He is coordinator of the Bangladesh
Country Study of the Right to Development Project at the FXB Center for Health
and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health. He was member of
a team set up by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to
prepare the Guidelines for Implementing the Human Rights Approach to Poverty
Gerry Rodgers (USA) is Director of the Institute for International Labour Studies
at the International Labour Organization, where he has been a staff member
since 1972. He is Visiting Professor at the Institute for Human Development,
New Delhi. His work has mainly been concerned with poverty, inequality, labour,
human resources, and employment, especially in South and Southeast Asia and
in Latin America. This has included analysis of labour market outcomes and their
relationship to economic development; the impact on poverty and employment of
state policies and of the behaviour of other social actors; labour market patterns as
aspects of social and economic inequality; the development of training systems and
policies; the notion of social exclusion and its application in low income settings;
studies of interactions between economic and demographic behaviour; work on
economic and social systems and models, both theoretical and empirical.
Jeffrey D. Sachs (USA) is the Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor
of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at
Columbia University. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General
Ban Ki-moon. From 2002 to 2006, Professor Sachs was Director of the UN
Millennium Project and Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General
Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals, the internationally agreed
goals to reduce extreme poverty, disease, and hunger by the year 2015. Sachs is
also President and Co-Founder of Millennium Promise Alliance, a non-profit
organization aimed at ending extreme global poverty.
Lisa E. Sachs (USA) is the Assistant Director of the Vale Columbia Center on
Sustainable International Investment at Columbia University. She graduated from
Harvard and received a law degree and a Master’s in International Affairs from
Luis Sánchez Torrente (Spain) obtained a double degree in Economics and
Law from Carlos III University of Madrid in 2004, and finished his studies in
Environmental and Development Economics (MPh) at the University of Oslo,
where he worked as a research assistant for the Centre for Development and the
Environment. From 2006 to 2009 he worked as a consultant for the public sector
at the Centre for Economic Studies Tomillo, participating in several European
research networks and conducting studies on the field of social and labour reform.
In 2009 he joined the Madrid-based research foundation DARA (Development
Assistance Research Associates) as part of the team of the Humanitarian Response
Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Economic Perspectives
Index, an independent initiative aiming to evaluate donors’ compliance with the
‘Good Humanitarian Donorship’ principles. He has recently joined the World
Bank as Junior Professional Officer at the Social Development, Environment and
Water Resources Management Unit for the South Asia Region.
Arjun Sengupta (India) holds a PhD in economics from the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and has served as Member Secretary to the Indian Planning
Commission and as Executive Director of the International Monetary Fund. He
is currently a member of Parliament and Adjunct Professor at the Harvard School
of Public Health. He is the former UN Independent Expert on Extreme Poverty
and Human Rights, and was a member of the High-Level Commission on the
Economic Empowerment of the Poor. In his previous capacity as Independent
Expert on the Right to Development for the UN, he reported extensively to the
Human Rights Commission and the General Assembly on the current state of
progress in the implementation of the right to development. He is also the
Chairman of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector
of the Government of India.
Guiguo Wang (China) is Dean and Chair Professor of Chinese and Comparative
Law at the City University of Hong Kong. Professor Wang, holder of the JSD
degree from Yale Law School and LL.M. degree from Columbia Law School, is the
first Chinese recipient of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research
fellowship which enabled him to study at the International Court of Justice,
The Hague Academy of International Law, Office of Legal Affairs of the United
Nations and Legal Department of the World Bank. Professor Wang was also the
first person from the mainland of China to obtain the JSD degree from Yale Law
School since 1949. Professor Wang is a Distinguished Professor of Law at Hunan
Normal University School of Law, Changsha, China, Vice President of the Chinese
Society of International Economic Law and Advisor to the Shenzhen Municipality
on WTO affairs.
List of Abbreviations
Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa
Agricultural knowledge, science and technology
Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
CFAComprehensive Framework for Action on the Global Food
Security Crisis
Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor
Common Minimum Programme (India)
Convention on the Rights of the Child
Consortium of Research on Poverty
Civil society organization
Department for International Development (UK)
DSUUnderstanding on Rules and Procedures Governing the
Settlement of Disputes
European Commission
European Union
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
FoodFirst Information and Action Network
FIVIMSFood Insecurity and Vulnerability Information Mapping
General Agreement on Trade in Services
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
Gross Domestic Product
Generalized System of Preference
IAASTDInternational Assessment of Agricultural Science, Knowledge
and Technology
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
ICESCRInternational Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural
International Conference of Labour Statisticians
International Labour Conference
International Labour Organization
International Monetary Fund
Least-Developed Countries
Millennium Development Goal
Most favoured nation
Médecins Sans Frontières
Non-governmental organization
New International Economic Order
National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (India)
Official Development Assistance
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Economic Perspectives
Overall Trade-Distorting Domestic Support
Purchasing Power Parity
Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper
Subsidies and Countervailing Measures
Self-help group
Swedish International Development Agency
Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures
Technical Barriers to Trade
Transnational corporation
Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
United Nations
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
United Nations Children’s Fund
International Drug Purchase Facility
World Food Summit
World Health Organization
Women in Development
Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing
World Trade Organization
Bård A. Andreassen, Stephen P. Marks and Arjun Sengupta
This book brings together leading economists and social scientists familiar with
the relationship between poverty and economic structures, processes and policies,
to apply their particular modes of analysis to the impact of this relationship on
individual and collective responsibilities of states in the field of human rights.
It provides diverse insights from economists’ analyses, relevant to exploring the
claim that poverty is a violation of human rights, and complements volumes on
similar themes from the perspectives of philosophy, political science and law also
prepared under the auspices of UNESCO.
The difficult dialogue between economists and human rights specialists has
evolved from mutual ignorance to curiosity – sometimes disdainful, sometimes
respectful – and, occasionally, to a sense of working with mutually-reinforcing
paradigms. The topic of global poverty has facilitated this dialogue insofar as
economists have had to acknowledge the moral imperative of altering the intolerable
reality of over one billion people going to bed hungry, and human rights specialists
have had to realize that no progress can be made in realizing the human rights of
poor people unless economic conditions are altered through effective policy based
on sound economic evidence and the generating of pro-poor growth.
Moral implications of economic processes and policies have been of concern
to economists since Adam Smith.1 Economic policies respond to implicit or explicit
(often competing) assumptions of what is good for society, usually expressed in
terms of income and growth, extended to human development indicators. Human
rights norms, as established in national and international law, are standards of what
societies regard not only as good but also essential for human well-being. In some
cases, these norms are derived from the cultural and legal traditions of a given
society; in other instances, the realization of human rights requires significant
legal, social, economic and political reforms, drawing upon and influencing
evolving international human rights standards. These processes may be of interest
to some economists but have not been generally regarded as central to economic
perspectives on policies for the eradication of poverty.
With the increased attention to human rights in the international development
discourse – in multilateral fora, in development bodies, in universities and among
the public at large – it is essential to bring leading economists and social scientists
In his pioneering Royer lectures of 1986, Amartya Sen (1987: 3) traces the ethics-related tradition
in economics at least to Aristotle. Regarding Smith, he attributes much of the distancing of
economics from ethics in modern economics to the neglect of Smith’s writing on the role of
ethical considerations in human behaviour (Sen, 1987: 28).
Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Economic Perspectives
into the debate about poverty and the relationships between economic institutions,
policies and processes, on the one hand, and the capacity of states to deal with
them in terms of human rights obligations on the other. Still, this is unfamiliar
terrain for most economists.
Is the claim that poverty is a violation of human rights meaningful or
significant from an economic perspective? The proposition that ‘poverty is a
violation of human rights’ is not new but it is quite unusual to both economists
and human rights specialists. In his message on Human Rights Day 2002, the then
Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, said that ‘extreme poverty
constitutes a denial of human rights and a flagrant violation of human rights... The
fact that almost one-third of the world’s population lives in conditions of poverty
is incompatible with the United Nations Charter, in which the states proclaimed
their common determination to promote social progress and better standards
of life in the ambit of broader freedom. The eradication of poverty is the clear
priority on the international agenda, thereby confirming that freedom from want
should be guaranteed for all.’2
Nine years earlier, in 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights stated,
in its Vienna Declaration, ‘The existence of widespread extreme poverty inhibits
the full and effective enjoyment of human rights; its immediate alleviation and
eventual elimination must remain a high priority for the international community.’
It further affirmed ‘that extreme poverty and social exclusion constitute a violation
of human dignity and that urgent steps are necessary to achieve better knowledge
of extreme poverty and its causes, including those related to the problem of
development, in order to promote the human rights of the poorest, and to put
an end to extreme poverty and social exclusion and to promote the enjoyment of
the fruits of social progress. It is essential for states to foster participation by the
poorest people in the decision-making process by the community in which they
live, the promotion of human rights and efforts to combat extreme poverty’.3
These pronouncements at first glance may suggest that there is a consensus
around the proposition that poverty constitutes ipso facto a ‘violation of
human rights’. However, neither the Vienna Declaration just quoted nor the
UN Commission on Human Rights has claimed that poverty is a violation of
human rights, but rather, in the words of the Commission (the predecessor of
the Human Rights Council) in 2004, that ‘Extreme poverty and exclusion from
society constitute a violation of human dignity and that urgent national and
international action is therefore required to eliminate them’.4 A decent standard
of living and human dignity are the ultimate objectives of and essential to welfare
from the human rights perspective. Human rights are instrumental to achieving
these objectives. Thus, the claim that ‘poverty is a violation of human rights’ is
Message by Director-General of UNESCO on Human Rights Day, UNESCO Media Services,
10 December 2002.
Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, para. 14.
Commission on Human Rights Resolution, 2004/23. Human rights and extreme poverty,
16 April 2004, para. 1(a).
shorthand for a more complex proposition that all situations involving poverty,
especially in its extreme forms, are associated with human rights deprivation
and that the moral and legal imperative to respect human rights should apply
to measures to eliminate extreme poverty based on a human rights approach
to development. Understanding the deeper implications of this proposition for
theory and practice requires the contributions of the wide range of disciplines
UNESCO has marshalled within its Cross-Cutting Project on Poverty.5
This book provides a contribution to this multi-disciplinary reflection by
focusing on economic perspectives. What do we mean by ‘economic perspectives’?
Each of the authors contributing to this volume brings to the task a perspective
that either assumes or distinguishes itself from the predominant perspective, often
referred to as ‘orthodox’, ‘mainstream’, ‘neo-liberal’, or ‘neo-classical’ economics. It
focuses on the study of the production, distribution and consumption of goods
and services, assuming the scarcity of resources, the efficiency of markets, and
the value people place on consumption and on growth in gross domestic product.
There is a bewildering number of economic theories and schools. One source
surveys 500 economists and enumerates 9 pre-classical, 12 classical, 8 AngloAmerican neoclassical, 8 continental neoclassical, 10 heterodox, 7 Keynesian, and
7 thematic schools of economic thought.6 The ‘economic perspectives’ represented
in this book in no way attempt to cover these theoretical models and schools; they
are a sampling of contemporary efforts to grapple with poverty using diverse tools
of economic analysis and frequently invoking contested models. Recent attempts
to address the relationship between human rights theory and the economics of
poverty reduction often draw on the writing of Amartya Sen, who occupies a
preeminent place not only in economic theory (see, in particular, Sen (1993) and
Sen (1999)) but also in human rights scholarship (Sen, 1998; 2004; 2005). Several
contributors to this volume endeavour to establish these relationships empirically
in specific situations and contexts.
The overarching theme of this book is the confrontation of the analytical and
material understanding of poverty offered by economic perspectives, on the one
hand, and the normative and institutional approach of human rights to the issue, on
the other. Classical economic theory has underscored the benefits of production
under comparative advantages in a market economy. Whatever the economic
rationale, the exchange of goods and services, whether within the domestic
market or across borders, has dramatic impacts on the general level of welfare
of people with no control over economic decision-making. When this process
results in deterioration of the well-being of those who do not gain from such
economic transactions, the outcome – typically in the form of impoverishment –
may be in conflict with normative propositions we call human rights and define
through moral reasoning, legislation and judicial interpretation. Such norms
See foreword by Pierre Sané for a discussion of the project.
The New School University provides a website on the history of economic thought, which
includes an enumeration of schools of thought, at
Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Economic Perspectives
may challenge the legitimacy of economically ‘rational’ modes of production,
distribution and consumption where market forces generate results at variance
with values recognized as fundamental to society, such as the right to an adequate
standard of living or the right to a core minimum of satisfaction of economic,
social and cultural rights.
This confrontation generates a bias at a superficial level against economics as
tending to accept poverty as an unintended externality of a process with winners
and losers and in favour of human rights as tending to favour intervention on
behalf of the poor. However, for most of the authors in this volume, many economic
perspectives are currently or potentially congruent with human rights standards in
dealing with poverty. Modern human rights doctrine makes normative claims on
economic processes and exchanges by assessing the acceptable and unacceptable
impact of all sorts of macro- and micro-economic processes over which the state
can exercise its authority. Human rights cannot, however, resolve the divide
among economists regarding the salutary or deleterious impact of government
intervention in economic processes. These claims have a direct bearing on
whether poverty is treated descriptively or prescriptively. As the contributions
to this book bring out, economic choices and priorities have been increasingly
affected by a prescriptive approach, drawing on the promotion and protection of
normative standards specifically relating to poverty.
Economic theories have much to say about poverty. The insights on poverty
of development economists have, to a large extent, been incorporated into
human rights thinking on the subject. This enrichment of human rights theory
is hampered by diverging theories of economic development. For example, some
economists argue that it is possible to eradicate world poverty through massive
but affordable transfers of funds from the income-rich countries to poor countries
(see Sachs, 2005; Millennium Project, 2005), while others contend that aid does
more harm than good (see, for example, Moyo, 2009; Easterly, 2006; Collier, 2007).
For most of the contributors to this volume, the only sustainable economic models
build in elements to prevent a return to the pathologies of poverty. Such models
are conducive to both growth and human rights if, and only if, they provide for
equitable distribution and a reduction of disparities, even if it means postponing
short-term economic gains.
Liberalization of trade is supposed to relax resource constraints in poor
countries by giving them access to markets. However, reducing or abandoning
trade barriers does not always produce that result unless non-trade barriers
to markets are lifted, the productive capacities in poor countries benefit from
transfer of technology, and redistribution in the domestic economy helps
establish a robust welfare economic structure in which income from trade is not
concentrated in the hands of a few entrepreneurs and government officials. To
posit that the only thing lacking in poverty reduction strategies is ‘political will’
can easily overlook the complex nature of designing appropriate programmes
that are technically feasible, at a minimal cost to the non-poor population.
The essays published in this volume are grouped around three themes:
conceptual, sectoral, and global. In Part I, some general theoretical foundations
are set out regarding the relationship between human rights and the structures
of poverty. In the opening essay ‘Attacking Poverty: What is the Value Added of
a Human Rights Approach?’ Ravi Kanbur asks if considering poverty as a human
rights violation may really help to reduce poverty. He notes that there is still much
debate in the development discourse, both about the best methods of reducing
poverty and even about how to define the concept itself. Based, however, on a
rational choice argument, he sees an important advantage of integrating poverty
in the human rights agenda because, by making poverty a legal issue, the costs and
benefits of implementing policies that reduce poverty tilt in favour of reducing
poverty. Applying conventions that countries have ratified and are legally obliged to
uphold will enhance governments’ attempts to avoid peer pressure and international
shaming and may help shift policies towards poverty reduction. Evidence favours
the effectiveness of international norm-setting for economic policies.
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal then seek to identify the conceptual and
analytical compatibilities between human rights and economic approaches. Their
chapter on ‘Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction’
contrasts the way economics and human rights define poverty, and compares
the different approaches that the human rights and economics experts take to
addressing the challenge of promoting development and reducing poverty. Their
comparative analysis includes a discussion of the two approaches towards issues
of property rights, resource allocation and use of indicators in the pursuit of
development goals. They conclude with some elements of a common conceptual
framework for both economics and human rights to address issues of poverty.
The third chapter, by Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide, places the topic
of the book in the context of the current severe financial crisis, which has shaken
the foundations of international financial markets and increased world poverty.
The chapter argues that development economics should broaden its scope and
complement the predominant focus on poverty reduction with the identification
of policies and measures against poverty production or impoverishment. Poverty,
however, should be defined by a set of factors, and not in isolation as influential
development agencies still tend to do on the basis of monetary income. Poverty
entails deprivations along a series of factors such as food insecurity, malnutrition
and ill-health, decreased personal security, and deculturalization. The authors
argue that, in spite of rising urban poverty, the overwhelming number of poor
live in rural parts of developing countries. The modern human rights project
represents a vision of globalization where ‘the right not to be poor’ is fulfilled
through the implementation of the human right to an adequate standard of living.
This vision must be restored and permeate current global policies. In order to
achieve effective policies that reduce existing poverty and prevent the emergence
of new forms, the authors call for a ‘New Deal’ (modeled on Franklin Delano
Roosevelt’s policy in the 1930s) that defines state obligations to address not only
poverty but also climate change, and a broad range of human rights. This global
New Deal builds on revulsion towards unregulated neo-liberal forms of economic
globalization and promotes inclusive forms of global governance in tune with
human rights standards and practices.
Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Economic Perspectives
Siddiqur R. Osmani’s chapter ‘The Human Rights Approach to Poverty
Reduction’ addresses two questions: Why should a human rights approach be
adopted in matters related to poverty and what does an application of this approach
mean in operational and practical terms? Osmani distinguishes between intrinsic
and instrumental reasons for adopting a human rights approach and argues that
there is a strong case for adopting the human rights approach to poverty reduction.
Poverty entails the denial of a range of human rights, and a struggle against
poverty is equivalent to a struggle to achieve these rights. The denial of human
rights, moreover, strengthens the forces and interests that cause and perpetuate
poverty, and applying a human rights approach to poverty reduction would help
to overcome these forces.
In the final chapter of this section, on ‘Informality, Poverty and Gender:
An Economic Rights Approach’, Martha Chen analyses the large number of poor
people working in the informal sector. Half of the over one billion people living
on less than one dollar a day are working in this sector. They lack basic labour
rights as well as business rights for informal self-employment, and rights to social
protection, organization and representation. Without protecting these rights, the
working poor have little chance of working their way out of poverty. Chen argues
that voice and visibility of the poor are essential for pro-poor policies and legal
reforms that can help them move out of poverty, including legal empowerment to
secure property, labour and business interests.
Part II addresses economic perspectives through a sectoral approach
to poverty and human rights in five chapters. Bina Agarwal in her chapter on
‘Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty: The case for
a Group Approach’ argues that a group approach to reducing poverty and social
disadvantage can be more effective than individual-oriented approaches. Based
on data from India, she offers a detailed study of production collectives among
women in agriculture. Such collectives can play an essential role in reviving
agricultural growth. She contends that they should comprise central elements of a
rights-based approach to development. Throughout history, however, agricultural
production collectives have not always been successful, to say the least. Agarwal
draws a number of lessons on factors conducive to successful poverty reduction
through agricultural production collectives.
Moving to the topic of public health, Jeffrey Sachs and Lisa Sachs devote
a chapter to realizing the human right to health in low-income countries. They
demonstrate how an economic perspective on realizing the right to health can
complement a human rights analysis and stress the seriousness of the poverty
trap for health, namely, that lack of adequate economic development and financial
resources exaggerate and retain the poverty-related burdens of poor health, low
literacy and depletion of resources. These burdens in turn decrease productivity,
earning ability and economic investment. Adding to this vicious circle, unhealthy
people are increasingly burdened by low economic productivity and income
generation, which at the national level also reduces tax revenue that could help
tackle the structural causes of severe poverty. The authors suggest that an economic
perspective of realizing the right to health in poor countries can be helpful to
the international legal obligations of states, by identifying the most cost-effective
investments for improving health systems, for filling the financial gap between
domestic and resources and external support, and to develop benchmarks and
monitoring progress.
In his essay ‘The Right to Work and the Reduction of Poverty: An Economist’s
View’, Gerry Rodgers argues that, from an economic perspective, work has a dual
role. For the individual, it is a source of identity and income. For an enterprise or
the national economy, it is a factor of production. While the human rights discourse
is concerned with the former role, an economic analysis of the right to work also
has to take the second role into account. However, economists and lawyers tend to
differ on which is more important than the other. The economist would argue that
progress in access to work and improvement in quality of work should be assessed
alongside improvement in productivity and production, irrespective of political or
social environment. On the other hand, from a human rights perspective the right
to work and access to income are components of a human right. In moderating these
positions, Rodgers argues that the value of the right to work depends on the state’s
commitment to providing mechanisms and implementing economic policies for its
realization. From a human rights perspective, a state party to a treaty guaranteeing
the right to work has accepted a commitment to economic policies that deliver high
levels of demand for labour. He also argues that the notion of a right to work may
add political pressure on governments to formulate and implement such policies. If
such policies are legislated, people are given power to demand that the authorities
facilitate conditions for the provision of employment.
Malcolm Langford in ‘Social Security and Children: Testing the Boundaries
of Human Rights and Economics’ tests these boundaries by using social security
for the child as an empirical entry point. He refers to a ‘unitarian approach’, which
argues that human rights and economics are complementary fields, yet with
different epistemological foundations. While human rights provides normative
standards, economics offers tools for choice-making among different avenues or
approaches to accommodate these standards, and to assess trade-offs between
policy alternatives. However welcome this approach may be, he questions whether
the unitary approach stands the test of practical evidence. Using child social grants
as a case of social security, Langford points out that the policy choices around the
model of grant-making for child benefits differ significantly among those who
value a universal scheme, such as the International Labour Organization, and
those who favour or insist on targeting and imposition of conditionalities, such as
the World Bank. The choice of grant-making model has human rights implications
as well as economic justifications. Langford asks which concern should prevail
and how to resolve the inherent conflict in the alternative models. He concludes
that when a human rights position gives scope for different choices, economic
rationality should prevail. On the contrary, when the economic benefits of one
model over the other are ambiguous or empirically weak or contested, the human
rights claim to universality should prevail.
The final chapter from a sectoral perspective is ‘Hunger and Human Rights:
The Appealing Rhetoric versus Dreary Reality’ by Dan Banik. Starting with the
Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Economic Perspectives
extremely negative impacts on economic productivities of poor nutrition and
hunger, he explores the advantages of applying a human rights-based approach to
development in combating extreme poverty and hunger and critically examines
whether and to what extent such an approach can help to reduce hunger. Believing
that ‘the international right to food discourse has been excessively focused on
the process of formulating and ratifying human rights instruments on the topic’,
Banik concludes that, while a human rights-based approach to malnutrition
and hunger shifts the focus from charity to empowerment of the poor, it is not
always taken seriously by relevant actors unless the poor are empowered through
various mobilization and judicial strategies to bring effective pressure to bear on
Part III focuses on the global economy, including trade, poverty eradication
programmes and lending institutions. In his chapter ‘Trade Liberalization,
Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights’, Guiguo Wang argues that a more
just international trade system is required for poverty reduction. However, for
developing countries to share the fruits of development and enjoy freedom
from poverty, they need the capacity and competence to enter the markets of
the developed world. While tariffs on industrial products have been reduced
significantly, the tariffs on products from developing countries remain
comparatively high, and make these countries unable to benefit from a general
reduction in tariffs. He argues that even if trade liberalization is the aim of the
international trading system, its ultimate goal must be to facilitate the raising of
standards of living, in particular for those living in developing countries.
Arjun Sengupta, in his paper on ‘Human Rights and Extreme Poverty:
An Economist’s Perspective’, builds upon his four reports to the Human Rights
Commission as Independent Expert on the question of human rights and extreme
poverty, and brings out the significance of looking at extreme poverty in a human
rights perspective and its value addition to programmes of poverty eradication.
He provides a working definition of extreme poverty as a union or intersection
of severe forms of income poverty, human development poverty and social
exclusion, each form being the object of empirical estimates and specific policies.
Then he combines these policies into poverty eradication programmes in terms
of national actions and international cooperation consistent with human rights
standards. Finally, he examines some of the poverty reduction programmes in
different developed and developing countries from the perspective of a human
rights approach.
In their chapter ‘Why Should Human Rights Issues be Addressed by the
World Bank?’ Desmond McNeill and Luis Sanchez take as their point of departure
the intrinsic argument that human rights should be a concern for development
and poverty reduction because of our common humanity. For an institution like
the World Bank, there are convincing instrumental reasons, based on an economic
rationale, why human rights should be central to development, namely, that human
rights-based policies are effective in designing and promoting poverty reduction
and development. These authors examine an empirically-based argument that
the promotion of human rights is instrumentally useful to reduce uncertainty
and human insecurity and has positive impacts on economic development and
human well-being. By exploring examples of women’s rights, human capital
formation, governance, democracy and the rule of law, they argue that a human
rights approach to poverty is consistent with the two pillars of the World Bank’s
policies, namely, improving the investment climate and empowerment, and should
be embraced by the Bank. They point out that a positive correlation has been
statistically established between high levels of security and economic innovation
and growth, although this relationship has just been established for countries in
the upper two-thirds in terms of income level in the world. The authors assume,
however, that if this positive correlation has not been established for the lowest
third, there are convincing reasons to assume that this relationship may also apply
to the poorest countries and that the positive effects of human rights protection
may became clearer when the countries move up the income scale. Another added
economic value of the state respecting and implementing human rights is to
reinforce citizens’ responsibility to pay taxes and uphold the law, thus contributing
to a society favourable to economic activity.
As already noted, these reflexions across the spectrum of structures of
poverty, critical sectors of the economy and global economic forces raise conceptual
overlaps and tensions, as well as operational interfaces between human rights and
economics. The obvious conclusion is that much can be gained on behalf of the
poor by engaging with economists in a political dialogue on pro-poor growth,
with a greater focus on governance and capacity of state institutions. Human rights
perspectives reinforce the interest economists already have in promoting equity,
empowerment, engagement, and voice of the poor and excluded. The essential
message of this survey of selected economic perspectives is that, even in time of
global financial crisis, ‘growth at any cost’ must be replaced with growth strategies
that prioritize poverty elimination as a human right. The economic perspectives
bring out the instrumental value of human rights in favour of policies of poverty
reduction or alleviation. Economic evidence for the instrumental utility of human
rights complements the teleological approach of human rights analysis. People
who live in poverty by definition lack the capability to become effective and free
economic agents. By providing the means of overcoming barriers to capability,
human rights represent a robust normative framework for fighting poverty and
helping people to become agents of their own welfare and destiny, and one that is
enriched by economic perspectives.
Collier, P. 2007. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and
What Can be Done About It. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
Easterly, W. 2006. The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest
Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. New York: The Penguin Press.
Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Economic Perspectives
Millennium Project. 2005. Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve
the Millennium Development Goals. New York: UNDP.
Moyo, D. 2009. Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way
for Africa. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Sachs, J. 2005. The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. New York,
NY: Penguin Press.
Sen, A. 1987. On Ethics and Economics. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sen, A. 1993. Inequality Reexamined. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sen, A. 1998. Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf Publishers.
Sen, A. 1999. Commodities and Capabilities. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Sen, A. 2004. ‘Elements of a theory of human rights’. Philosophy and Public Affairs,
32(4): 315-56.
Sen, A. 2005. ‘Human Rights and Capabilities’. Journal of Human Development,
6(2): 151-166.
Part I
Perspectives on the
Relationship between
Human Rights and
the Structures of
Attacking Poverty: What is the Value
Added of a Human Rights Approach?
Ravi Kanbur7
In two interesting papers on human rights and extreme poverty,8 Arjun Sengupta
develops an argument for viewing extreme poverty as a violation of human
rights. His discussion contributes to the broader discourse on whether and how
economic and social rights can be integrated into the human rights agenda, and
what benefits such integration might bring.
In this chapter I would like to approach the question posed in the title, and
in the literature, from a purely consequentialist perspective. In other words, would
treating extreme poverty as a violation of human rights actually lead to a reduction
in poverty, or at least lead to the conditions which would in turn lead to a reduction
in poverty? This is not to minimize or deny the importance of deontological
arguments and intuitions in the great debates on human rights, and the relevance
of criteria other than simple outcomes for evaluating policy proposals.9 Rather, I
think the consequentialist strand of argument exposes a number of issues that any
discussion of poverty and human rights will have to take into account. At any rate,
it is a route worth exploring, and one that is indeed explored in the debate.
In the discourse on poverty eradication, it is often argued that ‘we know
what to do – what is lacking is political will’. It is to the latter dimension that
the rights-based approach is meant to contribute. This point is made strongly by
It would be difficult to argue that poverty alleviation programs have not
worked because appropriate programmes cannot be designed or are not
technically feasible.[...]The only reason why such programmes have not been
adopted is that countries have shown no political will to adopt them or have
T.H. Lee Professor of World Affairs, International Professor of Applied Economics and
Management and Professor of Economics, Cornell University. These notes were prepared for an
expert seminar on human rights and poverty, organized by the United Nations Commission on
Human Rights, Geneva, 23–24 February, 2007. They give the flavour of a longer paper on this
topic that I am in the process of completing.
UN Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/2006/43, March 2, 2006; and E/CN.4/2005/49,
11 February, 2005.
See, for example, Sen (2004).
Ravi Kanbur
not accepted their ‘obligations’ that would follow from their legal recognition
of the relevant human rights.10
While I agree in essence that the most important missing element is ‘political
will’, it is important to appreciate the level of debate subsisting in the development
discourse over the best (or only) methods for poverty reduction. In my paper
‘Economic policy, distribution and poverty: the nature of disagreements’ (2001), I
set out to try and understand the sometimes virulent disagreements among people
who all claim to have the interests of the poor at heart. I highlighted the competing
perspectives that still remain unresolved and the subject of lively debate. Even when
a shared perspective exists, there are many narrowly technical aspects of empirical
assessment that remain subjects of dispute and disagreement.11 Sometimes, even
the basic facts are in dispute.12
Having made this point about uncertainties in development strategy and the
evaluation of specific interventions, I will turn to my main focus – the difficulty
of achieving change even when there is professional agreement that a move in a
particular direction will reduce poverty. It is common practice to say that this is
because the political interests of the rich, who control the policy processes, do
not permit changes that benefit the poor but hurt the rich. Before addressing
this point, however, I need to make another point. The dirty little secret of policy
reform and development interventions is that, for many instruments – and
certainly for those that operate at a high level of aggregation (like macroeconomic
policy or broad budgetary instruments) – there is not only conflict between rich
and poor, but among the poor themselves. Thus, for example, while devaluation
benefits the poor in the exporting and import-competing sectors, it hurts the poor
in the non-tradable sector. Despite the fact that overall poverty may fall (because
the incidence of poverty is higher in the export sector, say), this fall is a weighted
sum of an increase and a decrease, and it is cold comfort to those whose poverty
has actually gone up.13 There are a multitude of such examples. It is not at all clear
how the rights-based approach to poverty reduction would deal with such cases. If
the operation of an instrument raises poverty for some but decreases it for others,
should it be applied, or not? I leave this is as an important issue for future debate
and discourse.
Finally, we come to the argument that states that in situations where the
operation of instruments, interventions and policies to reduce poverty is opposed
by the rich on the grounds that it would make them worse off, the adoption of
(extreme) poverty as a denial or violation of a human right would somehow
help to overcome this resistance. This forms the consequentialist argument for
UN Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/2006/43, 2 March, 2006, p. 14.
Examples are the impact of lower tariffs on growth, the effects of aid on growth and poverty, the
effects of water privatization on the poor, the extent to which health and education should be
privatized, and so on.
For example, how much poverty has changed in India, or in the world.
These points are developed further in my paper, ‘Pareto’s revenge’ (2005).
Attacking Poverty: What is the Value Added of a Human Rights Approach15
integration of poverty into the human rights agenda. How is this supposed to
work? Presumably there are two channels. Firstly, integration should increase the
cost to the rich and powerful of resisting the interventions that reduce poverty.
Secondly, integration should make the rich and powerful want poverty reduction
more, or want the presence of poverty less. In economic terms, while the second
works through a change in preferences of the rich, the first works through a change
in their opportunity sets. Let us take each of these channels in turn.
Let us begin by taking a polity as homogeneous, or at least to have resolved
its internal conflicts as it decides to sign an international convention and then give
that convention a legal form. Since, presumably, the polity can do what is required
in the convention without having signed it, then why sign the convention?
The benefits may be financial or other assistance associated with signing of the
convention. But, perhaps equally important, is the benefit of not being a country
that has not signed a convention that others have signed – the peer group effect.
If this were all, then every country would sign. But there is more. While there
is indeed a cost to not signing because of peer pressure, the cost of signing but
not implementing when others are doing so is also present, and possibly higher
– again because of peer group pressure. From this view of the calculus of a polity
committing itself to an international convention, there is clearly a value added to
poverty reduction of having a convention for countries to sign and implement.
That value added is increased the greater the importance of peer group effects,
and the stronger and more aggressive the monitoring and ‘naming and shaming’
provisions among those who have signed the convention. The latter provisions
may deter some from signing for any given strength of peer group influences, but
among those who sign, they will encourage greater compliance.
Nancy Chau and I have tested the above conceptual argument against actual
data for the adoption of ILO Conventions (Kanbur and Chau 2002). It is sometimes
argued that these conventions have ‘no teeth’, and that the whole mechanism is
a waste of time and resources. Applying the above model of rational choice to
adopting or not adopting a convention, we argued that if there were really no
genuine costs and benefits to adopting (‘no teeth’), then the pattern of adoption
should be random, not systematically related to factors that might reasonably be
thought to explain such costs and benefits. Using appropriate time series analysis,
and attempting to characterize the probability of adopting14 at a particular time,
conditional on not having adopted up to that time, we find that these estimated
probabilities are not at all random. Most importantly, the probability of a country
adopting a convention depends crucially upon how many other countries in its
peer group, variously defined, have also adopted that convention. We also argue,
on the basis of evidence for a smaller number of countries, that adoption actually
increases the costs of non-compliance. We interpret this as evidence in favour of
Note that there is a difference between signing a convention and adopting one – the latter is a
stronger provision, requiring the incorporation of the convention into the legal framework of
the country. In what follows, however, we will use the two terms interchangeably.
Ravi Kanbur
the effectiveness of the general method of establishing international norms and
standards and campaigns to get countries to sign them.
So much for a model of the polity as a unified entity. But, of course, we need
to unpack this, and look at processes within a country and how integration of
poverty into the human rights agenda would play out in this context. A closelyrelated question that might help us along is the following: what is the value added
of a country passing a law on some aspect of poverty reduction, as opposed to
simply having poverty reduction schemes? A specific case in point is India’s
National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) of 2005. The elections of
2004 brought to power a coalition, the leading party of which (the Congress party)
won a sharp increase in its seats by pitting the slogan ‘The Common Man’ against
the Bharatiya Janata Party’s slogan, ‘India Shining’. The Congress-led ruling
coalition that emerged developed a Common Minimum Programme (CMP)
as the policy basis of the coalition, and the NREGA, which formed part of the
Congress platform, was an important plank of the CMP.
The specific details of the NREGA have been discussed by myself, Arnab
Basu and Nancy Chau in two papers (Basu, Chau and Kanbur, 2006a, 2006b). The
key question for the discussion in this chapter is, why pass a law? India has had
employment guarantee schemes for a long time. Passing a law makes the proposed
intervention ‘justiciable’. No government likes to be taken to the Supreme Court, and
it is this cost that is being used as the key element of the ‘commitment technology’.
Notice, however, that in this case the passage of the law, while important in
ensuring the implementation of the CMP, is a reflection of the balance of power in
favour of poverty reduction. It is not a cause of the shift in power between those
who would support and those who would oppose employment interventions of
this type as a poverty reduction device. The insight here is that the possibility of
signing a law, of adopting a convention, offers a commitment device to implement
a shift in balance of power in the polity in favour of poverty reduction schemes,
even if the law or convention is not itself the cause of the shift in power.
Finally, let us turn to the argument that integration of poverty into the human
rights agenda should make the rich and powerful want poverty reduction more,
or want the presence of poverty less. In other words, integration might induce
a change in preferences. We have already touched upon preferences indirectly,
when we argued earlier that the presence of a convention, unsigned by a polity,
might induce peer pressure. But might the presence of the convention in and of
itself change preferences? There may be an argument to be made here in terms of
how the convention might bring forward the better angels in those among the rich
and powerful previously opposed to poverty reduction because of self-interest.
The process itself reveals realities of poverty that might shock some into changing
their views. I feel this is perhaps a weak reed to lean the whole argument on.
Rather, I would argue as follows, taking a lead from the discussion of the NREGA
above, transposed to the global human rights context. The process of integration
of poverty into the human rights agenda, if it succeeds, will alter the costs and
benefits of implementing interventions that reduce poverty. This will happen
not only because of peer pressure, but because the signing of the convention will
Attacking Poverty: What is the Value Added of a Human Rights Approach17
reflect the shift in the balance of power that brought it about. However, to the
extent that there are those whose preferences on particular issues are determined
by how many others they perceive to think in a particular way, every signing of a
convention, or every passage of a law, provides a signal, however weak, that the
balance of opinion is shifting. This could lead the waverers at the margin to shift,
strengthening the movement for poverty reduction even further.
The above sheaf of consequentialist argument does establish, in my view, the
case for advancing the integration of extreme poverty into the human rights agenda.
While the debate has focused on this issue (and the deontological arguments), to
my mind the difficult (or equally difficult) issues are those that this literature seems
to take for granted, as reflected somewhat in Arjun Sengupta’s papers. First, do we
really know what sorts of policies and interventions work for poverty reduction?
Are there no more technical/professional disagreements? Second, can we talk
of ‘extreme poverty’ in an aggregated fashion, thereby sidestepping the difficult
issues of what happens, as is the case in almost every intervention of significant
scale, when some poor are made worse off as the price of making others better off?
Whose human rights count then?
Basu, A., Chau, N and Kanbur, R. 2006a (processed). The National Rural
Employment Guarantee Act of India, 2005.
Basu, A., Chau, N and Kanbur, R. 2006b (processed). A theory of
employment guarantees: contestability, credibility and distributional
Kanbur, R. 2001. Economic policy, distribution and poverty: the nature of
disagreements’, World Development, Vol. 29, No. 6, 2001, pp. 1083–94.
Kanbur, R. ‘Pareto’s revenge’, Journal of Social and Economic Development, Vol. 7,
No. 1, January–June, 2005, pp. 1–11.
Kanbur, R.; Chau, N. 2002. The adoption of international labor standards: who,
when and why, Brookings Trade Forum, Brookings, Washington DC. http://
Sen, A. 2004. Elements of a theory of human rights, Philosophy and Public Affairs,
Vol. 32, No. 4.
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on
Poverty Reduction
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal15
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right
and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood.
Indeed the world is ruled by little else.
2.1. Introduction
Poverty prevention and reduction – whether phrased in the form of Millennium
Development Goals (MDGs) or discussed as key objectives in Poverty Reduction
Strategy Papers (PRSPs) – are at the top of the global development agenda. The
perspectives of economics and human rights have much to contribute to these
goals and indeed provide both tools for analysis and policy prescriptions for
combating poverty. Yet each perspective is the privileged domain of scholars,
officials and practitioners trained primarily either in the economic sciences or
in law and political science and, consequently, each is at times resistant to the
concepts and language of the other perspective. For instance, is the claim of some
in human rights that poverty is a ‘violation’ of human rights even meaningful for
an economist? Or can a human rights specialist grasp economists’ definition of
poverty and their policy prescriptions? A more important question is whether
there are areas of agreement between the two approaches in the context of poverty
reduction, and if so, what they might be. A related issue is whether a conceptual
framework can be identified that can help to integrate economics and human
rights perspectives into the pursuit of poverty reduction.
Stephen P. Marks, Docteur d’État, Dipl. IHEI, François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of Health and
Human Rights, Harvard School of Public Health; Senior Fellow, University Committee on Human
Rights Studies. Professor Ajay Mahal, Ph.D. Economics, Associate Professor, Harvard School of
Public Health. This chapter summarizes some of the main arguments of a larger work which
the authors are completing. The study was originally commissioned by UNICEF in accordance
with Institutional contract # DPP/2005/GP/45 and benefited from the comments of the Academic
Advisory Committee and a workshop held at UNICEF headquarters on 16 March 2007.
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
This chapter explores these questions and seeks to determine whether
economic and human rights perspectives on poverty are compatible or competing
in their explanatory and prescriptive functions. There is more than a theoretical
interest in studying whether there is any congruity in promoting human rights
principles on the one hand and the theoretical analyses and policy conclusions
of economists on the other. Answering these questions should have an impact
on defining and addressing core problems associated with ending poverty and
choosing between alternative social arrangements.
Two recent trends enhance the relevance of the above questions. First,
governments, development agencies and other stakeholders have made
international commitments to link human rights to poverty reduction and
to development more generally. Secondly, human rights specialists have been
introducing quantitative and qualitative indicators to measure progress, including
with respect to poverty, and emphasizing the need to take into account resource
limitations in achieving human rights goals. These considerations, discussed in
more detail below, form the backdrop for the present inquiry into the relative
insights and potential convergence of the perspective of economics and human
rights on poverty.
2.1.1. Stakeholders’ Interest in Human Rights for Development
Issues commonly understood as being in the realm of human rights are increasingly
being raised by the key players in the context of development policy, including
among the economists who manage, advise or assess institutions responsible
for poverty reduction.16 In recent decades, conclaves of international donors,
negotiations between donors and recipients of aid, policy setting by multilateral
agencies, and meetings among various stakeholders within individual developing
countries themselves, have resulted in explicit commitments to human rights in
poverty reduction strategies.
This influence of human rights has been particularly noticeable in policy
statements of donor countries. A study by the Organisation for Economic
Co-operation and Development (OECD) on the approaches of its Member states
concluded that ‘human rights offer a coherent normative framework which can
guide development assistance’ (OECD 2006: 58); in February 2007, the OECD
adopted its DAC Action-Oriented Policy Paper on Human Rights and Development;
and in August 2009, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) issued a study
supported by the OECD based on interviews with 30 economists and experts
from development agencies and academia on the relationship between human
rights and pro-poor growth, the study’s purpose having been ‘to identify
synergies, complementarities and points of connection as well as latent tensions
or contradictions’ (Foresti and Sharma et al. 2009: 3).
See the discussion in Section 2.2.5 below.
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction21
Several governments have adopted human rights-based approaches to
development (see Frankovits and Earle 2001; Piron and O’Neil 2005). The major
European and Canadian funding agencies have conducted extensive analyses and
drafted elaborate policy papers incorporating a human rights approach – most
notably, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the
Swedish International Development Agency (Sida). Major development NGOs,
such as Oxfam, CARE, Save the Children and Médecins sans frontières (MSF)
have similarly embraced a human rights framework for their operations (see
Nelson and Dorsay 2003; Sano 2000).
All of this activity has enhanced the utility of deepening the dialogue between
economic and human rights perspectives on poverty.
2.1.2. Structure of this Chapter
The primary purpose of this chapter is to explore the compatibility of perspectives
of economics and human rights concerning development policy and practice aimed
at poverty prevention, alleviation, reduction and elimination.17 The remainder of
this chapter is organized as follows: Section 2.2 explores the conceptual linkages and
tensions between human rights and economics mainly from a theoretical perspective,
beginning with the various ways of defining poverty and then comparing the human
rights and economic approaches to development and poverty reduction. Section
2.3 explores the relationship between the goals of the human rights and economic
perspectives and the instrumental role of human rights norms and principles in
achieving economic goals of efficiency and equity; this section also focuses on
the design of outcome, input and process indicators of achievement that integrate
both human rights and economic approaches in order to address poverty. Finally,
Section 2.4 seeks to identify elements of a common conceptual framework for both
economics and human rights to address issues of poverty.
2.2. Theoretical and Conceptual
Differences between Human Rights
and Economic Perspectives
Economics and human rights use different vocabularies based on core concepts and
methods of the prevailing disciplines. The conceptual bridges between the two can
be built only by clarifying the overlap in concepts and suggesting approaches that
people using both perspectives regard as useful. Thus, economists might take account
Each of these four terms reflects the ambition of the programme: prevention refers to effective
development as preventive of future poverty; alleviation, to emergency relief of a population’s
critical deprivations; reduction, to the realistic and limited aim of most poverty programmes;
and elimination, to the activist agenda based on the morally superior objective of ending
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
of the ways in which people working in human rights deal with resource distribution,
institutions and other features familiar to both. Similarly, economists’ approaches to
social welfare, equity, and the role of self-interested behaviour and of incentives in
the design and the impact of policy interventions can have meaning for work in
human rights. The trend towards the introduction of human rights in development
has built on that rather basic enunciation of principle and required human rights
specialists in the international civil service, government bureaucracies and civil
society organizations to acquire a deeper understanding of the development process
and the perspective of economics in setting policy to achieve development goals.
In parallel to this in the human rights field, specialists have made strides towards
incorporating in their work key elements of economic thinking, particularly those
relating to resource constraints and efficiency of resource use.
To build these conceptual bridges, it is useful to begin with a definition of
poverty. While framing such a definition is (understandably) a task primarily for
economists, the human rights perspective also can shed light on the concept.
2.2.1. Defining Poverty in Economic Terms
Economists define poverty in its extreme form as the inability of households to
meet basic survival needs (food, health, safe drinking water, rudimentary shelter,
essential clothes and basic education). ‘Absolute ability’ is usually interpreted as
purchasing power that is adequate for an individual to obtain his or her basic
survival needs. Thus, according to one definition used by the World Bank,
individuals are poor if they have an income of less than US$1.25 per day, after
purchasing power adjustments. By this definition, the number of people living
in poverty worldwide declined from 1.90 billion people in 1981 (51.8 per cent of
the world population) to 1.38 billion in 2005 (25.2 per cent) (Chen and Ravallion
2008: 41–43). Regional differences are considerable, with a large proportion of
the world’s poor being concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. One
scholar writing for the UNDP’s International Poverty Centre (IPC) considers that
‘the new international poverty line is too low to cover the cost of purchasing basic
necessities’, questions the use of purchasing power parity and proposes ‘careful
coordination of household surveys and poverty line construction across countries’
(Reddy 2008; see Ravallion 2008). Of course, poverty can also be defined in relative
terms – for instance, an individual can be taken to be poor if his or her income
lies below 40 per cent of the median income per capita in a country. This way of
defining poverty is common in developed countries.
While calculating the number of people living on extremely low income is
a convenient way of identifying poverty, it is widely acknowledged that poverty
is a broader concept and involves more than not having enough income. As the
economist Amartya Sen (2009: 254) has put it, the ‘identification of poverty with
low income is well established, but there is, by now, quite a substantial literature on
its inadequacies.’ He notes four types of contingencies that determine variations
in the impact of (low) income and that cause us to appreciate that poverty is
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction23
more than just low income: individual physical characteristics, environmental
conditions, social conditions and behavioural expectations within the community
(pp. 255–56). These characteristics vary by individual, family and society such
that a given level of income may result in one person living in poverty in terms
of their capability to lead a life they value, compared to another with the same
income but whose functionings (the term used by Sen for what you actually do)
provide a higher level of happiness or well-being. In sum, ‘real poverty (in terms of
capability deprivation) can easily be much more intense than we can deduce from
income data’ (p. 256). Efforts to capture this broader notion of poverty include the
UNDP’s Human Poverty Index, a composite index that combines information on
deprivations in life expectancy, education and a host of indicators of an ‘adequate
standard of living’.
Economists and human rights specialists can agree that poverty is more
than a lack of income, which is instrumentally a cause of poverty. Beyond that
agreement, however, each perspective highlights different consequences, as the
definition of poverty in human rights terms demonstrates.
2.2.2. Defining Poverty in Human Rights Terms
UN human rights bodies, in particular the Committee on Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights (CESCR), agree in their critique of an income-driven definition
of poverty. In its statement on poverty, the CESCR (2001: para. 8) has endorsed
a ‘multi-dimensional understanding of poverty, which reflects the indivisible
and interdependent nature of all human rights’ and defined poverty ‘as a human
condition characterized by sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources,
capabilities, choices, security and power necessary for the enjoyment of an
adequate standard of living’.
The CESCR’s choice of terms reveals the essential difference in the frame
of reference of economics and human rights regarding poverty. While much
economic analysis is concerned with clarifying an income scale according to
which the phenomenon of poverty can be measured, a human rights perspective
defines poverty as arising whenever a combination of attributes that an individual
possesses falls short of a normative standard of the human right to ‘an adequate
standard of living’. Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN 1948:
art. 25) reaffirms
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and
well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and
medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the
event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other
lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
The component rights are enumerated in the International Covenant on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR; OHCHR 1976b) and myriad other global
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
and regional human rights instruments. The affirmation in those instruments
that all human beings have a right to a good called ‘adequate standard of living’
can cause economists to consider (wrongly) that human rights standards posit
an unattainable set of goals, blindly pursuing absolute ideals with no regard
for a central feature of economic analysis, namely the scarcity of resources.
One part of this claim is a misunderstanding that can be readily cleared up: a
closer examination of the human rights literature on poverty reveals the crucial
importance of resource constraints, and this is underscored by the core obligations
specified in Article 2 of the Covenant (‘to the maximum of its available resources,
with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights’) and the
CESCR’s various General Comments.
However, there is an important point of distinction, also hinted at by the
affirmation of the World Conference on Human Rights that ‘extreme poverty and
social exclusion constitute a violation of human dignity and that urgent steps are
necessary to achieve better knowledge of extreme poverty and its causes’ (UN
1993). A similar point was made in the late 1940s by a UNESCO committee on
the Philosophical Principles of the Rights of Man that was charged with reflecting
on an eventual declaration of human rights; it stated that ‘one group of rights is
essentially connected with the provision of means of subsistence, through [one’s]
own efforts or, where they are insufficient, through the resources of society’
(UNESCO 1948: 11; 1949). This emphasis on obligations corresponding to a
rights violation – though limited to the specific obligations states have accepted
with respect to the rights that are typically unrealized under conditions of poverty
– suggests an understanding of poverty that is different from that of economists.
Economists are focused on measuring deprivation in terms of income and
socioeconomic conditions that influence poverty (and policy implications
that could be used to address them). However, the human rights perspective is
concerned with attributing responsibility for non-fulfilment of obligations – to be
precise, there is a strong, explicit emphasis on specific rights and the corresponding
responsibilities of ‘duty-bearers’ and mechanisms to hold the latter accountable.
How do ‘obligations’ help to differentiate economists’ and human rights
specialists’ approaches to poverty? Consider entities outside the government, such
as NGOs, business enterprises and individuals. The economics literature, especially
in policy documents on development, has tended to downplay accountability of
this group with regard to key social goals, such as poverty reduction. Similarly,
the OECD and the UN have failed to develop codes of conduct for transnational
corporations and current resistance to the draft Norms on the Responsibilities
of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to
Human Rights as examples of reluctance on the part of many economists to support
restrictions on the private sector (UN 2003).18 The human rights perspective
attaches importance to the obligations of states to ‘protect’ human rights, which
The norms were not adopted by the Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) and contained
‘exaggerated legal claims and conceptual ambiguities’, according to the Special Representative
on the issue, who was appointed in 2005 (see UN 2006: para. 59). His 2008 report outlined the
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction25
means the obligation to ensure that private parties, including corporations, do not
act in ways that result in deprivation of human rights. This distinction is significant
not because economists are unaware of private sector failures and legal remedies
but because of the much stronger emphasis, in the human rights scheme of things,
on obligations backed up by legal power.
Then there is the accountability at the level of government. Here formal
economic analysis, by focusing on social welfare functions (or normative principles
for ranking alternative social arrangements) and optimal policies of government,
continuously highlights the ‘responsibility’ of government to intervene in ways
consistent with social goals, such as poverty reduction. In economic models of
democratic societies, accountability, as Donald Wittman (1989) has articulated
it, takes the form of competition for positions, regular elections and the like. But
again, duty-bearers and accountability mechanisms are not articulated as explicitly
as they are in international human rights regimes.
2.2.3. D
istinctions between Human Rights Norms and
Principles and between Claims and Duties
Another distinction of relevance to human rights and economic perspectives
is that between human rights ‘norms’ and ‘principles’. We define ‘human rights
principles’ as the requirements that policies, programmes and monitoring ensure
equity, participation, non-discrimination, accountability and transparency. This
distinction was prominent at the Second Interagency Workshop on Implementing a
Human Rights-Based Approach in the Context of UN Reform in 2003 in Stamford,
Connecticut, which adopted the statement on ‘The human rights-based approach to
development cooperation: towards a common understanding among UN agencies’,
subsequently endorsed by the UN Development Group (UNDG 2003; see also
UNICEF 2004: Annex B). This statement uses an overlapping but broader definition
of human rights principles. Given the central importance of human rights principles
for the analysis of common features of economics and human rights, it is useful to
reproduce here the definitions laid out in the statement (UNDG 2003: 18):
Among these human rights principles are: universality and inalienability;
indivisibility; inter-dependence and inter-relatedness; non-discrimination
and equality; participation and inclusion; accountability and the rule of law.
These principles are explained below.
• Universality and inalienability: Human rights are universal and
inalienable. All people everywhere in the world are entitled to them. The
human person in whom they inhere cannot voluntarily give them up. Nor
can others take them away from him or her. As stated in Article 1 of the
three core principles of a state’s duty to protect, the corporate responsibility to respect, and the
need for more effective access to remedies (see UN 2008).
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
UDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights], ‘All human beings are
born free and equal in dignity and rights’.
Indivisibility: Human rights are indivisible. Whether of a civil, cultural,
economic, political or social nature, they are all inherent to the dignity of
every human person. Consequently, they all have equal status as rights,
and cannot be ranked, a priori, in a hierarchical order.
Inter-dependence and inter-relatedness. The realization of one right often
depends, wholly or in part, upon the realization of others. For instance,
realization of the right to health may depend, in certain circumstances, on
realization of the right to education or of the right to information.
Equality and non-discrimination: All individuals are equal as human
beings and by virtue of the inherent dignity of each human person. All
human beings are entitled to their human rights without discrimination
of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, ethnicity, age, language, religion,
political or other opinion, national or social origin, disability, property,
birth or other status as explained by the human rights treaty bodies.
Participation and inclusion: Every person and all peoples are entitled
to active, free and meaningful participation in, contribution to, and
enjoyment of civil, economic, social, cultural and political development in
which human rights and fundamental freedoms can be realized.
Accountability and rule of law: states and other duty-bearers are
answerable for the observance of human rights. In this regard, they
have to comply with the legal norms and standards enshrined in human
rights instruments. Where they fail to do so, aggrieved rights-holders
are entitled to institute proceedings for appropriate redress before a
competent court or other adjudicator in accordance with the rules and
procedures provided by law.
Although ‘standards’, ‘norms’ and ‘principles’ are often used interchangeably in
the human rights literature, we consider human rights principles to be those
constraints that make the process of policy formulation, implementation and
monitoring conformity to human rights norms. The simplest way of putting it is
that human rights principles relate to process and norms to goals or outcomes.
So, for instance, the abolition of torture for all but members of the political
opposition or a highly paternalistic and non-participatory approach to children’s
rights might advance human rights norms, but they would be contrary to human
rights principles. Norms are both philosophically grounded statements of the
rights individuals have as human beings – and several philosophical perspectives
and theories of justice may be invoked to justify them – and legally grounded
propositions based on national constitutions and international treaties or other
procedures through which human rights are reaffirmed or proclaimed. The
philosophical approach extends the idea that human beings are rights-holders to
the concomitant obligations of duty-holders. Thus, human rights are valid claims
rights-holders may make on duty-holders.
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction27
Norms and principles are also relied upon by economic approaches to
development, though with less clarity and less forceful legal backing. Below, we
shall discuss economists’ use of social welfare functions as devices for ranking social
outcomes, and thus for setting social goals. Less said in these approaches about the
path one ought to take to achieve that goal, even though most economists would
agree that wastage of resources (inefficiency) should be limited in the process
of achieving that goal. A related view to which economists would subscribe is
that, in the process of achieving social goals, policy actions should be designed
to take account of the self-interested behaviour of individual agents in the least
resource-costly way. An important step in this directions consists in formulating
well-defined property rights, to which we now turn.
2.2.4. T
he Right to Property at the Intersection
of Economics and Human Rights
For most economists property is foundational, and if human rights are understood
as the protection by law of the institution of property, then human rights serve the
economy in an important way. For economists identified more with perspectives
critical of capitalism and/or its excesses, the priority placed on protecting property
may favour exploitation of the weak and discrimination based on property or
social status, with resulting negative consequences for human rights. Another
approach is to see the protection of property rights, in the form of issuing titles
and deeds to the poor, as a significant means of poverty alleviation, and this is a
view with which mainstream economists are generally comfortable, in keeping
with the ‘second welfare theorem of economics’. How do these economic views on
property relate to a human rights perspective?
In the natural law tradition, property ranks with life and liberty as an
inalienable right. John Locke ([1690] 1991: 329) maintained that it was in fact the
very source of government: ‘Government has no other end but the preservation
of property’. Jean-Jacques Rousseau ([1755] 1973: 151) even said that ‘the right
of property is the most sacred of all the rights of citizenship, and even more
important in some respects than liberty itself ’. He justifies this claim by saying,
‘either because it more nearly affects the preservation of life, or because, property
being more easily usurped and more difficult to defend than life, the law ought
to pay a greater attention to what is most easily taken away; or finally, because
property is the true foundation of civil society, and the real guarantee of the
undertaking of citizens’. However, he immediately acknowledges that ‘it is no
less certain that the maintenance of the state and the government involves costs
and outgoings; and as every one who agrees to the end must acquiesce in the
means, it follows that the members of a society ought to contribute from their
property to its support’. Moving from natural law and social contract to utilitarian
perspectives, Adam Smith (1896: 291) stated, ‘Till there be property there can
be no government, the very end of which is to secure wealth and to defend the
rich from the poor’. In assessing utilitarianism and the economic analysis of the
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
law, J. W. Harris (2004: 46) noted, ‘From the days of Adam Smith (1723–1790) to
the present, advocates of free-market economics have maintained that a society’s
wealth will be augmented most effectively if resources are privately owned and
owners are free to trade them as they choose’. He goes on to explain that where
transaction costs are eliminated, ‘every [property] right would end up vested in the
person who values it most – value being determined by each party’s willingness to
pay. Where transaction costs frustrate such re-allocations, the law should impose
the “efficient” solution’.
It is highly relevant to our inquiry into a potential common framework of
human rights and economics to note that such a common framework may be
found in 18th-century political philosophy. Even at that time there was tension
between the idea that it is the sacred duty of the state to protect individual
property to the full and the idea of social justice. The rationale for protecting
private property is its instrumental value for economic efficiency, and that
rationale may be consistent with one understanding of social justice. However,
another understanding of social justice is that a degree of state intervention and
redistribution is necessary for social stability. Support for the former view, which
relies on Smith, can be found later in the neoclassical economics tradition (e.g.
Friedman 1982) and in the libertarian tradition, represented by the likes of Robert
Nozick (1974) and F. A. Hayek (1948, 1979, 1988). The redistributive approach
to property builds on Rousseau and embraces a wide range of positions from
Marx and Marxist economists to Barrington Moore (1972) and social democratic
economists, proponents of dependency theory, as well as many anti-globalization
writers (e.g. Germain 2000; Stiglitz 2003; Cohen 2004). The emergence of a wide
range of perspectives on the role of property in economics has less of a direct link
with human rights theory today than it did in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The relationship nevertheless ought to be clear. First, we note that the right to
property is a human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights reaffirms:
‘1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with
others. 2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property’ (UN 1948: art. 17).
That this right was not included in the ICESCR or the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR; OHCHR 1976a) has not diminished its
acknowledgement as a human right, though the UN’s reporting and complaint
procedures do not provide a monitoring mechanism for this right. By contrast,
the European Court of Human Rights receives numerous complaints relating to
Protocol 1 of the European Convention, which provides for the right to property
(Schutte 2004).
Secondly, human rights obligations (that go beyond a narrow focus on
property) have an impact on property rights in economic policy. For instance,
very low and non-progressive taxes (as libertarians typically propose) and
economic activity left sufficiently unregulated so as to promote transactions in
property and private profits will likely result in increased disparities (inequality,
poverty and social exclusion) and deprivations of human rights. However, only
the most radical libertarians would exclude government intervention to protect
the vulnerable. The protection of property does not exclude government policy
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction29
favourable to human rights. In fact, in addition to the expected correlation between
protection of property and GDP per capita, it is also true that the countries that
rank highest in the International Property Rights Index (IPRI) also have strong
welfare policies (Horst 2007).19 The analysis also shows a correlation between
poverty and low protection of property rights. This correlation lends support to
Hernando de Soto’s (2000: 227) contention in The Mystery of Capital that ‘what the
poor are missing are the legally integrated property systems that can convert their
work and savings into capital’.
Further work based on de Soto’s proposition has placed the right to property
precisely at the intersection of economics and human rights as they relate to
poverty reduction. Drawing upon de Soto’s work, Canada, Denmark, Egypt,
Finland, Guatemala, Iceland, Sweden, Tanzania and the UK, in cooperation
with the UNDP and the UN Economic Commission for Europe, launched
an effort in September 2005 resulting in the founding of the Commission on
Legal Empowerment of the Poor (CLEP), co-chaired by de Soto and former US
Secretary of state Madeleine Albright, with 28 members. Three members were
fully identified with human rights: Shirin Ebadi (Nobel Laureate), Mary Robinson
(former High Commissioner for Human Rights) and Arjun Sengupta (Chairman
of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector of India
and former UN Independent Expert on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights). The
others were mainly very high-level former heads of state and finance ministers of
In reviewing CLEP’s work, the UN Secretary-General attached importance
to the emerging approach to legal empowerment of the poor as a major means of
dealing with poverty in light of national and regional experiences and the role of
various organizations in the UN system in fostering empowerment of the poor.
Significant for our purposes is that the Secretary-General noted both economic
and human rights elements of this anti-poverty strategy. From an economic
perspective, he said (UN 2009: para. 74):
Legal empowerment of the poor should also focus on removing unnecessary
barriers to formal markets and institutions, increasing opportunities for
business linkages and market access, increasing benefits and protections for
all working in the informal economy, strengthening the organization and
representation of informal entrepreneurs, and providing equal access for
micro-entrepreneurs to protection, services and utilities.
And from the human rights perspective, he noted (para. 68):
The International Property Rights Index (IPRI) is ‘the first international comparative study that
measures the significance of both physical and intellectual property rights and their protection
for economic well-being’, according to the IPRI website. The 2007 study notes the ‘the correlation
between the IPRI rating and GDP per capita amounts to a value of eighty-nine percent’ (Horst
2007: 31).
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
Legal empowerment of the poor is both a development strategy and a
development objective. While its priorities should be set by the poor and for
the poor, they should also be guided by human rights principles of equality
and non-discrimination, participation and accountability. Development
should aim at enhancing the capacities of rights-holders to know and claim
their rights.
This example shows that the legal protection of property not only constitutes
a principle of the liberal political tradition and a human right of the highest
importance to free-market-oriented economists but also is a strategy for reducing
poverty for tens of millions of poor people without legal rights to their property.
We conclude this section with a consideration of mainstream economic thinking
about development and poverty and how to deepen the conceptual linkage
between the enjoyment of human rights and the expansion of choices.
2.2.5. R
esistance in Mainstream Economic Thinking
to Normative Approaches to Poverty
It is hazardous to generalize about economists or even ‘mainstream’ economists given
the wide array of positions economists hold in the continuum between normative
and technical (‘engineering’) approaches, or concerning the relative importance of
free markets and government intervention. In the field of development, there is a
wide gap between economists who advise central banks and ministries of finance
(and tend to be of the ‘engineering’ variety and value growth in GDP and trade and
current account balances as ends in themselves) and economists in multilateral
development institutions and ministries of development cooperation who focus
more on ethical concerns, human capital and the components of ‘human’ and
‘sustainable’ development. Indeed, economists have long noted the link between
development and specific elements of concern to human rights advocates, such as
economic inequality, education and health (Srinivasan 1994; Sen 2004).
If one were to select the trend in economic thinking about development and
poverty that promises the greatest chances for a shared perspective with human
rights, it would be the explicit application of a concept of freedom and expanding
choices in the context of economic development in the language of the capabilities
approach and human development. For example, the UNDP (2001: 9) – echoing
the ideas of Amartya Sen – has stated that
human development shares a common vision with human rights. The
goal is human freedom. And in pursuing capabilities and realizing rights,
this freedom is vital. People must be free to exercise their choices and to
participate in decision-making that affects their lives. Human development
and human rights are mutually reinforcing, helping to secure the well-being
and dignity of all people, building self-respect and the respect of others.
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction31
The theoretical linkage of human rights or freedom with economic issues is not
the only way in which a sub-group of economists has become engaged in reflection
of relevance to human rights. Recently, economic research has begun explicitly
to highlight notions of minimum standards, transparency, participation and the
like in the context of development policy. Thus, in the economics literature on
international trade there has been much discussion about appropriate mechanisms
to promote labour standards, including reducing or eliminating child labour in
developing countries (e.g. Edmonds and Pavcnik 2006; Maskus 1997). Another
prominent example of the integration of rights and economic analysis is work
by Bina Agarwal (1994), who attributed women’s inferior position in South
Asia to a lack of land rights. Other research has focused on matters of ‘process’.
Thus, Roberto Rigobon and Dani Rodrik (2005) show a significant correlation
of economic performance with democracy and rule of law. In their classic paper
on corruption, Andrei Shleifer and Robert Vishny (1993) point out how a lack of
free entry in the provision of public services (e.g. democracy) can increase social
wastage. Furthermore, they show how, when combined with a lack of transparency
and insufficient accountability, corrupt government officials may distort economic
and service delivery outcomes even more.
Outside of mainstream economics but involving some development
economists is another trend, the development ethics movement, which recognizes
that human rights can provide principles and goals for development. For some
time, concepts relevant to human rights have been operative in the work of
economists who emphasize the ‘ethics’ approach to economics, as opposed to
those who apply the ‘engineering’ approach, or ‘positive economics’. This was the
theme of Amartya Sen’s Royer Lectures in 1986 (Sen 1987). The International
Development Ethics Association (IDEA) defines its members as ‘a cross-cultural
group of philosophers, social scientists, and practitioners who apply ethical
reflection to global development goals and strategies and to North/South relations.’
They advocate a normative approach to development-based theories ‘that appeal
to social justice, human rights, basic needs, and theological understandings of
the human condition.’ At their Second International Conference on Ethics and
Development, held in Mérida, Yucatan, Mexico, IDEA members adopted the
Mérida Declaration of 7 July 1989, enumerating among their guiding ethical
principles ‘the absolute respect for the dignity of the human person, regardless of
gender, ethnic group, social class, religion, age or nationality’ (IDEA 1989).
Economists and economic decision-makers are beginning to invoke human
rights concepts often without the human rights vocabulary. Jeffrey Sachs (2005),
in concluding The End of Poverty, embraced the language of eliminating poverty,
proposing to end extreme poverty by 2025 through a nine-step programme
that he places in the historical trajectory of the ending of slavery, colonialism,
segregation and apartheid – all human rights movements, although he does not
identify them as such. Nor does he explicitly make the link between the human
rights causes of the past and the cause of poverty elimination today, reflecting
a common reluctance among economists who address moral dimensions, such
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
as Benjamin M. Friedman (2005), William Westerly (2006) and Partha Dasgupta
(1993), to use human rights language.
Notwithstanding these developments towards a common ground, there
are many points of tension between mainstream economic thinking and human
rights-centred approaches when it comes to defining development goals or
implementing development policy or poverty reduction strategies. First, the bulk
of published economic analyses focuses on economic growth – defined as the rate
of growth of real Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or GDP per capita – highlighting
it as a major economic policy goal, though usually in conjunction with reduced
income inequality, or income poverty indices. This preference for growth among
academic economists is also the central concern of leading economic decisionmakers. For example, the Group of Twenty (G-20) Finance Ministers and Central
Bank Governors20 adopted the G-20 Accord for Sustained Growth (G-20 2004) in
Berlin on 21 November 2004, which establishes guidelines for economic growth
and development, both nationally and globally. Neither the Accord nor the G-20
Statement on Global Development Issues (G-20 2005), adopted at the 2005 meeting
in Xianghe, Hebei Province, China, on 15–16 October, mentions ‘human rights’
or ‘human development’, and ‘good governance’ is mentioned only in relation to
sound economic policies and accountability. The G-20 Accord notes, albeit as a
kind of afterthought in the final paragraph: ‘Mobilising all productive forces of a
society requires empowering individuals and enhancing economic participation.
Equal economic opportunities allow people to better provide for themselves and
their families, thus helping to reduce poverty and social tensions’ (G-20 2004).
A human rights approach would consider growth not as a goal but rather as a
means to achieve social objectives redefined as rights relating to health, education,
cultural and political freedom and the like.21 To be sure, higher levels of income
and reductions in income poverty may be accompanied by greater realization of
these rights, but then again they may not, as ought to be clear from the examples
of Singapore, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, China and India, among others, in
recent economic memory (Hewlett 1979). The 18th- and 19th-century horror
stories of the economic exploitation of labour in now-industrialized countries
offer examples of this lack of equivalence from more distant historical perspective
(Marcus 1974).
Of course, at the normative level, rankings of social arrangements in
economic analysis are likely to be more nuanced and consequently the goals of a
human rights-centred approach and the economic approach are likely to be less
divergent (Sen 1970). Yet here at issue is how well human rights principles can be
The inaugural meeting was held in Berlin on 15–16 December 1999. The members of the G-20
are the finance ministers and central bank governors of 19 countries: Argentina, Australia,
Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Russian
Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Republic of Korea, Turkey, the UK and the US. The
EU is also a member and senior officials of the IMF and the World Bank participate in G-20
meetings on an ex-officio basis.
The emphasis on growth as a means is prominent in the work of the Overseas Development
Institute (ODI) on pro-poor growth; see Foresti and Sharma et al. (2009).
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction33
integrated with rankings of social arrangements based on utilitarian and Rawlsian
principles that are favoured by economists. In particular, one might imagine
that, whereas economic analysis and policy interventions fundamentally concern
making choices among alternatives in a world of limited resources, the language
of human rights (and associated obligations towards bearers of rights) appears less
forgiving about choices and options. Economists tend to use rights language when
it enhances, rather than limits, choices.
Indeed, the appeal of John Rawls’s work to economists is probably due in
part to his use of the fiction of a ‘rational’ person making choices. His influential
A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971) posits such a person choosing, behind a ‘veil
of ignorance’, the fairest social arrangement in assigning rights and duties and
distributing advantages in society and hypothesizes that such a free and rational
person would choose, first, a principle of equal enjoyment of basic liberties (civil
and political rights in human rights language, which Rawls does not use) and,
secondly, equality of opportunity to occupy offices and positions under a social
arrangement that provides the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members
of society (Rawls 1971, 1993). For the economist, such an analysis is reminiscent
of Pareto optimality, according to which a policy change is to be preferred if
at least one individual enjoys a higher realization of utility (or rights) and all
other individuals enjoy at least the level of utility (or rights) that they previously
Such hypothetical and ahistorical reasoning is not unlike models that are
developed in economics, and so it is not surprising that the economics literature
draws on Rawls and uses rights language without reference to the human rights
that, in historical fact and unlike abstract theories of justice, have been agreed
upon. There is certainly value in economic models that abstract from complexities
in order to isolate choices before extrapolating to social arrangements without
considering the messier arrangements that actually exist. This tactic of Rawls’s and
other rights theorists’ is appealing to economists, but it often pays no heed to the
actual human rights that have been defined through historical social processes.
When Rawls alludes to human rights almost 30 years after he first published A
Theory of Justice, he does so in a somewhat idiosyncratic way. In The Law of Peoples,
he explains that human rights ‘set a necessary, though not sufficient, standard for
the decency of domestic political and social institutions’ (Rawls 1999: 80), but
only Articles 3–8 of the Universal Declaration (UN 1948) – those relating to civil
and political rights – contain ‘human rights proper’; while economic, social and
cultural rights, which ‘presuppose specific kinds of institutions’, presumably are not
‘human rights proper’ (Rawls 1999: 80 n. 23). Elsewhere, he enumerates human
rights as the rights to life (including ‘the means of subsistence’), liberty and ‘formal
equality as expressed by the rules of natural justice’ (p. 65). This interpretation
is quite remote from actually existing human rights in the international human
rights system.
Secondly, as a practical matter, even where the importance of goals other than
that of economic growth is recognized in policy work, a debate has arisen about
whether, for instance, achievements in civil and political rights ought to precede,
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
accompany or follow economic growth. The holistic human rights approach was
challenged, among others, in the so-called ‘Asian values’ debate, wherein the
former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Yuan Kew suggested that adherence to Asian
values, which accorded less weight to individual rights compared to discipline
and order, was a key factor in the high rates of economic growth achieved by
the East Asian tiger economies (Zakaria 1994). Existing economic literature has
come down on both sides of this issue. Some scholarly articles, both theoretical
and empirical, suggest that giving priority to political rights, for instance, can
contribute positively to economic growth (Kaufmann 2006). Others suggest that
economic growth will more likely pave the way for institutional, including political,
development – and that prioritizing political freedom may not be the best strategy
for developing countries wishing to promote economic growth (Glaeser et al.
2004). There seems to be little doubt that political freedoms are positively related
to economic growth (Friedman 2005: 313–20). The more interesting question is
how adherence to human rights principles can instrumentally contribute to the
effectiveness of economic policy interventions, including those aimed at growth
and efficiency.
Thirdly, even if human rights-centred goals and strategies could theoretically
be integrated with economic approaches in order to foster development
(appropriately defined), how can such integration be defined and its progress
followed in a manner that is measurable? Economic analysis is characterized
by an array of sophisticated and compact quantitative indicators that measure
policy interventions and assess their effectiveness, including indicators of poverty,
inequality, macroeconomic growth and budgetary performance. By contrast,
human rights indicators have a more recent pedigree and have tended to be more
qualitative than quantitative in nature. Recent efforts to capture simultaneously
human rights and economic elements of development goals and strategies have
led to lists with very large numbers of potential indicators. While concern has
been raised about the practicability of implementing such lists, concern that
sometimes is expressed in the form of a call for country-specific lists based on
ability to collect and analyse data, there has been limited discussion of conceptual
principles that can lead to the efficient ‘presentation’ of such information in the
form of indices and the like.
2.3. Economics and Human Rights
Perspectives on Goals of and
Instruments for Poverty Reduction
It is widely acknowledged in human rights thinking that certain normative claims
are posited as human rights precisely because they contribute to respect for human
dignity and the full development of human potential and therefore have intrinsic
value. From the economics perspective, their value may be perceived more as
instrumental insofar as they can contribute to the promotion of efficient markets and
social welfare (overcoming market and government failure). Another way of looking
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction35
at the instrumental value of human rights is that they help to establish markers to
limit the harm to well-being that may result from unfettered market forces.
The intrinsic value of human rights also establishes a presumption of
inviolability. From an economic perspective, such a notion that human rights
are absolute naturally implies that respecting them means rejecting the notion
of tradeoffs, which is often fundamental to economic analysis, given resource
constraints. For an economist, it makes no sense to claim that all people are entitled
to all good things, which the concepts of inviolability and inalienability seem to
suggest. From the human rights perspective, however, rights are not absolute, except
for a few that are deemed ‘non-derogable’ even in times of national emergency,
such as freedom from torture. Others – those most relevant to development and
poverty reduction – are subject to limitations under predetermined circumstances
that acknowledge the resource and other constraints that preclude the same level
of protection in all circumstances. They remain in all circumstances a ‘standard
of achievement’, but some are to be progressively realized in accordance with
available resources and others are subject to restrictions for valid purposes of
national security, public health and other imperatives. Furthermore, even though
hierarchies and tradeoffs of human rights are avoided in human rights thinking,
individuals attach more importance to certain rights than to others, depending on
their circumstances and preferences, and therefore they do rank them. The concept
of the equal importance of human rights means that accountability mechanisms
should be available to respond to those individual preferences rather than that the
state is required to guarantee maximum protection of every right at the same time.
In this sense, inviolability is compatible with the economist’s concern with scarcity
of resources and individual choice.
The obligation to realize the relevant human rights for all has implications
for market and government failure, which are major concerns for economists.
The promotion and protection of human rights (through awareness-raising,
institution-building, monitoring and investigation, political pressure, and judicial
and other remedies) provides tools for achieving desired social arrangements in
order to overcome these failures. In sum, human rights establishes norms, and
economic analysis can be used to show how norms can be achieved efficiently;
economic analysis clarifies desirable social arrangements, and human rights
uses accountability procedures to further those social arrangements along with
traditional market-based arrangements favoured by economists.
2.3.1. G
uiding Policy with Principles of
Economics and Human Rights
Human rights and economics share a number of principles that should guide
policy, but they interpret them differently. We shall examine five areas: utility,
good governance, accountability, non-discrimination and participation.
The objective of maximizing social welfare and the protection of human
rights both seek to maximize well-being. The notion of utility as used in economic
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
analysis to rank social arrangements does not refer to the instrumentalization
of human beings – as some in the human rights field might fear from the word
‘utility’ – but rather to the maximization of their (self-perceived) well-being. For
many economists, utility or well-being may refer to individual satisfaction through
consumption of goods and services, but some have sought to go beyond utility, as
traditionally defined, and to embrace a holistic notion of human capability. In
this sense, economic objectives can be thought to be compatible with the ultimate
objectives of human rights. The distinction some economists make between
capability sets and functionings overlaps in many ways with the distinction in
human rights theory between guaranteed rights or entitlements (positive law
enumerating substantive rights) and the exercise or enjoyment of those rights
(practice and empirical evidence of the rights people actually enjoy). Although
the adherents of the capabilities approach tend to eschew listing capabilities as
a finite and established enumeration, most capabilities are reflected in positive
human rights law, which does enumerate rights.
Economic and human rights approaches come closest to a common
understanding with respect to the principle of good governance, though for
different reasons. The abiding concern with good governance, in economics and
in institutions responsible for financing development, is based on the evidence
that economic performance and market efficiency are considerably enhanced
when accountability and transparency are required of government and private
agents and corrupt practices are eliminated. From the human rights perspective,
not only are access to fair process, respect for the rule of law and equality before
the law defined as human rights, but the human rights field also has centuries of
experience with establishing justice systems, ensuring equality before the law and
removing arbitrary practices. This framework and this experience are invaluable
for overcoming government failure – specifically, the duty of the state to ensure
the fair administration of justice, to guarantee equal access to public office, to
provide recourse for individuals and groups who have been deprived, to eliminate
arbitrary treatment of citizens by state agents, and to provide for a professional
and independent judiciary. Human rights thus are the natural ally of economists
in the struggle for good governance.
From the human rights perspective, accountability is more than a means of
ensuring good governance; it is the essential consequence of the linking of rights
and duties. Accordingly, a human rights system is based on the principle that dutybearers, particularly government, should be held accountable and be subject to the
machinery for monitoring and providing effective remedies in case of violation.
Economics is less directly concerned with government accountability and places
greater stress on mechanisms (which may, of course, include accountability) that
help to achieve social outcomes that lead to high social welfare. While economists
are good at defining and ranking such alternative social arrangements, human
rights serves a complementary function by holding government and private
agents – including donor countries, development banks and other international
agencies, and business entities – accountable for human rights and may in this way
contribute to reversing failed development strategies. Invoking human rights in
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction37
the context of development should normally function in a cooperative mode, with
the adversarial role (e.g. accusing governments and other entities of human rights
violations) being the exception. The misperception that human rights always
operate in the accusatory mode explains in part the suspicion with which it is
viewed by some development practitioners and economists.
Non-discrimination is a principle that applies to all human rights in the sense
that no one can be deprived of a human right on the basis of race, sex, language,
national origin, or political or other status. It should not be confused with the
principle of non-discrimination as used in economics to refer, for example, to equal
treatment for imported products regardless of their national origin or to equal
access of individuals to production and consumption opportunities, or to pricing
practices. The principle is thus important in both fields, but for different reasons.
Two additional remarks may be made with regard to the use of non-discrimination
in human rights. The first is that concern with non-discrimination requires
the disaggregation of outcome indicators by socioeconomic and demographic
groups, geographical region and other categorizations needed to identify patterns
of discrimination. The second is the special significance of non-discrimination
with respect to children and child poverty. From the human rights perspective,
children should enjoy the same rights as adults except where their exclusion from
such enjoyment is fully justified by the level of the child’s development (such as a
minimum age for voting, marriage, death penalty, military service, employment
or criminal responsibility). The role of parents and guardians, as well as that of the
government, in realizing children’s rights is analysed in the economics literature
in terms of the concept of principal-agent relationships and the related problems
of moral hazard and adverse selection. Both approaches seek to address the childguardian relationship, albeit by seemingly different means – one by defining child
rights relative to adults; the other by using mechanisms such as setting outcome
thresholds linked to rewards or punishment. Closer observation suggests that the
two approaches are extremely similar; after all, to track violations of rights, one has
to define a threshold beyond which a violation occurs, and the idea of punishment
to ensure compliance is similar to economic ideas on the subject.
Participation is another principle that has emerged as a priority policy
for both human rights and development economics. Development agencies
have devised elaborate programmes to increase local ‘ownership’, ‘stakeholder
participation’, decentralization and community-based decision-making. Although
the practice does not always match the rhetoric, this commitment to participation
is an expression of a core principle of human rights in development, a principle
that is reflected, inter alia, in the right to development as it is understood from
the human rights perspective. The advantages of community-based and -driven
development, empowerment, local ownership and genuine participation are wellknown in the human rights field, and strategies using knowledge of human rights
and claims based on them by the affected population may be critical to the success
of community-based development and poverty reduction.
Interestingly, economists would also argue in favour of participation as a
mechanism by which individual preferences are revealed and aggregated to achieve
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
social goals. Indeed, one could argue that the absence of participation (e.g. as
voters or stakeholders in policy processes) may lead to some citizens’ preferences
not being taken into account in policy decisions, which could then result in
inefficient and possibly unjust outcomes. In this sense, economists would certainly
support human rights efforts to promote participation. Where the two disciplines
differ is in their understanding of ‘participation’ – and the challenges involved
in participating. For instance, economists (and political scientists) emphasize
that individuals’ self-interested behaviour may result in ‘strategic responses’ on
their part in a way that does not accurately reveal their preferences. In this case,
participation may not yield the most socially desirable outcomes. Even if this were
not the case, or if we were to take it as a given that participation – whatever its
form – is desired for its own sake, it is not always the case that a decision will even
be made, as Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem famously points out (Arrow 1963).
2.3.2. M
acroeconomic Outcomes, Human Rights and Resource
Allocation in the Pursuit of Poverty Reduction
The human rights literature has also emphasized elements that economists can
readily appreciate. Several scholars have wrestled with issues of resource constraints
in the context of the perceived absolute nature of human rights (Normand 2000;
Sengupta 2002). Standard in the human rights literature is the idea – based on
Article 2 of the ICESCR – that states have the obligation ‘to take steps, individually
and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and
technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving
progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant’
(italics ours). This concept of the ‘progressive realization’ of rights is a clear
acknowledgement of the fundamental concern with resource constraints, as is the
option – provided in the same article – for developing countries not to provide
economic rights to non-nationals. Related to the issue of resource constraints, the
CESCR (1990: para. 9) developed the concept of ‘minimum core obligation to
ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each of
the rights’.
Human rights experts have also become more explicit in including the
realization of human rights as an integral element of the process of achieving key
‘economic’ goals such as poverty reduction (Hunt, Nowak and Osmani 2004).
Building on these ideas, some policy experts and multilateral agencies have
explored ways in which elements of human rights can be integrated into planning
for economic development, with poverty reduction as a key goal. Typically, this
has involved describing how such integration is to be carried out in practice
(UNDP 2003). It has also led to research on the construction of indicators that
could help countries to navigate a route guided by the human rights approach to
development (Malhotra 2006; OHCHR 2006, 2008b). However, important in all of
this are adequate resources to carry out any relevant obligations, especially when
the onus for doing so is on governments.
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction39
The magnitude of resources available for poverty reduction in a given country
expands or contracts according to the national income, development assistance,
and changes in the overall size of the national budget, the extent of the budget
deficit and foreign debt. The goals of poverty reduction are also dependent on
events in international trade, financial markets, the flow of foreign capital, interest
rates and foreign exchange rates, which in turn influence income, price and
employment levels in the economy. Macroeconomic developments underlying
these variables have major impacts on a country’s capacity to reduce poverty and
respect human rights. Reduction in government spending and budget deficits,
undertaken as part of adjustment programmes and to attract foreign investment,
can adversely influence short-term income and employment levels, and may
reduce expenditures on anti-poverty and insurance programmes, such as health
insurance and social security. A consequence of such adverse influence is that the
level of realization of economic, social and cultural rights may decline. Hence, the
question arises as to whether financial market liberalization, trade liberalization,
privatization, tight monetary policies and structural adjustment measures – all
with a view to economic stabilization, reducing debt and attracting investment –
are incompatible with respect for economic, social and cultural rights insofar as
the former can be achieved only at the expense of the latter.
Fortunately, it is not an either/or choice between opening markets and
people’s livelihoods. Where the country concerned and its development and
trade partners respect its human rights obligations as established in its national
constitution and in international human rights treaties, liberalization policies
have to be tempered by appropriate and adequate interventions in the form of
social safety nets, restrictions on international capital flows, and limits on the cost
of borrowing for the poorest groups or micro-credit schemes.
Even before 2000, most development institutions – multilateral and bilateral
– made poverty reduction a priority. The Millennium Declaration (UN 2000) and
the MDGs raised to the highest political level the commitment to halve extreme
poverty by 2015 and defined time-bound targets for seven other goals, ranging
from halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education,
to empowering women, reducing infant and maternal mortality and ensuring
environmental sustainability (UN 2006a). The MDGs have become part of the
poverty reduction strategy process and are incorporated into most PRSPs, which
each country drafts to define its social and economic objectives, policies and action
plans to reduce poverty. A trend emerged in the early 2000s to include human rights
in these strategy papers, such as those by Rwanda, Bolivia, Cambodia, Cameroon,
Uganda, Tanzania and Viet Nam (Pereira Leite 2001). However, inserting
human rights language into a PRSP is less important than greater participation
by the poor and the marginalized and control over the definition of economic
priorities by the reporting countries (Stewart and Wang 2005). Such an approach
to macroeconomic policy is one method by which a poverty reduction strategy
consistent with both human rights norms and principles and the macroeconomics
framework can be developed. An extremely underdeveloped field, and one for
which further research is recommended, is the elaboration and application of
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
content and process indicators and guidelines for such macroeconomic policies
from a human rights perspective. The High Commissioner for Human Rights
has drawn attention to the relationship between the MDGs and human rights by
disseminating to governments charts on the intersection of human rights and the
MDGs and has published Claiming the MDGs: A Human Rights Approach, which
is an exhaustive analysis of how human rights can contribute to the achievement
of the MDGs (OHCHR 2008a). In addition, the UNDP has published a primer
called Human Rights and the Millennium Development Goals: Making the Link
(UNDP 2007).
The tension between macroeconomic goals and human rights cannot be
resolved, however, by a general commitment to moderating certain policies.
Rather, it requires a partnership along the lines envisaged in MDG 8, which
concerns global partnerships. This goal specifically sets targets to be achieved
by 2015 in the following areas: an open trading and financial system; special
needs of the least-developed countries (in terms of tariff- and quota-free access
for their exports, enhanced debt relief, cancellation of official bilateral debt,
etc.); special needs of landlocked and small island developing states; sustainable
debt; decent and productive work for youth; access to affordable essential drugs;
and access to new technologies. A study by the Poverty Group of the UNDP’s
Bureau for Development Policy examined progress on MDG 8 with respect to aid
(commitments in the Monterrey Consensus [UN 2002]), trade (the WTO Doha
‘development’ round) and debt relief (the HIPC Initiative [see IDA/IMF 2009]).
The authors stressed the importance of these three areas as determining, ‘to a large
extent, the successful achievement of the first seven MDGs by 2015 in most if
not all developing countries’ (Vandemoortele, Malhotra and Lim 2003: 2). Their
conclusion (pp. 14–15) sums up the challenge of integrating human rights and
human development principles into poverty reduction strategies and the MDGs:
If the world is to attain the MDGs, an important condition will be that
aid, trade and debt relief are driven by human development concerns…
However, progress thus far has been extremely slow. The blame for the
unsatisfactory advance can be attributed to several causes – both domestic
and international – but it cannot be denied that slow action on key initiatives
in the areas of aid, trade and debt will seriously reduce the likelihood of
achieving the MDGs by 2015. Continued inaction in these crucial areas of
MDG 8 which impact on the possibility of achieving the other seven MDGs
for most developing countries also casts doubt on the seriousness with which
developed nations are addressing the global partnership embodied in MDG 8
and its inherent notion of mutual accountability and joint responsibility.
The partnerships to which MDG 8 refers are critical to the availability of resources
for poverty reduction and are based on the concept of mutual responsibility and
accountability, which lies at the heart of MDG 8. It is not only the commitments
made in Monterrey, Doha and Washington regarding aid, trade and debt relief that
matter; developed and developing countries have assumed obligations to realize
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction41
human rights, individually and through international assistance and cooperation.
As noted earlier, the concepts of ‘progressive realization’, ‘maximum of available
resources’ and ‘minimum core obligation’ specify the scope of obligations to ensure
the satisfaction of human rights in the context of poverty reduction.
2.3.3. Indicators and Other Tools for Measuring Compliance
Those entrusted with monitoring human rights have been borrowing from
indicators used in economic and social development and have found it useful
to group indicators into the categories of institutional (‘structural’), process and
outcome indicators (OHCHR 2008b). In explaining its approach, the OHCHR
(para. 17) noted:
In opting for the use of structural, process and outcome indicators in the
conceptual framework adopted for this work, the primary objective has
been to consistently and comprehensively translate the narrative on human
rights standards with the help of indicators that can reflect the commitment–
effort–results aspect of the realization of human rights through available
quantifiable information.
Economic indicators and benchmarks, such as those developed for the MDGs,
frequently miss critical information for assessing human rights compliance.
However, many indicators used in economic analysis are directly relevant to
assessing human rights, such as data on access to health care and education
disaggregated by gender and ethnicity, which may reveal discrimination patterns
that are relevant to human rights. The selection of indicators from potentially
hundreds that are available for each issue to assess human rights (such as the right
to health) differs from the selection of indicators for the assessment of development
goals (such as life expectancy).
In human rights, compliance with norms is monitored by means of highly
developed qualitative assessments of structures and institutions and quantitative
indicators of many civil and political rights, but less so for economic, social and
cultural rights and the right to development. Considerable efforts are underway to
fill these gaps through the guidelines and general comments of the treaty bodies,
comprehensive overviews, such as the OHCHR’s Draft Guidelines (Hunt, Nowak
and Osmani 2002, 2003) and its Claiming the MDGs (OHCHR 2008a) and the
work of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR 2008), as well
as independent research projects.22 On the other hand, statistics are available for
all aspects of economic performance and social development and are widely used
in planning and monitoring, with little concern for human rights implications.
Such as the Nordic Network Seminar in Human Rights Research, Turku, Finland on 10–13
March 2005, and the Indicators, Benchmarks, Scoping Assessment (IBSA) Project of FIAN and
the University of Mannheim.
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
National and international statistics offices use highly sophisticated methods to
measure performance based on economic criteria that do not lend themselves
well to measuring human rights. The gap between the matters of concern to
human rights and the indicators and benchmarks used in PRSPs and the MDGs
can be filled by introducing the emerging human rights-relevant indicators. The
considerable experience of economics with quantitative and qualitative measures
can assist current efforts on the part of development and human rights institutions
to integrate human rights into development.
A particularly powerful tool for monitoring states’ compliance with their
commitments to realize economic, social and cultural rights is budget analysis.
Integrating a rights perspective into budget analysis and using such analysis as
a tool for human rights work benefits from the combined persuasive value of
the financial analytic rigour of budget analysis and the moral and legal weight of
human rights standards (Shultz 2002: 9).
2.4. C onclusion: Towards a Common Conceptual
Framework of Poverty from Economics
and Human Rights Perspectives
It is illusory to seek a ‘common conceptual framework’ for human rights and
economics and to ‘harmonize’ the perspectives of these two fields – if by that is
meant shifting the core concepts of mainstream thinking in each field towards
the adoption of the concepts of the other or the invention of an entirely new set
of concepts acceptable to both. What appears possible is a common vocabulary
and a clarification of core concepts of each in ways that are meaningful to and
indeed embraced by the other. Efforts by specialists in both fields over the past
two decades to apply their best conceptual tools to development planning and
poverty reduction have revealed several elements of the theory and practice that
are consistent with an emerging set of shared perspectives of economics and
human rights on these issues.23 This emerging set of shared perspectives is the
starting point for a common conceptual framework.
In developing a common conceptual framework, one should first ask to
whom it is addressed. Of course, those economists who still hold the view that
the objective of development is growth and market efficiency or who eschew
normative issues in what they see as an engineering role for economists will not
take seriously any attempt at a common conceptual framework with human rights
or will find little of use in such a framework. Economists who place an absolute
value on the free market and look with suspicion on any government intervention
will not be interested in this effort. Similarly those in human rights who consider
only civil and political rights to be properly human rights and the promotion of
A noteworthy study that brings out complementarities between economic and human rights
approaches to development is Seymour and Pincus (2008).
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction43
economic, social and cultural well-being to be a useful agenda for government
policy but not for human rights will regard any attempt at a common conceptual
framework with economists working for poverty reduction as an unwelcome
dilution of the programme for the promotion and protection of the rights of
the individual against tyranny and oppression. There may well be a common
conceptual framework among the most free-enterprise-oriented economists and
the most libertarian of rights theorists in their mutual emphasis on individual
freedom and sanctity of property.24
The common conceptual framework that is most consistent with human
development and the capabilities approach is one that embraces human rights
and development as most 21st-century scholars and practitioners understand
them. Specifically, it is relevant to those economists who acknowledge the ethical
dimension of their profession and see growth and efficiency as means towards
socially useful ends (with a positive role for government), rather than as ends
in themselves (with government’s role kept to a strict minimum). In the context
of development, these ends correspond to concepts of fulfilment, well-being
and freedom familiar in human rights discourse. It is also addressed to those
who adhere to a holistic approach to human rights, having in mind a social
and international order in which all human rights can be fully realized, and
who see the advantage to be gained by appropriate use of incentives, resources
allocation, indicators, budgetary assessment and other tools of economics that can
complement the statutory, judicial and regulatory tools more familiar to the legal
process of implementing human rights norms. By way of conclusion, we offer in
the box below a brief summary, in the form of succinct propositions, of this effort
at constructive dialogue towards such a framework. But it is only a beginning.
Box 1. Propositions for a common conceptual framework for
economics and human rights in dealing with poverty
A. Mean and ends
Growth, market efficiency and economic performance are means towards
socially useful outcomes and can be reconciled with human rights when
they are clearly acknowledged as means that must be directed towards
the end of an adequate standard of living for all in a setting of individual
freedom, which is a recognized human right. More generally, this social
utility can be defined or refined by reference to the full range of human
rights. In this sense, economics has an instrumental role for human rights.
To the extent that the concept of utility or social welfare in economics is
understood as the fulfilment of human potential, it can be shorthand for
a common understanding in economics and human rights of well-being
and not merely a notion of self-perceived happiness by a non-existent
rational person. In a common conceptual framework, the abstract concept
The argument that pro-growth policies based on economic freedom empower the poor is made
by World Bank senior economist Jean-Pierre Chauffour (2009).
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
of utility can be made concrete by drawing on the actual historical process
of elaborating human rights standards and its results in the form of
internationally recognized and defined human rights.
Human rights norms, which define specific goals afforded legal protection
by the state, enhance individual utilities. This gives them intrinsic value to
society. Thus, human rights improve the prospects of the economy to succeed
and can be interpreted as having an instrumental role for economics.
B. Capabilities and a holistic approach
If the underlying utility in economics and the ultimate goals of human rights
are explained in terms of capabilities, and thus related to expanding choices
and freedom, then the finalities of economics and human rights may be
perceived as similar. Enhancing the freedom of individuals to make choices
to lead lives they consider worth living is a shared conceptual framework
for economics and human rights, notwithstanding the different vocabularies
used for this concept in both fields. The best chance for a common vocabulary
is to be found in human development and the capabilities approach.
Because the capabilities approach distinguishes between capabilities and
functionings, it is useful for a common conceptual framework to relate that
distinction to the one made in human rights between having and realizing
a right. Thus, a human right may be ‘guaranteed’ by a provision of law
and be theoretically available, but the ‘exercise’ of the right, through acts
actually undertaken or status reached on the basis of the right with the
protection of law and institutions, is more significant in assessing human
rights performance. The difference lies in the role of law, since capabilities
are pre-legal, although law is a necessary tool of both economics and
human rights. Human rights protection mechanisms bridge capabilities and
functionings by removing barriers to the latter.
While it has been argued that there should be no attempt to produce a
finite list of capabilities, the common conceptual framework includes
the acknowledgement that human rights relies on lists, namely, those
authoritatively recognized in international human rights texts and national
constitutions. While a list evolves through new standard-setting instruments
and authoritative interpretations, its value, unlike capabilities, lies in its
A common conceptual framework requires that the misperception that
human rights are primarily or exclusively political and civil be overcome.
Economists tend to regard human rights as relevant to their concerns if
they are aware that most in the human rights community include economic,
social and cultural rights and regard human rights holistically, in much the
same way as policies of sustainable development consider development
holistically. The awareness of the interrelatedness of social, economic,
financial, cultural, political and legal dimensions is common to development
and human rights thinking and forms part of the common conceptual
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction45
C. Methods and principles
Methodologically, the tactic of human rights to use theory and public
reasoning to define norms and then provide the tools of public policy and
legal process to ensure conformity with the norms is complementary to the
tactic of economics to use theory and empirical analysis to inform public
policy and economic decision-making through prediction of outcomes and
explication of options. The common conceptual framework should not
claim to alter these core functions but rather to enhance their mutually
reinforcing character.
The principles that guide the process of realizing human rights –
accountability, rule of law, transparency, equity, participation, equality
and non-discrimination – overlap with principles of empowerment, equity,
welfare, participation and inclusion used by economists in assessing
sustainability and pro-poor approaches to development and poverty
reduction. This overlap in principles governing the process of poverty
reduction further enhances the mutually reinforcing character of economics
and human rights.
10. The additional human rights principles of universality, interrelatedness,
interdependence and indivisibility, well known to all who work in human
rights, are relevant to economists in that government policies of poverty
reduction may be assessed by a common set of standards to be found in
human rights instruments and their interpretations. Thus, the normative
focus of policy in these areas need not be based on a selective theoretical
framework or theory of justice but rather on the universally accepted
standards of human rights.
11. The principle of non-retrogression is more complex than the other principles,
and a common conceptual framework involves re-examining the theoretical
possibility of lowering the protection of one right to achieve a higher
standard of protection of one or more other rights in light of empirical
evidence of the relation, if any, between the retrogressive measure and
enhanced rights protection. Given that in human rights the measure must
be deliberately retrogressive (e.g. rescinding a law banning child labour)
to be contrary to the principle, and that limitations and derogations are
permitted if circumstances require, there is not likely to be a conflict
between an economic approach accepting tradeoffs and a human rights
approach of non-retrogression.
D. Resource allocation
12. The emphasis of human rights on the equal worth of each person and
the elimination of repression and oppression is compatible with economic
theories of efficiency in the sense that the functional equivalent of Pareto
improvement can be achieved by a movement from one allocation to
another that can make at least one individual better off, without making
any other individual worse off compared to the outcome of alternative
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
13. Human rights shift the focus away from income and towards social, cultural
and political factors (including discrimination based on religion, gender, race,
ethnicity, language and caste) that affect the achievement of the economic
goals of equity and poverty reduction and may help in the development of
redistributive mechanisms at lower economic cost.
14. The second welfare theorem – that markets can achieve equitable utility
outcomes provided that the initial distribution of individuals’ endowments
is rearranged – is supported by the human rights concept of maximizing
available resources and achieving an adequate standard of living for all.
15. The economic concept of introducing equity into the ‘efficient allocation of
utility’ between individuals is compatible with the human rights concept of
equal enjoyment of rights, including measures to ensure that no one fails
to enjoy the minimum core realization of each right, consistent with the
obligations of states to respect, protect and fulfil all human rights.
E. Governance and democracy
16. Human rights principles – of good governance based on the rule of law,
transparency and accountability; participation through empowerment
of communities and maximizing children’s self-determination; and nondiscrimination in the enjoyment of all human rights – are shared principles,
although they are defined and justified in different ways.
17. Human rights include norms of political participation and liberties necessary
for the functioning of democratic institutions, and the constraints placed
on states by virtue of their obligations in this respect strongly reinforce the
policy priority of international financial institutions, which attach importance
to anti-corruption and democracy as part of poverty reduction strategies.
The common concern with anti-corruption and democratic promotion in the
context of poverty reduction is part of the common conceptual framework
of economics and human rights.
F. Social arrangements and incentives
18. Economists’ concern with the problems of ‘moral hazard’ and ‘adverse
selection’ may be addressed by an effective system of negative and positive
incentives, which fit in the human rights approach insofar as it highlights
the concern about the potentially divergent interests of the principal and its
agents and the duty to give priority to the former.
19. The human right, affirmed in Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights (UN 1948), ‘to a social and international order in which the
rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized’ has
implications from the perspective of economics for identifying preferred
social arrangements. In this regard, a common conceptual framework
includes reflection on the structural impediments to realizing human rights,
most of which concern trade, debt, lending policies, commodity pricing,
subsidies, investment and the actions of multinational enterprises.
Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction47
G. Measurement of performance
20. Extensive work on indicators by economists and the data collected by
the principal international financial and development institutions provide
considerable information that is of use in assessing related human rights,
but they frequently miss information that is critical for assessing human
rights compliance.
21. The common conceptual framework includes the recognition that many
indicators used in economic analysis may be useful as outcome indicators
for human rights, such as those that reveal discrimination patterns or level of
achievement in social sectors, while others need to be developed specifically
to capture laws and institutions (structural indicators) and compliance with
human rights principles (process indicators).
The foregoing propositions, distilled from this chapter, are meant to do no more
than illustrate the potential for a common conceptual framework for economics
and human rights with respect to poverty reduction. They reflect the concepts that
emerge when specialists in one field are called upon to interact with those of the
other. When an open dialogue does take place, the most promising feature of this
emerging framework is the mutually reinforcing nature of the two fields.
Economics and human rights appear to diverge if one takes a simplistic
view that economics focuses on efficiency of markets and economic growth, while
ignoring norms. Accordingly, child labour and sexual exploitation of women and
girls would be seen as potentially consistent with market efficiency and productivity.
The simplistic view of human rights would see them as naively focusing on
absolute norms, while disregarding social and economic realities, particularly
scarcity of resources and market mechanisms. A more accurate understanding of
the economic perspective on child labour and sexual exploitation is that longerterm costs of denying education and health to children and rights of women alter
the calculation of market efficiency and productivity, and that equity and other
social goals are part of economic policy. Similarly, the absolutist understanding
of human rights deontology is tempered by an awareness of resource constraints
and the need for incentives that will influence economic behaviour in ways that
are consistent with obligations of both conduct and result. If economic and human
rights thinking are seen as mutually reinforcing perspectives, an integrated
application of both has the advantage of clarifying social goals, enhancing tools of
monitoring and evaluation, and identifying effective implementation policies. In
the example given, both economic and human rights analysis would reach similar
conclusions about the need to eliminate child labour and sexual exploitation, as
well as regarding the policies conducive to doing so.
Without finding a common language and practice through joint efforts, such
as this book, and more importantly through efforts by practitioners in country, the
economic and human rights aspirations of development will continue to advance
like ‘ships passing in the night’ (see Alston 2005). The elements of a common
conceptual framework suggested here are a beginning. The dialogue has just
Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
begun in earnest25 and should be continued at the country level, where it can make
a difference in people’s lives. After all, the goal of helping people to reach their full
potential, unburdened by poverty and repression, is a goal incontestably shared by
economics and human rights.
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Economics and Human Rights Perspectives on Poverty Reduction49
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Stephen P. Marks and Ajay Mahal
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Economic Globalization and the Human Rights
of Poor People in Rural Areas
Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide
3.1. Rural poverty, economic
globalization and human rights
This chapter addresses poverty in the light of the contemporary process of
economic globalization and the economic downturn caused by it. It argues that
the one-dimensional and neo-classical form of economic globalization seen
over the past three decades (from around 1980) has aggravated world poverty.
A revitalization of principles underlying the initial United Nations conception of
global cooperation around human rights is therefore urgently needed.
This chapter also argues that the kind of economic globalization that has
dominated investments, trade and economic policies has significantly weakened
the commitment and ability of states and the international community to realize
human rights for all.
Many development economists, while recognizing the desirability of poverty
reduction, fail to show concern for the prevention of and protection against
impoverization or poverty production.26 Impoverization or poverty production
frequently and extensively occur through unbalanced and often predatory
‘development’, where some get rich while others get poorer. Poverty cannot be
expressed in terms of monetary income alone, but should take into account other
factors such as food insecurity, malnutrition and ill-health, decreased personal
security through loss of community network, deprivation of conditions for resilience
in face of difficulties, and cultural disorientation arising from deculturalization. A
person can get a higher cash income and yet become poorer. To use a dollar a day
as a measure of poverty and its opposite is almost meaningless.
The initial UN vision of cooperative globalization was quite different and
more multidimensional than current forms of economic globalization. Early UN
conceptions envisaged an active public sector for protective and redistributive
The term ‘poverty production’ has been introduced by Else Øyen in the context of the work of
the Consortium of Research on Poverty (CROP). See Else Øyen (2004).
Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide
purposes to complement market operations, also evidenced in the broad
conception of human rights underlying the Universal Declaration on Human
Rights. This chapter therefore seeks to elucidate the contrast between the UN
vision and the current pattern of one-dimensional economic globalization, and
to explore ways in which the original vision, properly adapted to contemporary
circumstances, can be revived and implemented.
A special emphasis is given to rural poverty in developing countries, and
especially to the one billion people who today suffer from hunger and malnutrition
in various forms – perhaps the most unacceptable manifestation of the failures
of economic globalization as it has evolved. Half of this bottom billion live in
smallholder farming households while two-tenths are landless and one-tenth are
pastoralists, fisher folk and forest users.27 The remaining two-tenths are found in
urban slums. All suffered during the preceding decades of rampant speculation
while those on the top of the pyramid built enormous fortunes. The suffering of the
bottom billion has moreover increased with the onslaught of the global financial
crisis. Inadequate attention by states to sound and socially sensitive agricultural
development processes has aggravated the poverty of rural people and contributed
to their excessive migration to urban areas. There, they mostly end up in different
but equally serious forms of poverty, with reduced personal security and weak
predictability for their livelihood and access to adequate food.
The task of expanding opportunities for the vast numbers of smallholders,
landless workers, artisanal fisher folk and others who make their living in rural
areas, has mostly been neglected both by governments28 and the international
community. The extensive poverty in sprawling urban slums and the desperate
efforts to migrate to Europe and North America will only increase unless a
consistent effort is made to improve conditions in rural areas.
The main focus of this chapter is poverty and human rights in the rural parts
of developing countries, where the overwhelming majority of the poor are living.
Following this introduction, Section 3.2 presents the initial UN vision of globalization
through egalitarian cooperation based on human rights, the efforts by way of the
New International Economic Order project in the 1960s and 1970s to create a more
just international order, its collapse in the face of neoliberal market forces from 1980
onwards, and the resulting crisis of enormous inequality and widespread hunger.
Section 3.3 explores the possibility of generating some form of human rights-based
world food governance as part of the restoration of the original UN vision. It describes
current strategies for agricultural development and considers some of these from the
perspective of the human right to an adequate standard of living (the right not to be
poor). The prospects of global and regional cooperation for rural development are
Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, 2008, A/63/278 para. 8, quoting UNDP,
Rural populations in developing countries often have very limited influence on domestic
policies because of low levels of education, bad health and extensive mortality due to the lack of
rural health services, lack of communication capacity and organizational opportunities.
Economic Globalization and the Human Rights of Poor People in Rural Areas57
briefly examined, before some concluding observations and prospective possibilities
are set out in Section 3.4.
3.2. The UN Vision of Globalization and its
Misdirection by Neo-Liberal Market Forces
3.2.1. T
he Initial UN Vision: Globalization through Interstate
Cooperation, Expanding Freedom through Development
The proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United
Nations General Assembly in 1948 was part of the globalizing vision underlying
the United Nations Charter, a vision formed during the Second World War. The
initial inspiration was the ‘Four Freedoms Speech’ of President Roosevelt to the
US Congress in January 1941, envisaging a new world order to be promoted
when the Second World War had come to an end. It was to ensure four basic
freedoms for everyone – freedom of speech, freedom of faith, freedom from want
and freedom from fear – everywhere in the world. It was a vision of future global
multilateral cooperation for common security and common wealth, intended to
replace unilateral self-assertion and power games.
Among the purposes set out in the UN Charter was promotion of international
cooperation in solving problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian
character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for
fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or
religion.29 The guiding principles of that cooperation were spelled out in 1948
with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which
contained the broad package of human rights required for the comprehensive
promotion of freedom: civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights were
brought together in a comprehensive and interrelated normative system of rights.
Those in extreme poverty are blocked from enjoying most human rights,
including the right not to live in poverty. The Universal Declaration of Human
Rights proclaimed in its Article 25 that everyone has a right to a standard of living
‘adequate for himself and his family’, and in its Article 28 declared that everyone
has a right to a social and international order in which the rights listed in the
UDHR can be realized. UN Charter Articles 55 and 56 set out the responsibility
shared by all states and the international community to cooperate in creating the
conditions to make this possible.
UN Charter Article 1.3.
Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide
3.2.2. G
lobal Inequality and the Quest for a New
International Economic Order (NIEO)
The UN Charter envisaged a process of cooperative development through the
interlinking of national and international efforts. The growing recognition
of global structural inequality gave rise to a demand for profound change in
global relations. Using the UN Charter’s principles of sovereign equality and the
proclaimed purpose of international cooperation for the solution of economic,
social and humanitarian problems, Governments of the South called for a ‘New
International Economic Order’ (NIEO), intended to be more egalitarian in nature
than the one prevailing. In 1974 the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration
and Programme of Action of the New International Economic Order,30 followed in
December 1974 by General Assembly approval of the Charter of Economic Rights
and Duties of states.31 The NIEO Declaration envisaged substantial changes in the
international system, to allow developing countries significant opportunities to
improve their economies in order to escape poverty (Jolly, Emmerij, Ghai and
Lapeyre 2004). But in the late 1970s this effort was broken by the onslaught of a
neo-liberal backlash.
3.2.3. B
reakdown and One-Dimensional Economic
Globalization, Neo-Liberal Style
The re-emergence around 1980 of ‘laissez-faire ideologies’ after decades of socially
conscious policies stemmed from internal factors in the US and the UK. These
ideologies spread outwards because they coincided with the debt crisis which
effectively paralyzed the movement for a new international economic order and
marginalized its theoreticians. This gave the Bretton Woods institutions an entirely
different role than originally envisaged, with unprecedented power to prescribe
and implement economic and monetarist policies for developing countries.
Governmental decision-making concerning social issues related to regulation,
taxation, public spending and social security arrangements were closely watched,
particularly by the IMF. The links between the US Treasury and the international
financial institutions during the Reagan/Thatcher era led to the emergence of
the ‘Washington Consensus’,32 requiring developing countries to privatize public
enterprises, deregulate their economies, liberalize trade and industry, avoid or
reduce taxation of corporations, adopt monetarist measures to keep inflation in
check, maintain strict control of labour, reduce public expenditure (particularly
30. UN General Assembly Resolution 3201 (S-VI) (1974)
31. UN General Assembly Resolution 3281 (XXIX) (12 December, 1974),
32. Regarding the Washington Consensus, see
Economic Globalization and the Human Rights of Poor People in Rural Areas59
social spending), downsize government activities, open up to unregulated
international trade, and remove controls on global financial flows (Steger 2003).
The persistent demands for these structural adjustments had crippling effects
on many poorer countries. They served mainly to pressure or encourage developing
states to adapt to the expanding global market for direct private investments and
unregulated (‘free’) trade. The harmful effects on the economic and social rights
of poor people have been extensively documented. Increased fees for social
programmes in areas such as health, education, income support and housing is one
illustration. Pressure to keep workers’ wages low is another; water privatization and
full-cost water pricing is a third (Abouharb and Cingranelli 2007).
The WTO of the 1990s further reduced the space of developing states to
protect economic and social rights. While the export sector of some developing
states such as Brazil, Argentina and China clearly benefited from this increasingly
liberalized trade, other sectors did not. Many groups inside developing countries,
particularly in rural areas, were hard hit by trade expansion while others amassed
wealth. This was aggravated by the insistence of the Bretton Woods institutions
that developing states should not burden their public budget with social assistance
to those who were negatively affected by liberalized trade.
What sustained this process for so long in spite of increasingly negative
consequences was the claim, widely propagated in dominant political circles, that
the abolition of restrictions on capital movements at national and international
levels would create a stable and efficient financial system. It was even argued
that it would benefit developing countries in particular. Experience has shown
the opposite to be true. In the agricultural arena, developing world farmers have
become highly dependent on a small number of very powerful transnational
corporations. As shown in the Fairtrade Foundation report of February 2009, the
ten leading food retailers now control around a quarter of the US$3.5 trillion world
food market, and three companies (Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and Bunge)
control 90 per cent of the world’s grain trade, while the top ten seed companies
control almost half of the 21 billion global commercial grain market. Half of the
world’s coffee beans are purchased by five companies – all making it very difficult
for unorganized smallholder farmers to negotiate a good price when selling their
crops (Fairtrade 2009: 9). As pointed out by the United Nations Conference on
Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the concentration of buyer power in the
hands of a small number of food processors, commodity traders and supermarkets
has adversely affected the viability of small-scale farming (UNCTAD 2008: 9).
Among the most ominous developments of neo-liberal globalization are the
associated phenomena of intensifying agrofuel production33 and ‘land grabbing’ –
the purchase of large pieces of land in developing countries by external or internal
investors or outside states. Extensive production of agrofuel implies a growing risk
that land in developing countries is used to feed the vehicles of the urban rich to
What is meant by ‘agrofuel’ here is liquid biofuel for transport, intended to replace in whole
or in part the use of petrol. Agrofuel is used here to distinguish it from other forms or uses of
Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide
the detriment of the rural poor. This is particularly threatening when large tracts
of land are sold by governments to outside states or investors, either for agrofuel or
for food supplies to richer countries. Extensive evictions and food price increases
are the likely results, a process which is already rapidly expanding.
The most notorious recent case centred on Madagascar, where the then
President negotiated a deal that included half the country’s arable land to be sold
to the Daewoo Corporation in South Korea. The president was ousted in March
2009 and the deal was fortunately cancelled by the incoming president (Burgis and
Blas 2009). However, the case should serve as an awakening call of the dangers
of land deals that entirely neglect the rights of those who have traditionally used
the land. Purchases of large tracts of land have been made by China in several
countries including Indonesia and the Philippines. The United Arab Emirates has
bought large pieces of land in Pakistan and Sudan.34 These investment agreements
may become a serious obstacle for subsequent governments seeking to protect and
ensure the livelihood of local people living on the territory that has been ceded.35
The problem is aggravated by the lack of legal protection for traditional land
users, a problem whose roots can be traced back to the colonial period. In many
places the land is held to be formally owned by the government, not by those who
cultivate the land. The rights of users are uncertain and often not respected. The
rights of pastoralists are particularly neglected in spite of the fact that drylands
constitute nearly half of the land of sub-Saharan Africa (de Schutter 2009).36 These
and related uncertainties make the trend towards large-scale land acquisitions and
leases highly threatening for the human rights of traditional land users in Africa
and in certain other developing countries, such as Indonesia.
3.2.4. G
lobalization’s Failure: The Accumulation
of Enormous Wealth Against a Backdrop of
Rampant Hunger and Malnutrition
Perhaps the most depressing manifestation of neo-liberal processes of economic
globalization is the growing global and national inequality including massive
hunger and malnutrition in various forms. These contribute to child and other
premature deaths and acute or chronic and disabling diseases that seriously affect
human and social development. Around one billion people in the world do not
have enough to eat (FAO 2008), little or no access to primary healthcare, and often
live under dangerous unsanitary conditions, all contributing to manifest hunger,
malnutrition and ill-health.
On this point see Evans (2009: 46).
On the human rights problems flowing from bilateral investment treaties, see Peterson (2009).
Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the right to food, ‘Large-scale land acquisitions and
leases: A set of core principles and measures to address the human rights challenge’, 11 June
2009. Found on, accessed 27.08.2009.
Economic Globalization and the Human Rights of Poor People in Rural Areas61
The very modest goal set by the World Food Summit in 1996 to halve the
number of hungry people in the world by 2015 will certainly not be reached with
present globalization policies. Progress was already seriously faltering when the
global economy as a whole was expanding, and it is even more remote now amid
the ongoing financial crisis. Economic globalization has not helped.37 India, for
example, is home to nearly a quarter of the world’s bottom billion of seriously
hungry and malnourished people, in spite of its thorough integration into the
globalization process and its staggering growth in GDP. Thirteen out of seventeen
Indian states have been shown to have alarming levels of hunger, with scores for one
of them, Madyar Pradesh, warranting the label ‘extremely alarming’ comparable
to Ethiopia and Chad (Menon, Deolalikar and Bhaskar 2008).
Hunger and malnutrition will not go away unless there are policies in
place to implement measures to protect vulnerable groups against evictions or
exploitation, and ensure a reasonable redistribution of the income generated from
economic growth. It is in this respect that a globalizing country like India fails. As
Amartya Sen has been reported to lament (Sengupta 2009), eradication of hunger
has not been given sufficient attention as a political priority in India. In line with
classical Adam Smith philosophy, self-interest has been promoted to the highest
good and enormous wealth has been accumulated, while the quarter of the world’s
hungry population found there are still blocked from the benefits.
India, of course, is not alone in demonstrating that economic globalization,
neo-liberal style, is no guarantee for the prevention and elimination of hunger
and other forms of extreme poverty or lack of economic and social entitlements
– anywhere. On the contrary, such globalization both increases the income gaps
that facilitate land grabbing and speculation, and perpetuates non-attention to
social services.
3.3. Towards World Food Governance as Part of
the Task to Restore the United Nations Vision
3.3.1. The Legacy of Economic Globalization: A Divided World?
The initial UN vision has been replaced by a mostly unregulated, market-driven
globalization resulting in increasing social cleavage between the rich and the poor.
Poverty has made stark hunger a reality for nearly a billion people, while global
wealth had reached unprecedented levels until the financial crisis erupted in 2008.
The financial crisis has had only minor consequences for the rich while it has been
devastating for many who were already on the brink of poverty when it erupted.
Some, such as Paul Collier, the former Chief of Economic Research at the World Bank, have
argued that the bottom billion, the most hungry people, are those living in countries that have
not been drawn into economic globalization (Collier, 2007). India is the clearest proof that he is
wrong on this point.
Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide
There now exists a predominantly urban ‘Global North’ that over the last two
to three decades expanded to include economic elites in places such as Shanghai,
Mumbai and Seoul, in addition to the traditional seats of dominant economic
power in Wall Street New York, the City of London, and similar places in
Frankfurt and Tokyo, and in a range of other prosperous cities around the world.
Facing the Global North is a predominantly rural ‘Global South’,38 that exists
mostly in developing countries and to a lesser extent in ‘countries of transition’,
with associated urban slums that expand or contract in line with global financial
speculations and regressions. The dividing line between the rich and the poor now
goes through countries, not (only) between them.
In 1986, the General Assembly made a renewed effort to restore the original
UN vision for a more just world, by adopting the Declaration on the Right to
Development,39 built on Article 28 of the UDHR as adopted in 1948. Development,
by the 1986 Declaration, was defined as an economic, social, cultural and political
process aiming at constant improvement in the well-being of the population as
a whole and of each individual, on the basis of the individual’s active, free and
meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of its benefits.
To promote a social order which assures everyone’s enjoyment of all human rights
and freedoms, the Declaration on the Right to Development provides in Article 8(1)
that states shall ensure, inter alia, equality of opportunity for all in their access to
basic resources, education, health services, food, housing, employment and the
fair distribution of income. It provides in Article 3(3) that states have the duty to
cooperate with each other in ensuring development and eliminating obstacles to
The Declaration has been useful in challenging the basic concept of
development as used by development economists, by emphasizing its normative
content: development should not be about aggregate increase of wealth but about
the realization for all of their right to a life of dignity. The Declaration has induced
efforts to elaborate human rights-based development indicators and to clarifiy
states’ extraterritorial or transnational obligations in the field of economic and
social rights. The Independent Expert on the Right to Development proposed in
2004 a ‘Development Compact’ to facilitate the realization of all human rights for
all at the national level of all states, where outside states would ensure that sufficient
resources are available to implement human rights-based national development
programmes.40 This proposal has gradually blended with the evolution of
development partnership arrangements, initially called for under Millennium
Development Goal No. 8.41 Efforts are at present ongoing to ensure that these
The distinction between ‘the Global North’ and ‘the Global South’ has been used and elaborated
by the Ethiopian scholar Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher in a paper to be published in the 4th
report of FAO Panel of Eminent Experts in Food and Agriculture (forthcoming).
General Assembly resolution 41/128.
The main content of the proposed development compact is set out in the 6th report of the
Independent Expert on the Right to Development, submitted by Arjun Sengupta in 2004, UN
doc. E/CN.4/2004/WG.18/2, paragraphs 36-38.
Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development.
Economic Globalization and the Human Rights of Poor People in Rural Areas63
partnerships place human rights at the centre of development programmes and
that effective monitoring is established with regard to the implementation of the
right to development, understood in this double sense of a thorough national
human rights-based approach to development, and of a shared assistance for this
purpose by the international community.42
One weakness in the use of the Declaration on the Right to Development by
many governments is a focus on inter-state cooperation, with less attention paid
to their obligations to their own population, in particular to rural smallholders,
landless workers and artisanal fisher folk. As noted above, these groups are often
unable to influence their governments, even where formal democracy rules are
Some years ago, the former UN Sub-Commission on Promotion and
Protection of Human Rights prepared a draft set of guiding principles entitled
‘Extreme poverty and human rights: the rights of the poor’.43 These are at present
subject to consultations among governments. If these principles are effectively
coupled with the Declaration on the Right to Development this could help greatly
to redirect much of the UN work on poverty prevention and reduction. The
challenge is to restore the original vision of a human rights-based development
where states recognize their responsibility and accountability and their duty
to ensure adequate regulation in order to prevent poverty production and to
ensure a reasonable redistribution of the benefits of technological and scientific
advancements. Such a vision must also take fully into account the responsibility
towards future generations by avoiding excessive global warming and other
environmental damage.
These are tasks of a tall order. The following section focuses on the most
important among them: the task to ensure responsible rural development in the
Global South, respecting and improving the rights and opportunities for those
who try to make their livelihood and strive towards food security and freedom
from hunger through agriculture and/or various off-farm activities.
3.3.2. S trategizing for Agricultural and Rural
Development: Choosing Among Models
The scope of poverty of much of the rural people in developing countries is
intolerable. Its prevention and reduction should be a top priority from a global
human rights perspective. No single model exists, however, to restore the human
rights of these people to a life of dignity. Several options could be examined. From
a human rights perspective, the choice of development paradigms in agriculture
The most recent information on the focus on global development partnerships from a human
rights perspective is contained in ‘Report of the Secretary-General on the right to development’,
UN Doc. A/63/340 of 2 September 2008.
UN Doc. A/HRC/2/2, 2005.
Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide
should be guided by prevention of further impoverization while ensuring global,
national and household food security and nutritional health and wellbeing.
Basically, the models being practised and/or debated are variations of
two main competing extreme poles: small-scale agriculture for subsistence and
some cash cropping, and intensive high-technological agricultural production
for commercial marketing. Many intermediate approaches exist, as well as
combinations of both or all types at the transnational, national and sub-national/
community level.
Small-Scale Traditional Eco-Culture
This form of production is partly for subsistence, partly production for cash. It
uses mainly organic fertilizers and control weeds through manual work rather
than the use of inorganic pesticides. Part of the produce will be consumed by the
peasant’s family; other parts will be sold on the local market. The vendor at the
market will often be the woman farmer or members of her family. One benefit is
its low greenhouse gas emission; another is its better protection of biodiversity
since each peasant will grow a number of different crops, mostly those that are
traditional in the area. The peasant will not be dependent on expensive input
costs such as purchased fertilizers, pesticides and seeds, and will therefore be less
affected by volatile prices and markets.
One major problem with small-scale traditional eco-culture is its low
productivity. Production may be both inefficient and fragile as it is easily subject
to risks during climatic changes, or to illness and death of farm family members
(often the result of HIV and AIDS). Income would remain limited but could be
above the poverty line in terms of satisfaction of basic needs, including food
and housing, provided the health of the farming family can be maintained. One
problem, however, is that the very modest cash income makes it difficult for such
farmers to finance other needs, including the educational needs of children, which
have a number of associated costs.
Many aspects of such production could nevertheless be much improved while
still maintaining the benefits through better management and utilization of local
resources (including better use of bioenergy for fuel, lighting and cooking), and
through building on and expanding cooperative arrangements.
Intensive High-Technology Agriculture
This paradigm implies monocultural production for sale on national and
international markets. Monoculture endangers biodiversity. Production uses
artificial fertilizers, pesticides and, increasingly, commercially bought seeds that
are often patented or restricted due to plant breeders’ rights. It mostly requires
economy of scale to be profitable, which motivates efforts to obtain larger pieces of
land and to evict previous users of that land. Where production is labour-intensive
it is often associated with exploitative use of landless, rural workers and seasonal
labour. The attraction of land for absentee investors has increased in recent
Economic Globalization and the Human Rights of Poor People in Rural Areas65
years due to the emergence of an international market for agrofuel. This kind of
agriculture would create more wealth in terms of cash income, but such wealth
would be extremely unevenly distributed, leading to further impoverishment
by those evicted and transforming others from autonomous smallholders to
poorly-paid agricultural workers utterly dependent on the whims of large-scale
landowners or plantations.
Current policy discourse reflects different models; we shall consider some
selected leading institutional recommendations made in recent years.
World Bank/World Development Report
The scope and substantive impact of the World Bank’s lending policy and advice on
developing countries’ policies warrants an examination of the Bank’s recent policy
considerations: particularly relevant for our purpose is the World Development
Report (WDR) for 2008 which, for the first time in twenty-five years, focuses on
‘Agriculture for Development’ (World Bank 2008). It approaches agriculture ‘as
an engine for growth and food security’, pointing to cross-country econometric
estimates that overall GDP growth originating in agriculture is at least twice
as effective in benefiting the poorest half of a country’s population as that in
nonagricultural sectors.
More specifically, in agriculture-based economies, such as countries in
sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture is seen as critical to overall growth, poverty
reduction and food security. In Latin America and the Caribbean, where
agriculture overall contributes less to national growth, growth in agriculture is
nevertheless reported to be on average twice as effective in reducing poverty as
growth outside agriculture. The transforming countries of Asia and the Middle
East and North Africa present ‘an unprecedented challenge’ to reducing massive
poverty and confronting widening rural–urban income disparities. In spite of
Asia’s fast growing economies, there remain over 770 million people living on less
than US$1 per day, 80 per cent of them in rural areas. Here, the top priority should
be the generation of rural jobs through diversification into labour-intensive high
value agriculture linked to a dynamic rural non-farm sector in secondary towns.
The Report further sees the political economy as changing in favour of
agricultural and rural development, and emphasizes the need to use the new political
space created by democratization and decentralization to exercise political voice,
and that smallholders and the rural poor need to form more effective organizations
(p. 265). It thus appears that the World Development Report 2008 does give a priority
to the improvement of the conditions of smallholders in developing countries that
are still predominantly agricultural, an approach that many would endorse.44
Surprisingly, the subsequent World Development Report 2009 takes a completely different
approach, recommending rapid urbanization and increased density of the sites of economic
development. Its underlying paradigm appears overall to be very high-flung and artificial and is
therefore not commented on here.
Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide
International Assessment of Agricultural Science, Knowledge
and Technology for Development (IAASTD)
On 15 April 2008, some months after the release of the WDR 2008, the findings
of another major project initiated by the World Bank and FAO were presented:
the International Assessment of Agricultural Science, Knowledge and Technology
for Development (IAASTD). A multi-stakeholder group of UN organizations,
representatives of governments, civil society, private sector and scientific
institutions selected more than 400 scientists in different fields and from many
parts of the world for this global assessment of the available evidence on the role
of agricultural knowledge, science and technology (AKST).45
The IAASTD encompasses one global and five sub-global assessments, with
a multi-thematic focus and a historical perspective that looks both backwards
and presents prospects leading up to 2050. Recognizing the multi-functional
role of agriculture – economic, social and environmental – each ‘role cluster’
presents a range of challenges ahead. IAASTD deals with many of these and their
interfaces. IAASTD’s overall message is that modern agriculture has brought
significant increases in food production, but benefits have been spread unevenly
with an increasingly intolerable price paid by small-scale farmers, workers, rural
communities and the environment. Thus, the way the world grows its food will
have to change radically to better serve the poor and hungry if the world is to cope
with a growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown
and environmental collapse.
A list of twenty-one key findings is provided in a ‘Global Summary for
Decision-makers of the Global Report’. These include a warning that emphasis on
increasing yields and productivity has in some cases had negative consequences
on environmental sustainability. When associated with poor socioeconomic
conditions a vicious cycle is created in which poor smallholder farmers may have
to deforest and use new and often marginal lands, increasing deforestation and
overall degradation.
The increase and strengthening of AKST towards agro-ecological sciences
will contribute to addressing environmental issues and a range of persistent
socioeconomic inequities while maintaining and increasing productivity.
Strengthening and redirection of AKST to include gender issues is necessary
to help achieve this. Forging public and private partnerships, increased public
The final IAASTD report was considered in connection with a Countdown to 2015 meeting
in Johannesburg in April 2008, endorsed by representatives of more than sixty governments,
all UN agencies including the World Bank, and around fifty NGOs. It was strongly welcomed
by a large number of governments and NGOs for its calls for immediate radical changes in
international agriculture, while not all were on the same wavelength, notably the United States,
Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. The US in particular claimed that the report was
‘unbalanced’. Resistance came also from some others: one major private sector stakeholder,
Syngenta, resigned from the IAASTD project before the launch of the report when conclusions
tended to go against its interests. The significance of this for the rare referencing to IAASTD in
other current initiatives and documents may be contemplated.
Economic Globalization and the Human Rights of Poor People in Rural Areas67
research and extension investment help realize existing opportunities in smallscale agricultural systems, including innovation and entrepreneurship which
explicitly target resource-poor farmers and rural labourers.
Opening national agricultural markets to international competition can offer
economic benefits, but can lead to a long-term increase in poverty production,
food insecurity and environmental harm, unless basic national institutions and
infrastructures are in place. Intensive export-oriented agriculture, while providing
some benefits, has also had adverse consequences such as soil nutrient losses,
unsustainable soil or water management and exploitative labour conditions.
More and better-targeted AKST investments, public and private, can
facilitate the choice of relevant approaches to adoption and implementation of
agricultural innovation. When private funding complements public sector funds,
the establishment and enforcement of codes of conduct by universities and research
institutes can help avoid conflicts of interest and maintain focus on sustainability
and development in AKST.
While the IAASTD was hailed by a number of governments and many
otherwise very critical NGOs, there has been a surprising silence surrounding it.
References to its findings are notably absent from several of the initiatives taken
in the wake of the early 2008 food price crisis, which was followed by the global
financial crisis.
Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)
This African-led partnership, with offices in Nairobi and Accra, was set up to help
small-scale farmers and their families across the African continent lift themselves
out of poverty and hunger. AGRA programmes are said to develop practical
solutions to significantly boost farm productivity and incomes for the poor while
safeguarding the environment. AGRA advocates policies that support its work
across all key aspects of the African agricultural ‘value chain’ – from seeds, soil
health and water to markets and agricultural education.
Chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, AGRA received
initial support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates
Foundation. A major aim of AGRA is to revitalize small-scale farming across
Africa, acknowledging that ‘through dramatic improvements to agriculture,
prosperity can replace poverty’ and that ‘in most modern economies, no lasting
success has been achieved without first building a strong agricultural foundation’.
AGRA seeks to end the poverty and hunger of hundreds of millions of
Africans, with a clear focus on improving the lives of small-scale farmers, by way
of an agricultural revolution which must rely on
uniquely African solutions to uniquely African problems: solutions that
improve the productivity, biodiversity, and nutritional quality of food
crops; that practice sound agro-ecosystem management across dramatically
different environments; that support mixed crop-livestock farming
Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide
systems; and that consistently promote equity. It must be pro-poor and
Its home page elaborates on AGRA’s evolving priorities since its establishment in
2006: from focus on more productive and resilient varieties of African crops, through
support to agricultural education and monitoring and evaluation, improved soil
health and water management, to off-farm systems and markets including crop
storage, market information and transport systems, while promoting policies that
promote rural development and environmental sustainability and address trade
and tariffs.
AGRA’s intentions are persuasive and promising for the future of African
smallholders. But whether AGRA will be able to deliver what it promises is a
question that needs further research and monitoring, through the collection of
experience, assessment and analysis, along the lines of the IAASTD project. The
lack of reference to IAASTD and its findings gives cause for concern that the
search for the best approach to prevent and reduce rural poverty is not necessarily
motivating those making profit towards more conventional green revolution
methods, even if these are said to be adapted to African conditions, and even if
AGRA has promised to avoid the failures of the Asian Green Revolution in the
1960s and 1970s.
Comprehensive Framework for Action on the Global Food Security Crisis
In April 2008 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established a high-powered
task force under his leadership to coordinate the efforts of the United Nations
system in addressing the global crisis arising from the surge in food prices. The
task force brought together the heads of UN agencies, funds and programmes
and the Bretton Woods institutions, as well as experts within the UN and leading
authorities from the international community. It prepared a ‘Comprehensive
Framework for Action on the Global Food Security Crisis’ (CFA),46 built upon two
different, but complementary priorities for action. One set focuses on meeting the
immediate needs of vulnerable populations, the second set on building longer-term
resilience and contributing to global food and nutrition security, each set listing a
range of outcomes and actions to achieve these objectives.
The CFA also proposes the strengthening of coordination and information
systems, comprehensive assessments and monitoring hereunder of special health
and nutrition assessments, the undertaking of impact analyses, analysis of policy
options and programmatic approaches, and the review of contingency plans and
early warning systems. It underlines that these actions are ‘neither exhaustive
nor exclusive [but ...] intended to guide assessments and strategies developed at
the country level and support international coordination efforts’. The framework
encourages leadership and partnership as well as coordination at all levels including
Latest version published July 2008, see
Economic Globalization and the Human Rights of Poor People in Rural Areas69
the global, as many factors underlying the food crisis are global in nature and
require actions across country and regional borders (Executive Summary, paras.
6/7 and 9/10).
The financial cost estimates for food assistance, social protection, agricultural
development, budget and balance of payment support are estimated at US$ 25–40
billion per annum to maintain progress towards achievement of Millennium
Development Goal 1 (Para. 11). This necessitates an immediate scaling up of
public spending and private investments (Para 12). Developing countries are
called on to allocate additional budgetary resources for social protection systems
and to increase the share of agriculture in their public expenditure, while donor
countries are urged to double ODA for food assistance, other types of nutritional
support and safety net programmes, and to increase the percentage of ODA to
be invested in food and agricultural development from the current 3 per cent
to 10 per cent within five years (and beyond if needed) – to reverse the historic
underinvestment in agriculture.
CFA is presented as a framework for action, but it is not clear who should
decide and prioritize action. Some skepticism is justified when reading, as one
example, the underlying paradigm regarding participation. In the final section
on Achieving CFA Outcomes, a sub-section on Partnership at Country Level lists
among other things, Promote effective public communications:
This will ensure that the partnership’s analysis, strategy and actions are
understood by the wider public, in particular those whom the actions are
intended to assist. Programme effectiveness will require strong vigilance from
civil society groups to ensure that the assistance reaches the intended people
in the quantities and qualities intended (p. 30).
While well-meant, this reflects outsiders’ view on effectiveness towards target
groups in predetermined strategies, rather than inviting participants into their
A FIAN Position Paper on CFA in September 2008 (FIAN 2008), sent to the
President of the 63rd UN General Assembly, pointed out that while CFA repeatedly
mentions that adequate food is an internationally recognized human right, it
fails to draw the necessary conclusions; furthermore that instead of recognizing
demonstrations by hungry people as a legitimate means to claim the right to food,
the CFA tends to conflate social movements with criminal groups as ‘ready to
harness popular frustrations into a challenge against the state and its authority’.
G8 Summit Statement on Food Security, July 2009
The CFA was subject to discussions in the General Assembly, at the G20 Summit
in April 2009 in London, the G8 Summit in l’Aquila in July 2009, and the G20’s
Summit in Pittsburgh in late September. The G8 leaders met with more than
thirty other delegations from states and international organizations. They issued
the ‘L’Aquila’ Joint Statement on Global Food Security, committing themselves to
Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide
mobilize at least US$ 20 billion over three years through the l’Aquila Food Security
Initiative in support of rural development in poor countries while promising to
keep agriculture at the core of the international agenda, re-launch investments
and boost aid efficiency and in-country coordination, with the involvement of all
stakeholders. With new partners later joining the initiative, including a number
of countries and the European Commission, private sector and philanthropic
organizations, the financial commitment has risen to US$ 22 billion. The Pittsburg
Summit called on the World Bank to develop a new trust fund to support the new
Food Security Initiative for low-income countries announced in l’Aquila.
Several questions remain open, however: what kind of rural development
will be supported, and which kind of investments will be promoted? Will large
parts of the disbursements of the funds remain in the hands of the separate donors
and their use linked up to the national interests of the donors, or will at least parts
of the funds be placed under the control and directions of multilateral agencies?
The Pittsburg Summit clearly envisages that the multilateral parts of the funds will
be in the hands of the World Bank, where the G8 retain the dominant influence due
to the voting rules. The lingering question is whether at least normative guidance
for its use will be given by truly global institutions, and particularly what the role
will be of the future reformed Committee on Food Security.
3.3.3. C
onsidering Choices for Human
Rights-Based Rural Development
Another Green Revolution – is the African Way a Human Rights Way?
In practice there are and will be many intermediate forms between theoretically
distinguishable and seemingly opposing alternatives for national and local
agricultural and rural development. The purpose is therefore not to argue whether
there are clear-cut options, but accept that there are, nevertheless, choices to be
made as to where the main emphasis shall be placed. Depending on that emphasis,
agricultural development strategies will be more or less in tune with human rights
principles and practice.
The plans for a ‘Green Revolution’ in Africa are of particular importance.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (SR) convened, with the support
of the Luxembourg Ministry for Development Cooperation, a Multi-stakeholder
Consultation in Luxembourg in December 2008. The purpose was to identify both
opportunities and challenges facing current attempts to support the agricultural
sector in Africa, focusing especially on the potential of AGRA in this context.47
AGRA has claimed its approach is bottom-up, starting from the farmer. But critics at
the consultation described AGRA as having a top-down approach to participation,
De Schutter’s full report of the consultation as well as his own presentation there can be accessed
Economic Globalization and the Human Rights of Poor People in Rural Areas71
by first initiating its projects, then beginning to consult with stakeholders once
strategic choices had already been made. While AGRA claimed that they were
working with farmers organizations, for example, in breeding programmes, others
argued that farmers’ voices might be difficult to hear and that mechanisms should
be set up to enable their needs and priorities to be better listened to, and which
can support farmers to get organized and claim their rights. AGRA representatives
agreed during the consultation to enhance the involvement of smallholder farmers
and civil society organizations in the processes, a commitment which ought to be
monitored by human rights NGOs, such as FIAN.
Another fundamental issue in Luxembourg concerned the very paradigm of
the Green Revolution itself. Some feared that this will be based on new technologies
and high-value external inputs with an over-emphasis on genetic improvement,
without taking into account alternative methods of agricultural production with
proven potential to increase yields. AGRA’s representatives were encouraged to
be guided by IAASTD’s emphasis on integrated solutions rather than retaining an
exclusive focus on productivity. The co-existence, complementarity or competition
between ‘Green Revolution’ and agro-ecological farming approaches was a central
point: some participants in the consultation suggested that organic and inorganic
approaches need to be combined to increase farm productivity, while others
pointed to key differences in the models that made complementarity hard or even
impossible to attain.
Constructive Combinations?
There will indeed be a need for large-scale food production to cover the needs of the
urban population. Supply is unlikely to be satisfied by small-scale organic production
alone, although there could be fruitful efforts to intensify the links between periurban and somewhat more distant farms and urban dwellers. The examples of the
growing numbers of ‘Farmers’ Markets’ in cities in industrialized countries are often
referred to, which, almost ironically, try to restore linkages that existed in traditional
economies but have been severed by industrial agriculture. Whether the same trend
to restore – or maintain – such linkages can become economically viable at some
scale in future agricultural economies remains to be seen.
Commercial larger-scale agriculture will in any case remain an important
component of total production. Against this is the need to also ensure a livelihood
for the rural poor. For many of them the only safe path to family food security is to
produce part of it themselves and avoid expensive, unaffordable input factors. It is
therefore important to protect smallholders and to assist them in maximizing their
food security with other sources of income, while creating space for commercial
farming when this can be done without destroying or undermining the livelihood
of vulnerable parts of the rural population. In both approaches the environmental
cost, including greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption, must be
factored in.
In formulating agricultural policies in developing countries, priority should
be given to securing the livelihoods of people where they live. As a special case,
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indigenous peoples throughout the world should be given protection for the
land they have traditionally used. Care must be taken not to allow displacement
except with their full consent and with the provision of alternatives to which
they themselves can adhere freely based on full information. Other users of land
whose rights are insecure should be provided with legally enforceable rights. This
should apply not only to those who are the formal owners of the land, but also
to traditional users of the same land. Any effort to block them from traditional
use should be made dependent on the provision of alternatives that are equally
acceptable to them.
In countries that are still primarily agricultural with a majority of people
living in rural areas, the main way forward should be improving conditions
for smallholders while simultaneously expanding the off-farm possibilities of
employment in rural areas. Activities connected with food processing, whether
by private entrepreneurs or by cooperatives, extension of communication systems
both physical (roads, railways) and electronic, electrification, and expansion of
rural health service institutions and educational institutions, are among the many
off-farm developments that would lead to employment and more exciting and
diversified opportunities in rural life. One crucial factor is the need to increase
access to full primary education for girls and also secondary where possible,
stimulate higher level training for women on an equal basis with men, and
furthermore, ensure that they have access to employment appropriate to their
education. This is important not only for their own satisfaction in life, but, as
is generally agreed, is the best possible means to reduce excessive birth rates
within this part of the population. This will also necessitate facilitation of women’s
reproductive rights including full knowledge of and access to means of family
planning and spacing of pregnancies. Furthermore, support for and expansion of
cultural activities and opportunities is needed to make rural life more attractive,
for youth in particular.
Volatile Seasonal Work and Premature Out-Migration as
Threats to Human Rights-Based Rural Development
The insecure situation of rural workers who move from place to place seeking
seasonal work under precarious conditions should be improved, partly through
better application of labour standards and partly through other means, including
land reform by redistributing large but unproductively used stretches of land. This
opportunity is threatened by the increasing practice of land-grabbing by investors.
Out-migration to urban areas for those who so want, while not to be hindered,
should not be promoted until the absorptive capacity of the urban areas has grown
sufficiently to provide them with an acceptable opportunity of work or income
in town. Rural development must go together with urban development, the two
being reciprocally mutually dependent. Many migrants to urban areas transmit
part of their income back to their families and thereby increase the income level,
but those with low skills are deeply insecure when employment shrinks due to
financial crises. Many migrants then move back to the rural place of origin but can
Economic Globalization and the Human Rights of Poor People in Rural Areas73
face serious problems when the livelihood there can no longer be sustained with
the loss of the remittances.
Strategies to prevent further impoverishment and to increase the livelihood
of the rural poor are therefore essential. Priority should be given to the protection
of smallholders, indigenous peoples and rural workers where they are, and to
the improvement of their rural livelihood to the extent possible. In contrast,
expansion of land holdings for plantation-type production that lead to eviction of
smallholders, indigenous peoples and other users should be strongly discouraged.
Where agricultural intensification takes place, labour-intensive production should
be preferred over advanced mechanization, both for purposes of employment
opportunities and for environmental reasons. Lastly, the rights of workers should
be ensured in line with ILO standards.
In sum, these considerations are not simply wishful thinking by idealizing
theoreticians concerned with preserving both natural resources and culturally
proven technologies. They echo the real voices of many civil society organizations
and movements around the world that represent rural smallholders, artisanal
fishers and nomads. They ask to be heard when choices are made and action
taken that directly affect their lives and livelihood. A genuine human rights-based
approach can bring additional leverage to their voices, through an insistence on
their right to participate, be heard, and hold national leaders, politicians and
planners accountable for their discriminatory policies and choices made out of
self-interest – if not outright greed.
3.3.4. T
owards Global and Regional Cooperation for
Rural Development Based on Human Rights
The primary responsibility for the implementation of human rights rests with each
state and should influence their policies in all fields. This applies also to agricultural
policies: each state in which hunger still persists should aim at realizing the right
to food for everyone within their country, starting with the improvement of
the livelihood of the rural poor. Many states cannot and some will not achieve
this completely on their own. Sometimes those who try to do so are faced with
conflicting requirements set by Bretton Woods institutions or with obligations
under the WTO. To prevent further impoverishment and significantly reduce
existing poverty, concerted cooperative development is required at the global and
regional level.
In part this should be undertaken through regional development cooperation.
Regional African cooperation in the agricultural arena could provide many
benefits: decreasing dependence on Bretton Woods institutions, strengthened
bargaining power of African states and their farmers in relation to giant food,
seed and fertilizer corporations, and escape from the problem of ‘landlocked
countries with bad neighbors’, which is one of the poverty traps pointed out by
Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide
Paul Collier (2007).48 Regional African cooperation for agricultural development
as envisaged by AGRA (discussed earlier) is therefore to be welcomed if the aim
is made clear and the policies and measures are appropriate to that end. The aim
should be improvement in the livelihoods of African smallholders and the wider
rural population in African countries, and to contribute to food security for the
region as a whole. Hopefully, a collective African resistance will emerge against
predatory land-grabbing and excessive agrofuel production on land that should
be used to produce food.
Can genuine cooperative development be achieved also at the global level? The
financial crisis caused by neo-liberal economic globalization has at least helped to
generate widespread awareness and a degree of consensus on the following points:
(1) the financial crisis is the result of irresponsible speculation with harmful global
consequences which demands responses at the global level; (2) excessive and highly
unequal energy consumption has led to global warming with ominous threats of
climate change that have to be dealt with at the global level; and (3) the entirely
unregulated play of market forces must not be allowed to be repeated.
Awareness of these points gives some hope that a will to collaborate at
the global level could emerge, including joint efforts to reverse global poverty
production. But the obstacles should not be underestimated.
Firstly, the gap between the normative role of the United Nations and the
operational direction taken by the Bretton Woods institutions needs to be closed.
The UN vision of development towards a social and international order in which
all human rights can be realized must be brought to bear also on the operational
activities of the Bretton Woods institutions, which should be reformed to serve as
functional advisors to promote the wider development policies recommended by
mainstream United Nations, as originally envisaged under UN Charter Articles 57
and 63. Coordination of the UN agencies, a task entrusted by the UN Charter to
ECOSOC, has not functioned. The Bretton Woods institutions have insisted on
going their own way. This should be brought to an end. Under international law,
the World Bank and the IMF are bound by human rights obligations (Skogly 2001),
but the two institutions have extensively neglected human rights in their work.
The UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on UN System-wide Coherence
in the Areas of Development, Humanitarian Assistance and the Environment,
chaired by three prime ministers from three continents,49 was established in 2005
to recommend measures to overcome the fragmentation of the United Nations
The widely-read book by Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion (2007), is not, in spite of its name,
a reference to the bottom billlion people that according to FAO statistics subsist at the
lowest possible level of living conditions, meaning those who suffer from hunger and severe
undernutrition. His book concerns the populations in the poorest countries (mostly African
and Central Asian), overlooking that a large part of the bottom billion of hungry people live
in prospering countries, with a quarter of the total of the poorest people in the world living
in India, which he sees as a model country. But some of his analysis of the traps blocking the
poorest countries and which need to be overcome is valid.
Available at The
prime ministers were Shaukat Aziz of Pakistan, Luisa Dias Diogo of Mozambique and Jens
Stoltenberg of Norway.
Economic Globalization and the Human Rights of Poor People in Rural Areas75
system. In its report in 2006, entitled ‘Delivering as One’,50 the Panel recommended
as a matter of urgency that the Secretary-General, the President of the World Bank
and the Executive Director of the International Monetary Fund set up a process
to review, update and conclude formal agreements on their respective roles and
relations at the global and country level.
Promises Should be Kept, not Broken
In 1996 at the World Food Summit (WFS), heads of states and governments
described as ‘unacceptable’ the horrible hunger situation then prevailing, with
some 850 million suffering from hunger, and committed themselves to reducing
the number of hungry to half its current level by 2015. Serious action was not
taken; on the contrary, the number has increased by well over 100 million since
1996 and has now passed the 1 billion mark.
As a way to follow up on the 1996 commitment, WFS decided to initiate
the Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information Mapping System (FIVIMS). If
implemented, this would have made it possible to know with great precision who
the hungry are, where they are, why exactly they are hungry, and which obstacles
they face in getting out of their hunger situation. Thereby it would, theoretically,
have been possible to take action directly addressing and involving those groups,
which would probably have led to significant reduction of their poverty. But
it did not happen. While the FAO is trying to encourage states to collect such
information it has not been very successful. Nor have the World Bank and IMF
pushed states to collect and provide such information even in the context of the
Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers.
Among the areas that need improved effort at the global level are the
Monitoring corporate compliance with human rights, making corporations
a positive force for poverty prevention and reduction. Large transnational
corporations play an enormous role in contemporary agricultural development
in several ways, both on the supply side with regard to input factors (fertilizers,
pesticides, and increasingly in the supply of seeds), as well as on the demand or
delivery side of agricultural products. Corporations set the price for the inputs
of production and establish the price paid for the farmer’s product at the farm
gate. They choose what they will purchase for their retail chains, and decide the
specifications of the products. Commercial farmers are heavily dependent on a
small number of powerful corporations. Future cooperative global strategies for
poverty prevention/reduction and development will have to involve the monitoring
of transnational corporations. This should include the monitoring of corporations
that invest in large-scale acquisitions of land or establish arrangements with
contract farmers, with the uncertainty and corporate power over the farmer that
UN Doc. A/61/583 p. 16.
Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide
this creates. Harmful cases of such investment should be exposed and prevented.
Through multilateral cooperation, states should elaborate common regulations
over corporations and other private actors in order to protect the right of everyone
to an adequate standard of living. The international community should develop a
multilateral and multi-stakeholder framework which can regulate the activities of
intermediaries in the global food chain, from producer to consumer, including
corporate buyers, processors and retailers, with a view to protecting the interests
both of local producers and the consumers of food.51
Adopting equitable measures to mitigate global warming and facilitate
adaptation to climate change. Cooperative, human rights-based development
will require a reduction in global warming and mitigation of its impact. While the
escalating consumption of greenhouse-gas emitting energy needs to be brought
under control, it must allow for an equitable developmental regime which
includes space for less developed countries to provide their inhabitants with
the necessary amount of energy to satisfy human needs. The main reductions
in energy consumption must take place in high energy-consuming societies.
Agro-ecological developments are generally less energy-consuming and must
be preferred to the extent compatible with the need to produce enough food for
people everywhere.
Ensuring sustainability of agricultural production. Globally coordinated
regulations should not only prohibit excessive greenhouse gas emissions, but also
prevent excessive use of scarce water resources and water pollution.
Production and trade in agrofuel should be subjected to international
regulation to avoid land that otherwise could have been used for food production
being taken over for large-scale production of agrofuel. The search for renewable
sources of energy, which should be encouraged, must not be allowed to undermine
the possibilities of the rural population to feed themselves and their countrymen
and women through the increased local production of food. On the other hand,
measures should be adopted to facilitate constructive production of local use of
biofuel – for local electricity or for improved methods of cooking and heating at
the local level.
Large-scale land acquisitions and leases. As proposed by the Special Rapporteur
on the Right to Food, a set of core principles and measures should be adopted
to address the human rights issues arising from this growing trend, which
could otherwise become a serious threat to the rural poor. Preferably, land
A promising example of joint inter-state collaboration to control or moderate corporate
behaviour is the recently established innovative ‘European Network to reduce marketing
pressure on children’. With seventeen European states now having joined together with both
some inter- and non-governmental organizations, it illustrates an opportunity that could be
expanded both to other thematic and regional areas. See
Economic Globalization and the Human Rights of Poor People in Rural Areas77
property should be in the hands of the tiller, not of speculators. Large-scale
purchase and lease of agricultural land must be strictly controlled. The Special
Rapporteur on the Right to Food has listed eleven principles that should guide
such transactions. These focus on the need for full transparency, participation
by those likely to be affected, the need for free and informed consent by the local
population, improving legal recognition of traditional users’ rights, avoiding
evictions and compliance with the Guidelines on Development-based Evictions
and Displacement, ensuring that revenues from investment agreements are
used for the benefit of the local population, establishing farming systems which
are sufficiently labour intensive on the land purchased or leased to ensure that
they provide much needed and satisfactory local employment, ensuring that
production on the land respects the environment, and requiring that a percentage
of the food be sold at local markets. He also proposes that impact assessments
be required before the completion of negotiations. Indigenous peoples must be
protected in line with international law, and workers provided with protection
in accordance with applicable ILO instruments (de Schutter, 2009b).52
Reconsideration of trade issues is essential. States should limit excessive reliance
on international trade in the pursuit of food security, and build capacity to
produce the food needed to meet consumption needs with an emphasis on smallscale farmers. They should maintain the necessary flexibilities and instruments,
such as supply management schemes to insulate domestic markets from the
volatility of prices on international markets. They should ensure, notably through
transparent, independent and participatory human rights impact assessments,
that their undertakings under the WTO framework are fully compatible with their
obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food. Priority should be given
to the protection of local farmers against harmful imports, while ensuring access
for the poor to affordable food.53
Social protection systems also need to be developed and implemented for the
rural population, who have frequently been neglected in social security schemes in
developing countries. In light of the limited capacity of many developing countries
to fund the extension of such schemes, global cooperation for this purpose has to
be considered.
Olivier de Schutter, ‘Large-scale land acquisitions and leases: a set of core principles and measures
to address the human rights challenge’. 11 June 2009b. Available at
pdf, accessed 27.08.2009.
The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has examined in detail the consequences of
liberalized international trade on hunger and poverty. A penetrating analysis of the issues can
be found on his home page, Of particular usefulness is his report to the
UN General Assembly in 2008, A/63/278 paragraphs 16-23, and his Report to the UN General
Assembly on his Mission to the World Trade Organization, A/HRC/10/5/2.
Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide
Agricultural research and technology. There is a need for global cooperation in
providing publicly funded agricultural research and technology. Research should
aim at improved management of existing resources while developing improved
varieties of plants suitable to local conditions. Moreover, it should be publicly
funded so that the new varieties can be made available as public goods, not
subjected to patent restrictions.
Better management of grain stocks through global cooperation may be required
in order avoid speculation in food prices.
We are in the midst of a financial crisis. Sustainable economic growth and stability
can only be achieved again through a ‘New Deal’ at a global level and must include
commitments to address climate change, poverty prevention and reduction, and
the broad range of human rights.
Will the reflections and the pains caused by the present financial crisis spur
governments to join forces in developing a global New Deal comparable to that
introduced in the United States of America by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 as a
response to the world-wide recession and devastating financial crisis caused by wild
speculations starting at the New York Stock Exchange in 1929? A global New Deal
would have to include the rural population of the world, those who suffer most from
the present, dysfunctional structures of political and financial decision-making. They
can become a source of wealth rather than of misery if they are given the opportunity
to participate in, contribute to and benefit from the development process.
The first three decades after 1945 were the ‘golden age’ of Western democratic
welfare states, and it was in this stage that the comprehensive system of human
rights (civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights) was widely accepted.
What was also tried but failed was to obtain support for the development of a
global New Deal through structural changes envisioned in the proposed New
International Economic Order. In the wake of its failure came a period of excessive
deregulation, massive greed, tremendous growth in inequality and expanding
hunger and poverty.
The revulsion against the unregulated neo-liberal form of economic
globalization is driving a search for a more inclusive form of global governance.
The environmental challenges, in particular the process of climate change, have
reinforced the understanding that global cooperation is required. It can no
longer be based on dominance by the global North, where there is a staggering
accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few while the bottom billion – or more
– in the global South live in extreme poverty. The regulations cannot be left to G1
(the USA), the G7 (the main Western states plus Japan and Australia), the G8 (the
G7 plus the Russian Federation), and not even to the G20 (adding major ‘third
world’ countries like India, China and Brazil). It will have to be by the ‘G192’ – by
which we mean all the members of the United Nations.
Economic Globalization and the Human Rights of Poor People in Rural Areas79
Extensive structural changes will be required, of a nature rather different
from the ‘structural adjustments’ of the heyday of Bretton Woods’s institutional
dominance. Much more effective state and inter-state control with the human rights
responsibility of corporations will be required. Trade will have to be regulated to
promote more equitable outcomes and will therefore have to go through rounds
of renegotiations with better account taken of the impact on different population
groups in each country. Recognition that unregulated (‘free’) international trade
can be beneficial to some and harmful to others requires a more sophisticated
regulation based on proper analysis of the impact on vulnerable groups.
The 1996 World Food Summit was path-breaking in its call for a clarification
of the right to food as a guiding principle for food and agriculture policies, and
for the commitment made to reduce the number of hungry to a half by 2015.
Sadly, states did not follow up on their commitment to reduce world hunger, and
their attention to the right to food was less than half-hearted. The second World
Food Summit, held in 2002, had as its most important outcome the initiation of
the process which led in 2004 to the adoption of the Voluntary Guidelines on the
Right to Food.54 While this was an important step, the impact has been limited
because most states have so far only hesitantly and sporadically applied these
There are signs, however, of some new energy and efforts to mobilize for
government commitment to eradicate poverty, hunger and malnutrition in
the midst of the financial and related crises. The present authors choose to be
‘cautiously optimistic’, noting in particular the increasing number and volume of
voices of, or on behalf of, poor rural people around the world. With a noteworthy
improvement in networking organization and coordination,55 there is a hope that
the NGO/CSO community may be better listened to in the future as it further
watches and exerts influence on relevant international official initiatives.
Maintaining a global awareness of the urgency of these issues and
influencing of governments continue in parallel from many angles. One recent
example is the Cordóba-based international efforts by a group of ‘elders’ – experts
on the right to food at some academic institutions or with a background from
FAO and other international agencies, facilitated by the provincial authorities of
Cordóba. On Human Rights Day, 10 December 2008, or the 60th Anniversary
of the UDHR,56 the group published the Cordóba Declaration on the Right to
Food and the Governance of the Global Food and Agricultural System. It was
circulated at the international High-Level Meeting on Food Security hosted
by the Spanish Government in Madrid in January 2009. Together with earlier
criticism by FIAN on the lack of reference to the right to food as a human right
Full name: Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate
Food in the Context of National Food Security. Available at
The parallel event, People’s Forum on Food Sovereignty, was an important corollary to the
WSFS with several mutual links.
The text is found on
Asbjørn Eide and Wenche Barth Eide
in the Comprehensive Framework for Action, the Córdoba Declaration may
have influenced the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who stated that the
Comprehensive Framework for Action should add a third track – the right to
food – in addition to the established twin tracks on nutrition assistance and safety
nets, while focusing on improving food production and smallholder agriculture.
The ‘Córdoba group’ continues its activities with an explicit focus on the need to
see a greater coordination of the work of international organizations dealing with
food security and nutrition issues, as well as on ways to harness the potential of
academic knowledge and support in the form of focused research and education
on the eradication of hunger and malnutrition.
Strong dynamism has been brought into this field by the activities of the
current UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Shutter. He has
shown a remarkable will and ability to penetrate walls of resistance to human
rights approaches. He has received considerable attention by the UN Human
Rights Council and elsewhere. His website57 documents the ongoing activities and
provides his own constructive suggestions on how to proceed with the human
right to adequate food as the guiding principle.
Events in October and November 2009 in Rome also brought certain
critical issues more forcefully to the fore regarding food security for human
beings, not only for nations. The basis of people’s daily diet and its relations
to cultural, environmental and economic/market issues were noted by many
delegations, as well as the right to food as a human right.58 Panels and meetings
in a special ‘food week’ leading up to the World Food Day on 16 October set
much of the stage for the third world food summit held on 16-18 November –
entitled World Summit on Food Security (WSFS). Particularly important was
the meeting in FAO’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS), now under
extensive reform. At the WSFS a stronger commitment to the right to food
and the recognition of governmental responsibility and accountability was
noticeable. The concurrent crises – high food prices, the financial downturn
caused by irresponsible and unregulated transactions, and the looming climate
crises, had stirred up fear and worries notable beyond diplomatic semantics.
The frequent references to human rights appeared to be motivated by a genuine
search for responsible action.
The Declaration adopted by the World Summit on Food Security left many
issues unanswered, however. It failed, for example, to address the problems
and risks of agrofuel, the problems of ‘land-grabbing’ and the dominant role in
international trade by large private corporations that sift off most of the benefits
that could be obtained by agricultural trade, and provide little benefits but often
much harm for peasants and agricultural workers.
58. There also seems to be a slow but growing understanding in the agriculture-based food security
circles that the nutritional implications of dietary improvements must be further enhanced by concurrent efforts in prevention and control of disease and care for particularly vulnerable groups.
Economic Globalization and the Human Rights of Poor People in Rural Areas81
Nevertheless, the impression is that the Summit and its Declaration have
strengthened global cooperation for the right to food and world food security. At
both national and international levels there is a stronger emphasis on accountability.
Hunger in the world is not the necessary fate of humankind, but a result of policy
choices that would have been different had the right to food been taken seriously
both at national and international level.
Probably the most promising developments arising from the events in
October and November 2009 have been the reform of the Committee on Food
Security (CFS). Originally weak as a Committee of FAO alone, member states
agreed, in October 2008, to embark on a wide-reaching reform. The new CFS
is intended to ‘fully play its vital role in the area of food security and nutrition,
including international coordination’. The reforms are designed to redefine
the CFS’s vision and role to focus on the key challenges of eradicating hunger;
expanding participation in CFS to ensure that voices of all relevant stakeholders are
heard in the policy debate on food and agriculture; adapt its rules and procedures
with the aim to become the central United Nations political platform dealing with
food security and nutrition. This means a new CFS with broad membership and
participation almost across the board of key UN bodies dealing with food security
and nutrition, as well as from the NGO/CSO community. The CFS is therefore
likely to become a truly representative, multilateral body.
It appears likely, however, that most of the US$ 22 billion joint pledge for
food security initiatives will be turned into a trust fund likely to be managed by
the World Bank, over which the G8 have a dominant position due to the voting
rights in that body. Many are therefore rightly concerned with the direction of
the use of these funds. It is therefore of crucial importance that CFS be given the
predominant normative and policy-making role concerning the use of these funds
and in the choice of their intended beneficiaries, and in ensuring accountability
for the allocation of the funds.
Monitoring of proper and constructive use of these funds will depend also
on the active involvement by non-governmental organizations and agents of
civil society, particularly in countries where ‘structural hunger and malnutrition’
is rampant. This wording in the final CFS Reform document in October 2009,
that hunger and malnutrition are products of social structures, may be a signal
that member states now understand that causality of hunger and malnutrition is
something different from low food production, and that solutions must be found
elsewhere than through mere focus on increased food production and trade.
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The Human Rights Approach
to Poverty Reduction
Siddiqur R. Osmani
4.1. Introduction
This chapter addresses two interrelated questions. First, why do we need to adopt
the human rights approach in matters related to poverty? Second, assuming the
first question is answered in a convincing enough manner and we accept that
marrying human rights to poverty reduction is a good idea, precisely how are
we to go about it? The first – the ‘why’ question – is pitched at the conceptual
level; it is concerned with the rationale of bringing the human rights perspective
to bear on the discourse of poverty. The second – the ‘how’ question – is more
operational. In terms of practical policy-making, what does it mean to adopt the
human rights approach to poverty reduction? To put it differently, what would be
the essential features of a poverty reduction strategy that is based on the human
rights framework? Section 4.2 addresses the first question, Section 4.3 addresses
the second, and Section 4.4 offers some concluding remarks.59
4.2. Why Adopt the Human Rights
Approach to Poverty Reduction?
It is useful to begin by noting that the advantage of linking poverty reduction to
human rights is not immediately obvious. Poverty signifies such a tragic condition
of human existence that its eradication would appear to be an uncontroversial goal
of human endeavour in any society, regardless of what other values society may
or may not hold. By contrast, the human rights movement has been embroiled in
political and ideological controversies from the very beginning. Despite its explicit
claim to have universal relevance, the human rights discourse has often been
Many of the ideas put forward in this paper were developed in the course of a collaborative
work with Paul Hunt, Manfred Nowak, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human
Rights, embodied in OHCHR (2004, 2006). The author gratefully acknowledges his intellectual
indebtedness to all of them.
Siddiqur R. Osmani
challenged, at least in part if not in its entirety. The challenge has come sometimes
on the grounds of cultural relativism but frequently out of political expediency. A
prime example of politically motivated challenge was manifest in the cold war era,
when the ‘liberal’ West tended to downplay the significance of human rights in
the socioeconomic and cultural domain, the domain in which poverty primarily
belongs, and praise the glory almost exclusively of civil and political rights. More
recently, the opposite, but equally politically expedient, tendency has emerged in
some Asian countries, whose leaders have invoked the idea of ‘Asian values’ to
argue in effect that excessive deference to civil and political rights may be inimical
to economic prosperity in general and poverty reduction in particular.
In view of this history, it is not immediately obvious what, if anything, is
to be gained by linking human rights with the eminently uncontroversial goal of
poverty reduction. Indeed, one might reasonably wonder whether the objective of
poverty reduction might not suffer by association with a movement that has long
been an arena of ideological disputes. I shall argue in this chapter that, while this
apprehension is not entirely unfounded, there is nonetheless a powerful case for
adopting the human rights approach to poverty reduction.
One can think of two types of reasons for linking poverty with human rights
– one intrinsic and the other instrumental. The intrinsic reason consists of the
claim that denial of some human rights can be seen as constitutive of poverty, in
other words, to be poor by definition means to be denied certain human rights.
From this perspective, the struggle against poverty is conceptually equivalent to
the struggle to achieve a range of human rights. The instrumental reason consists
of the claim that a poverty reduction strategy is likely to be more successful if
it is grounded within the human rights framework. While the intrinsic reason
locates human rights (or rather its denial) in the very conception of poverty,
the instrumental reason locates it in the causal mechanisms underlying poverty.
The argument is simply that denial of human rights can strengthen the forces
that cause and perpetuate poverty, and therefore adoption of the human rights
approach would strengthen a poverty reduction strategy by helping to overcome
those forces. From this perspective, the attempt to achieve the full range of human
rights, while being a worthwhile objective on its own, is also instrumentally
valuable for achieving the goal of poverty reduction.
4.2.1. The Intrinsic Reason
The best way to appreciate the intrinsic relevance of human rights to poverty is to
use the lens of the capability approach pioneered by Amartya Sen.60 As we shall
see, the idea of capability has salience for both poverty and human rights and can
thus provide a conceptual bridge between the two.61
See, among others, Sen (1985, 1992).
This idea has been explored more fully in Osmani (2005a).
The Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction87
Capability is defined as the extent of a person’s freedom to lead a valuable
life, in other words, to be able to do and to be the things she or he has reason
to value. Sen argues that the well-being of a person is best seen as the extent of
the capability she or he enjoys. The higher the level of a person’s capability, the
higher the level of personal well-being. Since poverty signifies a very low level of
well-being, it also signifies a very low level of capability, by definition. From this
perspective, then, poverty can be defined as the failure to achieve some minimally
acceptable level of capability.62
A slight refinement of this definition is made necessary by the fact that
capability is a multi-dimensional concept and not all the dimensions may be
equally relevant in the context of poverty. Some dimensions of capability are
quite elemental – for example, to be able to lead a life free from hunger, while
others could be rather refined – for example, to be able to appreciate the beauty of
classical music. It makes sense to argue that while dealing with such an elemental
state of human existence as poverty, one ought to focus only on the elemental
dimensions of capability.
Poverty can thus be defined more precisely as the failure to achieve the
minimally acceptable levels of some ‘basic capabilities’ – for example, the capability
to be free from hunger and malnutrition, the capability to avoid premature death
and avoidable morbidity, to be able to read and write at a very basic level so that
one can acquire some minimal ability to interpret and deal with the world one
lives in, to be able to protect oneself from the elements of nature, to be able to
come out in public without shame, to be able to take part in the affairs of the
community with dignity and confidence, and so on.63
Capability refers to the substantive freedom a person enjoys to lead the kind
of life she or he values. Since poverty signifies the absence of basic capabilities,
it also signifies the absence of a range of basic freedoms – for example, freedom
from hunger, freedom from illiteracy, freedom from exposure to nature, freedom
to come out in public without shame, and so on. To be poor is thus to be denied
some very elementary freedoms that human beings have reason to value.
It is important to note that the idea of human rights also concerns some of
these same freedoms. For example, the human right to food asserts that everyone
This is not to suggest that the responsibility for the failure lies necessarily with the poor person,
but that given the endowments and resources a person possesses and given the opportunities
and constraints she faces in dealing with the society at large, she is unable to achieve the
minimally acceptable level of capability.
The precise list of ‘basic capabilities’ is left open in Sen’s approach since different societies
may have different conceptions about which capabilities are to be deemed ‘basic’ in terms of
their respective value systems. In practice, the list given in this paragraph would appear to
be elemental enough to be deemed ‘basic’ in all known human societies. But in principle the
respect for plurality of values requires that the exact list be allowed to vary. In addition, what
is taken to be the ‘minimally acceptable level’ of a particular capability, below which a person
would be considered poor, is also likely to vary from society to society depending on their value
systems. For an alternative perspective, in which the list of capabilities is pre-specified on the
basis of argument from the first principles (not just in the context of poverty but generally in
the evaluation of the goodness of a society), see Nussbaum (2000).
Siddiqur R. Osmani
has the right to be free from hunger; the right to education entails the right to
be free from illiteracy; the right to adequate healthcare implies the right to be
free from premature death and avoidable morbidity, and so on. Indeed, for every
aspect of freedom whose absence signifies poverty from a capability perspective
there is a corresponding right to that freedom from the perspective of human
rights. More generally, many of the capabilities which people have reason to
value have a corresponding human right attached to them. Sen has called them
‘capability rights’.
It is not being claimed, however, that there exists a complete one-to-one
correspondence between capability and human rights. Clearly, some capabilities
have no corresponding human right – for example, the capability to appreciate
the beauty of classical music or to marvel at the wonders of quantum physics!
Conversely, some human rights do not refer to freedom in the sense of capabilities
– for example, the right not to be discriminated against. It is, however, arguable
that for every basic capability whose deficiency constitutes poverty, there is
a corresponding human right for that capability. Therefore, to say that poverty
consists of the failure to achieve basic capabilities is the same thing as saying that
poverty consists of the failure to fulfil certain basic human rights. It is in this sense
that denial of a range of human rights can be said to be constitutive of poverty.
And therein lies the intrinsic reason for linking poverty with human rights.
On this argument rests the case that poverty can be seen as denial of some
human rights. But this raises two questions. First, how would we identify the
subset of rights whose denial constitutes poverty? Second, if only a subset of
rights is deemed to be relevant in the context of poverty and, as such, if a poverty
reduction strategy focuses only those rights, how would one reconcile this with
the fundamental principle of indivisibility of rights, which claims that all human
rights are equally valuable and that none can take precedence?
Regarding the first question, I would argue that the subset of rights whose
denial constitutes poverty must have three features: (a) the right in question must
refer to a right to some kind of freedom in the sense of capability, in other words,
it must be in the nature of a ‘capability right’; (b) the freedom in question must
be in the nature of a ‘basic’ capability; and (c) the lack of freedom, and hence the
denial of a right, must stem from a causal mechanism in which a person’s lack of
command over economic resources plays an important mediating role.
The justification for specifying the first two features is quite straightforward.
It derives from the point made earlier that from the capability perspective poverty
is defined as the absence (or deficiency) of some basic freedoms. It follows that if
poverty is to be seen as the denial of human rights, only those rights that refer to
certain basic freedoms would be relevant. That’s why we need the first two features.
The justification for the third feature needs some elaboration. It rests on the
argument that while denial of any human right denotes some kind of deprivation,
not all deprivations would count as poverty. For example, the denial of the right
to free speech is evidently a case of serious deprivation, but it does not by itself
constitute poverty. A millionaire whose right to free speech is suppressed by an
autocratic ruler can reasonably claim to have been deprived of a valuable freedom,
The Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction89
but that deprivation does not by definition make him a poor man.64 The reason we
have to make this distinction between poverty and deprivation in a more general
sense is that as a social phenomenon poverty has come to acquire an irreducible
economic connotation, whereby a deprivation is counted as poverty only when
it is causally associated with lack of command over economic resources.65 The
same logic must apply when we define poverty as denial of human rights. By this
logic, the subset of human rights whose denial would constitute poverty can only
include such basic socioeconomic rights as the right to food, right to education,
right to healthcare, right to shelter, and so on, because in each of these cases denial
of right would invariably stem from a causal process in which lack of command
over economic resources plays a role.
This insistence on the lack of command over resources may at first sight seem
to re-instate through the backdoor the income-centred concept of poverty, which
has long been discarded in much of the development literature. More importantly,
this insistence might seem to involve a contradiction with the adoption of the
broader capability concept of poverty, with which we started.
But neither of these apprehensions is really valid. The first point to note
is that while the traditional approach to poverty focuses on personal income (a
person is defined as poor if personal income falls below a certain level designated
as the poverty line), here we are dealing with a more general concept of command
over economic resources, which goes beyond personal income to include access to
public and community resources as well. More importantly, while the traditional
approach sees lack of resources as constitutive of poverty, we stress only its causal
role. In our approach, it is the lack of freedoms, and hence the denial of rights
to those freedoms, that constitutes poverty, but for reasons explained above we
include only those denials in which lack of command over economic resources
plays a causal role.66
It is of course possible that under certain circumstances deprivation of the right to free speech
can play a causal role in the process of creating or perpetuating poverty by limiting people’s
opportunity for expanding their basic capabilities – for example, by perpetuating discrimination
against some groups in matters of access to education, healthcare and so on, because they are
not allowed to express their grievances. We shall presently discuss such instrumental relevance
of human rights for poverty. The point being made here is simply that such deprivations are not
constitutive of poverty.
One could of course ignore this association and define poverty to denote any kind of deprivation,
but this would not serve any useful purpose if the concept of poverty is to remain relevant
for social policy. As Sen rightly observes, ‘there are some clear associations that constrain the
nature of the concept, and we are not entirely free to characterize poverty in any way we like’
(Sen 1992: 111).
Furthermore, we do not insist that lack of command over economic resources has to play the
primary or predominant role in the causal process, only that it must have some role in it. For
example, when discrimination based on ethnicity or religion denies a person access to a village
hospital, the resulting ill-health would be a constituent of poverty, and hence a denial of human
rights, because lack of access to resources (the hospital) has played a role here in denying the
person the freedom to live a healthy life. But no claim is being made about the primacy of lack
of access to the hospital as a causal factor. It is indeed arguable that causal primacy in this case
lies in the sociocultural practices as well as the legal and political frameworks that sustain the
practice of discrimination.
Siddiqur R. Osmani
Having spelt out the criteria by which we can decide which denials of human
rights would constitute poverty, we can now address the second question that
stems from linking human rights with poverty: how can one reconcile the choice
of a subset of human rights (whose denial is said to constitute poverty) with the
principle of indivisibility of rights?
The answer is two-fold. First, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that
while poverty reduction must comprise an important component of social policy
it is by no means the sole object of policy-making. If the denial of a right is deemed
not to be constitutive of poverty, it does not mean that this particular right is being
treated as less important or that effort should not be made to promote it. All it
means is that promotion of such rights may fall outside the scope of the poverty
reduction strategy and other policy initiatives ought to be undertaken for this
purpose. Second, and more importantly, promotion of rights whose denial does
not constitute poverty may still have a place in a poverty reduction strategy if it
can be argued that promotion of such rights would facilitate the process of poverty
reduction by helping to overcome the forces that generate and perpetuate poverty.
In other words, particular human rights that may not have constitutive relevance
for poverty may still have an instrumental relevance. This leads us to consider the
instrumental, as distinct from intrinsic, reasons for adopting the human rights
approach to poverty.
4.2.2. The Instrumental Reason
The human rights approach can strengthen the process of poverty reduction by
helping to counter the forces that generate and sustain poverty. This is the essential
point about the instrumental reason for adopting the human rights approach to
poverty reduction. There are a number of pathways through which the human
rights approach can play this instrumental role. For analytical convenience, these
may be classified into two broad categories: (a) pathways of a general nature which
owe their existence to the fundamental principles of the human rights framework
itself, and (b) more specific pathways that emanate from the promotion of
particular human rights.
Among the pathways of a more general nature, two are especially important,
namely, empowerment and accountability. These two are actually two sides of the
same coin – both emanate from the very concept of a right. Any right has two
features. On the one hand, it invests in certain right-holders a claim to something
of value; on the other, it enjoins on some duty-bearers the obligation to deliver
that object of value. The claim of the right-holder and the obligation of the dutybearer are complementary aspects of the concept of right, because without the
obligation a claim would not be a claim – it would merely be a wish or a plea.
The claim aspect of right leads to the notion of empowerment and the obligation
aspect entails accountability; and both of these can play powerfully constructive
roles in ensuring the success of a poverty reduction strategy.
The Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction91
At the level of principles, adopting the human rights approach to poverty
reduction essentially means that the poor are acknowledged to have a set of claims
– to food that is needed to enjoy freedom from hunger, to the healthcare that is
needed to enjoy the freedom to live a healthy life, to the education that is needed
to achieve freedom from illiteracy, and so on, and that a set of duty-bearers,
principally the state, has the obligation to meet those claims. If and when the poor
come to realize that they don’t have to depend on the mercy of the rulers for access
to food, education and healthcare, and can instead claim them as a matter of right,
it can have an enormously empowering effect. The mere knowledge that they have
claims on resources as a matter of right has the potential to embolden them enough
to make them stand up for their rights and demand that their voices be heard and
their interests be accorded priority in the process of policy-making. In the real
world, both the design and outcomes of policies are influenced strongly by the
interplay of competing forces that vie with each other to tilt the state machinery
in their favour. The poor are almost always left out in this power game as they
have minimal access to the corridors of power. The human rights approach to
policy-making can alter this scenario by vesting in the poor a degree of power that
derives from the existence of their claims. To the extent that this empowerment
of the poor can alter the balance of power that determines the nature of policies,
the likelihood that an effective poverty reduction strategy will be designed and
implemented is enhanced.
The recognition that empowerment of the poor can enhance the effectiveness
of poverty reduction strategies has become quite common in recent times, even
within approaches that do not explicitly adopt the human rights framework. The
advantage of the human rights approach, compared to alternative approaches that
do not invoke human rights, is that it enhances the likelihood of empowerment of
the poor by focusing attention on the notion of claims, which in turn enhances the
likelihood that the strategy for poverty reduction will succeed.
The flip side of a claim is the existence of obligations on the part of dutybearers. But an obligation can effectively exist only if the duty-bearers can be held
accountable for their actions. That is why accountability is an essential feature of
the human rights approach to policy-making in general and to poverty reduction
in particular. Adopting the human rights approach thus makes mandatory the
development of a set of institutions through which accountability of the dutybearers can be ensured.67 As in the case of empowerment, greater accountability
enhances the likelihood that a strategy designed for the poor will actually
benefit the poor. The contemporary history of development is full of examples
where policies and programmes designed for the poor look good on paper, but
in practice fail to deliver because of dereliction of duty on the part of those in
charge of implementing the programmes. This chasm between what is promised
and what is delivered can persist only because those who govern cannot be held
accountable for their actions. Encouragingly, evidence is emerging from different
The idea of accountability is discussed more fully in Section 4.3.
Siddiqur R. Osmani
parts of the world showing that wherever effective accountability structures have
been implemented, poor people have been served better.68
Like empowerment, the idea of accountability has also gained widespread
popularity among the development community in recent times, even within
approaches that do not explicitly base themselves on the human rights norms.
However, as in the case of empowerment, the advantage of the human rights
approach, compared to alternative approaches, is that it enhances the likelihood
that effective accountability structures will be put into place, because under this
approach accountability is not merely desirable but mandatory, since it is a logical
consequence of the very concept of rights.
Turning now to specific pathways emanating from the promotion of
particular human rights, we can once again classify these into two groups. The
first group highlights the instrumental role played by the subset of rights that also
have constitutive relevance for poverty according to the criteria discussed earlier.
The second group comprises the instrumental role of the remaining rights, that is,
those not constitutive of poverty.
For the first group of pathways, the important point to note is that the same
human right may have both constitutive and instrumental relevance for poverty at
the same time. As we argued earlier, the human rights to food, education, healthcare,
and so on, have constitutive relevance for poverty because denial of these rights is
conceptually equivalent to poverty in the sense of capability failure. At the same
time, however, it is also true that each of these rights can play an instrumental
role in promoting other rights whose denial constitutes poverty. For instance, it is
well-known that better education, especially of women, has a salutary effect on the
health of children. This means that any success in fulfilling the right to education
will contribute not only directly to the reduction of poverty (because more
educational capability constitutes less poverty, other things remaining the same),
but also indirectly by playing an instrumental role in promoting the right to health
and thereby improving the health dimension of poverty. Similarly, promotion of
the right to health can play an important instrumental role in promoting other
rights such as the right to education and the right not to be hungry. Good health is
essential for cognitive development, without which the right to education would be
hard to achieve even if children have access to educational facilities. Good health
is also essential for achieving freedom from hunger because ill health prevents the
body from absorbing the nutritional content of food and thereby makes it difficult
to be free from hunger even if access to food is not a problem. Interactions of this
kind are pervasive among all the human rights whose denial constitutes poverty.
More significantly for the purpose of the present discussion, similar
interactions also exist between rights that do not have constitutive relevance for
poverty and those that do. In particular, civil and political rights, most of which
may not have constitutive relevance for poverty (by the criteria discussed earlier),
Much of this evidence relates to local-level governance. For an overview of the evidence, see the
Osmani (2002, 2008) and the references cited therein.
The Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction93
may nonetheless play powerful instrumental roles in reducing it. Take, for instance,
the right of equal access to justice. Denial of this right will not in itself constitute
poverty, but it is highly likely to have adverse consequences for many rights whose
denial will. The reason is that in the absence of equal access to justice, poor people
will not be able to improve the level of those capabilities whose failures stem from
the injustices that prevail in society. Thus, the lack of access to justice will prevent
a poor tenant from fulfilling his right to food when the landlord unduly denies
him his due share of the crop. Similarly, in the absence of access to justice, a person
belonging to a persecuted minority may find his right to work compromised if the
ruling majority resorts to discriminatory practices with regard to employment.
For such reasons, it would be reasonable to argue that ensuring the right of equal
access to justice will be instrumentally valuable for poverty reduction, and should
therefore form part of a poverty reduction strategy even if the denial of this right
does not in itself constitute poverty.
Similar arguments can be made for various other civil and political rights,
for example, the right to information, the right to free speech, the right of free
association, the right to participate in public affairs, and so on. In the absence
of these rights, people will not be able to claim their rights to food, education,
healthcare, and so on, without fear of persecution, nor will they be able to hold dutybearers to account. This is why promotion of the whole range of civil and political
rights must form an integral part of any strategy for poverty reduction, even if the
immediate focus of the strategy might be the socioeconomic rights whose denial
directly constitutes poverty. The potentiality of harnessing the instrumental value
of civil and political rights is one of the most important reasons why we should
insist on adopting the human rights approach to poverty reduction.
4.3. Essential Features of the Human Rights
Approach to Poverty Reduction
The logic of the human rights approach suggests certain essential features that any
strategy for poverty reduction must possess if it is to be founded on the ideals of
human rights. Before spelling out these features, however, it is necessary to clarify
a couple of points.
First, the features we are going to discuss do not in of themselves constitute a
poverty reduction strategy, nor do they completely determine its nature. Any such
strategy – involving detailed decisions such as how to allocate scarce resource
among competing demands, what kind of policies must be put in place to ensure
the desired allocation, and so on – must be based on the ground realities of a
particular situation, which will vary from case to case. What we are looking for
here are the commonalities – the lowest common denominator, so to speak – of all
conceivable strategies that might conform to the norms of human rights. To put it
another way, we are trying to identify a set of necessary conditions that a poverty
reduction strategy must satisfy if it is to be based on the human rights approach.
Siddiqur R. Osmani
Second, we are not claiming that the features to be identified below are all unique
to the human rights approach. Some of these features can be found in alternative
approaches as well. For instance, issues such as accountability and participation have
become common currency in existing approaches, including those advocated by
the World Bank and others, even though they do not explicitly invoke the idea of
human rights. In most cases, however, these features appear in isolation, based on
ad hoc logic; they are advocated because it is felt that they might be good for poverty
reduction for some reason or other, not because they are logically required by some
normative framework underlying the poverty reduction strategy. By contrast, we
are trying to identify a set of interrelated features that together follow logically from
a normative framework of human rights developed over time through various
covenants, treaties and other relevant human rights instruments.
The most important of these features can be classified into four groups: (a)
the nature of state obligation, (b) progressive realization of rights, (c) accountability
mechanisms, and (d) adherence to certain fundamental principles of human
rights. In the following section we examine each of these in turn.
4.3.1. The Nature of State Obligation
Within the human rights framework, the obligation to meet the claim of rightholders falls on anyone in the human society at large who might be in a position
to help or hinder the fulfilment of rights. Thus the duty-bearers comprise a whole
range of actors including the state, non-state actors, the international community,
and so on. It is, however, acknowledged in the human rights literature that the
primary obligation falls on the state for the obvious reason that among all the
actors it has the most power to appropriate and allocate resources and to design
and execute policies that affect the lives of the people. For this reason, we focus
here on the obligation of the state.
A popular way of specifying state obligation within the human rights framework
is to adopt the following three-fold classification: (1) the obligation to respect, (2)
the obligation to protect, and (3) the obligation to fulfil. The final obligation is
further sub-divided into: (3a) the obligation to facilitate and (3b) the obligation to
provide. This classification was originally proposed by Eide (1989) in the context
of the right to food but has subsequently been widely adopted in the context of all
kinds of rights, because the basic principles seemed to be applicable quite generally.
For the purpose of illustration, however, we may still use the example of the right to
food as a means of clarifying the import of each of these obligations.
‘The obligation to respect’ requires the state not to do anything that violates
the human rights of its people. For instance, it has been observed that when a
state is engaged in a civil war with a part of its own population, it sometimes uses
state machinery to deprive its adversaries of their access to food, for example, by
obstructing the passage of food aid given by the international community. The
human rights approach unequivocally prohibits this kind of behaviour, regardless
of the rights and wrongs of the war.
The Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction95
‘The obligation to protect’ goes one step further by requiring that the state
not only refrain from violating the rights of the people, but also actively protect
their rights from violation by third parties. For example, when a tyrannical
landlord jeopardizes a tenant’s right to food by evicting him from the land, it is
the obligation of the state to come to the rescue of the tenant. Even though the
state itself may not be responsible for the violation of rights in this case, it can still
be held responsible for the fact that the tenant has been denied his right to food
if it fails to take any action to prevent the violation. State inaction in the face of
violation by third parties is not permissible.
‘The obligation to fulfil’ goes even further. Even when the state has
scrupulously discharged its obligations to respect and protect, many people may
still find that their right to food has not been fulfilled. Given the endowments at
their command and the opportunities that exist for converting those endowments
into food, their entitlement to food may not be enough to avoid starvation and
hunger, even though neither the state nor any third party may have actively done
anything to deprive them of food. In this situation, the state has an obligation to
take proactive measures that will help fulfil the people’s right to food. Precisely
what steps must be taken is not specified by this principle as this will depend on
particular circumstances; however, something must be done either to augment
the people’s endowments or to expand the opportunities for converting the
endowments into food, or a combination of the two. Depending on the personal
circumstances of the people involved, the obligation to fulfil may take one of two
forms. For able-bodied people who can look after themselves given the right kind
of opportunities, the state has the ‘obligation to facilitate’, that is, to take steps that
would enable people to meet their food requirements through their own effort.
However, for those who are unable to look after themselves – for example, the old
and the infirm – the state obligation is even more stringent: it must provide food
directly to them.
The rationale of this three-fold obligation of the state can be found in the very
concept of the ‘capability right’ which, as we noted earlier, provides the conceptual
bridge between poverty and human rights. Capability, it may be recalled, is the
freedom to live the kind of life a person has reason to value, and a capability right
is the right to that freedom. The idea of freedom that is embodied in the concept
of capability is actually a composite of two kinds of freedom that are distinguished
in the philosophical literature – negative freedom and positive freedom. Negative
freedom essentially means freedom from coercion. For instance, a peasant’s negative
freedom is compromised when his landlord forcibly evicts him from the land.
Positive freedom on the other hand refers to the ability of a person to do and be the
things she or he values, even when no coercion is involved. For instance, if a person
cannot avoid hunger because the wages he or she earns in a free and competitive
market are too low to acquire sufficient food, then positive freedom is compromised.
Clearly, both negative and positive freedoms are essential from the perspective of
capability. Neither the peasant whose negative freedom has been compromised by
eviction from land nor the worker whose positive freedom has been circumscribed
by low wages in a free market has the capability to avoid hunger.
Siddiqur R. Osmani
It follows, therefore, that the state must pay attention to both negative and
positive freedoms while discharging its obligations with regard to ‘capability
rights’ such as the right to be free from hunger. The three-fold obligation of the
state may now be seen as a logical consequence of this imperative.69 The obligation
to respect and the obligation to protect both serve the cause of negative freedom
because they are both meant to prevent coercion. The obligation to fulfil, on the
other hand, serves the cause of positive freedom as it is meant to help people
achieve their capability rights when they fail to do so on their own, even though
no coercion may be involved.
4.3.2. Progressive Realization of Rights
This feature relates to the issue of how the state ought to deal with the substantial
resources required to discharge its three-fold obligation while trying to reduce
poverty through the human rights approach. Not all obligations would be equally
demanding of resources, but some use of resources would be unavoidable.
The obligation to respect would be the least demanding of all, because this
obligation simply requires the state to refrain from acting in a way that violates
someone’s rights. Discharging the obligation to protect would, however, involve
the use of some resources because a well-functioning law-enforcement and
judicial system would have to be put in place in order to protect the rights of
vulnerable people from being violated by third parties, and this cannot be done
without employing certain resources.
It is the obligation to fulfil that is likely to be the most resource-intensive,
although even here not everything will involve significant use of resources. The
best way for the state to discharge its obligation to facilitate the rights of the
poor to food, education, healthcare, and so on, is to create opportunities for
productive employment. To a large extent, this goal can be achieved by changing
the regulatory and incentive structures that are currently stacked in favour of the
rich – an act that would require more goodwill and good sense than resources. On
the other hand, substantial resources would indeed be needed to support other
kinds of facilitating activities such as creating infrastructure, improving the skill
and technological base of production, providing subsidy where the poor cannot
engage in the production process because of lack of access to the credit market,
and so on. Finally, the obligation to provide directly to those who cannot provide
for themselves would be inescapably resource-demanding.
Where is the state going to get these resources from? Partly through
redistribution – by taking from those who have and giving to those who don’t.
But the scope of this mechanism is likely to be limited, especially in the context of
mass poverty – and not just for the political reason that those who have are going
Eide himself, however, did not draw any explicit linkage between the idea of three-fold obligation
and the two types of freedom. For an early attempt to make this connection, see Osmani, 2000.
The Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction97
to resist any large-scale redistribution. A more serious problem is that large-scale
redistribution might impair the incentives to produce so badly that total output
might shrink, with the result that the government may find itself redistributing
a shrinking pie, thereby making poverty reduction progressively harder. This is
not to deny that the use of redistribution must form an integral part of a poverty
reduction strategy, but to dispel the notion that redistribution alone can solve the
problem of mass poverty.
Yet another possibility is redistribution from the rest of the world, in other
words, foreign aid. Insofar as the whole of humanity has an obligation to help fulfil
the rights of anyone in any corner of the world, the transfer of foreign resources
should certainly play a role in the human rights approach to poverty reduction.
But, as in the case of internal redistribution, international redistribution too has
its limits, though for somewhat different reasons. It is reasonable to argue that for
every nation-state the primary responsibility is towards the people who live within
its own jurisdiction, and the question of precisely how this responsibility ought to
be balanced against the obligation towards the ‘other’ involves deep philosophical
as well as practical issues that are not easy to resolve. There is an inherent tension
here and whichever way the tension is resolved it will determine the limits to
international redistribution.
A third possibility is that the government can take steps to make more
resources available for poverty reduction from the existing pool of resources. Two
distinct aspects of the use of scarce resources are involved here. The first relates
to the efficiency of resource use – the idea that it is possible to do more with the
same overall resource constraints by cutting down on wastage and unproductive
expenditures. The other aspect concerns the critical issue of prioritization. The
human rights approach to economic policy demands that in allocating scarce
resources among alternative uses priority must be accorded to the poor and
the vulnerable whose economic rights are the furthest from being fulfilled. This
demand can be met, for example, by reallocating resources away from activities
that benefit mainly richer people towards those that benefit mainly the poor.
All these mechanisms – internal and international redistribution, more
efficient use of existing resources, and reallocation of existing resources towards
poverty-reducing activities – will have to form integral parts of any poverty
reduction strategy. Even after all that, however, available resources may fall short of
resource requirements. In that case, which is indeed the most likely scenario when
a country is confronted with massive poverty, successful reduction of poverty will
have to be contingent upon availability of additional resources created over time
by the process of economic growth.70 In other words, reduction of poverty, and
It is precisely for this reason that the instrumental value of growth for the full realization of human
rights has been repeatedly emphasized by Arjun Sengupta in his various writings on the right to
development. See, for instance, Sengupta (2006). The point is also emphasized in Osmani (2006)
in the same volume. Somewhat controversially, however, Sengupta also proceeds to include rightbased growth as a constituent of the right to development, thus according growth intrinsic as well
as instrumental value. For a contrarian view on this score, see Osmani (2005).
Siddiqur R. Osmani
the corresponding fulfilment of rights, can only be achieved over a period of time.
This is what underlies the idea of progressive realization of rights – an idea whose
necessity is acknowledged in the human rights literature in recognition of the
existence of resource constraint.
Progressive realization is not of course unique or special to the human rights
approach. The existence of resource constraint implies that poverty will have to be
reduced in a progressive manner, whatever approach one adopts. What is special
about the human rights approach is the set of conditions that must be imposed
on the process of progressive realization for it to conform to the logic of human
The logic of adopting such a conditional approach lies in the fact that there
is a potential problem with progressive realization – what economists call the
problem of moral hazard. Once the necessity of progressive realization of rights is
granted, it creates a potential leeway for the duty-bearer to get away with dereliction
of duty. This leeway is made possible by the existence of an uncertainty that is
inherent in the process of progressive realization. For example, when very little
progress is being made in fulfilling rights, right-holders may not know whether
this is the result of negligence and/or malfeasance on the part of the duty-bearer,
or because of some exogenous constraints beyond its control. Taking advantage
of this uncertainty, a state, which was actually uncaring about the rights of the
people, might make a mendacious claim that it was seriously committed to the
cause of human rights but was nevertheless making slow progress only because
of exogenous constraints. This would make a shibboleth of the idea of progressive
realization of rights. Steps must be taken to minimize the possibility of this kind of
moral hazard if progressive realization is to occur in conformity with the spirit of
human rights. A number of conditions must be imposed for this purpose.
First, in order to ensure that progressive realization occurs as expeditiously
as possible given the constraint of available resources, the strategy for poverty
reduction must contain time-bound and verifiable targets, with an explanation of
why these targets are the best ones possible given the circumstances. The future
performance of the state will be judged against these targets.
Second, in order to ensure that the pace of progressive realization is not
unduly slowed down by setting targets that are too low, the targets and the plan of
action designed to achieve them must be formulated in a participatory manner,
involving the right-holders so that the latter can be confident that the targets that
have been set are actually the best ones possible.
Third, appropriate monitoring and accountability mechanisms must be set
up, first of all to measure the performance of the state against the pre-specified
targets, and then to call for explanations if there is a shortfall in achievement.
The idea of accountability is absolutely vital if the scope for moral hazard is to
be squeezed out of the process of progressive realization. It is to this issue of
accountability that we now turn.
The Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction99
4.3.3. Accountability Mechanisms
The idea of accountability has cropped up several times in our discussion so far.
This is no surprise, as the idea is central to the discourse of human rights. Since we
have already explained the rationale and role of accountability in the advancing
the cause of human rights, we can be brief here.
Accountability should be a feature of good governance everywhere regardless
of whether the idea of human rights is invoked or not. However, once the human
rights approach is explicitly adopted as the normative basis of policy-making,
ensuring accountability becomes a logical imperative. Rights don’t mean anything
unless there exists a corresponding obligation, and obligation doesn’t mean
anything unless the duty-bearer can be held accountable; hence the fundamental
importance of accountability in the human rights framework. Accountability is
particularly indispensable in the context of the progressive realization of rights,
because without it the moral hazard inherent in the process of progressive
realization could render the whole idea of human rights approach to poverty
reduction no more than a charade.
Setting up appropriate accountability mechanisms thus turns out to be an
essential feature of the human rights approach to policy-making. These mechanisms
could be formal or informal, judicial as well as non-judicial. The details of the
mechanisms could vary from country to country depending on history, traditions
and culture. I would like to highlight a couple of general points here.
First, there exists a point of view that suggests that accountability cannot really
be ensured unless the commitments made by the state are rendered justiciable so
that redress can be obtained through a court of law in case of failed commitments.
The underlying idea behind this suggestion is that sanctions against abdication of
duty must have real force in order to be effective and thus must be legal and judicial.
One could, however, argue that while legal sanctions would indeed have the desired
bite, other less formal and non-judicial mechanisms may not be entirely without
force. Sometimes, simple mechanisms that do no more than name and shame those
who have failed to perform their duty may be enough. For example, experience
from countries as diverse as India and Uganda show that when leaders of a village
government are required to display detailed breakdowns of spending given for
local community development before the general public and answer questions in
an open meeting, this can be a very effective deterrent against misuse of resources
and negligence of duty. The general point is that there could be a whole spectrum of
mechanisms with varying degrees of sanction attached to them. The legal sanction
lies at one end of the spectrum and there is no reason why mechanisms with other
forms of sanction – such as social opprobrium – should not be tried.71
The second general point is that while accountability is the most important
feature of the human rights approach, it is also perhaps the most difficult to
For a forceful exposition of the idea that even without justiciability human rights can be both
conceptually meaningful and practically useful, see Sen (2004).
Siddiqur R. Osmani
implement. This is for the simple reason that by agreeing to set up accountability
mechanisms the duty-bearers expose themselves to kinds of public scrutiny and
sanctions that can hardly be pleasant. It is, therefore, most unlikely that the powers
that be would readily agree to set up these mechanisms; if anything, they are almost
certainly going to resist. Only sustained pressure – both internal and external – can
eventually create a countervailing force that might be strong enough to make the
duty-bearers yield. A strong social movement in support of the implementation of
human rights in all its ramifications is, therefore, a necessary prerequisite for the
success of the human rights approach to poverty reduction.
4.3.4. A
dherence to Certain Fundamental
Principles of Human Rights
We shall finally touch upon four basic principles which a human rights approach
to poverty reduction must adhere to. These are: (a) the principle of participation,
(b) the principle of non-discrimination, (c) the principle of indivisibility of rights,
and (d) the principle of non-retrogression of rights.
The principle of participation is important in the human rights approach for
both intrinsic and instrumental reasons. The intrinsic importance derives from
the fact that the right to participate in public affairs is explicitly recognized as one
of the human rights that every individual is entitled to. It is also instrumentally
important in the context of poverty reduction because experience shows that
effective participation by potential beneficiaries in all stages of the policy process
– design, implementation and monitoring – can enhance both the efficiency and
equity of outcomes.
As in the case of accountability, however, ensuring effective participation of
the poor is by no means a simple task. A recent review of international experience
shows that the effectiveness of participation depends on the success in closing
three critical gaps – the incentive gap, the capacity gap and the power gap.72 Poor
people often do not have either the incentive or the capacity or the power to
engage effectively in a participatory enterprise involving also the more privileged
sections of the society. It is only through a sustained process of social mobilization,
involving at times adversarial engagement with the powers that be, that these gaps
might be closed.
The principle of non-discrimination lies at the very foundations of the idea
of human rights. Its rationale derives from the premise that the quintessential
humanity that creates the entitlement to human rights is the same for every
human being regardless of race, religion, colour, gender, or any other attribute.
The policies of the state must not, therefore, be discriminatory on any ground.
For example, in pursuing a poverty reduction strategy under the human rights
For an elaboration of this three-gap approach to effective participation, see Osmani (2008).
The Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction101
approach, the state is not allowed to favour the poor of one ethnic group relative
to another, or to favour one gender over another.
This does not mean, however, that every single policy adopted by the
government must have exactly the same and equal effect on every individual.
Such a demand would be absurd to make and impossible to meet. Most economic
policies that might be desirable on balance will have both winners and losers. For
instance, the policy of removing rampant protectionism in poor labour-abundant
countries will be efficient and will also tend to help poor workers by encouraging
the development of labour-intensive activities in which such countries will have a
comparative advantage. But at the same time some poor workers that had earlier
been engaged in protected inefficient industries would face loss of jobs. A neutral
effect on all poor people will be impossible to achieve. Moreover, economic
policies have both direct and indirect effects (called general equilibrium effects),
and the latter may often be hard to predict and even harder to control. So even if
the direct effects were neutral it would be impossible to ensure the same for the
indirect effects. The demand of non-discrimination in this situation can only mean
that the totality of government policies taken together should not systematically
discriminate any particular group(s) of the population.
The principles of indivisibility and non-retrogression of rights become
relevant when policymakers are confronted with the task of prioritizing the use
of scarce resources. In formulating a poverty reduction strategy, the government
will have to decide how to allocate resources to different sectors such as food,
healthcare and education. The principle of indivisibility of rights demands that in
making this allocation the government should not try to advance any particular
right (say, the right to education) at the expense of any others (say, the right
to healthcare) because all rights are equally valuable. This idea is sometimes
expressed by the statement that there can be no trade-off among rights. This
statement is somewhat misleading, however. While no right can be ignored, it may
make perfect sense to give more weight to some rights than to others in particular
circumstances. For instance, if education has been badly ignored in the past
compared to healthcare, it would be entirely sensible to devote more resources to
education in any future programme for poverty reduction. Such trade-offs at the
margin would be inescapable in any exercise in resource allocation. What must be
guarded against, however, is that no right goes backward, in other words, the level
of achievement must not fall in absolute terms. This is the demand of the principle
of non-retrogression of rights. The same principle applies to the allocation of
resources among different sub-groups of the poor. While it may be desirable
to allocate more resources to those among the poor who have historically been
neglected the most, care must be taken to ensure that others among the poor do
not suffer an absolute decline in the level of rights enjoyed.73
As in the case of non-discrimination, this principle applies to the totality of governments’
policies and programmes rather than to any one of them in isolation.
Siddiqur R. Osmani
4.4. Concluding Remarks
In this chapter we have examined the rationale of adopting the human rights
approach to poverty reduction, focusing on both intrinsic and instrumental aspects
of the rationale. We have also spelt out some essential features that any poverty
reduction strategy based on the human rights approach must possess. These
features have been derived from first principles, that is, as a logical consequence
of adopting the human rights approach. It is interesting to note that some of the
features we have thus derived – accountability, participation, time-bound targets
for progressive realization, and so on – also figure prominently in some of the
existing approaches and are also observed in practice in varying degrees, even
though the idea of human rights is not explicitly invoked in these cases. This raises
the question, often asked, of what is the value-added of adopting the human rights
approach to poverty reduction in particular and to policy-making in general?
The answer can be given in three parts. First, while some of the ideas such as
accountability and participation can be justified without reference to human rights,
there is a difference in the force of justification. The justification in alternative
approaches lies in the argument that these features are useful for effective poverty
reduction. In the human rights approach, by contrast, they are not only useful but
also logically necessary. It is this logical necessity that makes their case stronger
and thus enhances the likelihood that these ideas will be put into practice once the
human rights approach is consciously adopted. Second, when some of the features
of the human rights approach appear in other approaches, they tend to do so in a
piecemeal manner; by contrast, only the human rights approach can ensure that
the whole range of these features will be accorded due importance because they all
follow equally logically from a common normative framework. Third, the human
rights approach demands in a way no other approach does that even though
poverty reduction may be concerned directly with economic freedoms such as
freedom from hunger, illiteracy, and so on, a strategy for achieving these freedoms
must be supported by a broader agenda in which civil and political freedoms are
also advanced. The adoption of this broader approach would not only result in the
enjoyment of more civil and political freedoms, which are valuable in their own
right, but also in more effective poverty reduction, because of the instrumental
value of civil-political freedoms in reducing poverty.
We should conclude, however, with a cautionary note. While the human rights
approach is both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable for poverty reduction,
no one should be under the illusion that implementing this approach is going
to be an easy task. Our discussion of the features of the human rights approach
clearly demonstrates that poverty reduction cannot be a pure technocratic exercise.
Essential features such as accountability and participation have an immensely
disruptive implication for the status quo in the political and social arena, as their
adoption, in any meaningful way, would invariably alter existing power structures.
It would be naïve to expect the powers that be to readily concede to diluting, let
alone relinquishing, their entrenched power. Only a sustained social movement,
drawing widespread support from both within and outside the country, can
The Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction103
generate the countervailing power that would render the human rights approach
to poverty reduction a politically feasible enterprise.
Eide, A. 1989. Right to Adequate Food as a Human Right. Human Rights Study
Series No. 1. New York: United Nations.
Nussbaum, M. 2000. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
OHCHR. 2004. Human Rights and Poverty Reduction: A Conceptual Framework.
Geneva: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
OHCHR. 2006. Principles and Guidelines For a Human Rights Approach to Poverty
Reduction Strategies. Geneva: Office of the High Commissioner for Human
Osmani, S. 2000. Human rights to food, health and education, Journal of Human
Development, Vol. 1/2, pp. 271–96.
Osmani, S. 2002. Expanding voice and accountability through the budgetary
process, Journal of Human Development, Vol. 3/2, pp. 231–50.
Osmani, S. 2005a. Poverty and human rights: building on the capability approach,
Journal of Human Development, Vol. 6/2, pp. 205–19.
Osmani, S. 2005b. An essay on the human rights approach to development.
A. Sengupta, A. Negi and M. Basu (eds), Reflections on the Right to
Development. New Delhi: Sage Publications.
Osmani, S. 2006. Globalization and the human rights approach to development.
B.A. Andreassen and S.P. Marks (eds), Development as a Human Right:
Legal, Political and Economic Dimensions. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard
School of Public Health.
Osmani, S. 2008. Participatory governance for efficiency and equity: an overview
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Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), United Nations.
Sen, A. 1985. Commodities and Capabilities. Amsterdam: North-Holland.
Sen, A. 1992. Inequality Reexamined. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
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S.P. Marks (eds), Development as a Human Right: Legal, Political and
Economic Dimensions. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard School of Public Health.
Informality, Poverty and Gender:
An Economic Rights Approach
Martha Alter Chen
The opposite of poverty is not wealth – it is justice. [T]he objective[…] is
to create a more just society, not necessarily a wealthier one. And the great
question is, how do we do this?
(Leonardo Boff / Franciscan Theologian, Brazil)
5.1. Introduction
The persistence of poverty worldwide is a major challenge for the twenty-first
century. More than 1 billion people struggle to survive on less than US$1 a day
(UN, 2005). Of these, roughly half – 550 million – are working (ILO, 2005). By
definition, these working poor cannot work their way out of extreme poverty. They
simply do not earn enough to feed themselves and their families, much less to
deal with the economic risks and uncertainties they face. The majority earn their
livelihood in the informal economy where average earnings are low and economic
risks are high, especially among own account operators, casual day labourers and
industrial outworkers. Rough estimates suggest that half of the working poor in the
informal economy are self-employed; the other half are wage employed working
for households, informal enterprises or formal enterprises.
Poverty reduction is not possible without addressing the root causes of the
low level of incomes and the high level of risks faced by the working poor in the
informal economy. The root causes are not simply lack of productive resources and
economic opportunities, as the people in question are working. What the working
poor lack, more fundamentally, are economic rights, including: labour rights for
informal wage workers and business rights for informal self-employed workers, as
well as property rights, the right to social protection, and the right to organization
and representation for both groups.
Despite their numbers and economic contributions, we know relatively little
about the working poor in the informal economy. Although there is an official
international definition of the informal economy and various national efforts are
being undertaken to improve labour force statistics, economic analysts continue to
Martha Alter Chen
debate the definition, and labour force statistics in most countries do not include all
categories of informal work. Although there has been a recent resurgence of interest
in the informal economy, there remain a lot of misconceptions about its causes,
composition and consequences. Although various observers over the years have
proposed policy prescriptions in response to informality, few observers have framed
their prescriptions in terms of economic rights. And those that have framed their
prescriptions in terms of rights have focused on one or another economic right –
notably, property rights or labour rights – without considering the full set of economic
rights that the working poor need in order to work their way out of poverty.
This chapter seeks to address the gaps outlined above. Section 5.2 presents
the official international definition of informal employment and recent national
data on informal employment so defined, including its links with poverty and
gender inequality. Section 5.3 proposes an integrated set of economic rights in
support of the working poor in the informal economy. The concluding Section 5.4
argues that institutions – both the rules and the rule-setting institutions – need
to be reformed to match the realities of informal employment and, thereby, to
address the economic disadvantages, risks and uncertainties faced by the working
poor in the informal economy.
5.2. Informality, Poverty and Gender
5.2.1. The Informal Economy
Historical debates
Since its ‘discovery’ in the early 1970s, the informal economy and its role in
economic development have been hotly debated. Some observers view the
informal economy in positive terms, as a ‘pool’ of entrepreneurial talent or a
‘cushion’ during economic crises. Others see the informal economy as a source of
livelihood for the working poor. Still others view it more problematically, arguing
that informal entrepreneurs deliberately avoid registration and taxation.
Underlying these varying perspectives are three dominant schools of thought
on the informal economy. The most well-known school, popularized by Hernando
e Soto (de Soto 1989) and recently promoted by William Maloney among others
(Maloney 2004; Perry et al 2007), views the informal sector as comprised of
‘plucky’ micro-entrepreneurs who choose to operate informally in order to avoid
the costs, time and effort of formal registration. The most influential alternative
school, popularized by Manuel Castells, Caroline Moser and Alexandro Portes
(among others) in the late 1970s and 1980s, viewed the informal economy in
broader and more structural terms as comprised of subordinated economic units
and workers that serve to reduce the input and labour costs of large capitalist firms
and, thereby, increase their competitiveness (Moser 1978; Castells and Portes
1989). The third school of thought, popularized by the ILO in the 1970s and now
championed by organizations working with the poor, views the informal sector
Informality, Poverty and Gender: An Economic Rights Approach107
as comprised of marginal activities – distinct from and not related to the formal
sector – that provide income for the poor and a safety net in times of crisis (ILO
1972; Sethuraman 1976; Tokman 1978).74
Although interest in the informal economy has waxed and waned since its
‘discovery’ in 1972, it has continued to prove useful as a concept to many policymakers, activists and researchers. This is because the reality it seeks to capture –
the large share of the global workforce that remains outside the world of full-time,
stable and protected employment – is so significant. At present, there is renewed
interest in the informal economy worldwide. This renewal of interest stems from
the fact that, contrary to the predictions of many economists, the informal sector
has not only grown worldwide but also emerged in new guises and in unexpected
places. It now represents a very significant but largely overlooked share of the
global economy and workforce.
New Term and Expanded Definition
Given its resilience and dynamic nature, the informal economy today has forced some
fundamental rethinking of the concept. In recent years, the International Labour
Office, the International Expert Group on Informal Sector Statistics (called the
Delhi Group), and the global network WIEGO,75 have worked together to broaden
the earlier concept and statistical definition of the ‘informal sector’ to incorporate
certain types of ‘informal employment’ that had previously been excluded. We sought
to include the whole of informality, as it is manifested in industrialized, transition
and developing economies and the real-world dynamics in labour markets today,
particularly the employment arrangements of the working poor.
Broadly defined, the informal economy includes the self-employed in informal
enterprises (i.e. small and unregulated) as well as the wage employed in informal jobs
(i.e. unregulated and unprotected) in both urban and rural areas (ILO 2002; Chen
et al 2005).76 So defined, informal labour markets encompass rural self-employment,
both agricultural and non-agricultural; urban self-employment in manufacturing,
trade and services; and various forms of informal wage employment (including day
labourers in construction and agriculture, industrial outworkers and more).
This expanded definition was endorsed by the International Labour
Conference (ILC) in 2002 and the International Conference of Labour Statisticians
(ICLS) in 2003. A decade earlier, in 1993, the ICLS had adopted the international
A recent World Bank publication characterizes the causal theories of the first and third school
as Exit and Exclusion, respectively, but fails to mention the causal theory of the second school
of thought, which could be characterized as Exploitation (Perry et al 2007).
The global research-policy network Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and
Organizing (WIEGO) seeks to increase the visibility and voice of the working poor, especially
women, in the informal economy through better statistics and research on informal employment,
more and stronger organizations of informal workers, and policy dialogues to promote more
inclusive policies and institutions.
At present, the ILO Statistics Bureau, the Delhi Group and the WIEGO network are jointly
preparing a manual on surveys to measure informal employment both inside and outside the
informal sector.
Martha Alter Chen
statistical definition of the ‘informal sector’ to refer to employment and production
that takes place in small and/or unregistered enterprises. In 2003, the ICLS
broadened the definition to include certain types of informal wage employment
outside the informal sector: statisticians refer to this larger concept as ‘informal
employment’. In this chapter, the terms ‘informal economy’ and ‘informal
employment’ are used for this broader concept and the term ‘informal sector’ is
used for the narrower concept.
A Statistical Picture
What follows is a summary of findings on the size and composition of the informal
economy in twenty-five developing countries (ILO 2002): official national data
were used to estimate informal employment in each of the countries.77 Findings on
labour force segmentation and average earnings are based on two recent reviews
of available data (Chen et al 2004, 2005).
Informal employment broadly defined comprises one-half to three-quarters of
non-agricultural employment in developing countries: specifically, 47 per cent in the
Middle East and North Africa, 51 per cent in Latin America, 71 per cent in Asia and
72 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa. If South Africa is excluded, the share of informal
employment in non-agricultural employment rises to 78 per cent in sub-Saharan
Africa; and if comparable data were available for additional countries in South Asia,
other than India, the regional average for Asia would likely be much higher.
Some countries include informal employment in agriculture in their estimates.
This significantly increases the proportion of informal employment: from 83 per cent
of non-agricultural employment to 93 per cent of total employment in India, from 55
to 62 per cent in Mexico, and from 28 to 34 per cent in South Africa.
Composition: For purposes of analysis and policy-making it is useful to disaggregate
informal employment into more homogeneous sub-sectors according to status of
employment, as follows: 78
Informal self-employment including:
• employers: owner operators who hire others;
• own account workers: owner operators of single-person units or
family businesses/farms who do not hire others;
• unpaid contributing family workers: family members who work in
family businesses or farms without pay; and
• members of informal producers’ cooperatives (where these exist).
The authors of ILO (2002), Martha Chen and Joann Vanek, further analysed a set of official
national data compiled and analysed by Jacques Charmes.
‘Employment status’ is a conceptual framework used by labour statisticians to delineate two key
aspects of labour contractual arrangements: the allocation of authority over the work process
and the outcome of the work done; and the allocation of economic risks involved (ILO 2002).
Informality, Poverty and Gender: An Economic Rights Approach109
Informal wage employment: employees without formal contracts or social
protection employed by formal or informal enterprises or by households.
Depending on the scope of labour regulations and the extent to which they are
enforced and complied with, informal employment relations can exist in almost
any type of wage employment. However, certain types of wage work are more
likely than others to be informal (i.e. lack protection). These include:
• informal employees: unprotected employees with a known employer
(either an informal enterprise, a formal enterprise, or a household);
• temporary or part-time workers: who are contracted directly or through
a contract agency;
• contract workers: who supply services under a contract negotiated either
directly negotiated or through a contract agency;
• casual or day labourers: wage workers with no fixed employer who sell
their labour on a daily or seasonal basis;
• paid domestic workers: for households;
• unregistered or undeclared workers (often undocumented migrants), and
• industrial outworkers: sub-contracted workers who produce for a piecerate from their homes (also called homeworkers) or small workshops.
In all developing regions, self-employment comprises a greater share of informal
employment (outside of agriculture) than wage employment: specifically, selfemployment represents 70 per cent of informal non-agricultural employment in
sub-Saharan Africa, 62 per cent in North Africa, 60 per cent in Latin America and
59 per cent in Asia. Excluding South Africa, where black-owned businesses were
prohibited during the apartheid era and have only recently begun to re-emerge and
be recognized, the share of self-employment in informal employment increases to
81 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa.
Self-employment represents nearly one-third of total non-agricultural
employment worldwide. It is less important in developed countries (12 per cent
of total non-agricultural employment) than in developing countries where it
comprises as much as 53 per cent of non-agricultural employment in sub-Saharan
Africa, 44 per cent in Latin America, 32 per cent in Asia and 31 per cent in North
Africa. If informality in agricultural employment were included, the share of selfemployment would be higher still.
Informal wage employment is also significant in the developing world:
comprising 30 to 40 per cent of informal employment (outside of agriculture),
informal wage employment is comprised of employees of informal enterprises as
well as various types of informal wage workers who work for formal enterprises,
households or no fixed employer. These include casual day labourers, domestic
workers, industrial outworkers, undeclared workers and part-time or temporary
workers without secure contracts or social protection.
Home-based workers and street vendors are two of the largest sub-groups of
the informal workforce, with home-based workers the more numerous but street
vendors the more visible of the two. Together they represent 10–25 per cent of
Martha Alter Chen
the non-agricultural workforce in developing countries and over 5 per cent of the
total workforce in developed countries.
Segmentation: While average earnings are higher in formal jobs than in informal
employment, there is also a hierarchy of earnings within informal employment.
In Tunisia, for example, informal employers earn four times the minimum wage
and over two times (2.2) the formal wage. Their employees earn roughly the
minimum wage, while industrial outworkers – mostly women homeworkers –
earn less than one-third (30 per cent) of the minimum wage. In Columbia and
India, informal employers earn four to five times the minimum wage, while own
account operators earn only 1.5 times the minimum wage (analysis of national
data by Jacques Charmes, cited in Chen et al 2004).
In brief, within informal labour markets, the differences in average earnings across
the different employment statuses outlined above are remarkably similar across
countries where data are available. Research findings suggest that it is difficult
to move up these segments due to structural barriers (state, market and social)
and/or cumulative disadvantage.79 Many workers, especially women, appear to be
trapped in the lower-earning and more risky segments.
5.2.2. Gendered Patterns
Informalization of Labour Markets by Sex
The last two decades have seen a marked increase in women’s labour force
participation, most significantly in the Americas and Western Europe and more
modestly in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and East Asia (UNRISD 2005;
Heintz 2005). Only in two regions – Eastern Europe and South Asia – has the
women’s labour force participation rate actually fallen. The marked increase in
women’s labour force participation worldwide has given rise to the notion of the
‘feminization of the labour force’. But this notion has been defined and used in
two distinct ways: first, to refer to the situation in which the ratio of women’s
labour force participation rate to men’s labour force participation rate increases
over time; second, to refer to a situation in which the structure of the labour force
itself is ‘feminized’, that is, when jobs take on features associated with women’s
work such as low pay, drudgery, uncertainty and precariousness (Heintz 2005).
Whether or not there is a causal link between the increase in women’s
labour force participation and the growing precariousness or informality of work
is not clear – and has been hotly debated. Is there a link between the expansion
To statistically test whether there are structural barriers to mobility across the different segments
will require panel data on informal employment as well as key variables – such as education or
assets. The WIEGO network is looking for countries with the panel data that would allow us to
test whether the apparent segmentation is, indeed, structural.
Informality, Poverty and Gender: An Economic Rights Approach111
of women’s labour force participation and the informalization of labour markets
over the past two decades, or do they represent parallel but distinct processes? The
pervasive segmentation of labour markets by gender, which we will discuss below,
suggests that women’s labour did not simply substitute for men’s labour. Rather,
there has been some parallel process at work creating low-paid and poor quality
informal employment opportunities for (primarily) women (Heintz 2005).
Estimates of changes over time in the degree of informalization within the
female and male labour force are not available. However, a recent analysis of trends
in the Tunisian labour market, with a special focus on informal employment,
suggests the kind of analysis required and the trends that might be found elsewhere.
Between 1975 and 1997, informal employment in Tunisia grew at a very fast rate.
During the economic slump of the 1980s, the share of informal employment
increased, accounting for almost 40 per cent of non-agricultural employment by
1989. This trend confirmed the conventional notion that the informal economy
is counter-cyclical, expanding during economic down-turns and shrinking
during economic growth. However, during the rapid economic growth and trade
liberalization of the 1990s, the share of informal employment grew even faster,
accounting for over 47 per cent of non-agricultural employment by 1997. In brief,
while informal employment grew at an annual rate of over 5 per cent in the late
1970s and 1980s, it grew at an annual rate of 7.5 per cent between 1989 and 1997
(Charmes and Lakehal 2006).
How can this apparent contradiction be explained? During the late 1970s
and 1980s, it was largely informal employment inside the informal sector that grew.
While during the economic growth of the 1990s, it was largely informal employment
outside the informal sector that grew: notably, informalized and sub-contracted
labour for larger enterprises, most of it undeclared. By 1997, less than half of the
informal workforce (46 per cent) was employed in small informal enterprises (i.e. the
informal sector), while over half (54 per cent) was employed as undeclared informal
workers for both formal and informal enterprises, most of whom were women
outworkers contracted by export-oriented firms. In brief, the evidence from Tunisia
suggests that while employment inside the informal sector may be counter-cyclical,
informal employment outside the informal sector may be pro-cyclical (Charmes and
Lakehal 2006).
The Tunisian example confirms what an earlier cross-country analysis (Heintz
and Pollin 2003) suggests: namely, that certain forms of informal employment –
notably, sub-contracted work linked to the global production system – expand
during periods of economic growth, especially when growth is driven by trade
and financial liberalization. In this regard, it is important to note that women
workers tend to be overrepresented in global production systems, at least in the
early stages of trade liberalization when a premium is placed on export-oriented
light manufacturing and low-skilled (and low-paid) workers (Chen et al 2005).
Martha Alter Chen
Informal Employment by Sex
Informal employment is generally a larger source of employment for women
than for men in the developing world. Other than in the Middle East and North
Africa, where 42 per cent of women workers (and 48 per cent of male workers) are
informally employed, 60 per cent or more of women non-agricultural workers in
the developing world are informally employed. Among non-agricultural workers,
in sub-Saharan Africa, 84 per cent of women workers are informally employed
compared to 63 per cent of men workers; in Latin America, 58 per cent of women
workers compared to 48 per cent of men; and in Asia, 73 per cent of women
workers compared to 70 per cent of men workers.
Segmentation of Informal Employment by Sex
Available evidence from several developing countries suggests that, as a general
rule, relatively high shares of informal employers are men and relatively high
shares of industrial outworkers are women. In India, for example, 6 per cent of
informal employers, 19 per cent of own account operators, 16 per cent of informal
wage workers, and 59 per cent of industrial outworkers are women.80
In brief, men tend to be over-represented in the top segments of the informal
economy; women tend to be over-represented in the bottom segment; and the
relative shares of men and women in the intermediate segments vary across
sectors and countries. Available evidence also suggests that there are significant
gaps in earnings within the informal economy: informal employers have the
highest earnings on average; followed by their employees and informal employees
of formal firms; then own account operators, casual wage workers, and industrial
outworkers. These two stylized facts are depicted graphically in Figure 5.1.
The available data on poverty risk – that is, the likelihood that a worker
from a given segment of the labour force is from a poor household – indicate a
similar hierarchy. Workers in the formal economy, particularly in public sector
formal jobs, are less likely than workers in the informal economy to be from a
poor household. Within the informal economy, informal employees are more
likely than their employers to be from poor households, own account operators
are more likely than informal employees to be from poor households, and so forth
down the segmentation pyramid illustrated above (Chen et al 2005).
However, analysing the poverty risk of workers, as opposed to their average
earnings, is complicated by whether or not a worker is the sole earner, the
primary bread winner or a supplemental earner in her household. For example,
because their earnings are so low, women industrial outworkers are likely to
be supplemental earners in households with male earners. Whether or not an
industrial outworker is from a poor households depends on whether the earnings
These figures were computed by Jeemol Unni using the individual records of the Employment and
Unemployment Survey, 1999–2000, 55th Round of the National Sample Survey Organization,
New Delhi.
Informality, Poverty and Gender: An Economic Rights Approach113
of the whole household, including her earnings, fall below or above the poverty
threshold. If she is the sole or primary breadwinner, the household of a women
industrial outworker is very likely to be poor (Chen et al 2005).
Figure 5.1. Segmentation of informal employment
by average earnings and sex
Average Earnings
Segmentation by Sex
Predominantly Men
Informal Employees
Own Account Operators
Men and Women
Casual Wage Workers
Industrial Outworkers/Homeworkers
Note: The informal economy may also be segmented by race, ethnicity, caste or religion.
Source: Chen et al 2005.
An additional fact, not captured in Figure 5.1, is the existence of gender
segmentation and earning gaps within these broad employment status categories.
Women tend to work in different types of activities, associated with different
levels of earning, than men – with the result that they typically earn less even
within specific segments of the informal economy. Some of this difference can be
explained by the fact that men tend to have more human capital due to educational
discrimination against girls, especially in certain societies (e.g. north India and
Pakistan). This difference can also be explained by the fact that men tend to have
better tools of the trade, operate from better work sites/spaces and have greater
access to productive assets and financial capital. In addition, or as a result, men
often produce or sell a higher volume or a different range of goods and services.
For instance, among street vendors in many countries, men are more likely to sell
non-perishables while women are more likely to sell perishable goods (such as
fruits and vegetables). In addition, men are more likely to sell from push-carts or
bicycles while women are more likely to sell from baskets or, simply, from a cloth
spread on the ground.
In sum, there is a significant range of average earnings and poverty risk across
the informal economy in terms of employment status, with a small entrepreneurial
class (comprised of most informal employers and a few own account operators)
and a large working class (comprised of most informal employees, most own
account operators, all casual workers, and all industrial outworkers). There is also
Martha Alter Chen
gender segmentation within informal labour markets resulting in a gender gap in
average earnings with women overrepresented in the lowest-paid segments and
earning less on average than men in most segments.81
Causes and Consequences of Informality
Given the size and heterogeneity of informal employment, what is needed is an
integrated conceptual framework that incorporates the causes and consequences
of all forms of informality, not just one form or another. Each of the various
schools of thought on informality, outlined earlier, is valid, but only for one or
another ‘slice of the informal pie’.
Causes: There are different causal theories as to what gives rise to informality.
Many economists subscribe to the notion that informal entrepreneurs choose
– or volunteer – to work informally (Maloney 2004). Yet many economists also
recognize that informal employment tends to expand during economic crises or
downturns, suggesting that necessity – in addition to choice – drives informality.
And that many informal workers and operators are simply excluded from statebased regulations and protections. Other observers point out that informalization
of employment relations often reflects the choice – or preference – of employers,
not their employees. Each of these theories is valid for some – but not all – parts
of the informal economy.
Paraphrasing the title of a recent World Bank publication on informality,
which focused on two causal explanations characterized as Exit and Exclusion,
what follows is an integrated set of causal explanations that captures most forms
of informality: the Four E’s:
Exit: Some of the self-employed choose – or volunteer – to work informally in
order to avoid registration and taxation, while others do not choose to work
informally but do so out of necessity or tradition. That is, there are two kinds of
Exit: by choice or by necessity.
Entry: Many of the self-employed would welcome efforts to reduce barriers to
registration and related transaction costs especially if they were to receive the
benefits of formalizing, such as written and enforceable commercial contracts
as well as access to financial resources, market information and government
incentives. In other words, for many informal operators, the barriers to Entry are
formidable and the benefits of Entry are not guaranteed.
Exclusion: Many state-based regulations and protections do not apply or have
not been extended to informal wage workers or self-employed. This may be due
For a detailed analysis of available statistics on the gender segmentation of the informal
economy and the linkages between working in the informal economy, being a woman or man,
and being poor, see Chen et al (2004; 2005).
Informality, Poverty and Gender: An Economic Rights Approach115
to neglect, biases or simply ignorance on the part of those who make policies and
set rules.
Exploitation: In many contexts, employers choose to retain a small core
regular workforce and hire other workers on an informal basis; avoid payroll
taxes and employer-contributions to social security or pensions; and/or avoid
other obligations as employers. In such cases, the employers (not the workers)
are avoiding regulation and taxation. Similarly, some large enterprises choose
to contract smaller enterprises to provide goods and services without entering
written contracts or sharing risks.
Consequences: The poverty and other outcomes of work are a function not only of
the level of earnings but also of the period over which earnings are sustained, the
volatility of these earnings, and the arrangements through which they are achieved,
including related costs and benefits. Three dimensions of work are instrumental in
determining the social outcomes of work: place of work, production system and
employment status. Each place of work is associated with specific risks and, thus,
different degrees of security or insecurity. Micro-entrepreneurs and wage workers
tend to lose market knowledge and bargaining power as they move from domestic
markets to export markets or global systems of production. And each employment
status, as outlined below, is associated with different degrees of autonomy and risk
for those who work in them.82
While informal work does offer positive opportunities and benefits, such
as flexibility of work hours and convenience of work location, the costs are often
quite high. Some of these are direct ‘out-of-pocket’ expenses needed to run an
informal business or otherwise work informally; others are indirect, reflecting the
more general conditions under which the working poor live and work. Some of
these can be rather high over the long term, such as when a worker has to sacrifice
access to health and education (or training) for herself or family members. Also,
there are psychological and emotional costs – in terms of a worker’s self-esteem
and dignity – associated with many forms of informal work.83
In brief, the benefits of informal employment are often not sufficient and
the costs are often too high for those who work informally to achieve an adequate
standard of living over their working lives. In general, only informal employers
who hire others earn enough to predictably rise above the poverty threshold.
5.2.3. Developed Countries
In North American, European Union and other OECD countries, available
evidence suggests that the workforce has become flexibilized or informalized. In
See Chapter 4 of Chen et al (2005) for more details.
See Chapter 4 of Chen et al (2005) for a typology of the costs of working informally and a set of
examples illustrating the typology.
Martha Alter Chen
these regions, statisticians and researchers use the concept ‘non-standard’ work for
the forms of work that are flexible or informalized. The term ‘non-standard work’
as commonly used includes: (a) jobs that entail an employment arrangement that
diverges from regular, year-round, full-time employment with a single employer;
and (b) self-employment with or without employees (Carré and Herranz 2002).
The common categories of non-standard wage work are temporary work, fixedterm work and part-time work. Increasingly, inter-firm sub-contracted work in the
service sector (such as janitorial services and home care) and in the manufacturing
sector (such as garment making and electronic assembly) is also included.
Although not all part-time workers and temporary workers are informally
employed, in the sense of being unprotected, many receive few (if any)
employment-based benefits or protection.84 Comparable data on other categories
of employment that are even more likely to be informal in nature – namely, contract
work, industrial outwork and casual day labour – are not readily available in
developed countries. What follows is a brief summary of trends in three categories
of non-standard work – part-time work, temporary work and self-employment –
in Europe, including differences by sex (Carré and Herranz 2002; Carré 2006).
Part-time work: Since the early 1970s, there has been a marked growth in the
proportion of part-time workers in total employment. By 1998, part-time workers
accounted for 16 per cent of total employment in European Union (EU) countries
and 14 per cent of total employment in Organisation for Economic Co-operation
and Development (OECD) countries.
In virtually all EU and OECD countries, the incidence of part-time work is
much higher among women than men: in some countries it is twice as high. By
1998, women represented 82 per cent of all part-time workers in EU countries.
Furthermore, rates of part-time work are high for women, but not men, in their
prime working years.
Temporary employment: For the EU as a whole, and in a majority of EU nations,
the share of workers in temporary employment, including both direct hire and
agency hire, increased from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s. By 1998, temporary
employment accounted for around 10 per cent of total employment in EU
Temporary employment, like part-time work, is primarily a female
phenomenon, although there is wide variation among EU countries. In all
countries except Austria, the incidence of temporary employment among female
workers is higher than among all workers. And, like part-time work, temporary
employment is concentrated in the service-producing industries. Interestingly,
It should be noted that whether part-time work is informal (i.e. unprotected) varies across
and within countries. In the Nordic countries, part-time work is often long-term with social
protection. In the US, however, part-time workers are offered very few benefits: in the mid1990s, less than 20 per cent of regular part-time workers had employer-sponsored health
insurance or pensions (Burchell et al 1999).
Informality, Poverty and Gender: An Economic Rights Approach117
in regard to temporary agency employment, women account for the majority of
agency temps in countries where such employment concentrates in services, while
men account for the majority of agency temps in countries where such employment
concentrates in manufacturing and construction: that is, ‘the gender composition
of employment mirrors that of the sectors in which temporary agency assignments
take place’ (Carré 2006: 13).
Self-employment: Self-employment, including both employers and own account
workers, has increased in many OECD countries over the past twenty-five years.85
Indeed, outside of agriculture, self-employment has grown at a faster rate than
total employment in fourteen (out of twenty-four) OECD countries where data
were available. Also, as self-employment has been growing, so has the share of
own account self-employment within total self-employment. As a result, in OECD
countries today, more self-employed persons are own account workers, rather
than employers.
In 1997, women comprised one in three self-employed persons in OECD
countries and this proportion is growing. For EU countries as a whole, the incidence
of own account work is greater for men (11 per cent) than for women (7 per cent).
But, in some countries, a higher proportion of women than men are own-account
workers. Age is a factor in own account work: with workers aged 45 and above more
likely than younger workers to be working on their own account (Carré 2006).
5.3. Economic Rights and Informality
Given its sheer size and the fact that most of the working poor are engaged in
it, the informal economy is the key arena in which the economic rights of the
poor – or the lack thereof – are manifested. The fact that informal entrepreneurs
need secure property rights and appropriate business rights has been effectively
documented and popularized by Hernando de Soto, the well-known Peruvian
economist (de Soto 1989; 2000). More recently, as outlined above, the ILO, the
Delhi Group and the WIEGO network have called for a broader understanding
of the informal economy that includes informal wage workers as well as informal
entrepreneurs and, thereby, requires a broader economic rights framework.
According to this broader understanding of informal employment, the working
poor in the informal economy need labour rights as well as property and business
Statisticians distinguish three main sub-categories of self-employment: (1) ‘employers’, the selfemployed who hire others; (2) ‘own account workers’, who do not hire others; and (3) ‘unpaid
contributing family workers’. However, many statistical analyses, such as those by the OECD
reported by Carré, exclude unpaid family members because they are considered ‘assistants’, not
‘entrepreneurs’. Since the majority of unpaid family workers in most contexts are women, this
exclusion understates the real level of women’s labour force participation and entrepreneurship
(Carré 2006).
Martha Alter Chen
Reflecting this broader understanding, the Commission on the Legal
Empowerment of the Poor (CLEP) co-chaired by Madeleine Albright and
Hernando de Soto, whose final report will be released in early 2008, has adopted
a framework for legal empowerment of the poor that calls for three types of
economic rights for the poor – property, labour and business – as well as the
rights of the poor as citizens to justice under the law.86 I have served on two of the
Working Groups – labour rights and business rights – of the Commission. What
follows draws on several notes written by myself for the Commission based on the
knowledge and experience of the WIEGO network I coordinate. I will elaborate
on the set of economic rights that the working poor in the informal economy need
in order to work their way out of poverty, and propose an empowerment process
that would help secure and guarantee these rights for the working poor.
5.3.1. Package of Rights
Labour Rights
For informal wage workers, their labour – their human capital – is often their only
asset. For many of the self-employed, their labour is their main asset. As noted
above, many of the self-employed do not hire workers but work on their own
account: as single person operators or heads of family firms or farms. Also, some
of the self-employed are involved in disguised wage relationships in that they
do not invest their own capital or control their labour. In sum, most of the poor
who are self-employed invest as much (or more) of their own labour as their own
capital in their enterprises. Labour rights represent, therefore, a key pathway to
helping the poor work their way out of poverty. Providing labour rights to those
whose main asset is their labour should be recognized as a central pillar of a just
society and a central strategy for reducing poverty and inequality
To begin with, the core labour rights contained in the Declaration of
Principles and Rights at Work adopted by the ILO in June 1998 should be extended
to all workers, including those who work informally. These include freedom of
association and collective bargaining, no forced labour, and no discrimination
on the basis of sex, race or creed. These constitute basic human rights applied
to labour relations. In addition, labour rights for informal wage workers should
include three basic rights related to their working conditions: minimum wage,
stipulated hours of work and paid overtime, and insurance against health hazards
or accidents at work (Tokman 2007).
Most neo-classical economists see labour rights and regulations as creating
distortions in labour markets leading to increased benefits for a few workers but
increased unemployment for others. Labour regulations are thought to have
Please refer to the website of the Commission for more details:
Informality, Poverty and Gender: An Economic Rights Approach119
contradictory outcomes because they place an undue burden on employers, who
then shed workers to offset the cost of compliance. But the evidence on this assumed
impact of labour regulations is mixed or ambiguous. A well-known set of studies in
the US found that increases in the minimum wage led to increases in pay, but not
loss of jobs, providing a powerful challenge to the conventional view that higher
minimum wages reduce jobs (Card and Krueger 1995). In developing countries,
studies have shown that minimum wages can help reduce poverty by increasing
earnings and not reducing jobs, especially if the minimum wage is set through
collective bargaining (Lustig and McLeod 1997; Saget 2001). Also, a recent World
Bank study in seventy-five developed and developing countries found that the impact
of regulations is mixed and that the negative effects are mitigated as the overall
institutional framework improves (Loayza et al 2005). Furthermore, a recent World
Bank Investment Climate Survey, covering 26,000 firms in fifty-three countries,
found that firm owners often do not consider labour regulations as burdensome as
other types of regulations. In fact, labour regulations were cited by only 16 per cent
of the firm owners and came in only eleventh in the overall ranking of obstacles to
business (World Bank 2005).87
Whatever the evidence suggests, the underlying economic model used
to assess the impact of labour regulations does not ‘match’ the reality of labour
markets in developing countries. The standard model assumes that labour markets
are comprised of only the wage-employed and the unemployed, leaving out the
self-employed and the under-employed. It also assumes that all wage-employed
persons are formally employed. The reality in developing countries is quite
different: relatively little open unemployment, relatively few formal wage workers,
and a significant amount of self-employment and informal wage employment. No
amount of over-regulation in a very small formal labour market can account for
the very large informal economy in most developing countries – other processes
and factors are clearly at work. Therefore, the model needs to be reframed to fit the
developing country context where the informal economy is large and diverse and
under-employment is more significant than unemployment.
One other general point on labour regulations. It is widely assumed that
labour rights and the informal economy are somehow a contradiction in terms.
This is because the informal economy is still widely assumed to consist only of
informal entrepreneurs who choose to avoid labour regulations as well as other
regulations. The broader concept of the informal economy, used in this chapter,
includes informal wage workers who work for households (domestic workers) and
for formal firms (either as informal employees, contract workers of various kinds,
or sub-contracted industrial outworkers). Also, as has been pointed out, many
informal operators do not hire others. So the perceived contradiction between
the informal economy and labour regulations does not always pertain: often it
is formal firms that are avoiding labour regulations, while informal operators do
The top ten most frequently reported obstacles to business operation were: policy uncertainty, macro
instability, tax rates, corruption, cost and access to finance, crime, regulation and tax administration,
skills, court and legal systems, and cost and access to electricity (World Bank, 2005).
Martha Alter Chen
not hire labourers. Finally, many informal employers earn significantly above
the minimum wage and can afford to hire their workers under more favourable
In sum, the real question is not whether labour regulations create
unemployment or under-employment but how they can be better framed and used
to promote productive and decent employment for the working poor. Although
some labour regulations can have contradictory outcomes for the poor – in the
form of either lost employment opportunities or lost employment benefits –
there is the potential for good labour regulations that protect workers without
diminishing opportunities for workers.
Business Rights
Extending business or commercial rights to small informal businesses run by poor
individuals or households should also be seen as a central pillar of a just society and a
central strategy for reducing poverty and inequality. However, neo-liberal economic
policies and free market forces not only privilege capital over labour, but also large
firms over small firms. Business rights for informal entrepreneurs, as well as own
account operators, should be seen as an essential part of a package of economic
rights for the working poor in the informal economy that also includes property
rights, labour rights, the right to social protection, and the right to be organized and
represented in policy-making and rule-setting institutions and processes. Roughly
half of the working poor are self-employed and the poorest among them tend to be
own account operators – both single person operators and those who work in family
businesses or on family farms. In fact, among the informal self-employed, those who
hire others are often not poor (Chen et al 2004; 2005).
The range of rights needed by businesses to flourish include:
• basic business rights: the right to work, including the right to vend; the
right to a work space (including public land and private residences) and
related basic infrastructure (shelter, electricity, water, sanitation);
• intermediate business rights: the right to government incentives and
support (including procurement, tax holidays, export licensing, export
promotion), and the right to public infrastructure (transport and
• advanced business rights: legal rules related to limited liability, default,
raising capital, and transferring the value of the business.88
Most of the working poor who are self-employed need basic and intermediate
business rights. Few would worry about advanced business rights unless and
until their basic and intermediate business rights are taken care of. In return for
enjoying business rights, they would need – and might well be willing – to comply
The Instituto Libertad y Democracia in Peru, founded and directed by Hernando de Soto,
focuses a good deal of its attention on developing legal tools to ensure that small businesses
enjoy these advanced business rights.
Informality, Poverty and Gender: An Economic Rights Approach121
with regulations. Take, for instance, street vendors – the most numerous and
ubiquitous of informal entrepreneurs in the urban informal economy. All street
vendors need basic and intermediate business rights and the benefits that come
with them. In return for being granted these rights, they should be expected to
comply with different regulations depending on what they sell, as follows:
• those who sell fruit and vegetables: need to comply with zoning regulations
(provided these are appropriate, not burdensome or exclusionary);
• those who sell cooked food: need to comply with public health and safety
as well as zoning regulations (again, if appropriate);
• those who sell small domestically-produced manufactured goods: need
to be regulated to ensure that the goods they sell are not pirated;
• those who sell more valuable imported manufactured goods: need to be
regulated to ensure that the goods they sell are not smuggled or pirated.
Property Rights
The working poor need to be able to acquire property on fair terms, without
being excluded by social or legal norms. They also need to be able to protect their
property from expropriation without compensation. In the process of acquiring
and protecting their assets, the poor need to be able to settle competing property
claims. Also, they need to be able to use their assets as collateral to leverage access
to credit and other resources, including basic infrastructure services for their
homes which are also often their workplace (especially for women).
Property rights so defined should not be limited to private property. A
comprehensive system of property rights for the working poor should also include
access to and use of public resources, including public land or space in urban areas
and public forests, pastures, and waterways in rural areas.
Estimates suggest that half or more of the urban workforce in developing
countries operate informally, outside the reach of government regulation or
protection. Of this vast urban informal workforce, probably half are street vendors
or street workers of other kinds: barbers, beauticians, shoe shiners, cobblers, head
loaders, jitney drivers and more. The urban informal workforce should have the
right to work in central urban areas. Otherwise, in today’s vast sprawling cities,
small islands of formal firms and factories will remain surrounded by a vast sea of
informal operators trying to earn a living.
In some societies, fewer women than men work on the streets. But in all
societies, reflecting a common gender division of labour, the vast majority of those
who work from their homes are women. Those who work from their homes need
the right to work from home, to own their home-workplace, and the right to basic
infrastructure in their homes: all of these rights would make their work more
Martha Alter Chen
Social Protection
Both informal wage workers and informal self-employed should have the
right to social protection coverage to cover the common core contingencies of
illness, disability, old age and death. There is an ongoing debate as to whether
social protection should remain linked to or be de-linked from the employment
relationship. As in many such debates, the choice should not be framed as an
‘either-or’. If social protection remains completely linked to the employment
relationship, many wage workers (those in disguised, ambiguous or triangular
employment relations) and most self-employed (both dependent and independent)
would not get protection. But if social protection is completely de-linked from the
employment relationship, many informal workers and operators would not be able
to afford purely privatized protection systems and would not be guaranteed statebased protections. Also, employers and the owners of large businesses would not
be contributing their fair share. Furthermore, universal schemes either provide
a very bare minimum of protection or become unaffordable over time. What is
needed is a judicious and context-specific mix of social protection schemes that
draw variously on employer, employee, self-employed and state contributions.
Ideally, what is needed is the proverbial patchwork quilt of different schemes
funded in different ways but with a wide border of universal health insurance and
old age pensions.
5.3.2. Enabling Conditions
To ensure that this set of rights is properly designed and enforced requires two
enabling pre-conditions: namely, the Visibility and Voice of the working poor in
the legal reform process.
The working poor need visibility under the law, in policy formulation, and in the
economic models that are used to inform policy choices.
Legal Identity: The working poor in the informal economy need an identity as
economic agents – not just as citizens or property holders – in order to gain access
to markets, gain access to public goods and services, negotiate fair employment or
commercial contracts, and protect themselves against unfair treatment or terms
of doing business. Ideally, they would want full legal recognition and protection
as informal wage workers and informal entrepreneurs – as guaranteed to formal
workers and formal enterprises. But short of full legal recognition and protection,
they would also welcome a semi-legal identity. This can be achieved by issuing
them with ID cards that indicate their occupation and their membership in
or affiliation with any organizations. For instance, micro-finance institutions
(MFIs) could issue ID cards to their clients indicating their occupation and their
Informality, Poverty and Gender: An Economic Rights Approach123
affiliation to the MFI. Better still, if the working poor are organized into their own
membership-based organizations, those organizations could issue them with ID
cards and, in other ways, promote their legal recognition and protection.
Policy Recognition: In addition to legal identity, the working poor in the informal
economy need to be recognized by policy-makers for their contribution to the
economy. This will require that the working poor, especially women, are fully
visible in labour force statistics and other data used in formulating policies. More
countries need to collect statistics on informal employment, broadly defined,
and countries that already do so need to improve the quality of the statistics that
they collect. In addition, in order to undertake an analysis of the links between
employment and poverty, attention needs to be given in national data collection
to linking labour force and income/expenditure surveys. Additional analyses such
as those presented in this chapter need to be undertaken and the results of these
analyses need to be fully integrated into economic planning and policy-making.
Integration in Economic Models: Additionally, all forms of informal employment
need to be integrated into economic models of labour markets. Existing economic
models of labour markets focus on the supply and demand of wage labour. These
models tend to exclude the self-employed and to conflate the various types of
waged workers (formal salaried workers in both private and public enterprises,
employees of informal enterprises, contracted or sub-contracted workers of various
kinds, domestic workers and casual day labourers). They also fail to estimate or
account for the extent of underemployment, including among the self-employed,
which often more accurately captures the employment problem in developing
countries than does unemployment. In sum, conventional economic models need
to be re-tooled to reflect the complex reality of labour markets today.
The right to organize and be represented – one of the core labour rights – is critical
to ensuring the economic rights of the working poor. To ensure that the rights
are appropriately framed and properly enforced, the working poor, especially
women, in the informal economy need a representative voice in the processes
and institutions that determine economic policies and formulate the ‘rules of the
(economic) game’. This requires building organizations of informal workers and
extending membership in existing trade unions, cooperatives, and other worker
organizations to informal workers. This also requires making rule-setting and
policy-making institutions more inclusive and ensuring that representatives of the
working poor have ‘a seat at the’.
If these enabling conditions are in place, then the process of legal and
institutional reforms will generate the desired outcomes. This process can be
depicted graphically as follows:
Martha Alter Chen
Figure 5.2. Legal empowerment of the working poor
Enabling conditions
Voice +
Visibility Organization
As asset holders
As workers
Representation As entrepreneurs
Legal reforms
Institutional reforms
Exercise of rights
Voice and Visibility are the key enabling conditions through which the poor
can engage in legal and institutional reforms and, thereby, exercise economic
rights. To increase the voice and visibility of the working poor requires building
membership-based organizations of the poor and promoting inclusive policymaking and rule-setting institutions that include representatives of the poor. In
this enabling process, the poor need voice and visibility in each of their economic
identities – as Asset Holders, as Workers and as Entrepreneurs.
In sum, reducing poverty will require extending the following economic
rights to the working poor in the informal economy: labour rights for informal
wage workers and business rights for informal enterprises, as well as property rights,
the right to social protection, and the right to organize and have representation
for both groups. Furthermore, extending these rights to the working poor will
require that they have legal identity, are recognized and valued by policy-makers,
are counted and valued in national statistics, are integrated into economic models
used by policy-makers, and are represented in the policy-making and rule-setting
institutions and processes.
In conclusion, it is important to note that women, compared to men, are
less likely to enjoy property, labour or business rights and have visibility and
voice. This is because social norms often restrict the rights of women to inherit
or exercise use rights to land and other property. Social norms often restrict the
mobility of women and place competing demands on their time with the result
that women are far more likely than men to work from home. Those who work
from home are less likely than those who work outside the home to know their
rights or to have access to markets, opportunities for skills training or collective
bargaining mechanisms. This is also because women are over-represented in the
low-return and high-risk segments of the labour force. Also, compared to men,
women’s work and economic contributions are less likely to be visible in official
statistics and policies. Furthermore, compared to men, women are less likely to
know their rights, be organized, or have a voice in policy-making or rule-setting
institutions. To reduce gender inequality, in addition to poverty, the economic
rights agenda outlined requires a targeted focus on the economic activities, risks
and needs of working poor women in the informal economy, and a sustained
commitment to increasing their visibility and voice under the law and in policymaking or rule-setting.
Informality, Poverty and Gender: An Economic Rights Approach125
5.4. The Way Forward
For much of the twentieth century, economic development was predicated
on the model of state-based social and economic security as embodied in the
welfare state, the goal of full employment, and related protective regulations and
institutions. However, these forms of state-based social and economic security
were never fully developed outside of Europe and North America. Moreover, by
the 1980s, a new economic model began to take shape: one that is centred on fiscal
austerity, tight monetary policy focused on maintaining very low inflation rates,
free markets and the ‘rollback’ of the state. Under this model, there are three main
policy prescriptions for economic development and growth: trade and financial
liberalization, market deregulation and privatization.
Unless properly managed, these policy prescriptions can have contradictory
outcomes in terms of employment and poverty. Without an explicit focus on
increasing the demand for labour, economic growth will not generate as many jobs
as needed. Moreover, without an explicit focus on the quality of employment, the jobs
that are created may not be regulated or protected. Recent economic growth has been
associated with flexible labour markets, outsourcing of production, and growth of
temporary and part-time jobs. The United States is no exception (see Box 1).
Box 2. New employment relationship in the United States
Over the past two decades or so, there has been a significant change in
the employment relationship for many once-regular employees in the
United States. The main change is from long-term firm-worker attachment
towards short-term employment relationships. Between 1983 and 2002,
for all men over 20, there have been dramatic declines in job tenure and
in the numbers who had been with their current employer for 10 years or
more. These declines were particularly significant for men in the age groups
over 45, precisely the group who were the beneficiaries of the old longterm employment relationship. Because women were not generally part of
the long-term employment system, they have not experienced such marked
declines and have even seen a modest rise in some age groups. However,
the overall percentage of women working for ten years or more for the
same employer is significantly lower than men in every age-group.
There are several common defining features of the new employment relationship.
First, employers promise their employees employability, not job security. More
specifically, they promise learning opportunities, not long-term employment.
Second, they promise networking opportunities (with customers, suppliers,
and even competitors), not promotion opportunities. Thirdly, they do not keep
employees on the payroll when the demand for their products or services
decreases. Rather, much of the risk faced by the firm is placed squarely on the
employee. In addition to job insecurity, there is greater wage uncertainty and
inequality. Under the old employment relationship, wages were set by internal
firm-related factors such as seniority and longevity. Now they are pegged to
Martha Alter Chen
individual performance and are responsive to market fluctuations. Thirdly,
older employees face the risk of having their labour market skills becoming
obsolete and having to compete with younger newly-trained employees, as
jobs are continuously being redesigned to provide greater flexibility. Fourth,
the new employment relationship involves the dissolution of unemployment
compensation, workplace accident insurance, health insurance, old-age
pensions, and social welfare benefits: as the eligibility requirements and overall
design of these systems are premised on the old employment relationship,
notably job longevity. In regard to old-age pensions, most employers have
shifted from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans, passing on
the risk of the market and bad investment decisions to their employees. And, in
regard to health insurance, there has been a marked shift from large risk pools
with standard benefits to small risk pools with ultra-flexible benefits.
The new employment relationship has many implications for labour and
employment regulation. The prevailing labour law regime in the United States,
which provides legal support for collective bargaining, mandates minimum
terms of employment, and prohibits employment discrimination, is premised on
the industrial-era employment relationship. The new employment relationship
renders many features of the existing labour regulation obsolete. The new
employment relationship, in the absence of new more-appropriate regulation,
has serious implications for worker security, including: use of intellectual property
law by employers to stop ex-employees from sharing knowledge with their new
employers; new forms of discrimination (e.g. ostracism and subtle forms of
harassment of newcomers by cliques, patronage networks, buddy systems) that
require different remedies; and the undermining of unionization due both to
resistance by employers and the inability of unions to adapt to the new boundaryless jobs and workplaces. These and other risks associated with the new work
practices have contributed to rising pay gaps and income inequality.
Source: Stone, 2006.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, given the increase in inequality and
informalization in so many countries during the 1990s, the neo-liberal economic
model began to be questioned and discredited. Today, there is a growing call
for a return to the social compact of the mid-twentieth century. However, it is
important to recognize that there is a mismatch between economic realities today
and the models of protection underlying the social compact of the 1950s and
1960s. The mismatch has to do not only with the decline of the welfare state and
the expansion of the market, but also with the informalization of employment.
What, then, is the nature of the mismatch? What can be done to make sure that
institutional protections match today’s employment realities?
Informality, Poverty and Gender: An Economic Rights Approach127
5.4.1. Labour Law
Historically, around the world, the ‘employment relationship’ has represented the
cornerstone – the central legal concept – around which labour law and collective
bargaining agreements have sought to recognize and protect the rights of workers.
Whatever its precise definition in different national contexts, it has represented
‘a universal notion which creates a link between a person, called the employee
(frequently referred to as ‘the worker’) with another person, called the employer
to whom she or he provides labour or services under certain conditions in return
for remuneration’ (ILO 2003).
The concept of the employment relationship has always excluded those
workers who are self-employed. Increasingly, some categories of dependent
workers have found themselves to be, in effect, without labour protection because
their employment relationship is disguised, ambiguous or not clearly defined (ILO
2003). The net result is that a large and increasing share of workers worldwide is
not protected under labour law or collective bargaining agreements.
In her analysis of the risks associated with the new employment relationship in
the United States (see Box 1), Katherine Stone proposes several types of legal reforms,
including: benefit portability and broader safety nets, new anti-discrimination
strategies, the legal right to organize across employer units, and broader notions of
bargaining units. She also calls for labour organizations that operate across industries
and across firms in local or regional geographic areas (Stone 2006).
5.4.2. Commercial Law
Conventional understanding of the nature and behaviour of firms does not reflect
the reality of how many family businesses and own-account operations behave.
For instance, not all own-account operators carry out independently all of the
functions associated with firms. Many of them depend on others for some of these
functions: for example, many buy raw materials on credit from a single supplier;
others sell goods they produce to an intermediary; still others sell on commission
goods they are supplied by larger businesses.
Formal commercial contracts governed by contractual law stipulate who
controls what and who bears what risks. But under the implicit contracts governing
most informal commercial contracts, it is not clear who controls what and who
bears what risks. This uncertainty is compounded when an own-account operator
is not fully independent. The scope of commercial law needs to be widened to
cover the range of informal commercial transactions,
Legal reforms are also needed to address the risks associated with selfemployment, including: enforceable contracts, broader safety nets, the right to
organize and be represented in business associations, and broader notions of
collective bargaining (when there is no employer per se). If they decide to organize
the working poor who are self-employed, labour organizations will need to operate
not only across industries or firms but across employment status, looking for the
Martha Alter Chen
common needs and concerns between the working poor who are self-employed
and the working poor who are wage employed.
5.4.3. Social Protection Systems
In most countries in the world, social protection is linked to employee status. This
means that whoever is not considered to be an employee very often lacks any social
protection. As noted earlier, most of those who work in the informal economy would
be greatly helped by forms of social and legal protection that are less exclusively linked
to employee-status. But the solution is not to make everybody into an employee,
which is neither feasible nor desirable. The solution is also not to completely de-link
social protection from employment, which would allow employers and the owners of
capital to avoid contributing to the welfare of their workers or contractors. Rather, as
noted earlier, a mix of solutions – universal, private and employment-based schemes
– are needed to extend social protection to all types of workers.
5.4.4. Organizing Models and Collective Bargaining Agreements
Organizing the informal workforce will require new and innovative strategies
that take into account the fact that the place of work and employment status of
most informal workers are so-called ‘atypical’ or ‘non-standard’. However, there
are a growing number of successful efforts in organizing informal workers: from
street vendors, to home-based producers, to waste collectors, to day labourers in
construction and agriculture, to forest gatherers and fishing communities (see
Chapter 6 of Chen et al 2005 and the WIEGO website for more details).
Similarly, collective bargaining institutions will need to be modified to
match the situation of informal workers. In the case of formal wage workers,
collective bargaining agreements are set up to manage through bargaining the
relationship between management and workers. In the case of informal wage
workers, the bargaining partner is often not an employer and collective bargaining
is often informal. As a starting point, what is needed is to recognize and legitimize
the existing forms of collective bargaining between different groups of informal
workers and their respective bargaining partners: for example, between street
vendors and the police or other municipal authorities. Over time, some of these
can be formalized or codified into dispute-resolution procedures with agreements
in writing signed by all parties involved. Eventually, to ensure sustainability, certain
agreements should be converted into statutory regulations (Horn 2006).
Clearly, the mismatch between the employment realities of today and the models
of social and economic protection of yesterday is quite deep and wide. What are needed
are new models of labour rights and social protection that match the reality of work
today. Most fundamentally, to ensure that the new models of social and economic
protection match employment realities, the working poor need to be represented – to
have their voices heard – in the legal and institutional reform process itself.
Informality, Poverty and Gender: An Economic Rights Approach129
Burchell, B., Day, D., Hudson, M., Ladipo, D., Mankelow, R., Nolan, J., Reed, H.,
Wichert, I. and Wilkinson. F. 1999. Job Insecurity and Work Intensification:
Flexibility and the Changing Boundaries of Work. Joseph Rowntree
Foundation Work and Opportunity Series, 11. York, UK: Joseph Rowntree
Card, D. and Kreuger, A.B. 1995. Myth and Measurement: The New Economics of
the Minimum Wage. Princeton, USA: Princeton University Press.
Carré, F. 2006. Flexibility, Informalization, and New Forms of Work: Nonstandard
Work Arrangements in Western Europe, M. Chen, R. Jhabvala and
G. Standing (eds) Labour and Informality: Rethinking Work. http://www.
Carré, F. and Herranz, J. Jr. 2002. Informal Jobs in Industrialized ‘North’
Countries. Background paper for ILO 2002 Women and Men in Informal
Employment: A Statistical Picture.
Castells, M. and Portes, A. 1989. World Underneath: The Origins, Dynamics, and
Effects of the Informal Economy, A. Portes, M. Castells and L.A. Benton
(eds) The Informal Economy: Studies in Advanced and Less Advanced
Developed Countries. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Charmes, J. (n.d.) Average monthly incomes of and wages paid by microentrepreneurs (as multiples of legal minimum wage) of official national
statistics from 14 countries, presented in Chen et al, 2004.
Charmes, J. and Lakehal, M. 2006. Industrialization and new forms of
employment in Tunisia, M. Chen, R. Jhabvala and G. Standing (eds)
Labour and Informality: Rethinking Work.
Chen, M., Vanek, J. and Carr, M. 2004. Mainstreaming Informal Employment and
Gender in Poverty Reduction: A Handbook for Policy-Makers and Other
Stakeholders. London: The Commonwealth Secretariat.
Chen, M., Vanek, J., Lund, F. and Heintz, J. with Jhabvala, R and Bonner, C. 2005.
Progress of the World’s Women 2005: Women, Work and Poverty. New York:
de Soto, Hernando. 1989. The Other Path: The Economic Answer to Terrorism.
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West and Fails Everywhere Else. New York: Basic Books.
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the World’s Women 2005. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office.
Heintz, J. and Pollin, R. 2003. Informalization, Economic Growth And the
Challenge of Creating Viable Labor Standards in Developing Countries,
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University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
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for Increasing Productive Employment in Kenya. Geneva, Switzerland:
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International Labour Office. 2002. Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A
Statistical Picture. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office.
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IV, International Labour Conference, 91st Session. Geneva: International
Labour Office.
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Employment, Productivity and Poverty Reduction. Geneva, Switzerland:
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Growth and Informality, Policy Research Working Paper Series # 3623.
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Developing Countries: Some Evidence, Discussion papers # 125.
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for Everyone. Washington DC: World Bank.
Part II
Economic Perspectives
on a Sectoral
Approach to Poverty
and Human Rights
Agricultural Production Collectivities and
Freedom from Poverty:
The Case for a Group Approach
Bina Agarwal89
6.1. Introduction
Grassroots action across the globe demonstrates that collectivities of the poor can
improve their well-being in ways that individual approaches usually cannot: it
can enhance their income, their self-respect, their ability to challenge structural
inequalities and oppressive social norms, and their bargaining power in markets,
at home and with the state. The process of empowerment is especially important –
one that recognizes the poor as agents rather than simply as welfare recipients – and
is more likely to bring long-lasting gains. Globally, rural areas contain 2.1 billion
people living on less than US$ 2 a day (and 880 million living on less than US$ 1
a day). Most of them are involved in agriculture (World Bank 2008). The majority
are small and marginal farmers, many are landless agricultural labourers, and in
recent decades an increasing proportion are women. An estimated 70 per cent
of those living in absolute poverty globally are women, and the number of rural
women living in absolute poverty is assessed to have risen by 50 per cent over
the last two decades, relative to 30 per cent for rural men (figures cited on the
UNIFEM website, 2008).
I have presented aspects of this paper in several forums including as part of the B.N. Ganguli
Memorial lecture, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, 2008 and the workshop
on ‘Poverty and Human Rights’, Carr Center for Human Rights, Kennedy School of Government,
Harvard University, 2008. I thank the participants of these events, as well as Amrita Chhachhi,
Ashwani Saith, and several colleagues working on agrarian change in the Netherlands and the
UK, for their useful suggestions. I am also most grateful to P.V. Satheesh, Suresh Kumar, Rachel
Sabates-Wheeler, Ruerd Ruben and Malcolm Childress for providing me with unpublished
information from their ongoing work. Responsibility for the end product, however, is mine
Bina Agarwal
In most developing regions there has also been a highly gendered agrarian
transition, as men in notably larger numbers than women have moved to
non-farm jobs. In India, for instance, agriculture contains 57 per cent of the
population but contributes only 18 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product.
Agricultural growth rates are low and the agrarian transition has been slow
and clearly gendered. As men move out of agriculture, those left behind on
farms are increasingly women, leading to a feminization of agriculture. In
2004-5, 49 per cent of male workers but 65 per cent of all women workers and
83 per cent of rural female workers were still in agriculture (NSSO 2004-05), and
their percentage is rising. An estimated 35 per cent of households are de facto
female-headed from widowhood, marital breakdown, or male outmigration
(GOI 1988),90 and overall 38.9 per cent of all agricultural workers are women
(NSSO 2004-05). Many are uneducated and possess few skills beyond farming.
The demographic profile of the Indian farmer today is thus a far cry from the
young, articulate, new-technology-seeking profile popularized in the 1970s
Krishi Darshan TV programme. Farm size is also falling: 70 per cent operated
less than 1 ha in 2003 compared with 56 per cent in 1982 (GOI 2008), and
landlessness is growing (Rawal 2008). Women constitute most of the landless,
typically owning no land themselves, even when born or married into landed
households (Agarwal 1994, 2003). Indeed, given intra-household inequalities
in resource distribution, there are poor women in non-poor households whose
work contributions (as unpaid family workers) are usually invisible, and who
remain atomized and isolated as workers.
Also, although there is a now a growing recognition that for higher
agricultural growth we need substantial investment in rural infrastructure, crop
research and improved farming practices, there remains rather little recognition
of the demographic shift toward female farmers. There is also not enough
engagement with the question: will small and increasingly female farmers be able
to take advantage of this infusion of infrastructural investment, and overcome
constraints of scale and access bias?
In this paper, which could be characterized as a policy think piece, I argue
that for alleviating rural poverty, and especially poverty among women, as well
as for energizing agricultural growth, we need a new institutional approach – a
group approach – to rural development. Such an approach could prove to be
much more effective than individual-oriented approaches in tackling deprivation
among agrarian populations and enhancing their productive potential,
especially in resource-scarce circumstances. In other words, we need to explore
a wider range of institutional arrangements for farming than simply single
family cultivation, which is the norm and is often assumed to be a more efficient
form of enterprise than a collectivity. I use the term ‘collectivity’ rather than
These estimates are dated, but indicative. We would expect rural female-headedness to
grow with time, with decreasing marital stability and kinship support, and increasing male
Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty135
‘collectives’ or ‘cooperatives’ to encompass all forms of joint farm enterprises,
and to transcend the particularity associated with these earlier terms.
The form that an agricultural collectivity takes could vary, as could the
level of collective endeavour, ranging from simply joint investment in capital
inputs to joint production. I outline the potential gains from agricultural
collectivities, especially joint farming, and examine their prospects for
enabling the rural poor, especially women, to become agents of their own
empowerment.91 I argue, however, that the structure of such collectivities
would need to be rather different from the early historical experiences of
collective farming in socialist and other contexts. In particular, the new
collectivities would need to contain significant elements of a human rightsbased approach to development, especially equity, accountability, participation
and the empowerment of vulnerable groups.92
To demonstrate that such collectivities are not simply a theoretical
construct but have a basis in contemporary reality, I focus on two types of
examples. One relates to countries that undertook farm collectivization and
subsequently de-collectivized, but where, despite the option of individual
family farming after decollectivization, many households chose to form new
production cooperatives. The other relates to women’s group farming in south
India. Although yet other types of production collectivities also exist, such as
those formed around fish production or community forestry, group farming is
of particular interest since it relates to a major resource – agricultural land – and
there are vast numbers dependent on it for a livelihood. Access to land and the
ability to cultivate it productively can also prove key to realizing the right to
food, which is becoming increasingly difficult to fulfil with rising food prices
and grossly unequal access.
Since group farming has a long and largely unsuccessful history, I first
briefly spell out the central features that are seen to underlie the failure of
earlier efforts on many counts. I then outline the very different characteristics
that agricultural collectivities are likely to need for success. I follow this with
examples of successful agricultural production collectivities, both from outside
South Asia and within it, which embody some or all of these principles. Finally
I examine how the success, especially of women’s group farming in India, could
be replicated and its geographic coverage and impact enhanced. The illustrative
examples are drawn from specific regions, but a group approach to agricultural
investment and production would have wider geographic relevance.
In this paper, ‘poor’ implies income poverty, which often overlaps with asset poverty (especially
landlessness). Although there are likely to be poor and assetless women in non-poor households,
given intrahousehold inequalities, poor women, as referred to here, are both poor themselves
and come from poor households.
These four elements are especially emphasized in human rights approaches to development (see
e.g. Marks 2003: 6).
Bina Agarwal
It needs mention, however, that this paper is not cast in a generalized land
reform framework on which there has been considerable conceptual and policy
debate in recent years.93 Rather, my primary focus is on the potential of a group
approach in empowering poor farming households, both economically and socially,
whatever the source of their land – inheritance, markets, or state transfers. State
transfers of land to the poor, for instance, can occur not only under redistributive
land reform, but also in other contexts, such as for resettling families displaced by
large dams or natural disasters (e.g. a tsunami). A group approach can, however,
also enhance the ability of the poor to gain access to land through the market (as
elaborated further below).
6.2. Lessons from History
6.2.1. Top-Down Collectivities
Historically, agricultural collectivities were mainly of two types: production
collectivities, involving some form of joint cultivation; and service collectivities,
for credit, inputs, or marketing. Production cooperatives largely failed, especially
in the early period (although the subsequent story is more complex), while service
cooperatives were relatively successful.
Joint cultivation was linked mainly to socialist collectivization, such as in
the USSR, Eastern Europe, China and North Viet Nam, but during the 1960s and
1970s there were also significant efforts in some non-socialist countries, such as
Ecuador and Nicaragua in Latin America, Ethiopia and Tanzania (the Ujaama policy)
in Africa, Israel (the kibbutz) in the Middle East, and on a minor scale in India. A
comprehensive assessment of these early experiences – in all their range, complexity
and geographic variability – requires specialized scholarly research, which is outside
the purview of this paper. However, a focus on some key features that are recognized
to have contributed to their failure, outlined here in broad brushstrokes, is meant
to provide a background to the current discussion,94 and to demarcate those early
top-down approaches from the bottom-up group approach I am proposing.
Socialist collectivization was characterized by five features that had
especially negative outcomes: coercive pooling of small peasant farms; compulsory
requisitioning of produce; vast sizes of production enterprises; farmers’ lack of voice
in management decisions; and hidden as well as explicit forms of socioeconomic
inequality, including gender inequality.95 In other words, they violated all the
See e.g. the World Bank’s approach to market-led agrarian reform as enunciated by Deninger
and Binswanger (1999) and Deininger (1999) and its critique (Borras 2003). See also Griffin et
al (2002) on redistributive land reform and the critique of their approach by Byres (2004) and
others in the Journal of Agrarian Change 2004, 4(1-2).
See Agarwal (2008) for more details.
See especially Robinson (1967) and Nove (1969) for the USSR; Lin (1990) and Putterman
(1997) for China; Swain (1985, 1992) for Hungary; and Goyal (1966) for an overview of several
Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty137
principles of a human rights approach mentioned above. In most part, the effects
of the massive forced collectivization on productivity and human welfare in the
early period proved highly adverse.96 In the USSR and China they were associated
with famines and the deaths of millions of people and animals. Some countries in
Eastern Europe, such as Hungary, escaped this fate by shifting course fairly soon
after launching collectivization by abolishing compulsory deliveries, allowing
households to keep small individual plots, and initiating farmer-support measures
(Swain 1985, 1992; Berend 1990). Elsewhere, as in North Viet Nam, persuasion
soon gave way to coercion as pressure for rapid collectivization increased, and
production and living conditions deteriorated (Kerkvliet 2003). Lin (1990)
demonstrates the critical importance of voluntariness – the ability to exit the
collective – in determining the impact on productivity in China, and attributes
the collapse of Chinese agricultural production during 1959-61 to ‘the deprivation
of the right to withdraw from the collective in the fall of 1958’ (Lin 1990: 2229).97
Outside state socialism, the promotion of joint farming was different from
that in socialist countries in some significant respects, but similar in others. Many
of these initiatives in the 1960s and 1970s were propelled by pro-small-peasant
land reform (Ghose 1983), but influenced by socialist assumptions of large farm
efficiency. Broadly, joint cultivation was promoted either by pooling small farms
into large cooperatives as in Ethiopia and Tanzania, or by constituting cooperatives
on state-controlled land (including that confiscated from large owners), as in
Nicaragua, Ecuador and Israel. In some countries both forms were promoted.
Although usually initiated under the principle of voluntariness, the process
often became coercive under government pressure for speedy implementation.98
Also, common to all these initiatives were the very large sized farms and top-down
management.99 In Ethiopia, for instance, in the mid-1970s, some 20,000 peasant
associations with 5 million members were created within a year, with each
collective cultivating 800 ha on average (Alula and Kiros 1983). In parts of
Ecuador, each farm was around 10,000 ha (Borda 1971). Such large farms made
farmer participation in planning and management virtually impossible. Women,
in any case, were rarely involved in decision-making on state farms (Deere and
Leon 2001). And the productivity and welfare outcomes of the collectivities were
mixed and regionally variable: there were gains in some regions but not in others,
and the overall impact on poverty was limited.100
See Robinson (1967) and Nove (1969) for the USSR; Lin (1990) and Putterman (1997) for China.
Deininger (1993) also shows that productivity was much lower under forced collectivization in
China (1959-6) and North Viet Nam (1958-71) than in subsequently decollectivized farms. See
also Hanstad (1998) on the former Soviet republics.
97. Lin notes that it took 23 years, minus the World War II years, for productivity to reach the preWorld War I level.
98. See e.g. Alula and Kiros (1983) for Ethiopia; Ibhawoh and Dibua (2003) and Scott (1999) for
Tanzania; and Carlos (1988) for Nicaragua.
99. See e.g. Alula and Kiros (1983) for Ethiopia; Scott (1999) for Tanzania; Borda (1971) for
Ecuador; and Mort and Brenner (2003) and Gavron (2000) for Israel.
100. These effects deserve in-depth probing, which is not possible here, but some early assessments
are illustrative. Some regions in Latin America, for instance, showed production increases with
Bina Agarwal
The production cooperatives also performed service functions, such as
joint procurement of inputs and marketing, but solely service collectivities did
not involve joint cultivation. Established during the 1950s-60s in many countries,
service cooperatives were successful in greater extent than production cooperatives
(Deininger 1993; Inayatullah 1972). But class, gender and other social differences
were largely ignored in their formation, leaving them dominated by men and the
better-off. For women, both social structure and an inbuilt gender bias proved
exclusionary. Membership was limited to one person per household. This was
typically the male household head, even though women’s farm work was vital in all
regions, as was their involvement in marketing in many regions (UNRISD 1975).
Both production and service collectivities proved more beneficial to
communities where socioeconomic inequalities were low, solidarity and social
affinity among the participating farmers were high, the units were not large in
scale, and there was effective democratic authority and a willingness to remove
non-performers (Inayatullah 1972).101 These elements can prove critical for
successful cooperation, as demonstrated by recent experience of production
collectivities in the transition economies and India (detailed further below).
India’s experiments with cooperatives (strongly influenced by China) in the
1950s-60s provide similar lessons. Cooperatives were seen as a major instrument
of rural economic development, which appealed to both socialists and Gandhians
(Frankel 1978). However, early attempts to promote joint farming encountered
strong resistance from large landowners supporting the ruling Congress party, and
most state governments shelved the idea, barring a few pilot experiments. Goyal
(1966: 122) found only 111 joint farms in six Punjab districts in 1958.102 Solely
service cooperatives were geographically more widespread but mainly benefited
large and medium farmers (Frankel 1978: 196). In time, other types of service
cooperatives emerged, which did benefit the small producer, such as Anand,
the highly successful milk cooperative in Gujarat, and the sugar cooperatives of
Maharashtra.103 Although these are often called ‘producer’ cooperatives, in fact
they undertook no joint production, but simply joint marketing of individual
producers’ goods.
In most of these collectivities, the family was the participating unit. Hence,
although the gender effects of collectivization are little discussed in the literature,
improved technology (Borda 1971), but in others the incomes of the landless declined (Peek
1983). Similarly, Alula and Kiros (1983) report an increase in food consumption and incomes
in Ethiopia, but assessments for Tanzania point more to non-economic than economic gains
(Ibhawoh and Dbua 2003). See also UNRISD (1975) for a summary of the results from studies
that UNRISD sponsored in the late 1960s, to examine the performance of cooperatives in Asia,
Latin America and Africa. These are especially revealing of the early emerging effects.
101. See also Borda (1971) and Ruben and Lerman (2005) on the importance of social affinities in
the early stages of collectivization in Latin America. Borda especially highlights local, family
and ritual ties.
102. Projecting from these six districts, he estimates that Punjab as a whole had 198 joint cooperative
farming societies – 44 per cent of all cooperative societies in the state.
103. See Somjee and Somjee (1978) and Mascarenhas (1988) on Anand, and Baviskar (1980) on the
sugar cooperatives.
Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty139
it can be surmised that in collectives formed within non-socialist regimes – with
some exceptions, such as the kibbutz – women remained largely embedded in
traditional roles and positions of disempowerment.104 Where they became direct
members in producer cooperatives, it was on unequal terms.105 Even within
socialist regimes, women got an unequal deal. In the Soviet Union’s collective farms,
women were concentrated in manual jobs that were designated less skilled and
received lower remuneration. Only 0.8 per cent of tractor drivers and 1.4 per cent
of machine handlers were women, and 85 per cent of women employees relative
to 66 per cent of men in collectivized farms performed tasks termed as unskilled
(Swain 1985: 99). In China, in 1973, the gender differential in average work points
was 2.5 (Swain 1985: 98-99). In Viet Nam, again, women received harder tasks
and fewer work points than men (Kerkvliet 2005: 91). In India, except in womenheaded households, men represented the family; and production cooperatives
were constituted by family units, as was membership in service cooperatives. This
needs emphasis, since the successful cases of group farming in India, described
further below, break this pattern and are constituted of women alone.
In overview then, the early historical experience of collective farming within
the socialist context, characterized by coercive formation, large-sized units,
compulsory grain requisitioning and top-down decision-making, was marked
by strong disincentives for the farmers and brought few of the expected gains in
productivity and human welfare. Collectivities in non-socialist regimes, although
somewhat more voluntary, were yet not free from coercion, had large production
units, top-down management and little adaptation to local conditions. And gender
inequality was inbuilt in both the socialist and non-socialist contexts.
Notably, however, in countries where the initial large collectives were
subsequently downsized and peasants were allowed to leave them, a large number
survived. In Central Asia, Eastern Europe and parts of Latin America, when
de-collectivization was initiated, many farming families, for varied reasons,
continued to work together in reformed collective institutional arrangements, or
formed new bottom-up groups for joint cultivation on the restituted land (see
Section 6.4 below). This suggests that it was the particular features of early socialist
collectivization that contributed to the adverse effects, rather than the infeasibility
of cooperative production or collective action per se. The early failures, however,
continue to be barriers to policy rethinking on collective approaches to farming.
6.2.2. Conceptualizing Bottom-Up Collectivities
A successful framework for small farmer agriculture, which would also fulfil
the tenets of a human rights approach to development, requires a substantially
104. In Latin America, even in service cooperatives, as noted, the members were typically men. See
also Deere and Leon (2001).
105. See Deere and Leon (2001) on male bias in the membership of production cooperatives in Latin
America. In Nicaragua, women formed only 11 per cent of the members in the 1980s.
Bina Agarwal
different kind of production collectivity than these early historical examples. In
particular, from the lessons learnt we can suggest that collectivities should be
framed around at least six principles:
• voluntariness;
• small size, constituted of, say, groups of 10-12 or 15-20 farmers;
• socioeconomic homogeneity or marked social affinities among
• participatory decision-making in production, management and
• checks and penalties for containing free riding and ensuring
• group control over the returns and a fair distribution of the benefits, as
decided transparently by the members.
As discussed below, the successful cases of agricultural production collectivities
today have most or all of these features.
6.3. Potential Gains from Bottom-Up Collectivities
Collective farm activity could range from simply joint investment in lumpy
(physically indivisible) inputs such as agricultural machinery, to land pooling
and joint cultivation by small owners, or even joint land acquisition by purchase
or lease. Especially where small and marginal farmers predominate, there could
be gains in productivity as well as bargaining power in acting jointly rather than
individually. This is likely to be even more the case with women farmers. In India,
for instance, although farmers are increasingly female, few women have direct
access to agricultural land. Families transfer land mostly to male heirs; the state
transfers land largely to male household heads; and markets favour men over
women, since they have more financial resources (Agarwal 1994, 2003). Women
farmers also face male bias in extension and credit access, and social restrictions
on their mobility and interactions in the marketplace for input procurement and
product sale (Agarwal 1994, 2003).106 Rather few women are themselves members
of service cooperatives. It is well-recognized by policy-makers in developing
countries that agriculture needs to provide both higher output and viable
livelihoods. But the substantial recent focus on infrastructure (irrigation, roads,
etc.), research and extension in countries such as India (see e.g. the 11th Five Year
Plan: GOI 2008) begs the question: by what institutional arrangement will it be
ensured that small, marginal and increasingly female farmers have access to the
infrastructure? A bottom-up, more collective approach to farming could address
these concerns.
106. See also IFPRI (2001) for Africa.
Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty141
At the least, a group approach could help small and marginal farmers to
undertake lumpy investments by pooling financial resources. It is not economically
viable for farmers operating one or two hectares, especially if fragmented, to invest
in tubewells or machinery such as tractors, or even keep a pair of bullocks. An
active rental market can help with tractors and bullocks, but water leasing requires
other essentials, such as negotiating a passage for water channels and managing
water flows, all of which are more difficult (if at all possible) to undertake through
rental arrangements. Here joint investment by small farmers with contiguous plots
could provide a solution. Groups can also undertake rain water harvesting or soil
conservation more economically than individuals.
In addition, for the landless, a group approach can increase market access
to land. By pooling financial resources and negotiating jointly, groups can prove
much more effective than individuals for purchasing or leasing in land. Again this
would especially benefit women, who typically lack the funds to operate effectively
in land markets. This process could be furthered with state-subsidized credit for
land purchase or leasing in by groups.
Group farming by pooling-owned or jointly-leased land, however, involves
a much higher level of cooperation than simply joint investment in inputs, and
would be more difficult to achieve. But it can also bring greater productivity
gains and social empowerment as compared with individual production units,
for several reasons. First, it can help spread the risk of farming among a larger
number and increase production opportunities. Cultivating as a group, farmers
would be better placed to experiment with higher value, more risk-prone crops
with larger payoffs. It would also enlarge choices for crop diversification, since a
collective pool of land is more likely to have soil variety.
Second, land pooling can increase the cultivable area, since boundaries and
bunding between fields become redundant and the saved area could be cultivated
(see also Ganguli 1953). By enabling consolidation, fragmentation would also be
Third, joint cultivation allows labour-sharing and easy substitution for a
member who is temporarily unable to work due to illness or other exigency. This
can especially benefit marginal farmers, who would also gain from labour pooling
for peak season needs, for which they may normally be dependent mainly on
family labour. In general, too, there would be less conflict/competition between
farmers for obtaining extra labour during peak needs. Traditionally, labour
exchange systems served these needs to some extent, but such arrangements have
declined over time and cannot commonly be found, except among women in
certain regions (Agarwal 2000). Also, a collectivity would bring together a greater
diversity of skills, talents and knowledge than found in one person or family. Skill
pooling can bring higher returns. For women farmers, a group can bring into the
fold women with leadership qualities or scarce managerial skills.
Fourth, a group would be better placed to enter into non-exploitative
contract farming arrangements. It is now increasingly common for companies
requiring an assured supply of agricultural raw materials, or running food
processing and retailing chains, to enter into contracts with farmers. Typically,
Bina Agarwal
these arrangements are with individuals rather than with farmers’ groups. Evidence
from Latin America and India shows that such arrangements seldom benefit small
and marginal farmers, except in the rare cases where the contracts are with a group
of farmers and there are protective laws in place.107 Companies usually contract
larger farmers (Singh 2000).108 Small farmers, where involved, face exploitative
terms: prices are often low, capital and input transfers rare, and farmers risk crop
rejection on grounds of uneven quality. Women in farm households often lose
out since their workload increases under contract farming, while men control the
cash generated (Collins 1993). Intra-family tensions have also increased in some
countries (Bulow and Sorensen 1993, cited in Kumar 2006). And nutrition can
suffer when the land is diverted from food to commercial crops, but the money
generated is not spent on food.
In India, the rare examples of benefits flowing to small and marginal farmers
relate to cases where the farmers have entered into collective contracts. In the Punjab,
for instance, the Mahindra Shubhlabh Services Ltd. followed a consortium approach,
with contractual safeguards for risk protection for maize farming. In South India, the
United Planter’s Association signed contracts with women’s self-help groups (SHGs)
for tea cultivation, with some companies buying 90 per cent of their tea from SHGs
(Singh 2000). Basically, unless the small and marginal are organized into groups or
cooperatives, their bargaining power with companies remains weak. A group could
negotiate better terms, afford legal aid to ensure non-exploitative terms, and obtain
crop insurance, which in India is highly state-subsidized, inefficient and unequally
distributed (Ghosh and Yadav 2008). Contracts given to women’s groups could also
ensure that both men and women gain.
Fifth, a farmers’ collectivity would be more socially empowered than
individuals. It can improve the clout of farmers with government agencies, and
subsequently their access to formal credit, inputs and information (see also
Baverman et al 1991). In this sense, too, the collective can serve as a bargaining
unit. Also, cooperative risk-pooling via joint liability for default can enhance the
borrower’s credit worthiness (Deininger 1993). Moreover, relationships developed
while working together can come in handy during illness or personal misfortune.
Such potential non-economic payoffs could propel cooperation, even when the
economic payoffs are not large.
Sixth, groups would be better placed than individuals to deal with shortterm shocks, such as rising food prices and long-term disasters due to climate
change. The rural poor are net buyers and not net sellers of foodgrains. The
recent rise in foodgrain prices is estimated to have added millions more to the
numbers of the poor globally.109 As a group, the poor would be better protected
107. For Mexico, see especially Runsten and Key (1996); and for India, see Singh (2000) and Kumar
108. See also Warning, Key and Soo Hoo (n.d., c. 2000) for case studies on Mexico and Senegal on
why small farmers get excluded.
109. Assessments differ, but Ivanic and Martin’s (2008) figures are illustrative. They assess that 105
million people have been added to the world’s poor in low income countries (out of a low
income population of 2.3 billion), due to rising food prices since 2005.
Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty143
both as producers and as consumers. As producers, they would have better
prospects of moving from being deficit to surplus farmers (and so gaining
from the price rise) through improved access to infrastructure and technology,
and greater ability to take advantage of higher value crops or contract farming
arrangements. As consumers, they would be better able to undertake income
These benefits of land pooling, joint investment and collective cultivation
need not be confined to those who already own land, but could extend to the
landless leasing in land. Moreover, all these advantages would be compounded
if the collectivities were formed of women farmers, given the constraints they
face in operating individually, such as their lack of control over land and major
assets, resource and financial limitations in input purchase and capital investment,
social restrictions on mobility and public interaction, and greater vulnerability to
market swings or climatic shifts. Intergenerational benefits can also accrue in that
daughters of successful women farmers would be better placed to move out of
agriculture to skilled non-farm jobs, propelling a more gender-balanced agrarian
The groups would, however, need to overcome the classic problem of free
riding, such as work shirking in group cultivation.110 Here, small group size and
socioeconomic homogeneity would help, since small groups, constituted of people
who know each other, can enforce penalties for shirkers through weekly meetings,
management committees, or other methods, and also exert moral pressure for
Can this potential inherent in agricultural production collectivities be
realized in practice? I believe so. There are diverse examples of farmers successfully
cooperating, ranging from jointly investing in lumpy inputs such as irrigation
technology or farm machinery, to pooling owned, purchased or leased-in land for
joint cultivation.
6.4. Group Farming: Ground Examples
There are two types of examples of group farming that particularly warrant our
attention. The first type relates to countries in Central Asia, Eastern Europe and
Latin America that undertook large-scale collectivization during the 1950s to
1970s, but de-collectivized in the 1980s and 1990s, enabling farmers to revert to
individual family farming. Many, however, chose to form new group enterprises
on the restituted land, or continue in much downsized and transformed former
collectives. The second type of example, drawn from India, has several distinct
features, the most important being that the groups are constituted only of
110. See Olsen (1965) on free riding. Since then, economists have recognized that many factors can
contain free riding, including norms of trust and reciprocity within societies, and peer pressure
and vigilance within small groups.
Bina Agarwal
women rather than of entire households pooling land and resources. Both types
of examples, however, demonstrate the potential of farmers voluntarily working
together in agricultural production collectivities for the output and security
gains they bring, and the resource constraints they help overcome, apart from
non-economic benefits.
6.4.1. Reconstituted Collectivities in Transition Economies
The de-collectivization of former collectivized agriculture did not lead
straightforwardly to individual family farming, as advocates of private enterprise
or sceptics of collective action might have expected. In fact, as recent studies on
Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, Romania and East Germany in Eastern Europe, and
Nicaragua in Latin America show, many households constituted new collective
enterprises, or returned to some form of prior collective enterprise, or stayed on in
a smaller reformed collective. In Romania, for example, by 1993, 43 per cent of the
de-collectivized agricultural land had returned to cooperative forms of production
on a voluntary basis (Sabates-Wheeler 2002: 1737). In the Kyrgyz Republic, family
cooperatives constituted 63.6 per cent of all farm enterprises in 1997 (SabatesWheeler and Childress 2004: 6); and in East Germany in the mid-1990s, family
partnerships covered 22 per cent of the total cultivated area (Mathijs and Swinnen
2001: 102). Clearly, many households saw advantages in group production over
individual farming.
This is further borne out by the analysis based on primary data that these
studies provide, and which demonstrates that small family cooperatives can prove
more efficient than individual family farms in given contexts. The broad features
of these cooperatives are summarized in Table 6.1. In all four countries, substantial
numbers of family-based cooperatives coexist with individual family farms, as
well as other types of collective farms, such as reformed large state farms. These
family cooperatives differ a great deal in the number of families constituting them
and in their pooled farm size. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, some are constituted
of as few as two, and others of as many as 48 families, the typical group ranging
from four to 15 families, often related by blood (Sabates-Wheeler 2004, 2006).
Groups larger than 13 families, however, face problems of cooperation (Malcolm
Childress, personal communication 2009). In Romania, similarly, Sabates-Wheeler
(2002, 2006) found that family cooperatives are made up of anything between
three and 20 households; and these are usually friends, relatives or neighbours
who have come together to farm collectively. In East Germany, again, each family
cooperative is constituted of a few families who know each other (Mathijs and
Swinnen 2001). The mean area cultivated by these family cooperatives varies from
16 ha in Kyrgyzstan to 41 ha in Romania, while in Nicaragua and East Germany,
where families often cooperate not only for cultivation but also over livestock,
the average farm is larger, from 420 to 450 ha respectively. In Nicaragua, most
cooperatives have individually managed home plots for food, and collectively
grow additional crops for food or cash, while cattle are individually owned but
Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty145
pastures are collectively owned and managed (personal communication, Ruerd
Ruben, October 2009). The objectives of forming groups also vary from primarily
fulfilling basic needs and alleviating poverty, as in Kyrgyzstan, to enhancing both
subsistence and profits, as in Romania (Sabates-Wheeler 2006).
Notably, in all four countries, family cooperatives are found to be more
efficient economically, or to have performed better on other counts, than
individual family farms. In Kyrgyzstan, Sabates-Wheeler and Childress (2004: 13)
found that total factor productivity was significantly higher and the total annual
income from crop production was 1.8 times more in the family cooperatives
relative to individual family farms. In Romania, family cooperatives compared
with individual family farms had substantially higher crop yields of wheat, maize
and sunflower, consistently higher labour productivity across the entire farm size
range, and higher land productivity up to about 6.5 hectares, after which individual
family farms did better (Sabates-Wheeleer 2002). In East Germany, Mathijs and
Swinnen (2001: 106) establish that family cooperatives are ‘the most efficient
organizational form, combining high levels of pure technical efficiency due to
good labour governance with low employment, often relatives, and full economies
of scale by operating on larger farms than average family farms’. In other words,
the family cooperatives produce much greater output with given inputs of land,
labour and capital. In Nicaragua, households belonging to earlier collectivized
farms that chose to remain together in smaller groups after de-collectivization
were found to have a higher standard of living than those that moved to individual
family farming, although overall incomes were not significantly different between
the two types of farms (Ruben and Lerman 2005).
Among the important reasons for forming or remaining in collectives were:
better and more secure access to land and/or machinery, shared production risk
in the absence of agricultural insurance, advantages of labour and skill pooling,
economies of scale, and better access to cooperative services and credit (see also
Table 6.1). In Nicaragua, farmers also said they enjoyed working together. Many
of the family groups would not have had secure access to land or adequate labour,
machinery, skills or credit, or been able to enjoy scale economies if they had gone
it alone. Working together helped build social capital as well. Close social ties
(such as relatives, friends, or neighbours), and/or long experience of working
together has helped sustain cooperation and reduce free riding, although, as
Childress found, in subsistence contexts it helps to keep the number of cooperating
families small (personal communication, Malcolm Childress, June 2009). All the
studies emphasize the need to consider a range of institutional forms of farming,
depending on the local context, with group farming having particular advantages
in situations of resource scarcity and uncertainty.
These examples satisfy several of the conditions mentioned above as likely to
make for successful cooperation. They are all based on voluntariness. All of them
have chosen groups over individual family forms. The farm area is small under
largely subsistence agriculture, as in Kyrgyzstan and Romania, and of medium size
where more commercial and livestock farming is involved, as in East Germany
and Nicaragua. And the groups are socially cohesive – the cooperating households
Table 6.1 Performance of family cooperatives vs. individual family farms:
Examples from Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America
Central Asia
(Kyrgyz Republic)
Eastern Europe
Eastern Europe
(East Germany)
Latin America
Study author
Sabates-Wheeler and Childress
Sabates-Wheeler (2002, 2005)
Mathijs and Swinnen (2001)
Ruben and Lerman (2005)
Year of data
1991-1992 and 1994-1995
(panel data)
463 farms
259 farm enterprises
1167 farming enterprises
476 farms
Type of farms
Family cooperatives (FC)
Family cooperatives (FC)
Individual family farms (IF)
Individual family farms (IF)
Family cooperatives (partnerships
of a few families owning land)
Former collectivized, now smaller
collective farms (FC)
Legal associations (LA)
Individual family farms (IF)
Former collectivized now
individual family (IF (c) )
Reformed large state farms or
shareholder companies
Never collectivized, individual
family (IF)
Average size of FC = 420 hab
Farm and
group size
Average size of FC = 16.2 ha,
12-13 workers
Average size of FC = 41.2 ha,
3-20 members (usually friends,
Average size of FC: 449 ha (crops
534 ha, livestock 250 ha)
Consensual, especially in small
No information
25-40 members in basic grain
By an assembly and elected
Bina Agarwal
Central Asia
(Kyrgyz Republic)
Eastern Europe
Eastern Europe
(East Germany)
Latin America
impact of FCs
relative to
other types of
FC output 1.8 times greater
than IF
FC has higher individual crop
yields for wheat, maize and
sunflower than IF or LA
FC had the most efficient
organizational form in terms of
overall technical efficiency during
transition (maximum output for
given input of land, labour and
Income not different among the
three types of farms
Good labour governance and full
economies of scale by operating
larger farm sizes than the average
As stated by farmers
FC total factor productivity was
significantly higher than IF
FC has higher labour productivity
than IF
FC has higher land productivity
than IF up to a certain farm size
of FCs
Land access
Labour pooling
Labour specialization
Risk pooling
Asset pooling a key incentive for
group formation
FC helps overcome resource
constraints faced by individual
FC better than IF in terms of
standard of living
Land access (43 per cent)
Cooperative service access
(21 per cent)
As stated by farmers
Credit access (19 per cent)
Better access to farm machinery
(72 per cent)
Enjoy working together
(12 per cent)
Help in farming own land
(72 per cent)
Scale advantages (20 per cent)
Better credit access (39 per cent)
a Personal communication Sabates-Wheeler, 2009; b Personal communication Ruerd Ruben.
Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty147
Bina Agarwal
forming groups have close social ties. Additional favourable features include a
fair distribution of work and benefits among the cooperating households, and
participative decision-making. This is documented for some countries and can
be inferred for the others, since the groups are unlikely to survive under unfair
work-sharing and distributional arrangements. In Romania and Kyrgyzstan, for
instance, the harvest of staple crops and the returns from collectively marketed
cash crops are shared equitably, and decision-making is consensual. In Nicaragua,
too, farmers can participate in decision-making, although in more formal and
indirect ways: decisions are made in regularly-held assemblies, where all members
can vote, but the board (annually elected) has substantial influence (personal
communication, Ruerd Ruben, October 2009).
Unfortunately, we know rather little from these studies about the impact on
gender relations. Sabates-Wheeler (2006: 21) mentions an all-woman production
cooperative in Kyrgyzstan in passing, and possibly many of the cooperative
members in the mixed-gender groups are de-facto women household heads,
given that in these countries (with the exception of Nicaragua) women still have a
substantial presence as agricultural workers: in 2006 they constituted 35 per cent
of the total agricultural labour force in Kyrgyzstan, 45 per cent in Romania,
37 per cent in Germany as a whole, and 10 per cent in Nicaragua (FAO statistics
2006). More research on the gendered implications of family cooperatives and
other forms of production collectivities operating today would be revealing. Deere
and Leon (2001: 96-97), for instance, mention that in the 1990s, a thousand women
in Nicaragua formed production collectives when there was a growing demand
for land by women. It would be useful to know how well these are functioning.
6.4.2. Bottom-Up Collectivities in South Asia
The second type of notable agricultural production collectivities are located in
India. They are distinct from the family cooperatives of the transition economies
in that they are constituted entirely of women, even where the women’s families
are cultivating small areas of land.
Although examples of Indian farmers jointly investing in irrigation wells
can be found both historically (Punjab’s sanjh system goes back to the early
twentieth century: Goyal 1966, Darling 1947), and in the contemporary period
(I found many male farmers collectively investing in tubewells in Alwar district,
Rajasthan), group cultivation involves a much higher scale of cooperation. The
successful examples of this almost all involve poor women farmers, supported by
local NGOs and state schemes. Here, the age-old assumption that farms are to be
cultivated only on a family basis was abandoned to encourage and support joint
farming by groups of women. The earliest and best-known initiative comes from
Andhra Pradesh. With the support of the Deccan Development Society (DDS),
which works in Medak district (a drought-prone tract), poor, low-caste women
have been leasing in or purchasing land in groups through various government
credit schemes, and cultivating the land collectively. There is as yet no systematic
Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty149
quantitative study of DDS’s farming groups; hence the discussion here is based on
an update of my earlier fieldwork and writings (in much abbreviated form).111 The
insights this initiative provides, however, are of central relevance for any future
effort to promote group farming in India.
The central plank of DDS’s approach is to ensure food security in an
environmentally friendly way, through organic farming and multiple cropping.
The group leasing programme was initiated in 1989. In 2008 it involved 144
women organized into groups (sangams) of 5 to 15 across 26 villages, cultivating
a total of 211 acres (= 85 ha).112 About 25 per cent of the rent is paid by sangam
members, and the rest is covered by interest-free loans from DDS, which the
groups then repay in instalments. Very poor women who lack cash can repay their
share through labour. All tasks are shared, except ploughing, for which they hire
tractor services. After paying the rent and other costs, as well as the DDS loan, and
keeping aside grain for seed, the harvest of each crop is shared equally among the
members. Some groups lease land from more than one landlord. Typically, when
the lease of say three-five years ends, the group negotiates a new one. Sometimes
at this point the members reconfigure into new groups. The state government has
also allowed women’s groups to use loan money from other anti-poverty schemes
for land leasing.
A related innovation has been group farming on land purchased by groups
of women. This draws on a state government scheme that provides subsidized
credit to groups of landless, dalit women to collectively buy agricultural land.
Half the money is a grant and half a loan repayable within 20 years. Catalysed by
DDS, women form a group and apply for the loan after identifying the land they
want to buy. The purchased land is divided equally among the group members
and registered in individual names. In 2008, 25 women’s groups constituted of 436
women were cultivating 555 acres (= 224 ha) of purchased land in 21 villages, each
woman owning one acre (sometimes less) but farming it jointly in groups consisting
of between 10 and 20 women. None of these women could have purchased such
land or cultivated it as productively on an individual basis.113 Most of the sangam
women are dalits, while the farmers from whom they lease or purchase land
are predominantly upper-caste men, with a small proportion being Muslims or
lower castes. The sangam women are seen as reliable tenants. Hence, despite caste
hierarchy, many landlords now approach them when leasing out their land, in
contrast to the initial period when it was women who approached the landlords
111. See especially Agarwal (2003). Additional information was obtained from DDS in October
2009. The discussion in Agarwal (2003) is based on Satheesh (1997a, 1997b); Hall (1999), who
undertook her research in close interaction with me; Menon (1996); and DDS (1994-95). I also
draw on my discussions with P.V. Satheesh, Rukmini Rao, and many women’s sangams and key
women informants during several field visits to DDS between 1998 and 2004. Recent figures
were provided by Suresh Kumar of DDS.
112. One acre = 0.40468 hectares.
113. Even many landless male farmers in this district who received an acre each under the
government’s land reform programme could not cultivate it effectively on their own, and were
later helped by the women’s committees (see further below).
Bina Agarwal
for a lease. The landlords benefit, since their underused land is cultivated and the
women gain a livelihood.
Usually, leasing precedes purchase. This helps women judge the land’s quality
and potential productivity, assess how well they can function as a group, and in some
cases even save enough from good harvests to buy land. The lease groups typically
consist of a mix of landless women and women whose households own one or two
acres. Such a mix is encouraged by DDS in order to include in each group some
women with farm management skills. As a lease group, the women can also hone
their farming skills and ability to function as a group, build trust and solidarity, and
tackle conflicts and free riding before venturing into purchase. Defaulters can be
evicted. On both leased in and purchased land, women practice organic farming
and multi-cropping. Some grow up to 24 crop varieties a year (the seeds of which
they preserve), thus reducing the risk of crop failure and providing a balanced
subsistence diet. On field boundaries they plant crops that cattle do not eat, thus
using the land productively while also creating a ‘crop fence’. As noted, each crop
grown is typically divided into equal portions among the sangam women.
Unfortunately, there is no systematic data for the DDS groups, of the kind
discussed above for the transition economies, to help us compare production
gains on group-managed farms with those on individually-managed ones.
Such research is clearly needed. Nevertheless, Tables 6.2a and 6.2b provide an
illustrative comparison between farming enterprises which, according to DDS,
are fairly typical. Table 6.2a relates to a DDS lease group in Pastapur village, where
13 women cultivate 9 acres, and Table 6.2b relates to a two-acre farm from the
same village, which is cultivated on a family basis. The information was obtained
by DDS from two women members in the case of the lease group (Table 6.2a) and
from the woman managing the land with her family in the case of the individual
family farm (Table 6.2b).114 After deducting paid out and imputed expenses, the
net returns per acre cultivated are 20 per cent higher in the lease group. These
returns provide women and their families with subsistence for about four-five
months of the year (personal communication, P.V. Satheesh, October 2009). For
the remaining months, they depend partly on produce from their own land if they
have any, and partly on wage work. There are also other productivity benefits from
group farming, which these figures do not capture. Weeding, for instance, is a
critical peak operation, and timeliness is important for yields. Timely completion
of weeding is easier under group management than in individually cultivated
farms, which have to compete with others for hiring labour in the peak period.
Group farming has not only helped the women realize many of the earliernoted potential benefits of joint cultivation; it has enhanced their capabilities. The
sangam women have learnt to survey and measure land, hire tractors, travel to
town to meet government officials, buy inputs, and market the produce. Collective
cultivation allows them flexibility in labour time, cost-sharing, and the pooling of
their differential skills in farming, accounting, and public dealing.
114. I am grateful to Mr. Suresh Kumar from DDS for obtaining this information for me.
Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty151
Table 6.2a Women’s land lease group, Pastapur village
Expenses and returns: June 2008 to March 2009
(Group of 13 women cultivating 9 acres)
Ploughing payment
Manure cost and labour
Seed cost and sowing labour
Weeding labourb
All operating costs
Monsoon crop
Winter Crop
Lease paid
Total annual expenditure
RETURNS (Rs.) (value of crop produced)
Green gram
Black gram
Bengal gram
Total annual income
Net profit for 9 acres
Profit per acre
Indian Rupee = US$ 47.5 at current each rates
Imputed cost of seed and women’s labour. Women preserve the seeds and none of the seeds are actually
Annual instalment on the lease that the group pays to DDS
Source: Collected for the author by DDS, 2009.
Bina Agarwal
Table 6.2b Single family owner cultivator in two-acre farm,
Pastapur village
Expenses and returns: June 2008 to March 2009
Monsoon crop
Ploughing payment
Manure cost and labour
Winter crop
Seed cost and sowing labour
Weeding laboura
All operating costs
RETURNS (Rs.) (value of crop produced)
Bengal gram
Total Income
Net profit for 2 acres
Profit per acre
Imputed cost of family labour plus cost of hired labour.
Source: Collected for the author by DDS, 2009.
One of the Sangam women in Pastapur village (cited in Hall 1999) summarized
the perceived benefits succinctly:
Women can share the profit and the responsibility. In individual cultivation,
different women have different levels of agricultural knowledge and resources
for inputs. [Hence] in collective cultivation they may make unequal
contributions. Those with less can compensate the others through taking a
reduced share of the harvest, or by repaying them in installments. Different
levels of contribution are fine, because the women all know what each others’
resources are. Knowledge of each others’ family needs also leads to tolerance
of women not appearing for work in the fields – to some extent. The levels
of sharing are agreed on and fixed before the season: each women should get
an equal share unless her contribution falls below that of the other women.
There are no disputes about shares: all the women are involved in dividing
the crop, so none can be accused of taking more than her fair share.
Standard collective action problems are solved by peer pressure. Work-shirkers are
penalized in the groups’ weekly meetings, some of which I have sat in on. The fact
Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty153
that the women in each sangam are from the same village and are codependent in
other ways creates pressure against default. As one group told me: ‘We supervise
and see if anyone is slackening intentionally or due to compulsion […]. If a woman
is ill she can send other family members to substitute. But if a young women does
not turn up she has to send two persons the next day or give two persons’ wages’.
Sometimes groups do break up, but usually reconstitute into new, more cohesive
ones and restart joint cultivation. The voluntary nature of group formation allows
this realignment which is central to institutional success. Moreover, having worked
together, they see the advantages of collective farming and build what has been
termed a habit of cooperation.115
Potential conflicts of interest, such as those arising if the sangam woman’s
family owns land and needs her labour, are reported by the women to be minimal
in practice, since individual time input into the group’s land is not excessive and
many women, in any case, belong to landless families. Krishnapur’s sangam, for
instance, told me: ‘We all know that the [sangam] land will yield well. Men know
this too. Also the number of days that anyone has to put in on the communal land
is not excessive, since the whole sangam works together. After that the women can
work on their family land. So there is no serious conflict.’
Another compexity can arise when individual cultivation becomes more
profitable, say if the family can now afford irrigation. Assured irrigation reduces
cultivation risk and enhances profits, while in dryland farming risk-sharing
is an important incentive for group cultivation. Potentially, groups cultivating
purchased land are more prone to splitting, since women have an exit option.
In practice, such splits among DDS groups are not common. Where they have
occurred, some have formed new units, others have settled for reduced jointness
by continuing with labour exchange and/or investing collectively in irrigation and
marketing, while cultivating separately.
Other gains that women report from group farming are improvement in
family diets, health care and children’s education; greater respect in the community;
and better spousal relations. Women now bargain for higher wages when they
need supplementary work, since they have a livelihood choice. Bonded labour
and caste indignities are also reported to have declined. As Ratnamma, a sangam
woman (cited in Hall 1999), noted: ‘They [the high caste people] used to call us
by the caste name which was very derogatory. Now they put the respectful suffix –
amma – and seat us on an equal basis [in public gatherings]. It is only because we
have an organisation that they [the landlords] […] are scared to cross us.’ Women
also say that local government officials give them priority over individual men.
Within the home, women report a decline in domestic violence and greater control
over their own earnings. Some husbands have returned to their wives after the
latter purchased land, and most women mention that their spouses listen to them
more now than before. In general, men’s perception about women’s capabilities
improved after women began to farm collectively.
115. See Seabright (1997) on how cooperation can be habit-forming.
Bina Agarwal
A community food security programme has been another positive outcome. In
many villages in the region, with support from the Ministry of Rural Development,
DDS initiated a programme to bring fallow land under cultivation, by extending
loans to small and marginal male farmers through women’s committees, which
manage the programme. In many cases, the men had received the land under
land reform but could not cultivate it without infrastructural support. Under the
scheme, each participating farmer can enter two acres and get a loan in instalments
over three years. In return, over five years, the farmer gives a specified amount of
the grain he harvests to a community grain fund managed by the women. The
women’s committees (each usually consisting of five women overseeing 20 acres)
ensure that the farmers use the loans for cultivation, supervise the operations,
encourage the use of organic manure and mixed cropping, and collect the harvest
share for the fund. They also identify and rank the poor, from the most needy
upwards. The poorest are eligible for the most grain, which is sold to them at a
nominal price.
As a result of this venture, a large amount of fallow or underused land is now
being cultivated. By DDS’s estimates, today 2,580 families across these 51 villages
are cultivating 3,550 acres and in 2008-09 produced 1.4 million kg of extra grain.
Mainly sorghum is intercroppped with red gram and occasionally with maize.
In addition, along with other local NGOs, DDS has in recent years extended
this alternative public distribution system to another 67 villages, covering 2,884
families and 2,983 acres of land, and producing an additional 1.2 million kg of
mixed grain per year.116 The extra grain contributes to several million additional
meals. The land also provides fodder for animals. Women’s sangams constitute the
centre points of these enterprises.
Some important ingredients of these collectivities, such as a genderprogressive NGO, a group approach, and a focus on landless women, can be
found in many other grassroots initiatives. But the focus on land, linked with
group farming, is rare in contrast to the usually less-effective income-generating
work promoted under many government schemes for the poor. Also, these
collectivities allow women to access land through the market without depending
on male-biased family inheritance systems. And pooling land for cultivation helps
overcome problems of small size and fragmentation. The fact that these groups are
all constituted of women is important in that it gives women independent access
to assets, control over income, self-confidence, and social support from group
members, which they would not easily gain in family-based cooperative farming.
These initiatives have all the ingredients mentioned earlier as being conducive
to collective functioning: they are voluntary in nature, are socioeconomically
homogenous (in terms of class and gender), are constituted of people who
know each other, are small-sized in both membership and production units,
participatory in decision-making (with mechanisms instituted for dealing with
116. Figures provided by Suresh Kumar, DDS, October 2009. The average annual yield for grain was
reported to be at least 400 kg per acre.
Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty155
free riding), and in control of the produce which is shared equitably. Gender
equity is not an issue since these are all-women groups. Hence, in initiation, size,
functioning and composition, they are unlike both the socialist collectivization
and the non-socialist joint farming cooperatives described earlier.
In this context, it is also worth considering another type of collective
arrangement first suggested by Agarwal (1994) but as yet not tested. This
alternative would require the government to give poor rural women group rights
over the land it distributes under various schemes. Effectively, the women would
be stakeholders in a kind of land trust. Each woman in the group would have
rights of use but not of alienation. The daughters and daughters-in-law of such
households living in the village would share these use rights. Daughters marrying
outside the village would lose such rights but could re-establish them by rejoining
the production efforts should they return following divorce or widowhood. In
other words, land access would be linked formally with residence and working
on the land. If such a scheme were initiated simultaneously in a group of villages
within which there are intermarriages, and which constitute what could be termed
‘a marriage circle’, then daughters leaving the village to marry would gain rights
in their marital village and so obtain livelihood security there as well. This would
be more workable in regions where marriages tend to form between persons
within relatively short distances, as in south India (Agarwal 1994). This form of
collectivity could give economic security to poor women, whatever their marital
status, encourage long-term investment in the land, and bypass problems of the
land reverting to male hands via inheritance.117 Some NGOs have been receptive
to the idea of creating such a land trust for women on an experimental basis.
Although the above examples of women’s group farming relate to women
who initially owned no land themselves but subsequently acquired some,118
many aspects of their functioning could be applied to cases where women are
prior owners of some land through inheritance, purchase, or state transfer, which
they can then pool and jointly cultivate. In fact, the women who purchased land
via subsidized credit are effectively owners pooling their land. Hence group
farming could benefit not only landless women but also women, who own or have
customary rights over small plots. The formation of groups need neither be limited
to women. As noted above for Kyrgyzstan and Romania, agricultural collectivities
could also be constituted of male farmers pooling land and cultivating with family
labour, given that most landowning rural households in India own less than one
hectare. Indeed, Patnaik (2003) describes how some landless beneficiaries of the
land reform programme undertaken in West Bengal in the 1970s are now pooling
their land to grow vegetables and fruit for local urban markets. This has raised and
stabilized their income, and freed them from daily salaried work. Some others
117. Although women, if they own land, can legally bequeath it to anyone, there is social pressure to
bequeath it to sons. Women themselves are often reluctant to bequeath land to daughters since
they leave their birth village on marriage.
118. In some cases, however, the households to which the women belonged owned small plots of
Bina Agarwal
are engaged in cooperative aquaculture. Here, as in the DDS case, two factors
were especially important catalysts – support from local bodies (in this case local
government) and easy credit.
It is possible of course that farmers may be more open to land pooling where
they are initially landless and receive land from the state or acquire it jointly than
where they have been longstanding owners, habituated to individual cultivation.
But even among the latter, rising food prices, new production opportunities
opened up by higher value crops or contract farming, or an ecological crisis arising
from climate change and requiring mitigation/adaptation could create conditions
where collective approaches become attractive. Where families pool land under
predominantly male management, however, although the potential productivity
gains can be realized, the gender-equity effects would be limited, in contrast to
women-only farming groups. Women in families pooling land, for instance, are
likely to continue as unpaid family labour and gain few of the empowerment
benefits that women pooling land with other women are noted to bring.
The agricultural production collectivities I have described represent
institutional innovations within a market economy and have not been part of
any larger land reform programme. They would, however, overcome many of the
difficulties marginal farmers tend to face after land reform, if the land transfer is
not accompanied by institutional support for credit, inputs, etc. The bottom-up
collectivities also fulfil the human rights criterion mentioned earlier: all the
women’s farming groups are constituted of poor women, contribute to livelihood
enhancement and empowerment, and are participative and voluntary in nature.
They use inputs from NGOs and the state, but are state-supported and not statecontrolled. Although more quantitative research is clearly needed, the existing
evidence is a strong pointer that group farming can, in particular conditions,
prove successful in providing decent livelihoods and dignity, especially for the
most disadvantaged – namely poor, low-caste women. Their children would also
then have greater possibilities of being able to choose other livelihood options, say,
in the services or manufacturing sectors. The downside, however, is that group
farming requires intensive NGO support at the start and is still geographically
confined. Below I outline how this limitation could be overcome.
6.5. Is Success Linked to Gender and Ecology?
The examples of group farming we have considered cover both voluntary male
cooperation on a family basis in the transition economies and cooperation among
all-woman groups in India. This suggests that under conducive conditions, group
farming is possible for both men and women. At the same time, for several reasons,
women’s production collectivities may work better than men’s. Rural women are
much more resource constrained than men and therefore have more to gain
economically from joint ventures. They share similar constraints set by gendered
social norms. They are also much more dependent on one another because they
have fewer livelihood alternatives and hence exit options than do men. This
Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty157
interdependence for everyday survival raises the overall cost of social sanctions
if cooperation fails, making women less likely than men to free-ride. For similar
reasons, women might be more compelled than men to resolve conflicts faster and
to sustain collective action better (Agarwal 2000). Women in one sangam told me,
for instance:
Men get angry easily and walk away. They say: Why should we sit here? If we
get up and leave, the problem too will go away. Women reflect more. They
say: even if I am fighting with her now, I have to go together with her for
weeding or water, or if I don’t have flour in the house, I will have to borrow
from her. This is always at the back of our minds.
Recent research on groups of varying gender composition managing natural
resources in developing countries also indicates that predominantly women’s
groups tend to display more solidarity among members and are better at conflict
resolution than predominantly men’s groups (Westerman et al 2005). Moreover,
in many areas, especially in South Asia, women’s labour exchange systems survive,
while men’s have been disappearing (Agarwal 2000). And women’s social networks
of marriage alliances and everyday forms of sharing are often different from men’s.
These networks, too, provide one of the foundations for women’s solidarity and
hence a basis for cooperation among them.
Ground experience also indicates that women tend to be more cooperative
than men. DDS, when first established in 1983, for instance, worked only with
male farmers until, as P.V. Satheesh (Director of DDS) reports, the village women
challenged this exclusivity and asked: ‘Why don’t you work with women?’ This
led the organization to promote both men’s and women’s groups, initially as
credit-and-thrift groups. When problems of corruption and non-cooperation
undermined the men’s groups, DDS shifted almost entirely to all-woman sangams.
The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh similarly began with men’s savings groups
and then moved almost entirely to women’s groups.119 Self-help groups in India
(discussed below) are again predominantly constituted of women. All this does
suggest that gender could be an enabling factor (though not the only factor) in
successful group functioning in particular contexts, stemming from the relative
specificity and vulnerability of women’s socioeconomic position.
Another factor that is likely to impinge on the potential to form successful
farming collectivities is the extent of ecological vulnerability. Group cultivation
may be more successful at two ends of the spectrum: one, in ecologically vulnerable
areas where there is subsistence rainfed farming and a higher risk of crop failure
with associated greater payoffs from cooperation; and two, in areas where irrigated
farming and high value crop cultivation are possible, but small size and individual
high risk are constraints. The case studies on the transition economies further
119. Notwithstanding the contested nature of gains by women in the Grameen Bank groups, it is well
accepted that women typically cooperate well within the groups.
Bina Agarwal
suggest that resource imbalances (e.g. having labour but inadequate land, or vice
versa) and other resource constraints under market imperfections are likely to
encourage cooperation, in addition to past experiences of successful cooperation.
Emerging financial or ecological crises could also create conditions conducive
to farmer cooperation. Steps to adapt to or mitigate climate change, for instance,
require the local implementation of projects such as soil improvement, rainwater
harvesting, tree planting and crop diversification – all of which are more viable as
group projects.
Regionally, the availability of land for groups to lease in or buy is likely to be
greater where larger numbers have moved out of agriculture, reducing population
pressure on cultivable land. For instance, although there are no comprehensive
figures, emerging field studies in parts of Andhra Pradesh suggest that more land
is now available for leasing in from large farmers whose sons are no longer willing
to farm.120 Of course, the growing demand for land for non-agricultural purposes
could well change this picture. Variations in local economic and political power
balances are also likely to impinge on the ability of poor farmers’ groups, and
especially of women’s farming groups, to navigate land, input and credit markets.
Essentially, group farming could prove to be an effective institutional form that,
in particular contexts, could help alleviate poverty for women and their families,
increase productivity and food security, enhance social status among sociallyoppressed groups, and empower women economically and socially. But is this
In India, with the exception of Andhra Pradesh, there have been smallscale experiments of women’s group farming undertaken by NGOs in Gujarat
and Kerala.121 In addition, a few years ago, a UNDP-GOI (Government of India)
project sought to involve 50,000 women across 1,357 villages in three states
(Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa) to farm collectively in small groups.
The early evaluations were positive and encouraging (see Burra 2004; GOI-UNDP
2004-05). There are also examples of women’s groups undertaking pisciculture
In Bangladesh, similarly, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee
(BRAC), a major NGO, helps women lease in and cultivate land collectively, despite
opposition from orthodox village communities. Its early efforts date back to the
1970s (Chen 1983), but in the late 1990s, somewhat more controversially, BRAC
itself reported purchasing about 300 acres of land in north Bengal (investing about
Personal communication in 2008 by Carolyn Elliott (Professor emeritus, political science,
University of Vermont) based on her recent fieldwork in Andhra Pradesh.
121. In Gujarat, the NGO Anandi has tried to promote group farming by women on leased in
land; and another NGO, Mahiti, has catalysed a women’s collective on leased in and reclaimed
uncultivable wasteland to plant animal fodder (personal communication, Sejal Dave, Mahiti,
2008). In Kerala women’s groups are leasing in land for vegetable cultivation (Tharakan 1997).
Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty159
taka 400 million) and leasing it to 1,500 women organized in groups, in addition
to organizing 20,000 women in groups to lease in land from private owners. The
women repaid the lease amount from their returns.122 In another striking example,
landless women formed cooperative groups with support from the NGO Proshika
to acquire minor irrigation equipment and sell water to male farmers who, to take
advantage of the service, pooled their plots (Wood and Palmer-Jones 1991).
There are also examples from Africa of emerging collective approaches to
rural livelihoods through asset pooling, such as livestock herders reconsolidating
their herds in Kenya.123 Indeed, in sub-Saharan Africa, where communal systems of
land ownership are still widespread, the possibility of women farming collectively
warrants exploration, although some of the problems women face in getting fair
access to land within these systems will need to be overcome (see, e.g. Whitehead
and Tsikata 2003). Recent demands by women’s groups, in countries such as
Tanzania, are for joint titles with spouses, rather than for communal ownership by
women (Tsikata 2003). There could, however, be unexplored possibilities within
existing communal systems of customary tenure in the region for the bottom-up
formation of women’s collectives, in the interests of both women’s empowerment
and livelihood enhancement.
6.6. Enhancing Geographic and Strategic Reach
Can successful collectivities, such as those catalysed by DDS in India, or by large
NGOs elsewhere in South Asia, be replicated more widely across regions and
enhanced in scale strategically? By strategic scaling-up I do not mean enlarging
group size (small size, as noted, is more conducive to successful functioning);
rather, I mean creating strategic linkages between groups. Drawing on India for
illustration, I believe a substantial potential for replication and enhanced reach
lies in encouraging group farming by village self-help groups (SHGs).
There are over 2.2 million SHGs in India, predominantly constituted of
women.124 Typically, SHGs are economically homogenous consisting of 10-12
self-selected women who pool their savings and rotate lending within the group.
One village can have several SHGs. Groups that have a proven record of working
together for about six months are eligible for a bank loan as a proportion of their
group savings deposit. Loans, if taken, go to the whole group, which then decides
its use. Many SHGs, especially those catalysed by NGOs have, however, graduated
beyond loan disbursements and become advocacy groups, putting pressure on
village councils to complete long-standing projects for village improvement (EDA
122. Communication by Md. Aminul Islam, Director BRAC (CPD 2000).
123. Communication by a participant at the workshop on ‘Poverty and Human Rights’, Kennedy
School of Government, Harvard University, October 2008, where I presented aspects of this
124. See EDA (2006), Tankha (2002), Nair (2005), APMAS (2007), NCAER (2008) and Deininger
and Liu (2009), among others.
Bina Agarwal
2006).125 Although most SHGs begin as savings and credit groups, they differ from
micro-credit groups in important ways (Ramesh 2007; Harper 2002). The latter
are formed basically around credit,126 can involve women with no proven record
of working together, loans go to individual women, and there is usually little focus
on social advocacy.
Until the early 2000s, two-thirds of the SHGs were being promoted by
NGOs, although they are now also being catalysed by state governments and
banks. Many NGOs formed SHGs around savings and credit as an entry point
for empowering women. For instance, since the early 1980s, MYRADA in south
India has catalysed ‘self-help affinity groups’ based on the idea that there will be
mutual trust if members have common social or geographic origins, have the
same livelihood source, share gender bonds, or some combination of these.127
These ‘affinities’ enhance solidarity and discourage free-riding.
Recent surveys show that a fair percentage of SHGs are formed of poor and
socially disadvantaged women. Half the SHG women in EDA’s (2006) survey were
below the poverty line, and 55 per cent belonged to the lowest castes or tribes. An
all-India survey of 2,750 SHGs in three states similarly found that in 41 per cent of
the SHGs the majority of members were from scheduled caste or tribal households,
and in 42 per cent the majority were from landless families (Nirantar 2007).
In NCAER’s (2008) study of 961 SHGs (of various gender compositions) in six
states, 60 per cent of the members were below the poverty line. Deininger and Liu
(2009), based on an analysis of two rounds of panel data for 2,400 household in
Andhra Pradesh, find that households (including the poorest) that had been SHG
members for two-and-a-half to three years gained in consumption, nutritional
intake and asset accumulation.
At the same time, most SHGs, with rare exceptions, take loans for family-based
micro-enterprises (NCAER 2008), the benefits of which may not flow to women.
Here, involving SHG women in group production, especially joint farming, could
enlarge the economic scope of these institutions. The typical 10-14-person SHG is
the right size to successfully take up group farming, based on leased or purchased
land, or the pooling of small family plots. They also have financial resources
and links with banks. Some are already involved in group enterprises such as
community forestry, sericulture, and pisciculture. And some large companies,
as noted earlier, have contracted women’s SHGs to supply products such as tea.
There are also occasional cases of SHGs initiating group farming on leased in
land.128 Graduating toward group farming would thus be possible for many SHGs
if land were available and if they received subsidized credit and infrastructural
support. This would help expand the scale and geographic reach of women’s group
125. Some 30 per cent of SHGs surveyed by EDA (2006) had been involved in such advocacy. Many
groups have also reached out to the very poor (NCAER 2008).
126. They are typically structured on Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank model.
127. Established in 1968, MYRADA works with poor communities in South India and increasingly
focuses on women-only groups (Fernandez 2005). It is notable that the groups from Central
Asia and Latin America are also often formed among close relatives or friends.
128. The Gujarat NGO, Anandi, for instance, has attempted this.
Agricultural Production Collectivities and Freedom from Poverty161
farming and, in turn, move SHGs out of the narrow confines of savings-credit and
individual or family-based micro-enterprises toward economically stronger and
socially empowering group enterprises.
Their impact could, however, be even greater if they were part of an SHG
federation (a network of individual SHGs). Typically, SHG federations have been
promoted by NGOs, and today there are an estimated 69,000 – 89 per cent in
southern India, constituted variously at the village, panchayat or district level,
with one federation (in Andhra Pradesh) at the state level (APMAS 2007). Some
federations link 10-40 SHGs, others a few thousand. A typical SHG federation
is multi-tiered. Federations provide SHGs with bargaining power vis-à-vis the
government and the market, as well as the capacity to be sustainable over time.129
Although it may be too early to speak of federations of women farmers’
groups, since the numbers of such groups need to increase and spread, if SHGs
were to take up group farming on a notable scale, their existing networks could
serve as a basis for forming federations of women’s farming groups as well. Given
the regional concentration of SHGs, however, it would prove useful to first
concentrate on parts of south India, especially Andhra Pradesh, to test how well
SHGs are able to take up group farming before expanding it to other regions;
although there could be some NGOs with strong rural women’s networks in other
states that may be interested in trying this out on a pilot basis.
6.7. In Conclusion
The poor, especially in market economies, need the strength that collectivities
offer to create more economic, social and political space for themselves, enhance
their socioeconomic well-being and voice, and as protection against free market
individualism. It is argued here that a group approach to farming, especially in the
form of bottom-up agricultural production collectivities, offers substantial scope
for poverty alleviation and empowering the poor, as well as enhancing agricultural
productivity. To realize this potential, however, the groups would need to be
voluntary in nature, small in size, participative in decision-making, and equitable
in work sharing and benefit distribution. There are many notable examples of such
collectivities to be found in varied contexts, such as in the transition economies
and in India. All of them bear witness to the possibility of successful cooperation
under given conditions. And although the gender impact of the family cooperatives
in the transition economies are uncertain, the Indian examples of women-only
group farming offer considerable potential to benefit women.
The ideational impact of the highly adverse welfare effects of early socialist
collectivization, however, has created a policy blind spot in relation to the varied
ground reality in which collectivities continue to flourish in many contexts and
129. On federations of SHGs, see especially APMAS (2007), Tankha (2002), Nair (2005), and EDA
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countries. This remains a particularly serious barrier to shifting policy toward
promoting agricultural production collectivities in developing countries such as
India. This barrier needs to be overcome by wider dissemination of information
on existing collective ventures in policy circles;130 more research on the conditions
under which they emerge and are sustained; and greater experimentation with
collective enterprises on the ground, especially by grassroots organizations. Such
experimentation would also help reveal how local-level structural inequalities of
class/caste/gender might play out and be overcome.
In anticipation, we might also address a question that sceptics might pose:
why would we expect agricultural production collectivities to succeed today
when most did not historically? One part of the answer lies in the lessons already
learnt about the features that are conducive to forming successful collectivities,
in particular the principles of voluntariness, group homogeneity or affinity,
small size, participatory decision-making, peer-implemented sanctions for work
shirking and other forms of free-riding, and equitable benefit sharing. A second
part of the answer, at least for South Asia, lies in the mushrooming of civil society
groups, especially since the late 1970s. While not all groups are motivated by
a desire for social transformation, many are. A third part of the answer lies in
the prior existence of a wide range of collectivities, especially women’s self-help
groups. Although most have not tried joint production, some have, and many
others have the potential to do so. These can constitute three major pillars,
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Realizing the Human Right to Health
in Low-Income Countries
Lisa E. Sachs and Jeffrey D. Sachs131
7.1. Introduction
The right to health has been repeatedly recognized as one of the core human
rights. Good health is so essential for human functioning, human dignity and
economic well-being and development that the achievement of good health is
among the highest goals of international and national policies, and one of the
highest commitments assumed by member states within the United Nations
and its various bodies. It is noteworthy but not surprising that health objectives
constitute no less than three of the eight Millennium Development Goals
(MDGs) adopted by the UN system on the basis of the commitments made at
the Millennium Summit in the year 2000 (Goal 4 on child survival, Goal 5 on
maternal health, and Goal 6 on disease control), and are deeply implicated in
all the others (Goal 1 on poverty and hunger, Goal 2 on education, Goal 3 on
gender equality, Goal 7 on environmental sustainability, and Goal 8 on global
Yet, as with many human rights, the right to health has certainly not
been universally achieved or respected. By any reasonable standard, the right
to health eludes hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of people, mainly
in poor countries, but also large numbers in middle-income and even rich
countries (notably the United States, which has the worst health outcomes and
least assured access to health services among the high-income countries). One
compelling measure of the failure to secure the right to health is life expectancy in
the poorest countries, and especially in sub-Saharan Africa. While high-income
countries have a life expectancy at birth of 79.2 years, low-income countries have
a global average of sixty years, and the forty-nine least-developed countries have
a life expectancy of just 54.5 years. In sub-Saharan Africa, life expectancy is a
131. Lisa E. Sachs, JD, MA, is the Assistant Director of the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable
International Investment at Columbia University. Jeffrey D. Sachs, PhD, is Director of the Earth
Institute at Columbia University and Special Advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon
on the Millennium Development Goals.
Lisa E. Sachs and Jeffrey D. Sachs
shockingly low 49.6 years. The same discrepancies exist on other broad measures,
such as infant mortality and mortality of children under age 5.132
There are several factors that account for the gross disparities in health
outcomes. From an epidemiological point of view, the excess disease burdens
in low-income settings relate mainly to the high-burden of disease associated
with three main conditions: infectious diseases (such as AIDS, TB and malaria),
nutritional deficiencies, and maternal and perinatal conditions (Mathers, Lopez and
Murray 2006). In turn, the challenges of rampant infection, chronic malnutrition,
and unsafe childbirth relate to several underlying factors, including:
• low dietary intake and widespread micronutrient deficiencies (iron, zinc,
Vitamin A, Vitamin D);
• unsafe drinking water leading to water-borne diseases;
• chronic, unchecked infections (e.g. worms);
• unsafe living conditions (e.g. indoor air pollution, frequent contact with
disease vectors such as mosquitoes and mites);
• lack of awareness of health-seeking behaviour;
• lack of access to health facilities for prevention and treatment, either
because of distance or cost of services.
These conditions in turn depend on many socioeconomic, political and
environmental factors, including: the levels of income of households, the
community and the nation; the policies and expenditures of government at all
levels; the education, incomes and behaviour patterns of individual households;
the ecological conditions which affect the transmission of diseases (such as worms
and malaria) and access to safe water; the vulnerability to natural hazards, such
as droughts, floods and extreme storms; the productivity of local agriculture; and
the transport costs and trade policies regarding foodstuffs and other critical inputs
for health.
7.1.1. The Poverty-Disease Trap
Economists have begun to realize the centrality of health to economic wellbeing, tracing the linkages from improved health outcomes to economic growth
and development, and also working with epidemiologists to identify the most
effective ways to invest in improved health. The report of the Commission on
Macroeconomics and Health of the World Health Organization, chaired in 2000–
2001 by one of us (Jeffrey), took up precisely that dual challenge. The Commission’s
report, Macroeconomics and Health: Investing in Health for Economic Development
(WHO 2001), building on several working group studies, found that improved
health powerfully raised living standards of the population and promoted
economic growth through several channels, including the accumulation of human
132. Data are from UNDP (2005: 232, Table 1).
Realizing the Human Right to Health in Low-Income Countries171
capital (education, skills and physical health over the life-cycle) and a faster
demographic transition to lower fertility rates, resulting in greater increases in
output per capita.
Importantly, however, the reverse is also true: the main overarching risk
factor for poor health is poverty, a fact proved in a multitude of ways, including
comparisons across societies and across socioeconomic groups within societies.
Poverty impinges on health at all levels – household, local community and
national. Poor households lack the means and often the know-how to ensure
adequate nutrition, a safe household environment, knowledge of health-seeking
behaviours, and access to costly health interventions. Poor communities lack basic
infrastructure (safe water and sanitation, health clinics, trained personnel), and
the means to ensure access to health interventions. Poor nations are unable to fund
health systems at all levels, and to manage the flow of information (e.g. disease
surveillance) and public response (e.g. epidemic control) needed for overall public
health. Of course, poverty is not the only risk factor for poor population health.
Even wealthy communities may end up with poor health outcomes for a variety
of reasons: under-investment in public goods, such as epidemic disease control;
under-provision of services for the poor or for socially excluded groups (by
ethnicity, gender, language, race, religion, or other dimensions); or environmental
factors (pollution, climate change) with adverse public-health consequences.
The poverty-disease nexus has now been appropriately recognized by
economists as a poverty trap: economic development and ample financial
resources are required to alleviate the poverty-related burdens of poor health,
low literacy and resource depletion, yet economic development is precluded by
precisely these poverty-related burdens, which decrease productivity, earning
ability and economic investments. (The poverty trap operates not only through
a vicious circle of poverty and disease, but also a vicious circle of poverty and
weak governance, inadequate infrastructure and excessive population growth.) As
already noted, poor people lack access to the basic necessities for health, including
sanitation, clean drinking water, adequate nutrition, health services, reproductive
services, and other fundamental health needs, and are more vulnerable to diseases
in part because of the disproportionate geographic burden of infectious diseases
in tropical countries. Yet unhealthy people, in turn, are burdened by low economic
productivity – chronic physical ailments, absenteeism, under-schooling (e.g.
disease-related dropouts), and long-term disabilities, both cognitive and physical
– which prevent them from generating the income and public tax revenues to
tackle the underlying causes of poor health.
The implications of a poverty-disease trap (and of poverty traps more
generally) are profound. They suggest that poor countries on their own are unable
to honour the human right to health. Improved health requires increased public
outlays and infrastructure that are beyond the financial means of poor countries.
Yet without improved health, economic progress itself is put at jeopardy. The only
way to break the vicious circle of poverty and poor health may be to intervene from
the outside, for example, through development aid directed at improving the health
of the low-income population. Of course, international development aid is probably
Lisa E. Sachs and Jeffrey D. Sachs
best directed not only at ameliorating poor health per se, but at ending all aspects
of the poverty trap: ill health, poor infrastructure, illiteracy, poor governance and
environmental vulnerability.
The Commission on Macroeconomics and Health put a price tag on that
international help. The Commission found that a rudimentary healthcare system
in a low-income country would require around US$34 per person per year as of
2007 and US$38 per capita as of 2015 (both expressed in 2002 prices) (WHO
2001). Poor countries might be able to muster only around US$15–20 per person
per year, requiring international assistance to make up the difference. The sum of
the ‘financing gaps’ requiring donor aid was found to be on the order of 0.1 per cent
of rich-world annual income, roughly US$35 billion per year in today’s dollars.
The calculations of the Commission have since been repeated in two
international studies, the UN Millennium Project (2005) and the Taskforce on
Innovative International Financing for Health Systems (2009), with very similar
conclusions. In the recent Taskforce report, for example, the estimated total costs
of healthcare in the low-income countries come to US$76 billion (Taskforce on
Innovative Financing for Health Systems 2009: 11), or US$48 per capita expressed
in 2005 prices. The US$38 per capita estimated by the Commission in 2002 prices
is almost identical to the US$48 per capita estimated by the Task Force when
the former is converted to 2005 prices. In the Millennium Project estimates, per
capita needs in 2015 are estimated as US$34 in Ghana and US$48 in Tanzania,
expressed in 2003 (UN Millennium Project 2005: 244, Table 17.1). These translate
to approximately US$39 and US$55 when converted to 2005 prices.
The estimates of the three studies therefore coincide at around US$50 per
person per year in 2005 prices, a level that is often far beyond the financing means
of low-income governments. International transfers on the order of 0.1 per cent
of rich-world GNP are needed to close the financing gap. Realizing the right
to health, therefore, requires a system of financial transfers to make possible
the achievement of those rights and proper management systems to ensure the
international resources reliably and accountably reach those in need. Human
rights, economic development and public management merge at this point,
requiring a new and effective form of cooperation among human rights advocates,
public health specialists, public health economists and public-sector managers.
7.1.2. Global Cooperation to Realize the Human Right to Health
The two-way nexus between poverty and health has been widely recognized
by United Nations bodies, intergovernmental organizations, governments and
academics, and a price tag has been put on the needed assistance. Yet despite the
broad understanding of the vicious cycle of poverty and disease – and the means
to break that cycle – the international community has mustered only a laggard
and insufficient response to the poverty-disease trap. We thus find ourselves
in a dangerous and unjustifiable predicament: the countries that bear the
disproportionate burden of disease have the least capacity to do anything about it,
Realizing the Human Right to Health in Low-Income Countries173
yet the countries with sufficient means have been derelict in making available the
necessary resources to improve health outside their own countries (Gostin 2007:
333-4). Ironically, in addition to neglecting their commitments to alleviate poverty
and disease in developing countries, rich countries are also putting themselves at
risk, as many infectious diseases do not respect country borders and can easily
spread even to other continents (Gostin 2007: 333). For this reason, one scholar
wisely noted that ‘safeguarding the world’s population requires cooperation and
global governance’(Gostin 2007: 333).
Some recent and important steps have been taken to promote global
cooperation on issues of health and poverty. We have noted that the Millennium
Development Goals are heavily oriented towards improved health. Several specific
international initiatives, either directly related to the MDGs or occurring in parallel
with them, aim at the scaling-up of investments in public health. These include:
• the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria (2002) to expand
prevention and treatment of the three pandemic diseases;
• the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (2000) to expand
the range of immunizations available in the poorest countries;
• UNITAID to provide voluntary funding of global health initiatives;
• the Millennium Villages Initiative to demonstrate effective health systems
in low-income settings;
• the Global Network on Neglected Tropical Diseases (2008) to scale up the
fight against several parasitic diseases;
• the Taskforce on Innovative International Financing for Health Systems
(2009: 11) to find new revenue streams to support health systems.
There has also been progress in actual flows of Official Development Assistance
(ODA) for Health. Aid rose from around US$3 billion per year during the 1990s
(in 2003) to around US$9.5 billion per year as of 2007, according to calculations
by the OECD.133 Yet the needs in the year 2007 to achieve the MDGs in health
were around US$35–40 billion. Thus, actual ODA flows for health as of 2009 are
probably around one-quarter to one-third of that needed. There has been a huge
improvement since 2000, when aid flows were roughly one-tenth of need, but
there remains an enormous shortfall.
7.2. The Right to Health under International Law
In addition to the economic imperative to invest in the right to health (and the
moral imperative to prevent unnecessary disease and deaths), there is also a legal
imperative grounded in binding international legal instruments, wherein states
have undertaken to realize specific human rights through ‘international assistance
and cooperation’ (Ferraz and Mesquita 2006). The universal right to health was one
133. Personal correspondence on file with the authors.
Lisa E. Sachs and Jeffrey D. Sachs
of the fundamental human rights envisioned by the nascent intergovernmental
organizations in the mid-twentieth century and has been embodied in numerous
intergovernmental treaties, declarations and resolutions. Indeed, in addition to the
MDGs, every country in the world is party to at least one international convention
or treaty that includes the affirmation of health rights and imposes obligations
relevant to achieving the right to heath (Kuszler 2007).
The right to health has also been assumed in judicial interpretations of other
human rights; for instance, many international and domestic courts have held or implied
that the most basic of all rights – the right to life134 – includes the right to live with human
dignity, and that the right to live with dignity includes the right to health. The right to
health has been established in several international agreements including the World
Health Organization Constitution,135 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,136
and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.137 It has also
been affirmed in a number of international commitments and declarations, several
other binding treaties – including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 138 the
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,139
and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against
Women140 – and in several regional human rights instruments.
7.2.1. The World Health Organization
At the formation of the United Nations in 1945, one of the first intergovernmental
organizations envisioned to supplement the mandate and authority of the United
Nations was a global health organization. Less than three years after the United
134. The right to life underlies all human rights treaties and declarations. The right to life is clearly stated
in Article 6(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR): ‘[The right to
life] shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life’. International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights, G.A.Res. 2200, UN GAOR, Supp. No. 16, at 52, UN Doc. A/6316
(1966), 999 UNTS 171, 174 (entered into force 23 March, 1976) [hereinafter ICCPR] The Human
Rights Committee of the United Nations, which monitors implementation of the ICCPR, has stated
that the right to life not only prohibits the State from directly causing death but also imposes positive
obligations on the State to protect life, including obligations to reduce infant mortality, increase life
expectancy, and eradicate epidemics. The Right to Life, UN GAOR Human rights Comm., 37th
Sess., Supp. No. 40, at Gen. Comment No. 6, para. 5, UN Doc. A/37/40 (1982).
135. Constitution of the World Health Organization, opened for signatures 22 July, 1946, 62 Stat.
6279, 14 UNTS 185. [hereinafter WHO Constitution].
136. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A.Res. 217A, UN GAOR, 3d Sess., art. 25(1), UN Doc
A/810 (1948) [hereinafter UDHR].
137. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, G.A.Res. 2200 (XXI), UN Doc.
A/6316 (1966), art. 12, 993 UNTS 3 (entered into force 3 January, 1976) [hereinafter ICESCR].
138. Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989, 20 November, 1989, art. 24, G.A. Res. 44/25, UN
GAOR, 44th Sess., Supp. No. 49, UN Doc A/44/49 (1989) (entered into force 4 January, 1969).
139. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,
21 December, 1965, art. 5(d)(vii), G.A.Res. 2106 (XX), UN GAOR, 20th Sess., Supp. No. 14, at
47, UN Doc. A/6014 (1965), 660 UNTS 195, 222 (entered into force 4 January, 1969).
140. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 18 December,
1979, art. 12, G.A.Res. 34/180, UN GAOR, 34th Sess., Supp. No. 46, UN Doc. A/34/36 (1980)
(entered into force 3 September, 1981).
Realizing the Human Right to Health in Low-Income Countries175
Nations charter came into force, the World Health Organization (WHO) was
formed, and its constitution came into force on 7 April, 1948. According to the
WHO constitution, ‘the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is
one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race,
religion, political belief, economic or social condition’,141 and the mission of WHO
is ‘the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health’.142 WHO
has the power to adopt conventions (Art. 19), promulgate binding regulations
(Art. 21), make recommendations (Art. 23), and monitor the national health
legislation (Art. 63) of its member states.
The first two of these powers are quite important: the WHO, by a two-thirds
vote, can adopt binding conventions or regulations, which member states are
affirmatively required to submit to their national legislative bodies for ratification,
and to notify the Director-General of the action the state has taken within eighteen
months. If the national legislature does not ratify an adopted convention, the state
must report its reasons to the Director-General (Art. 20). Similarly, all adopted
regulations are binding on member states unless the state specifically rejects the
regulation (Art. 22). In general, all members of the WHO have an obligation to adopt
measures and legislation that are consistent with the stated goals and declarations
of the WHO and not to adopt any measures that directly contravene any of these
goals. Despite its extraordinary legislative powers, the WHO has been reluctant
to create binding norms that could help achieve international cooperation on the
universal right to health; by the turn of the twenty-first century, the WHO still
had not adopted a single treaty, and the two regulations it had adopted (on disease
classification and epidemic control) ‘were largely historical, were limited in scope,
and lacked real-world impact’ (Gostin 2007: 377-78). The first convention adopted
by the WHO was the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003, which
aims to protect present and future generations from ‘the devastating health, social,
environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure
to tobacco smoke’ (Art. 3). This instrument also has implications for poverty and
human rights (see Dresler and Marks 2006: 619, 633).
7.2.2. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in 1948, reaffirms
the ‘right to health’ in the context of the right to an adequate standard of living:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and
well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing
and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in
141. WHO Constitution, note 16, preamble.
142. WHO Constitution, note 16, preamble.
Lisa E. Sachs and Jeffrey D. Sachs
the event of […] sickness […]or other lack of livelihood in circumstances
beyond his control. (Article 25(1))
The UDHR is not a treaty and therefore is not legally binding on the member states
of the UN. However, unlike subsequent non-binding declarations and General
Assembly resolutions, the UDHR ‘enjoys a more elevated status, largely because of
its foundational role and universal acceptance’ (Kuszler 2007), and it can be used
‘as an interpretative instrument and can give rise to customary law’ (Ferraz and
Mesquita 2006).
7.2.3. T
he International Convention on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
The rights that were first enumerated in the Universal Declaration on Human
Rights were subsequently fleshed-out and given legal weight in two other human
rights documents that, together with the UDHR, form the International Bill of
Human Rights: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
and the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
(ICESCR). Unlike the UDHR, these Covenants are legally binding on party states
that sign and ratify them, although states are allowed to demur from specific
articles of the covenants through reservations, thereby restricting their obligations
under the treaty (Kuszler 2007). The core provision on the international right to
health is Article 12 of the ICESCR, which recognizes
the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of
physical and mental health. [Steps required] include those necessary for
[…t]he prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic,
occupational and other diseases [and ... t]he creation of conditions which
would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of
Importantly, the right to health and all other economic, social and cultural rights in
the ICESCR are subject to the limitation that they are to be achieved progressively,
subject to the availability of resources:
Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps,
individually and through international assistance and cooperation, especially
economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a
view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized
143. ICESCR, art. 12(2)(c) and (d).
Realizing the Human Right to Health in Low-Income Countries177
in the present Covenant by appropriate means, including particularly the
adoption of legislative measures. (emphasis added)144
As noted in other chapters to this publication, the italicized words reflect the
acknowledgement in a legal instrument of the pragmatic approach favoured by
economists based on the fundamental reality of scarcity of resources.
The formal content and scope of the right to health has been further clarified
through a series of UN documents, especially General Comments issued by the
Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). The CESCR is
responsible for the promotion, interpretation and implementation of the ICESCR,
and from time to time issues General Comments or General Recommendations
which attempt to clarify the scope of the rights and obligations of the State Parties
with respect to the various articles and provisions of the ICESCR. These General
Comments are not binding on the parties, but they nevertheless are ‘recognised as
having significant legal weight and offering jurisprudential insights into the rights
enumerated in the ICESCR’ (Ferraz and Mesquita 2006).’ In May 2000, the CESCR
adopted General Comment No. 14 on the ‘Right to the Highest Attainable Standard
of Health’.145 The Comment specified that while the right to health certainly includes
the right to equal and timely access to health services, it also requires states parties
to ensure the underlying determinants of health, including safe drinking water,
essential medicines, essential food, basic shelter and sanitation. Furthermore,
the Comment recognized that universal access to essential medicines is a core,
non-derogable duty of all member states, as is preventing, treating and controlling
epidemic and endemic diseases.146
Article 15(1)(b) of the ICESCR also states that everyone has the right
‘to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications’.147 This right is
significant in light of the disproportionate disease burden in developing countries,
the immense disparities in access to essential medicines across the globe, and
the inequitable number of medicines designed for developing-country health
needs. In 2001, the CESCR adopted a General Statement on ‘Human Rights and
Intellectual Property’ which makes clear that the right to enjoy the benefits of
scientific progress – which include medication – must be respected in the realm of
international trade, and any intellectual property regime must include provisions
for protecting public health.148 The same year, the Commission on Human Rights
adopted a resolution on access to medicines in the context of pandemics such as
144. ICESCR, art. 2(1).
145. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 14: The Right to the
Highest Attainable Standard of Health, UN Doc. E/C.12/2000/4 (11 August, 2000).
146. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 14: The Right to the
Highest Attainable Standard of Health, UN Doc. E/C.12/2000/4 (11 August, 2000), at para. 43(d)
and 44(c). On access to medicines as a component of the right to health, see Marks (2009).
147. ICESCR, art. 15.
148. Human Rights and Intellectual Property, UN Comm. On Econ., Soc. & Cultural Rts., 27th Sess.,
para. 2, UN Doc. E/C.12/2001/15 (2001).
Lisa E. Sachs and Jeffrey D. Sachs
HIV and AIDS; the resolution reaffirms that access to essential medicines in this
context is a fundamental element of the right to health.149
7.2.4. Declarations, Resolutions and Commitments
Several non-binding WHO and UN General Assembly resolutions and international
agreements have reaffirmed the international commitment to the right to the
health. A seminal declaration, the Alma-Ata Declaration, was adopted in 1978, at
the International Conference on Primary Health Care in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan,
convened by the WHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The
centrality of primary healthcare to the poverty-disease trap discussed above is
evident in the Alma Ata Declaration, which provides the normative basis for this
economic imperative. In the Declaration, WHO and UNICEF member countries
reaffirmed that health is a ‘fundamental human right’ and called for all countries
to ‘cooperate in a spirit of partnership and service to ensure primary health care
for all people since the attainment of health by people in any one country directly
concerns and benefits every other country’.150 The Alma-Ata Declaration identified
primary healthcare as the key to the attainment of the agreed-upon goal of Health
for All by 2000. The UN General Assembly subsequently endorsed the Alma-Ata
Declaration on 29 November, 1979, calling on every UN body to support the
WHO’s efforts to achieve Health for All by 2000 (Lawson, Bertucci and Wiseberg
1996: 657).
While the goal of Health for All by 2000 was continuously reaffirmed in
declarations, resolutions and conferences, the international community came up
painfully short of that goal. Nevertheless, as noted at the beginning of this chapter,
health was placed back at the centre of the global development agenda in the MDGs,
which translate into measurable, time-bound targets the commitments of the 189
Member States of the United Nations at the United Nations Millennium Summit
in September 2000. Commitments to the MDGs and to poverty alleviation have
been reaffirmed and reinforced in other global forums, including the WTO’s Doha
Ministerial Declaration151 and the Monterrey Consensus,152 among others. These
agreements are not legally binding on member states, but are rather aspirational
149. Commission on Human Rights resolution 2001/33: Access to medication in the context of
pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, E/CN.4.RES.2001.33 (adopted 20 April, 2001). United Nations
resolutions further elaborate on the human rights guaranteed in the International Bill, as well
as on the concomitant obligations of states, but are not legally binding.
150. Declaration of Alma-Ata. International Conference on Primary Health Care, Alma-Ata, USSR,
6–12 September, 1978. Available at
151. WTO, Doha WTO Ministerial 2001, Ministerial Declaration adopted on 14 November 2001, e.htm.
152. The Monterrey Consensus came out of the March 2002 International Conference on Financing
for Development in Monterrey, Mexico. See UN Dep’t of Economic and Social Affairs, FollowUp Process to the International Conference on Financing for Development,
esa/ffd (last visited 25 April, 2006).
Realizing the Human Right to Health in Low-Income Countries179
declarations of agreed-upon international goals (Kuszler 2007). However, most
of the commitments to achieving the right to health in these agreements are
embodied in the binding treaties above. Furthermore, international commitments
do carry some authority as they are negotiated in good faith by world leaders with
the expectation that other governments will honour their commitments to the
extent possible; there are myriad non-legal reasons why governments ought to
honour the commitments they make to each other.
In September 2002, recognizing that the right to health was still woefully
under-realized despite the binding treaties and other international agreements,
the UN Commission on Human Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur on the
right to health, Paul Hunt. Hunt served from 2002 until 2008, when Anand
Grover, an Indian attorney known for his legislative drafting and litigation in the
HIV and AIDS field,153 was appointed to continue the mandate. According to the
Special Rapporteur’s mandate, Hunt worked with countries, intergovernmental
organizations, civil society and the private sector, to report on the status of
the right to health and to make recommendations for appropriate measures to
promote and protect the right to health worldwide. Hunt’s work focused especially
on two areas – poverty and the right to health, and stigma and discrimination
and the right to health – yet his research included issues of the right to health
dimensions of HIV and AIDS, maternal mortality, access to medicines, neglected
diseases, mental health, the Millennium Development Goals, the World Trade
Organization, poverty reduction strategies, indicators, sexual and reproductive
health rights, health professionals, maternal mortality and access to medicines.
The reports that Hunt wrote as Special Rapporteur are useful for understanding
the status of the right to health in various parts of the world, the responsibilities
of various parties and governments for realizing the right to health, and ways
to operationalize treaty and other commitments. Throughout his work, he has
emphasized that the right to health is ‘a right to an effective and integrated health
system, encompassing health care and the underlying determinants of health,
which is responsive to national and local priorities, and accessible to all.’154 He
was particularly attentive to the request of the Commission on Human Rights that
he ‘pay particular attention to the linkages between poverty reduction strategies
and the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of
physical and mental health’ and conducted country studies in Niger and Uganda
on this theme.155
153. ‘The Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable
standard of health: Mr. Anand Grover’, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for
Human Rights. Available at: 154. E/CN.4/2006/48, para. 4.
155. Commission on Human Rights resolution 2003/28. See Reports of the Special Rapporteur, Paul
Hunt, UN doc E/CN.4/2004/49 16 February 2004, paras 57–75; A/HRC/4/28 17 January 2007,
para. 20.
Lisa E. Sachs and Jeffrey D. Sachs
7.3. R esponsibilities of Donor Nations to
Support Health in Low-Income Countries
Despite the universal recognition of the right to health as a basic human right,
international law is ill-equipped to protect and promote this right adequately,
especially in the developing world where the need is greatest. Traditional
international human rights law is ‘state-centric,’ meaning that states have the
primary obligation to protect and promote the human rights of the citizens within
their jurisdiction. By far, most of what has been written about the ‘progressive
realization’ of the right to health has taken the basic view that governments have
the obligation to realize the right to health of their own citizens – and that in
developing countries, where governments do not have the resources to achieve
the universal right to health as envisioned in United Nations agreements, the right
to health should be ‘progressively’ achieved, according to available resources.
This means that citizens of developing countries have different ‘highest attainable
standards’ of health than citizens of rich countries (Alexander 2001: 13).
This state-centric approach, however, overlooks two critical points from an
economic perspective. First, as already discussed, poor countries are marred in
health crises precisely because they do not have the resources to improve all aspects
of a health system, including clean drinking water, trained medical personnel,
essential medicines and equipment, health education, and other basic health
fundamentals. Moreover, a healthy population is a key component of economic
development. When countries are trapped in an extreme poverty trap, it is illogical
and impractical to insist that poor populations await the ‘progressive realization’
of their right to health, subject to the available resources of their government.
Second, the focus on the right to health obligations of poor countries to their own
populations overlooks the legally binding obligations of third-party states to assist
with the realization of the right to health in resource-poor countries. The latter
point is the focus of this section.
Again, from an economic perspective, a transfer of just 0.1 per cent of richworld annual income would close the financing gap for realizing the right to
health in poor countries. It is a question of helping poor countries to reduce their
resource constraints to allow them to meet the health needs of their populations.
But importantly, the economics of financial transfers to realize the right to health
is again backed by international law. The overarching obligation of all UN member
states to cooperate for the achievement of human rights is articulated in the UN
charter. Specifically, the charter states that the purposes of the UN are to ‘achieve
international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic,
social, cultural or humanitarian character’.156 Furthermore, Articles 55 and 56 call
for UN member states to take ‘[j]oint and separate action in co-ordination with
the organisation’ to achieve the purposes of the United Nations, which include
‘higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and
156. UN Charter art. 1, para. 3 (emphasis added).
Realizing the Human Right to Health in Low-Income Countries181
social progress and development’ and ‘solutions of international economic, social,
health and related problems’. According to Article 103 of the United Nations
charter, the obligations under the charter prevail over any other international
obligation or treaty.
With respect specifically to the right to health, the legally binding obligation
of developed states that are parties to the ICESCR is articulated in Article 2(1) of
the ICESCR, according to which
Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps,
individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially
economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a
view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in
the present Covenant.157 (emphasis added)
The ICESCR also refers to international assistance and cooperation for the full
realization of the rights in the treaty in Articles 1, 11, 15, 22, and 23. General Comment 3
to the Covenant, on the nature of States Parties’ obligations, clarifies that
in accordance with Articles 55 and 56 of the Charter of the United Nations,
with well-established principles of international law, and with the provisions
of the Covenant itself, international cooperation for development and thus
for the realization of economic, social and cultural rights is an obligation
of all states. It is particularly incumbent upon those states which are in a
position to assist others in this regard.158
The ICESCR is binding on all states that have ratified the treaty; importantly,
however, according to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, the states
that are signatories but not parties to the ICESCR are obligated ‘to refrain from
acts that would contravene the object and purpose’ of the treaty until or unless
the state makes it clear that it does not intend to become a party to the treaty.159
Similarly, states that are neither parties nor signatories to the ICESCR still assume
‘general obligations not to contravene UN resolutions in this regard, as members
of the United Nations’ (Yamin 2003). The United States has signed but not ratified
the ICESCR; therefore, according to the Vienna Convention, the United States has
an obligation not to contravene the object of the ICESCR, which includes the full
realization of the right to health in all countries. Therefore, at least one scholar has
commented that it would be
157. ICESCR, Art. 2(1) (emphasis added).
158. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 3: The Nature of States
Parties Obligations (Art. 2, para. 1), Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 5th Sess.
(1990). reprinted in Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations Adopted
by Human Rights Treaty Bodies at 18, U.N. Doc. HRI/GEN/1/Rev.5 (2001), at para. 14.
159. Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 23 May, 1969, 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, Art. 18.
Lisa E. Sachs and Jeffrey D. Sachs
reasonable to affirm that the efforts of the US government […] to deliberately
block intellectual property reform in Thailand, Brazil, and South Africa
[preventing these governments from providing affordable life-saving medicines
to their populations] constituted violations of the [US] government’s general
obligation not to contravene the object and purpose of the treaty. (Yamin 2003)
Several UN resolutions and declarations have affirmed the member states’
commitment to international assistance, including in relation to access to
medicines. The Millennium Declaration, adopted by the General Assembly in 2000,
recognized ‘a collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity,
equality and equity at the global level’.160 Developed countries agreed to undertake
concrete actions such as the adoption of fair trade rules, a debt relief programme
for heavily indebted poor countries, and increased development assistance to poor
countries committed to poverty reduction. The eighth Millennium Development
Goal is the establishment of a global partnership for development to facilitate this
global cooperation. The obligations under target 8E of this goal (‘In cooperation
with pharmaceutical companies, provide access to affordable essential drugs in
developing countries’) have been analysed, among others, by the UN’s MDG Gap
Task Force (UN 2009: 49-62), and by the High Level Task Force on the Right to
Development.161 It is important to emphasize, however, that the language of the
UN Charter and the specific language of the ICESCR, including the interpretive
comments of the CESCR, make clear that, in addition to the commitments made
in such declarations as the Millennium Declaration, developed countries have a
legally binding obligation to assist and cooperate with the realization of the right
to health in impoverished countries.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that legally binding third-party state obligations
exist, the opaqueness of those obligations and the lack of specific measures that
states should take to fulfil their legal obligations under the ICESCR and political
commitment under the MDGs, have rendered these obligations unenforceable
and irrelevant in practice. In order for these obligations to carry legal weight, it
is essential that these obligations be clarified and elaborated, so that the specific
obligations of third-party states are clear, practical and quantifiable.
The General Comments have taken some steps to articulate the meaning of
third-party state obligations. According to the Comments, the CESCR envisions
that third-party states have the same tripartite responsibilities as those of state
governments to their own citizens: to respect, to protect and to fulfil all economic
and social rights referred to in the ICESCR. The third-party state obligation to
respect human rights in other countries and ‘to refrain from interfering with the
realization of economic, social and cultural rights in other countries’ is the least
contentious aspect of the third-party state obligations, and is generally understood
to be the ‘minimum obligation’ (Vandenhole 2005). For instance, General
160. A/RES/55/2, Para 2.
161. Report of the high-level task force on the implementation of the right to development on its fifth
session (Geneva, 1–9 April 2009), UN doc. A/HRC/12/WG.2/TF/2, 27 April 2009, paras. 26–34.
Realizing the Human Right to Health in Low-Income Countries183
Comment 14 on the Right to Health states that all state parties must ‘respect the
enjoyment of the right to health in other countries’.162
However, the General Comments clearly indicate that the ICESCR envisions
the obligations of third-party states going beyond the minimum of ‘respecting’
the rights in other countries. General Comment 14 states that state parties must
also ‘prevent third parties from violating the right [to health] in other countries,
if they are able to influence these third parties by way of legal or political means,
in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and applicable international
law’.163 The third-party state obligation to protect the realization of human rights
in all countries from the interference of third parties under its control has not yet
been conceptualized or enforced in practice, yet much has been written about
the importance of this obligation to ‘protect’. For instance, with respect to access
to medicines, many have argued that states party to the ICESCR have a binding
obligation to regulate the activity of pharmaceutical companies that are incorporated
within their state; accordingly, states would violate the right to health under the
ICESCR ‘by failing to influence pharmaceutical corporations’ actions that restrict
access to HIV/AIDS drugs in developing countries’ (Alexander 2001).
In a report on the international health worker skills drain, the former Special
Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Paul Hunt, stated that in accordance with the
obligation to protect the right to health in third-countries, states have an obligation
to ‘regulate private recruitment agencies that operate internationally with a view to
ensuring that they do not recruit in a manner that reduces a developing country’s
capacity to fulfil the right to health obligations that it owes to those within its
jurisdiction’.164 He carried the concept of the obligation to protect further by drafting
and submitting to the General Assembly a set of ‘Human Rights Guidelines for
Pharmaceutical Companies in Relation to Access to Medicines’.165 The obligation
to protect the realization of human rights also requires third-party states that are
concluding international or regional agreements on any issue to ensure that these
instruments do not adversely impact the realization of the right to health in other
countries, and states that are members of international organizations, such as the
World Bank, the WTO and the IMF, are obligated to influence the lending policies,
credit agreements and other international policies of these institutions so that they
are consistent with the objectives of the ICESCR.166
The final obligation – to fulfil – is the most difficult of all the obligations
to conceptualize and to make operational. As one scholar noted, ‘any suggestion
of a legal obligation to provide development aid […] has invariably been met by
hesitation or rejection from even the most generous donor countries’ (Vandenhole
162.CESCR, General Comment 14, para. 39.
163.CESCR, General Comment 14, para. 39.
164. A/60/348, para. 61.
165. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest
attainable standard of physical and mental health, UN doc. A/63/26311, August 2008.
166.CESCR, General Comment 14, para. 39; Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,
GC No. 15, The right to water (arts. 11 and 12), UN Doc. E/C.12/2002/11 20 January 2003,
para. 36.
Lisa E. Sachs and Jeffrey D. Sachs
2005). Nevertheless, the General Comments clearly envision aid – both financial
and technical – to be an obligation of countries with available resources for the
realization of rights in poor countries. General Comment 14 states that ‘[d]­epending
on the availability of resources, states should facilitate access to essential health
facilities, goods and services in other countries, wherever possible and provide
the necessary aid when required.’167 In addition to General Comment 14, other
General Comments to the ICESCR have enumerated specific obligations of thirdparty states to assist with the realization of rights in developing countries, including
the right to adequate housing,168 the right education,169 the right to food170 and the
right to water.171 As the same scholar noted, despite the existence of these thirdparty extraterritorial obligations to assist with the realization of human rights in
other countries, the obligations ‘to protect’ and ‘to fulfil’ are ‘still part of the law
“under construction”, that is the law as it ought to be’ (Vandenhole 2005).’
The emphasis here on the obligations of developed countries is not intended to
minimize the role that governments of poor countries have in the realization of the
right to health and other basic human rights in their own countries. The obligations
of third-party states are complementary to domestic state obligations (Vandenhole
2005).172 Poor governance, discrimination, corruption and warped ideology are
unfortunate realities and impediments to the right to health in many countries,
developing and developed alike. Efforts to improve governance, accountability,
equitable distribution and access systems and social justice are necessary – but not
sufficient – to achieving the universal right to health. The point stressed here is that
poverty remains the most critical obstacle to the realization of the right to health
in developing countries, and the myriad UN treaties, declarations, resolutions and
other international agreements that envisage a universal right to health require a
renewed focus on and analysis of the obligations of third-party states (and other
167.CESCR, General Comment 14, para. 39.
168.CESCR, General Comment 4, The right to adequate housing (Art. 11 (1) of the Covenant),
Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights
Treaty Bodies, UN Doc. HRI\GEN\1\Rev.1 at 53 (1994), para. 19.
169.CESCR, The right to education (Art.13), UN Doc. E/C.12/1999/10, 12 August, 1999.
170.CESCR, The right to adequate food (Art.11): 12/05/99, CESCR, General comment 12. (General
Comments) UN Doc. E/C.12/1999/5, 12 May 1999.
171.CESCR, General Comment 15.
172. Although this chapter does not discuss the specific obligations of non-state parties, the role of
non-state actors in assisting or restricting the realization of the right to health in developing
countries should not be understated. The crucial role and responsibilities of international
organizations, such as the World Bank and the IMF, and the business sector, specifically
the pharmaceutical industry, in the promotion and protection of the right to health has
increasingly been discussed by governments, civil society and scholars. General Comment 14
also emphasizes that the private business sector has responsibilities regarding the realization
of the right to health, and there are increasingly examples of domestic legal systems where
legislation has been used to challenge pharmaceutical companies’ restrictive policies, often
based on competition, marketing or patent laws. Therefore, although the specific obligations
and responsibilities of pharmaceutical companies and other international organizations are not
addressed in this chapter, it should be recognized that these companies and organizations are
uniquely positioned to address the right to health and to essential medicines.
Realizing the Human Right to Health in Low-Income Countries185
organs of society) toward developing countries and the billion people worldwide
without even the most basic health assurances for survival.
State failures regarding good governance raise notoriously difficult issues
for outside donors, including in their support for health. A recent analysis put the
vexing issues this way:
as with many human rights there are important issues which are still less clear
and require further discussion. For example, what, if anything, would be the
obligation of a donor if a recipient state lacked will and failed to give effect
to the right to health of a particular population group, such as women or an
indigenous population? [...] If a donor withdraws or reduces its development
assistance including in the area of health because a recipient state has failed
to meet certain legitimate conditions (e.g. minimise corruption), would this
be contrary to that donor’s obligations under ICESCR? Another question is
if a donor gives its aid through direct budget support, but national policies
which it is supporting do not contribute to (or violate) the right to health, what
implications does this have for IAC [international assistance and cooperation]?
[…]These are complex policy issues which demand further attention and
discussion. (Ferraz and Mesquita 2006)
While these questions are important, we should not lose sight of the most basic
and important point we are making about the intersection of human rights and
economic perspectives on poverty and the right to health. Many governments
of poor countries around the world are attempting with seriousness and
professionalism to improve public health, but are held back by the deficiencies of
their own resources. Bad governance may be a critical barrier in some contexts,
but it is certainly not the universal barrier to improved health in poor countries
that is sometimes presumed.
7.4. Achieving the Right to Health within
the Human Rights Framework
The important question, therefore, is how to make operational the existing legal
obligations of developed countries to assist impoverished countries with the
realization of the right to health, and importantly, how to coordinate the efforts of
domestic governments, donor governments, and non-state actors in the realization
of the right to health. As one commentator has noted, ‘The most glaring problem,
widely debated by scholars, is whether international legal instruments and global
institutions can effectively govern the diverse state and non-state actors that
influence health outcomes. (Gostin 2007: 335)’ While this remains an incredibly
complex – yet urgent – problem, below we outline some of possible steps that
the international community can take to help achieve the right to health globally,
which is instrumental to the poverty reduction agenda.
Lisa E. Sachs and Jeffrey D. Sachs
7.4.1. Identify the Core Aspects of the Right to Health
As with most of the economic, social and cultural rights in the ICESCR and the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to health has not been welldefined and the specific obligations of governments and other actors have not
been enumerated. A crucial first step to make operational the right to health and
make the right meaningful for individuals in developing countries is to articulate
the core elements of the right to health. Identifying the core elements of the right to
health is integral for assessing the needs in each country, monitoring the progress
of governments in the realization of the right to health, and identifying areas for
developed countries to ‘cooperate and assist’. In General Comment 14, the CESCR
identified the core obligations of the right to health to include:
a) to ensure the right of access to health facilities, goods and services on
a non-discriminatory basis, especially for vulnerable or marginalized
b) to ensure access to the minimum essential food which is nutritionally
adequate and safe, to ensure freedom from hunger to everyone;
c) to ensure access to basic shelter, housing and sanitation, and an adequate
supply of safe and potable water;
d) to provide essential drugs, as from time to time defined under the WHO
Action Programme on Essential Drugs;
e) to ensure equitable distribution of all health facilities, goods and
f) to adopt and implement a national public health strategy and plan of
action, on the basis of epidemiological evidence, addressing the health
concerns of the whole population.173
Others, including the UN Economic and Social Council, have extended this list
of core obligations to also include providing health education, immunizations
and pest control (Gostin 2007: 367). Once there is international agreement on the
core elements of the right to health, government programmes can be redesigned
to prioritize these core elements, and international assistance can be targeted
initially at realizing these core needs in each country. The CESCR stated that
‘[when grouped together, the core obligations establish an international minimum
threshold that all developmental policies should be designed to respect’,174 and
that ‘it is particularly incumbent on states parties and other actors in a position to
assist, to provide “international assistance and cooperation, especially economic
and technical” which enable developing countries to fulfil their core and other
173. CESCR, General Comment No. 14, para. 43.
174. CESCR, Statement on Poverty and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights, para 17.
175. CESCR, General Comment 14, para. 45.
Realizing the Human Right to Health in Low-Income Countries187
7.4.2. E
stablish Benchmarks and Criteria to Assess
the Realization of the Right to Health
According to the ICESCR, the right to health is to be ‘progressively realized’ to
the maximum of available resources; there are no benchmarks to assess when
governments lag substantially despite available resources or when governments
have fulfilled their health obligations. As one scholar noted, ‘through the linkages
between the “available resources” standard and “achieving progressively”
provision, the universality of human rights loses its rigidity in the context of
health’ (Meier 2007: 549). Benchmarks and evaluation criteria are instrumental to
encourage all governments to meet their obligations and to assess which countries
need assistance and in which areas. The CESCR actually identifies as part of a
government’s core obligation, the obligation to create a strategy and plan of action
for the realization of the right to health that includes ‘methods, such as right to
health indicators and benchmarks, by which progress can be closely monitored’.176
The international community, with leadership from the CESCR and the Special
Rapporteur for the Right to Health, should agree on specified benchmarks for
the realization of the right to health, especially in developing countries. The
benchmarks should include the core elements of the right to health as well as
a method for countries to quantify specific targets and indicators for assessing
progress and needs in each country.
The MDGs provide a sound practical benchmark as they are internationally
agreed and achievable through the application of best practices backed by the
needed financing. The MDGs call for a reduction by two-thirds of the under-5
mortality rate by the year 2015 compared with a 1990 baseline (MDG 4), a
reduction of three-quarters of maternal mortality by 2015 compared with a 1990
baseline (MDG 5), and a significant control of major killer diseases such as AIDS
and malaria (MDG 6). Expert groups for each disease have translated MDG 6
into specific coverage targets for key interventions, and those targets have been
endorsed in various official processes (e.g. in some cases by the WHO, the UN
General Assembly, and/or the UN Secretary General). In the case of malaria, for
example, the Roll Back Malaria Partnership has adopted the goal of universal
coverage of basic malaria interventions by the end of 2010. In the case of AIDS,
the General Assembly has endorsed the goal of universal access to anti-retroviral
medicines by 2010.
7.4.3. I dentify Necessary and Effective Interventions
and Ensure Available Funds
Once there are agreed-upon obligations for the right to health and established
benchmarks to assess country progress and needs, developed and developing
176. CESCR, General Comment No. 14, para. 43.
Lisa E. Sachs and Jeffrey D. Sachs
countries should collectively identify specific necessary and effective interventions
to help realize the right to health in developing countries and commit the
necessary resources. Most of the important interventions to support the basic
obligations of developing country governments are low-cost interventions that
nevertheless are not within reach of most developing countries. The 2001 report
of the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health (CMH) stressed that ‘[e]ven
if poor countries allocated more domestic resources to health, such measures
would still not resolve the basic problem: poor countries lack the needed financial
resources to meet the most basic health needs of their populations’. As one scholar
noted, since developing countries do not have the necessary resources for the core
obligations recommended by the CESR, the core obligations ‘are seen as fervent
aspirations waiting for sufficient economic investment to bring them into reality’
(Kuszler 2007).
In addition to commitments to fund necessary interventions in developing
countries for the provision of health services and basic amenities and capabilities
related to the right to health, developed countries also must commit to increasing
the research and development of large pharmaceutical companies and biomedical
research firms to address more of the urgent needs of developing countries.
Currently, the so-called ‘neglected’ diseases that cause millions of unnecessary
deaths each year in developing countries are under-funded for biomedical
research; in fact, only 1 per cent of medicines created in the last twenty-five years
address ‘diseases of poverty’ that claim millions of lives in the developing world
(Gostin 2007: 369).
7.4.4. I mprove Systems of Accountability,
Monitoring and Compliance
As two scholars recently wrote, ‘unless supported by a system of accountability,
human rights can become no more than window-dressing’ (Ferraz and Mesquita
2006). The right to heath is an international legal right after all; in order for the
right to ‘mean anything at all’, it requires some form of regulation and monitoring
to assure implementation and enforcement (Kinney 2001: 1471). While health
policies are often assessed and monitored, health policies and health interventions
are very rarely considered within the right-to-health framework, so domestic
and third-party governments are rarely held accountable for their policies and
decisions as they relate to the legal right to health (Ferraz and Mesquita 2006).
Importantly, it was only in September 2009 that the ICESCR was supplemented by
a complaint process by which individuals or groups can allege a violation of their
rights under the ICESCR and seek redress or enforcement of their rights. Once it
has been ratified by ten countries, the Optional Protocol to the ICESCR177 will enter
177. The Optional Protocol was adopted by the General Assembly in its resolution A/RES/63/117 on
10 December 2008, and opened for signature on 29 September 2009.
Realizing the Human Right to Health in Low-Income Countries189
into force and enable the CESCR to investigate claimed violations. Furthermore,
as the only one of the six major human rights treaty bodies that was not created by
its respective treaty, it is comparatively under-resourced (Narula 2006).
Monitoring compliance with ICESCR obligations is critical for the full
realization of the right to health and for the necessary levels of international
cooperation and assistance that are required to realize the right to health in
all parts of the world. First and foremost, in order for developed countries to
be held accountable for their obligations under the ICESCR, there needs to be
a clear articulation of the extraterritorial obligations of states (as well as clarity
on the obligations of non-state actors, including multinational corporations
and international financial institutions) (Narula 2006). With an improved and
emboldened mandate, the CESCR can assume the responsibility and capacity to
hold countries accountable for their obligations to provide international assistance
and cooperation, with assistance from the Special Rapporteur on the right to
health (Ferraz and Mesquita 2006). The CESCR, for instance, makes Concluding
Observations on the state party reports of Party States to the ICESCR, and has
at times commented and made recommendations to increase development
assistance. Furthermore, civil society organizations can submit ‘shadow reports’
along with Party States’ reports, providing additional commentary on the states’
compliance with its obligations; the CESCR has often incorporated information
from these civil society reports in the CESCR’s recommendations (Ferraz and
Mesquita 2006). The mandate of the CESCR could be clarified and expanded to
include not only collecting these reports and making specific recommendations,
but also assessing and benchmarking the compliance of developed countries with
respect to their international assistance obligations, and the CESCR could issue a
public report on the status of the countries’ compliance. The Special Rapporteur
could make similar evaluations and presentations to the United Nations and to
member states on the status of compliance with the obligation to cooperate and
assist with the realization of the right to health.
7.4.5. A Global Convention on Health
One scholar (Gostin 2007: 335) has recently recommended a new framework
Convention on Global Health (FCGH) that would ‘commit states to a set of
targets, both economic and logistic, and […] stimulate creative public/private
partnerships and actively engage civil society stakeholders.’ He proposes that the
Convention could
set achievable goals for global health spending as a proportion of GNP;
define areas of cost effective investment to meet basic survival needs; build
sustainable health systems, including trained health care professionals,
surveillance, and laboratories; and create incentives and systems for scientific
innovation for affordable vaccines and essential medicines. (Gostin 2007: 335)
Lisa E. Sachs and Jeffrey D. Sachs
Such a Convention could also be useful in that it could include states that
have not ratified the ICESCR or other treaties that have incorporated right-tohealth obligations or countries that have ratified those treaties but limited their
commitment with extensive reservations. Furthermore, an institution could be
established to oversee this Convention (possibly in addition to other Conventions
that address issues of extreme poverty or other social, economic and cultural
rights) that could monitor standards, implementation, compliance, and progress,
and oversee a finance mechanism for fulfilling the purposes of the Convention
(Gostin 2007).
7.5. Outlines of an International Financial
Programme to Support Health for All
One of us (Jeffrey Sachs) has been deeply involved in three distinct efforts to measure
the international financing needed to achieve health for all: the aforementioned
Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, which focused on the financing
of primary healthcare delivery in low-income settings; the aforementioned
United Nations Millennium Project, which identified an integrated programme
of investments (in agriculture, health, education and infrastructure) designed
to enable low-income countries to achieve the Millennium Development Goals;
and the UN Secretary General’s MDG Africa Steering Group, which specifically
addressed the achievement of the MDGs in Africa. All three of these projects
identified the needs for international donor financing of the health sector, while
the latter two projects also examined the needs for donor financing beyond the
health sector.
The Commission on Macroeconomics and Health identified donor needs
of US$ 27 billion per year as of 2007, expressed in constant 2002 US$ (WHO
Commission on Macroeconomics and Health 2001: 20). Updated to 2007, this
would come to US$ 38 billion. The UN Millennium Project identified total
donor needs for all MDGs at US$135 billion for 2006, expressed in constant
2003 US$ (UN Millennium Project 2005: 57) of which health constituted around
US$ 30 billion (in 2003 US$). Updated to US$ 2007, that would come to around
US$ 37 billion, very close to the estimate of the Commission on Macroeconomics
and Health. According to the MDG Africa Steering Group, Africa’s health-sector
needs come to around US$28 billion as of 2010 (in 2007 US$) (Africa Steering
Group 2008: 30-32, Table 2), and Africa’s total donor needs to achieve the MDGs
come to around US$ 72 billion per year as of 2010 (in 2007 US$).
In order to assess the economic feasibility of realizing the right to health
and thereby fulfilling the obligations discussed in the previous section, it should
be stressed that, given the combined income of the donor countries of around
US$ 35 trillion as of 2007, the required donor aid for health worldwide is estimated
to be around 0.1 per cent of the combined donor Gross National Product (GNP),
easily accommodated within the long-standing target of 0.7 per cent of GNP in
total donor aid. In fact, donor aid is currently around US$ 10 billion per year, or
Realizing the Human Right to Health in Low-Income Countries191
roughly one-third of what is needed. The good news, however, is that the trajectory
is decidedly upward, with aid for health having risen from around US$ 3 billion
per year at the start of the decade.
Finance is merely an enabler, of course, to be combined with on-the-ground
systems for delivery, monitoring and evaluation. Several such systems are being
put in place, mainly as the result of recent progress in scaling up programmes
to fight AIDS, TB, malaria, and other communicable diseases. The Global
Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and
Immunization are two multilateral donor funds established early in the decade to
finance the rollout of disease control efforts, and the results have been enormously
exciting and positive. In view of these successes, and the calculations of overall
financial requirements, we propose ten international actions of highest priority
that are feasible from an economic perspectives and conform to the obligations of
the right to health from a human rights perspective:
1. Rich countries should devote 0.1 per cent of GNP (US$ 35 billion per year as
of 2007) to health assistance for poor countries.
2. Roughly half of that should be channelled through the Global Fund to
Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, which has proven itself to be a highly effective
institution for the scaling up of control of the three targeted diseases.
3. Low-income countries should fulfil the so-called Abuja Commitment to
allocate at least 15 per cent of domestic revenues to the health sector. Total
spending (domestic and external funding) should be greater than US$ 50
per person per year (in US$ 2007) in order to ensure basic health services.
4. The world should adopt a plan for comprehensive malaria control by 2010,
with an end of malaria mortality by 2012 (estimated cost is around US$
3 billion per year). (Teklehaimonot, McCord and Sachs 2007)
5. The world’s nations should fulfil the commitment of the UN General
Assembly to universal access to anti-retrovirals for HIV/AIDS by 2010.178
6. The world should fulfil the Global Plan to Stop TB, including closing the
identified financing gap of US$ 3 billion per year.179
7. The world should fulfil the funding for the commitment to universal access
to Sexual and Reproductive Health Services, including emergency obstetrical
care and contraception, by the year 2015.180
8. The Global Fund should establish a financing window for seven neglected
tropical diseases which can be controlled by mass chemotherapy: hookworm,
ascariasis, trichuriasis, onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis
and trachoma. (Molyneux et al 2009)
9. The Global Fund should establish a window for health systems, including
mass training of community health workers.
178. Resolution 60/262 of the UN General Assembly, 15 June 2006.
179. Global Plan to Stop TB, 2006-2015, by the Stop TB Partnership, World Health Organization,
180. Adopted at the International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, 1994.
Lisa E. Sachs and Jeffrey D. Sachs
10. The world should introduce primary healthcare (mass prevention and
treatment) of non-communicable diseases, including: oral health, eye care,
mental health, cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders, including
measures on lifestyle (smoking, trans-fats, urban design for a healthy
environment), surveillance and clinical care.
Of course, these ten recommendations focus solely on the health sector itself,
and so must be complemented by similar actions in other sectors which impact
primary health, such as agriculture, infrastructure, environment, women’s rights
and education.
7.6. Conclusion
As the former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Paul Hunt, said,
‘Confronted with such a complex and colossal challenge as global poverty, it is
extremely important that development practitioners use all the tools available in
their workshop, including the national and international human rights commitments
of developing and developed states’ (Hunt 2006). The international commitments
exist; the problem lies ‘with weaknesses in implementation, enforcement, and a lack
of universal ratification’ (Narula 2006). Yet global cooperation and assistance – in
line with existing commitments and obligations – are absolutely necessary to solve
the global health crisis and to realize the right to health that has been affirmed by
all nations for many years. It is unacceptable that the ‘available resources’ standard
of the ICESCR has resulted in substantially different standards of the right to
health between developing and developed countries. It is imperative that the global
community cooperate to ‘close the gap between developing and developed countries’
highest attainable standards’ (Alexander 2001: 13).
An economic perspective on realizing the right to health can be useful in
this context, complementing the existent international obligations by identifying
the most cost-effective investments for improving health systems, quantifying
the financing gap to realize the right to health in poor countries, and creating
benchmarks for measuring success and monitoring progress. For instance, the
Millennium Development Goals offer a practical framework for benchmarking
the global effort, and for identifying the necessary cost-sharing among the highincome and low-income countries. Several costing exercises have demonstrated the
feasibility of estimating the financing needed to provide basic health services and
to achieve the health MDGs. They show that donors should be providing roughly
0.1 per cent of their national incomes for health, but are currently providing only
around one-third of that level. Health outcomes have been improving in recent
years, as shown for example by UNICEF’s data on declining child mortality, but
progress is far too slow to achieve the MDGs. Efforts must be scaled up. The
means for success exist. International human rights commitments call on us to
make the effort. The needs are urgent, and the MDG target date of 2015 is fast
Realizing the Human Right to Health in Low-Income Countries193
Africa Steering Group. 2008. Achieving the Millennium Development Goals in
Africa. Recommendations of the MDG Africa Steering Group, New York
Alexander, B.C. 2001. Lack of Access to HIV/AIDS Drugs in Developing Countries:
Is There a Violation of the International Human Rights to Health?, 8 No. 3
Human Rights Brief 12.
Dresler, C. and Marks, S. 2006. The Emerging Human Right to Tobacco Control,
Human Rights Quarterly 28, pp. 599–651.
Ferraz, O. and Mesquita, J. 2006. The Right to Health and the Millennium
Development Goals in Developing Countries: A right to International
Assistance and Cooperation? Right to Health Unit, Human Rights Centre,
University of Essex, July.
Gostin. L.O. 2007. A Proposal for a Framework Convention on Global Health.
Journal of International Economic Law 10(4):989-1008; doi:10.1093/jiel/
Hunt, P. 2006. Using All the Tools at Our Disposal: Poverty Reduction and the
Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health. http://www2.essex. per cent5B1 per cent5D.
Kinney, E.D. 2001. The International Human Right to Health: What Does This
Mean for Our Nation and World?’ Indiana Law Review, 34, 1457.
Kuszler, P.C. 2007. Global Health and the Human Rights Imperative, Asian
Journal of WTO & International Health Law and Policy 2, 99.
Lawson, E.H., Bertucci, M.L., and Wiseberg, L.S. 1996. Encyclopedia of Human
Rights. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Marks, S.P. 2009. Access to Essential Medicines as a Component of the Right to
Health, A. Clapham and M. Robinson (eds), Realizing the Right to Health.
Swiss Human Rights Book Series. Zurich: Rüfer & Rub, pp. 82–101.
Meier, B.M. 2007. Advancing Health Rights in a Globalized World: responding to
globalization through a collective human right to public health, Journal of
Law Medecine and Ethics 35, p. 545.
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Lancet, Vol. 373, Issue 9660, pp. 296–97, 24 January.
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International Law. Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, 44, 691,
pp. 774–75.
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Money for Health, and More Health for the Money.
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Teklehaimonot, A., McCord, G. and Sachs, J.D. 2007. Scaling up Malaria Control
in Africa: An Economic and Epidemiological Assessment, The American
Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 77(Suppl 6), pp. 138–44.
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Strengthening the Global Partnership for Development in a Time of Crisis.
New York: United Nations.
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Achieve the Millennium Development Goals. New York: United Nations.
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Law as an Assessment Instrument.
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International Law, Boston University International Law Journal 21, p. 325.
The Right to Work and the Reduction
of Poverty: An Economist’s View
Gerry Rodgers181
Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and
favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment
(Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23(1))
The right to work should not be understood as an absolute and unconditional
right to obtain employment
(UN Economic and Social Council, Committee on Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights, The right to work: General Comment No. 18, adopted
24 November 2005, E/C.12/GC/18)
When a man begs for work he asks not for work but for wages
(Attributed to Bishop Whately by Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation,
Boston, Beacon Press, 1957 (1944), p. 177)
8.1. Introduction
The right to work is distinctive for several reasons. First, it is both an end in itself,
and a means to other ends. Work may and should have intrinsic value for those who
perform it, but it is also the means by which other rights – to an adequate standard
of living, to a dignified existence – are realized for the majority of people.
Second, the right to work does not stand on its own, but involves other rights
– notably, in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘just and
favourable conditions of work … [and] remuneration’, ‘rest and leisure, including
reasonable limitation of working hours’, ‘social protection’, and ‘the right to form
and join trade unions’.
181. I am grateful to Stephen Marks, Claire La Hovary, Janine Rodgers and Lee Swepston for their
Gerry Rodgers
Third, work itself is not necessarily desired. ‘I think that there is far too much
work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is
virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is
quite different from what has always has been preached’ (Russell 1935). Bertrand
Russell, the author of these lines, thought that ‘four hours work a day should
entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life, and […] the rest
of his time should be his to use as he might see fit’. There is a compulsion to work
because people need the product of their labour in order to live, but much work is
experienced as unpleasant drudgery.
A right to work is thus a paradox, because work is, for most people, an
unavoidable part of life. In some circumstances, the right not to work is as valid as
the right to work (e.g. maternity, retirement), and the conditions under which work
is performed are as important as the work itself. It is not surprising that writings
on work since the early days of capitalist development have been ambiguous about
the meaning and content of this right.182
Echoes of this ambiguity can be found in the debates and discussions leading
to the adoption of the Universal Declaration, in which a political divorce emerged
between West and East. As Eleanor Roosevelt put it in a speech in 1948,
The Soviet Union insists that this [the right to work] is a basic right which
it alone can guarantee because it alone provides full employment by the
government. But the right to work in the Soviet Union means the assignment
of workers to whatever task is given to them by the government […] We in
the United States have come to realize [the right to work] means freedom to
choose one’s job, to work or not to work as one desires. (Glendon 2001: 138)
So two different conceptions of this right emerged, derived from two different
conceptions of society. In one, the right to work was absolute, and the state was
therefore obliged to provide employment for all, but it was combined with a duty
to work; this duality was explicit in, for example, the Constitution of the USSR. In
the other, the right to work was expressed in terms of the freedom to choose of the
individual, but within a wider market economy that provided no guarantees that
the choices would be realized in practice.
This schizophrenia explains in large measure why the International Labour
Organization, the obvious international body to take the notion of the right to
work forward in the post-war period, did not do so. The issue was indeed present in
ILO debates in the 1950s and 1960s, but it remained a political bone of contention,
a sideshow of the cold war in which the realization of the right to work through
the achievement of full employment in socialist economies was presented by the
Soviet bloc as proof of the superiority of their economic system. This vision was
of course rejected by the West, and ILO work on human rights instead focused
on freedoms in work – freedom of association and collective bargaining, freedom
182. See for instance the review in Standing (2002: 247-55).
The Right to Work and the Reduction of Poverty: An Economist’s View197
from forced labour and from discrimination – rather than on the right to work
as such. The ILO’s main employment convention, no. 122, 1964, merely has a
preambular reference to the Universal Declaration’s enunciation of the right to
work, and expresses the goal as ‘full, productive and freely chosen employment’,
not as a right but as the result of an active policy that should aim at ensuring that
‘there is work for all who are available for and seeking work’. And while the notion
of the right to work has occasionally found its way into ILO texts – for instance,
the ILO Declaration on Equality of Opportunity and Treatment for Women
Workers, 1975, states that ‘All measures shall be taken to guarantee women’s right
to work as the inalienable right of every human being’183 – in most cases the use
of this language was rejected by the West. In practice, the ILO has taken the route
of promoting the creation of employment opportunities rather than attempting to
establish a universal right to work, even after the end of the cold war.
The idea of the right to work was nevertheless incorporated into the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted in 1966
and now ratified by the great majority of the world’s countries. It has therefore
become an important element of the international human rights agenda.
8.2. Rights, Economists and Lawyers
Of course, the interpretation of the right to work is not only political. It also reflects
the perspectives and assumptions of different disciplines. On this, economists and
jurists are far apart, and there are also many different economic approaches.
The classical economists of the nineteenth century explicitly incorporated
normative ideas in their theoretical frameworks, notably through their analysis of
the labour process and their concern with distribution as well as with production
(Dobb 1973), but these issues do not readily connect with the notion of rights in
the modern sense. It can be argued that the labour theory of value, as developed
and interpreted by Ricardo, Marx, Mill and others, is compatible with the later
notion of a right to work, because under capitalism labour was in principle free (in
contrast to the labour obligations in a feudal system). But the notion is somewhat
alien in this context, since workers were dependent in a capitalist economy on the
sale of their labour power for a wage, and that wage in turn was determined in the
long run by the need for subsistence, broadly defined (i.e. for Marx including an
‘historical and moral element’). The right to work and the obligation to work in
order to live were in reality two sides of the same coin.
With the development of utilitarian theories of value, and more generally
in the conventional frameworks of neoclassical economic analysis, the right to
work became if anything even less meaningful. There was always a wage that
would clear the labour market, so in some sense the right to work always existed.
183. It remains a historical curiosity that the ILO has declared the right to work for women but
not for men. One factor may have been that the ILO bureau responsible for ’women workers’
questions’, was usually headed by an official from the Soviet Union during this period.
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If the worker elected not to work at a particular wage, that was his or her choice,
but it could not be said that the right to work had been denied. Of course, more
sophisticated neoclassical models admit the existence of imperfect markets, a
mismatch of capabilities and other factors that might lead to unemployment.
But the underlying premise is always that the resolution of such imperfections
is possible through investment in skills, strengthening market institutions,
reducing labour market protections or improving information flows. Nor does the
neoclassical apparatus of welfare economics lend itself readily to a rights-based
approach. As Harvey (2002) points out, conventional welfare economics abstracts
from fairness and rights-based claims defined at a societal level, relying instead on
the revealed preferences of individuals.
There are, however, other streams of economic thinking that connect better
with the rights agenda, and in particular those that belong to what can broadly be
called institutional economics. Institutionalists acknowledge the importance of
social norms in economic behaviour, and so offer a framework in which rights in the
labour market can be taken into account, for instance as mechanisms that legitimize
particular labour market outcomes or work practices, create trust as a basis for
exchange, reduce transaction costs, or determine the range of socially acceptable
behaviours. Writers such as Commons saw social legislation as an institution that
could canalize conflicting social interests, and thus stabilize economic relationships.
The ‘new institutionalists’ formalize this in terms of the persistence of those
institutions that promote economic efficiency by reducing transaction costs.184
The macro frameworks of the French ‘École de la régulation’ look for rules and
mechanisms that underpin a particular pattern of control and distribution, in which
the economic mechanisms have to be set in their political and social environment
(Boyer 1990). Within such frameworks, respect for rights that have social sanction
may contribute to the functioning of economic institutions – enterprise, markets –
and may be an important determinant of economic stability. Such ideas have been
pursued in the writings of authors such as Robert Solow and Richard Freeman.185
Most of these writers do not explicitly consider rights as such. Amartya Sen,
on the other hand, investigates the relationships between rights and economic goals
and outcomes in a series of writings. In his book Development as Freedom, Sen
examines the validity of a rights-based approach to development in some depth.
He considers and rejects three possible critiques of rights-based arguments:
1. The argument that rights are not innate, but must derive from some authority
or legislation (legitimacy). Sen rejects this argument on the grounds that
rights should be seen as ethical claims, and distinguished from legislated
2. The argument that rights exist only where there is a corresponding duty on
the part of some agent to ensure their realization (coherence). On this, Sen
184. See for instance Nabli abd Nugent (1989).
185. See for instance Solow (1990); and various publications by Richard Freeman (http://www.nber.
The Right to Work and the Reduction of Poverty: An Economist’s View199
considers that rights can exist (in the sense of unfulfilled claims) even if
no-one has the responsibility to realize them.
The argument that rights are not universal but vary from one society to
another (cultural). This Sen denies, arguing that basic freedoms and their
formulations in terms of rights are indeed universal.
But despite Sen’s rebuttals, all three of these critiques pose problems for the right
to work. The first critique draws attention to the lack of a precise definition of the
right to work outside a particular legislative environment. The second highlights
the problem of agency and responsibility, to which we return below – a right to
work in the absence of an agent to provide this work is not very compelling. And
the third abstracts from cultural and social differences that are important for those
concerned. Work plays different roles in different societies.
Sen’s own approach gives precedence to the notion of freedoms over that of
rights: indeed, rights are best seen as formulations of freedoms. These freedoms
should be understood in terms of an individual’s capabilities and entitlements,
which Sen defines as the set of functionings (or desired activities) that are feasible
for that individual. Capability has many sources, both social and economic,
among them ownership and command over commodities. The right to work
might be considered as a freedom, in Sen’s sense, in that its realization should
assure this command over commodities. In this role the right (freedom) to work
is a means (instrumental) rather than an end (constitutive). However, insofar
as the right to work also extends to the nature and content of that work, it can
equally be considered to be constitutive, an activity that is desired in its own right.
This can be seen in the ILO’s approach to rights at work, goals in their own right,
many of which are regularly expressed as freedoms, both negative (freedom from
discrimination, from child labour or from forced labour) and positive (freedom
of association).
These different approaches have in common the tendency for economists
to consider costs, benefits and trade-offs among competing ends, and construct
policies that are adapted to the balance of these different factors. Lawyers, on the
other hand, tend to work with an established framework of rights and rules, to
which economic considerations must be subordinate. With respect to the right
to work, even if we confine ourselves to those economic approaches in which
rights may be addressed along with other social institutions, there are bound
to be contradictions between these visions. Work is so deeply embedded in the
production system, of which it is of course the basic factor, that any declaration
of a right to work that does not consider the implications for production or the
resources required is liable to remain a dead letter. On the other hand, market
forces pay scant regard to human rights, and purely market-driven economic
processes generally result in inequality and exclusion. Economic mechanisms
alone rarely suffice to realize universal rights of any sort.
The different perspectives of lawyers and economists can readily be
illustrated in the work of the International Labour Organization, where they have
often led to inconsistencies and tensions. The ILO’s main international instrument
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is the system of international labour standards, legal instruments covering a wide
variety of labour issues. International labour conventions, which set standards
in these domains, are open for voluntary ratification by states and subsequent
supervision by the Organization. On the other hand, many of the ILO’s concerns,
and particularly objectives such as social security, employment and poverty
reduction, need to be addressed through a variety of economic and social policy
measures, most of which require substantial resources. There has, naturally,
been a tendency for the departments concerned with standards to be staffed by
lawyers, the departments concerned with employment and related policies to be
staffed by economists and other social scientists, and they operate within different
paradigms. The use of ‘rights language’ tends to follow a similar divide.
In the ILO’s history, there have been swings between these two means of
pursuing the ILO’s goals. In the ILO’s first decade, the 1920s, there was considerable
stress on international labour standards; but in the 1930s the Great Depression
shifted attention away from standards towards economic policies. In the post-war
period there was a resurgence of interest in international labour legislation, along
with the concern for universal human rights. But the process of decolonization
and the shift of attention towards development goals again shifted the agenda
towards a wider range of policy instruments.
These different perspectives have often given rise to internal conflicts. For
example, in the 1960s, sharp differences arose between legal and economic lobbies
within the ILO as to whether forced and compulsory labour could be used for
development purposes.186 Those who adopted an economic perspective argued
that economic development was a precondition for the realization of rights such
as freedom from forced labour, that there should be no impediments to the use
of all available resources for development, and that a wide-ranging programme to
support this process was required, in which standards should not be a constraint;
those defending the labour standards approach argued that standards such as
freedom from forced labour were the essential foundation for development, and
they must be respected from the start. In practice, both approaches were pursued
in parallel in the ILO’s work, but the ILO’s main contribution to development
policies in the 1970s came from the creation and rapid expansion of the World
Employment Programme, which addressed a wide range of economic, social
and political issues, but made little use of rights language and legal instruments.
Among the arguments that were put forward for this approach, a powerful one
concerned the need to develop policies for the newly identified ‘informal sector’,
where labour regulation was ineffective, and rights theoretical. There was no
interest at all in a putative right to work.
In ignoring the issue of the right to work in its development policies in the
1970s the ILO was very much in line with development thinking at the time. In
practice, mainstream development policy aimed to overcome constraints on social
and economic progress by building up social and physical infrastructure, capital
186. For details see Maul (forthcoming).
The Right to Work and the Reduction of Poverty: An Economist’s View201
and institutions. Rights were regarded as abstract concepts in the absence of the
social and economic means to realize them. And this was particularly true of the
right to work, which clearly depended on economic factors. There was no point
in expressing a right to work without the means for its realization; it was rather to
be expressed as a development goal, to which a number of different policies could
Since the 1970s, however, rights-based language has become more widespread
in development discourse, perhaps at least in part as a reaction to the extreme
economic policies that dominated the international economy in the 1980s and
1990s. As Amartya Sen put it, ‘the rhetoric of human rights is much more widely
accepted today – indeed much more frequently invoked – than it has ever been in
the past’ (Sen 1999: 227). So the possible contribution to development strategy of
the notion of the right to work merits further consideration.
8.3. The Content of a Right to Work
8.3.1. What Might be the Content of a Right to Work?
First it is necessary to consider the meaning of the word ‘work’. In its broadest
sense, it encompasses all socially valued activities, from wage employment to
childcare, from gainful self-employment to domestic chores. And work can be
done under an enormous variety of social statuses and relationships, ranging from
a formal employment contract to an individual drive for self-realization. This
makes the right to work a very amorphous and all-embracing concept. The right
to wash the dishes or clean the house does not really merit a place in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, although there are important associated questions
of recognition or entitlement.
An alternative is to consider the right to work as referring essentially to
gainful employment – this is the sense of the quotation attributed to Bishop
Whately above. Definitions, even of employment, vary, but employment is generally
interpreted as referring to economic activity, embracing both waged work and
own account work, not including unpaid work in the domestic and voluntary
spheres. Interpreting the right to work as a right to employment makes the notion
more practical and meaningful, and probably closer to popular understanding. A
right to work could then be understood as a right to waged employment, or to the
resources and markets opportunities required for self-employment.
The second point, perhaps more important still, is that an unqualified right
to work makes little sense. A right to work is not meaningful if it refers to work
in unhealthy or exploitative conditions, for less than subsistence wages, at ages
that are inconsistent with education or retirement, on precarious or insecure
terms. There must be some measure of the acceptability of work. The Universal
Declaration recognizes this, and sets conditions on work, as noted above. The
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
specifies in Article 6 fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value,
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safe and healthy working conditions, equal opportunity for promotion to an
appropriate higher level, rest and the limitation of working hours.
But this raises difficult issues. How can one possibly set conditions that are
universally valid? Wages and working conditions vary with productivity; indeed
the fundamental logic of economic development is precisely to improve standards
of work and life through rising productivity. And so with economic development
comes the possibility of higher wages, shorter hours, better working conditions,
less drudgery. It follows that the substantive content of the right to work cannot be
uniform across economic differences.
The conventional way to bypass this issue is to consider that all societies
should set minimum standards for wages and conditions of work, but that the
level of these standards will differ according to the resources and possibilities of
the societies concerned. Then the right to work (or employment) is a right to work
or employment that meets those minimum standards. This, though, runs the risk
of circular reasoning – if the content of the right is determined by the possibilities,
then the notion of a right adds little of value. We are better off with the notion of
employment as a development goal.
Another route is offered by the ILO’s decent work agenda. Instead of the right
to work we may consider the right to decent work. Decent work, as formulated by
the ILO, brings together basic rights and freedoms at work, access to employment,
social protection and social dialogue between representatives of workers and
employers.187 This goes beyond minimum standards to incorporate aspirations
for security and safe working conditions, dignity at work, representation and
negotiation, and equality of treatment. As a statement of the goal it is appealing,
and perhaps more appealing than the alternatives above. It was also endorsed by
the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which, commenting on
Article 6 of the ICESCR, stated that ‘Work as specified in Article 6 of the Covenant
must be decent work’ (italics in original).188 A right to decent work could then be
seen as a central focus of development policy, valid in itself while at the same time
contributing to many other development goals.
But while the rhetoric may be appealing, this formulation does not avoid
the conceptual problems raised above. The concrete specification of the goal of
decent work depends on the level of development, so that the ‘right to decent
work’ in Western Europe will look quite different from the same right in Africa
or Asia. There may be common underlying principles, but the acceptable level
of safety, income or leisure, to take three examples, depend on economic and
social context. The main advantage of going down this route is that in principle it
offers a coherent and constant overall framework, from which may be derived the
substantive content of the right in any particular circumstance.
187.ILO, Report of the Director General: Decent Work, 87th Session of the International Labour
Conference, Geneva. Geneva, June 1999. Available at
188. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, The Right to Work, General Comment no.
18, adopted 24 November 2005, UN doc. E/C.12/GC/18, New York: United Nations, para. 7.
The Right to Work and the Reduction of Poverty: An Economist’s View203
Beyond these issues of the quality of work there are other complicating
factors too. An important one concerns skill and occupation. Work is not
homogenous, and most people seek work in which they are able to apply their
skills and capabilities. Should this too be considered a right? If I am qualified as a
skilled worker, and am offered employment as an unskilled labourer, has my right
to work been realized? Most (skilled) workers would think not. More generally, as
a part of the right to work we may wish to consider other aspirations that should
be realized through work, such as creativity, self-fulfilment and social inclusion.
But the risk then is to make the concept unworkable in practice.
So the right to work faces severe conceptual problems, if one attempts to
give it real content. To capture the diversity of goals and of situations requires
a framework that is so broad as to be unusable. The notion of a right to decent
work is promising, but does not solve all the problems by any means, and one
of the difficulties faced in applying the decent work agenda lies precisely in the
difficulty of giving it unambiguous and concrete content. A more limited right
to employment might be more viable. But one can equally argue that work and
employment are better considered as broad development goals, rather than as
Another approach, which is perhaps less satisfying, but more practical, is to
consider the right to work in a purely instrumental sense. As noted above, most
people work because they are remunerated, not because of the value to them of
undertaking the work itself; indeed, much work is drudgery. The relevant right is
then the right to the product of labour, that is, to the incomes and entitlements
that it generates; and to that right corresponds an obligation to work. The right to
work is then a pseudo-right, in reality the reflection of a particular stage of social
and economic development in which all who can do so contribute their labour,
and in return are entitled to a share of the product of their work. It is a means, a
mechanism, an investment that delivers a return, both for the individual and for
the collectivity.
Expressed in this way it nevertheless raises a series of further questions. If the
right to work is a proxy for the right to an income, what should be the relationship
between income and work? Should income be determined by the productivity of
work, should it rather reflect some social goal (a living wage, an adequate income),
should it be determined in the market, should there be a minimum? Socialist
societies have struggled with these issues. And work is not the only source of
income: in all societies there are rentiers who do not work, some who are unable
to work and live from public or private transfers, some who are too young or too
old, so work cannot be the only criterion. There are fundamental questions about
the pattern of inequality in returns to work, between sexes, ages and social groups;
and about the fact that some people are inclined or able to work more than others.
In practice, the right to income from work cannot be divorced from more general
consideration of how income should be divided and distributed. But despite these
complexities, a focus on income offers one direct link between the right to work
and the reduction of poverty, a question to which we now turn.
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8.4. The Connection with Poverty
The standard criterion for identifying poverty is low income. As noted above, the
right to work can be considered as a proxy for a right to income, and this gives
us a first aspect of the relationship between the right to work and the reduction
of poverty. But a wider set of issues is also involved. If we follow Sen’s capability
approach, and consider work and employment as freedoms that enhance people’s
ability to undertake valued activities, then employment may play additional roles
in overcoming disadvantage.
We need to separate two aspects. The first is the connection between
work and employment, on the one hand, and poverty, on the other. How far is
poverty the consequence of deficits in work, such as a shortfall of employment
or inadequate conditions of work, and – correspondingly – to what extent is
employment creation a primary instrument for reducing poverty, either through
the income it generates, or through the empowerment of those employed?
The second is, given the relationship between employment and poverty, how
the formulation and promotion of a right to work might lead directly or indirectly
to an increase in employment, improvements in the quality of work, or an increase
in income from employment.
8.4.1. Work, Employment and Poverty
It is a banal and frequent observation that the poor cannot afford to be unemployed.
However, there are a number of situations where lack of employment is an
important factor in poverty:
• In many occupations, notably but not exclusively in agriculture, there are
large seasonal variations in demand for labour, or otherwise precarious or
unstable employment relationships.
• In some occupations, low productivity may take the form of long periods
of availability for work but with little to do, as occurs with many casual
workers and petty shopkeepers.
• Particular groups (defined by sex, race, sexual preference, social stigma or
other factors) face discrimination in the labour market, which excludes
them from some or all types of work.
• Short-term crises, whether economic, war or natural disasters, often lead
to dramatic employment shortfalls.
• Among the poor, a substantial group of people seek work but cannot
obtain it because of poor health, disability or physical condition, inability
to move to available jobs, lack of skills and competences and other
At different times and in different places, employment policy has been designed to
respond to some or all of these situations as part of an effort to reduce poverty. Public
works programmes have long been the response to employment shortfalls due to
The Right to Work and the Reduction of Poverty: An Economist’s View205
short-term economic downturns, droughts and other disasters. An internationally
coordinated programme of public works was advocated by the ILO, among others,
in order to restore employment levels during the Great Depression in the 1930s.189
In their classic and influential study of poverty in India, Dandekar and Rath (1971)
argued that while the poorest 10 per cent of the population needed to be supported
through income transfers and other social policies, the central policy instrument
for eliminating poverty among the majority of the poor should be a programme
of employment creation through public works programmes. The same basic idea
has continued to underlie policy formulation in India, notably giving rise to the
Maharashtra Employment Guarantee scheme and its successor, the National Rural
Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). The employment guarantee offered in
these programmes consists mainly of employment in public works programmes
of one sort or another.
A rather different argument can be built on a Keynesian foundation. Bhaduri
argues that there is considerable economic slack, even in a developing country
such as India, which shows up as disguised rather than open unemployment – as
in low productivity self-employment. This means that action to increase aggregate
demand, especially if focused on employment intensive activities, will generate
growth and employment in a virtuous circle (Bhadhuri 2005). Again it is the
creation of employment that is the key to reducing poverty.
The primary goal of these programmes is income generation. But some
programmes, especially those which provide an employment guarantee, aim to
do more: to empower poor individuals and groups by giving them the right to
make demands – in this case the demand for work – that must be satisfied. It is
an explicit aim of the Indian Employment Guarantee Scheme to be a first step
towards a right to work, ‘as an aspect of the fundamental right to live with dignity’
(Drèze and Khera n/d).
On the question of discrimination, various forms of affirmative action to
increase the access of deprived groups to jobs are widely practised, although there
is little evidence that they increase the overall volume of employment, rather
redistributing the employment that already exists.
These policy approaches, and others like them, are certainly effective up to a
point. There is little doubt that programmes and policies that create employment
can have a substantial impact on poverty. Even when the employment deficit as
such is not large, a tighter labour market can help to raise wages and draw in
additional workers.
Some provisos are necessary, however. First, direct employment creation,
notably through public works programmes, clearly helps to mop up seasonal
unemployment, and to compensate for loss of employment due to crisis or
economic fluctuations. But such programmes often miss large segments of the
population, in many places including the poorest.
189. See Rodgers et al (2009: 175-76).
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Second, most poor people are not unemployed. Many of the poor, notably
women, already work far too much; employment creation programmes merely
increase the pressure on them to work more. In reality, for the majority of the poor
the main employment problem is one of overwork at low productivity, whether
in self-employment or wage work. The issue is then not creating employment
but rather raising productivity, notably in peasant agriculture or small informal
enterprises, so as to raise incomes.
Third, the quality of the jobs that are created is often poor. Much of it consists
of hard unskilled labour, in poor working conditions, with little development of
skills. As a means of redistributing income it is rather inefficient, and its main
advantage is self-selection – only those who are really in need will accept to
undertake the type of work concerned. Such policies fail to take into account the
fundamental questions about the quality of work discussed above.
8.4.2. The Impact on Employment of the Right to Work
The second question is how far policies to promote the right to work can in
practice lead to more and/or better employment. At least three issues need to be
resolved. The first is the responsibility for ensuring that the right is realized. The
second is the productivity of the work that is done. And the third is dealing with
the diversity of needs.
On the first issue, in practice, where attempts have been made to introduce
the right to work the ultimate responsibility has fallen on the state – either
because the state itself becomes the sole employer, or because it has to put in place
a frame of regulation that ensures that private employers provide the necessary
employment. That this was inevitable was already foreseen by de Toqueville;190 and
in fact the socialist economies of Central and Eastern Europe were able to deliver
employment for all precisely because of the dominance of state employment. In
rights-based employment schemes such as the Employment Guarantee Scheme
(NREGS) in India discussed above, it is again the state that is the funder of last
resort. This is a paradox in economies where employment is essentially generated
in the private sector. But imposing employment targets, goals or conditions on
private enterprises, whether through persuasion or through legislation, has rarely
been very successful. High levels of private sector employment can certainly be
achieved with the right incentives, sufficient economic growth and a high level
of demand. But it is again the state that has to design and implement policies
which cause enterprises to respond in such a way that the right to employment is
The second question, the productivity of the work that is done, is a
fundamental one. A right to work that ignores the relationship between
employment and production is not sustainable. This was one of the fundamental
190. Quoted in Standing (2002).
The Right to Work and the Reduction of Poverty: An Economist’s View207
difficulties of the implementation of the right to work in the European socialist
economies – the growing numbers of unproductive workers in state enterprises
was a major contributor to their ultimate economic failure. A right to work that is
merely a camouflage for redistribution may be viable in the short term – indeed,
this is the logic underlying many employment-creating public works programmes.
But in the long run, a right to work is about the effective organization of the
production system, and has to be connected to a wider strategy of investment,
of skill development, of enterprise creation and of productive growth, which can
create opportunities for productive work to which the poor have access.
This is also the precondition for the creation of decent work. Where the
right to work is interpreted as an employment guarantee in public works, the
question of the quality of work receives little attention. Yet as we have seen above,
if there is no consideration of the quality of work, the right to work may turn
out to be drudgery for a person on the dole. There has to be a broader vision in
which work and employment play a more positive role in people’s lives. But the
economic preconditions remain the same. Decent work has to be productive if it
is to be viable. The key to a right to decent work therefore lies in finding ways to
ensure that improvements in work contribute at the same time to economic goals,
in terms of output and productivity. If so, implementing a right to decent work can
be an important contribution to a strategy for employment creation. Unfortunately
this does not appear to be typically the case. In practice, most economies, both
industrialized and developing, are dualistic in their employment structures, with
only a minority of high-productivity, decent jobs. Unless ways are found to address
the challenge of improving work and employment in the informal economy, the
right to decent work will remain in the sphere of good intentions.
And the third question, diversity, raises complex questions to which there
are no easy answers, for needs and demands for work vary greatly. If the goal is
limited to poverty reduction, however, the participatory approach adopted by the
NREGS, which gives people the right to demand employment at the local level,
in other words making the right to work a claimable right, and giving different
groups the chance to make different demands, has shown promising results. The
evidence from the initial years of implementation of the programme suggests
that it is been successful in increasing the employment levels of women and of
scheduled castes and tribes, and so in responding to the needs of different groups
among the poorest.
8.5. Reflection and Assessment
The concept of the right to work, as specified in the Universal Declaration and the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, is appealing,
and is quite compatible with the ILO’s notion of decent work. But as soon as one
digs deeper into the content of this right, many complicating factors emerge, in
terms of the type of work to which this right refers, its desirability or otherwise,
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how it is remunerated, how it is connected with the broader system of production
and distribution, and how the right can be realized.
One of the difficulties of the notion of the right to work, as specified in these
international instruments, is in fact its breadth. It encompasses a wide range of
key features of the world of work, all intrinsically desirable – but not necessarily
all compatible or easy to achieve simultaneously. A more limited notion, such as
access to gainful employment, may be a more practical way forward.
The basic point, from an economic perspective, is that work has a dual role:
as a source of identity, income and other rewards for the individual; and as a factor
of production, from the point of view of the enterprise or the economy. The rights
discourse is of course built on the former role; but in an economic analysis it cannot
be separated from the latter. This is one of the points where the perspectives of
economists and lawyers tend to diverge. From an economic perspective, progress
in access to work and improvement in its quality need to be considered alongside
progress in output and productivity and production – whatever the political or
social environment.
Ultimately, the value of the idea of the right to work depends on the existence
of mechanisms for it to be realized, and many of these lie in the economic domain –
notably a state commitment to economic policies that deliver high levels of demand
for labour. The notion of a right to work may add political pressure on governments
to put such policies in place, and may, if it is legislated, give people to power to
demand that the authorities provide employment. But the need for economic
policies to satisfy this demand remains. At the same time, an economic approach
alone is too limited. Realizing the right to work is also a question of empowerment
and social institutions, legal frameworks and political action. Integrating these
different elements calls for a more sophisticated cross-disciplinary approach; as
we have seen, Sen’s frame of analysis in terms of freedoms and capabilities offers
one possible route forward.
As for the linkage with poverty, for the majority of the poor, while employment
deficits are important, poverty is also the result of low productivity, wages and
incomes in existing employment, along with shortfalls in social protection. So
while employment creation is an essential element of poverty reduction strategies,
it is only one element among others. That being said, the experience in India
with the right to work as a basis for poverty-reducing employment programmes
suggests that the rights-based approach can make a significant contribution.
The notion of the right to work can play a useful supporting role in a strategy
to reduce poverty, but is unlikely to form its core. A range of mutually reinforcing
policies is required to raise the pace of employment creation, improve the quality
and productivity of work, and strengthen the economic and political capabilities
of the poor to demand and take advantage of economic opportunity.
The Right to Work and the Reduction of Poverty: An Economist’s View209
Bhadhuri, A. 2005. Development with Dignity: A Case for Full Employment. New
Delhi: National Book Trust.
Boyer, R. 1990. The Regulation School: A critical introduction. New York:
Columbia University Press.
Dandekar, V.M. and Rath, N. 1971. Poverty in India. Pune: Indian School of
Political Economy.
Dobb, M. 1973. Theories of value and distribution since Adam Smith: Ideology and
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Drèze, J. and Khera, R. n/d. ‘Presentation on the National Rural Employment
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Harvey, P. 2002. Human rights and economic policy discourse: Taking economic
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Maul, D. 2009 (forthcoming). Human Rights, Social Policy and Decolonisation: The
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Project, Chapter 8.
Nabli, M.K. and Nugent, J.B. 1989. The New Institutional Economics and
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Rodgers, G. et al. 2009. The ILO and the Quest for Social Justice, 1919–2009.
Geneva: ILO.
Russell, B. 1935. In Praise of Idleness. London: George Allen & Unwin.
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Solow, R. 1990. The labour market as a social institution. London: Blackwell.
Standing, G. 2002. Beyond the New Paternalism. London: Verso.
Social Security and Children:
Testing the Boundaries of Human Rights
and Economics
Malcolm Langford
9.1. Introduction
Seymour and Pincus (2008) mount the argument that human rights and economics
are not two disciplines in timeless conflict. Rather they are complementary fields with
different epistemological foundations. Their model posits that human rights provide
the normative standards while economics provides the tools for choice-making and
trade-offs within it. They do not elucidate at length on what standards are relevant
but they do note that child labour, for example, is out-of-bounds, even if children
might provide a cheap and efficient form of labour from a pure neoclassical ‘welfare
economics’ perspective. In terms of trade-offs, they are sceptical about human rights
theorists ‘using the principle of progressive realization as a “get-out-of-jail card” that
excuses them from difficult choices between consumption today and investment
for tomorrow’ (2008: 403). In other words, if human rights can’t provide the hard
answers, economics must take over.
This unitarian approach is welcome but questions still need to be answered
about the relevant boundaries between the two fields in practice. Does the ‘devil
in the detail’ really permit such complementarity? This chapter takes up the case
of child social grants, as one classical pillar of social security.191 Such grants are
currently enjoying a renaissance amongst development economists and human
rights advocates but there remains significant divergence in the content of the
policies proposed. The World Bank, for example, places a greater emphasis on a
fixed fiscal envelope, targeting and the imposition of conditionalities (Fizbein and
Schady 2009). ILO economists and human rights groups tend to call for a flexible
approach to fiscal space, are cautious about targeting, and are sceptical or opposed
191. The classical nine pillars of social security are: healthcare, sickness benefits, old age benefits,
unemployment benefits, employment injury coverage, family and child support, maternity
benefits, disability benefits and survivor’s benefits. See ILO Convention 102 and also CESCR
(2008) General Comment No. 19.
Malcolm Langford
outright to conditionalities (Cichon and Hagemejer 2006; Bradshaw and Quirós
Víquez 2008).
The question is how one resolves these apparent conflicts. Can one neatly
place them in different human rights and economics baskets as Seymour and
Pincus seem to suggest? In answer, this chapter first provides in Sections 9.2 and
9.3 a historical and contemporary overview of child grants from the perspective
of human rights and economics. The bulk of the chapter is then devoted to the
question of fiscal affordability of child grants. Section 9.4 posits a human rights/
economic framework for determining affordability, while Section 9.5 examines
the current economic evidence, particularly in relation to Africa and Asia. Within
this discussion the common issue of universal vs targeted schemes is briefly
addressed from both perspectives and the diversity of views within each is noted.
The question of conditionalities is taken up briefly in the conclusion.
Section 9.6 concludes with the case that a more nuanced approach or perhaps
a sliding scale in assessing the boundaries of human rights and economics is
needed where there are potential or real conflicts. Where the human rights claim
exhibits relativity dimensions, preference might be given to economics. On the
other hand, where economic claims are ambiguous, empirically weak or strongly
contested, the preference might work in the opposite direction.
9.2. Child Benefits – a Rich Enclave
Family or child benefits are not a novelty in social security praxis. A cocktail of
demographic crises, labour and maternalist movements and recessionary shocks
in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries helped propel the early
development of social security systems in the West. Single women with children
were seen as one particularly disadvantaged grouping. Between 1911 and 1919,
Norway, together with forty states in the United States, introduced cash benefits to
single and widowed mothers (Larsen 1995).
A half century later, the International Labour Organization adopted
Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention 102 (1952). Ratifying states
must choose, at a minimum, three of the nine pillars of social security for
implementation, one of which is ‘family benefits’. Families with responsibility for
the maintenance of children are entitled to a benefit valued at 1.5–3 per cent of
the wage of an ordinary adult male labourer. If we fast forward again, it is evident
that family benefits represent a settled part of many social security systems in the
West. By the early 1970s, Gauthier (2002/3) calculates that direct and indirect cash
benefits for families had stabilized at 11 per cent of average earnings in twenty-two
OECD countries, and gradually grew to 13 per cent by the mid-1990s. There is of
course considerable variance between Western countries as regards social security
benefits, including child grants. Benefit levels in Southern European countries
and ‘Liberal’ countries such as the United States are significantly lower than the
‘Corporatist’ countries – the Nordics, Germany and France.
Social Security and Children213
If we look East, transitional countries in the wake of the fall of the Berlin
Wall experienced a rather abrupt shift from a system of universal family benefits to
means-tested targeted benefits. Forster and Toth (2001) defend these new benefits
on the basis that poverty would have been two-thirds higher in the Czech Republic
and Hungary in the absence of these cash transfers. Marginalized groups such as
the Roma have often struggled to secure these rights, while benefit levels for the
unemployed and homeless have been set quite low in some countries (Langford
If we turn to the South, the difference could not be starker. The development
of social security systems in conformity with ILO Convention 102 of 1952 is
minimal. Most developing countries have only established schemes for those
working in the formal sector, whether private or public sector. This usually
accounts for the minority of the workforce. According to the ILO, the result is
that only one in five persons has access to formal social security systems (Cichon
and Hagemejer 2006). For child benefits, a 1999 survey of fifty-seven non-OECD
countries revealed that only four countries recorded supporting family allowances
(Roddis and Tzannatos 1999).
The kitchen cupboard of social security thus looks pretty bare after sixty years
of international development thinking and practice. Townsend (2008) argues that
today’s developing countries have progressed more slowly in the field of social
security than the United States at comparative points in economic development.
By 2005, the World Bank provided only 10 per cent of loans for broadly defined
social protection, of which social security is just one element (Hall 2007). Amongst
bilateral donors, only Germany and the United Kingdom have provided sustained
but partial support to country level programmes.
The most sustained development initiative in the area was the World Bank
push for privatization of pension schemes. This was piloted in Chile in 1981 and
later extended, fully or partly, to many countries in Latin America and Eastern
Europe (Muller 2003). The results have not been looked on favourably by the World
Bank’s own evaluators or international human rights and labour committees.
For example, the Chilean system has been criticized by the UN Committee on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2004: par. 20) for its failure to ‘guarantee
adequate social security for a large segment of the population who do not work in
the formal economy or are unable to contribute sufficiently to the system’.192 In the
case of the IMF, the focus has principally been on preventing debtor governments
from maintaining or increasing levels of social spending. In the current economic
crisis, the IMF in a Keynesian tone has accepted that social security systems can be
important economic stabilizers (IMF 2009), but its approach in practice has only
partly changed (Stiglitz Commission 2009; Ekeberg 2009).
The conspicuous absence of social security in international development
practice is most evident in the Millennium Development Goals, which arguably
192. A complaints committee established under Article 24 of the ILO Constitution also found it
violated many of the earlier ILO Conventions Chile had signed – ILO (1998).
Malcolm Langford
represent a consensus on development priorities amongst bilateral and multilateral
development agencies. Search as one might, there is no target for progress on
social security. Target 1.1 calls for a reduction in income poverty by half and one
might assume social security could be a useful strategy in this regard. But key
guidance documents, such as UNDP’s Human Development Report 2003 barely
mention the topic. When it comes to the related target of halving hunger (1.b),
there is passing reference to social security in the report from the Jeffrey Sachs-led
UN Millennium Project Task Force on Hunger (2005: 149–52). However, the
concrete recommendations are only for the establishment of so-called ‘productive
safety’ such as food-for-work schemes, microfinance and restoring degraded
environments. More recently, the UN Office of Human Commissioner for Human
Rights (2008) has called for states to consider setting national targets for social
security as part of their contextualization of the MDGs.
9.3. C onverging Human Rights
and Economic Discourses
9.3.1. Human Rights
This absence of social security in development practice is difficult to square with
the human rights that all states have committed themselves to in international
treaties and declarations. Along with the right to equal treatment, the right to
social security is the only right to be mentioned twice in the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights (UDHR). The right is recognized in Article 22 while Article 25
re-emphasizes its importance in realizing the right to an adequate standard of living
and health, and adds that childhood is ‘entitled to special care and assistance’.
A series of subsequent international193 and regional194 human rights
conventions provide further recognition. Article 9 of the International Convention
on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966 (ICESCR), ratified by 160 states,
provides that ‘The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of
everyone to social security, including social insurance’. Article 26 of the more
recent and almost universally ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989
is more specific as to children’s right to benefits:
1. States Parties shall recognize for every child the right to benefit from social
security, including social insurance, and shall take the necessary measures to
achieve the full realization of this right in accordance with their national law.
193. See also International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
(ICERD), Article 5(e)(iv); Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
against Women, Articles 11, para. 1(e) and 14, para. 2(c).
194. See also the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, Article XVI; Additional
Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic Social and
Cultural Rights (Protocol of San Salvador), Article 9; European Social Charter (and 1996
revised version), Articles 12, 13 and 14.
Social Security and Children215
2. The benefits should, where appropriate, be granted, taking into account the
resources and the circumstances of the child and persons having responsibility
for the maintenance of the child, as well as any other consideration relevant to
an application for benefits made by or on behalf of the child.
What is interesting to note is that the international recognition of the human right
to social security was correlated with national development of social security
systems in the West. Disentangling cause and effect is difficult and one should
in no way ascribe a prominent role for the legal recognition of rights. But it is
notable that many of the schemes have a partial rights-based character in that
they were codified in law and provide some form of remedial relief. The right to
social security was included in a number of post-First World War constitutions
such as Germany and Finland (1919), Iceland (1920), the Netherlands (1922) and
Spain (1931), and a series of ILO treaties on social security from the 1930s began
to codify obligations of states. In the post-Second War World era, the European
Social Charter was adopted while national legislation and schemes were solidified
in combination with administrative law remedies (Annan 1988). The rightsflavour of these developments is perhaps best seen in the reasons advanced by the
US Supreme Court that finally allowed President Roosevelt’s New Deal: there was
‘liberty in a social organization which requires the protection of the law against the
evils which menace the health, safety, morals and welfare of the people.’195
However, part of the lack of emphasis in the development field today may
lie in some of these legal instruments. The 1952 ILO Convention for instance does
not place much emphasis on ensuring a minimum threshold of non-contributory
benefits. Such a principle has become common to economic and social rights
jurisprudence over the last two decades but has only emerged recently in the ILO
context. This is not to say that the ILO did not begin to take other human rights
dimensions of social security seriously in the intervening period. From the 1960s
to the 1990s, the ILO focused on discrimination leading to the adoption of C118
Equality of Treatment (Social Security Convention 1962) and specific conventions
on migrant workers and workers with family responsibilities.196 Such developments
coincided with international and national human rights jurisprudence in the
West, which was mostly discrimination-focused as well as international treaties
on elimination of discrimination against women and racial discrimination.197
195. US Supreme Court, West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, 300 US 379 (1937) (emphasis added).
196. See, for example, C143 Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975; C156
Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention, 1981.
197. For jurisprudence, see, for example, the decisions of the UN Human Rights Committee: Zwaande Vries v. The Netherlands (Communication No. 182/1994 (9 April, 1987); S. W. M. Brooks v. The
Netherlands, Communication No. 172/1984 (9 Apr. 1987) Pauger v. Austria, Communication
No. 415/1990 (1995) and Gueye et al v. France, Communication No. 196/1983 (3 Apr. 1989). See
also Gaygusuz v. Austria, European Court of Human Rights, 16 Sept. 1996 and Schuler-Zgraggen
v. Switzerland [1993] IIHRL 48 (24 June 1993), European Court of Human Rights; European
Committee on Social Rights (Complaint No. 14/2003, International Federation of Human Rights
Leagues (FIDH) v. France, Decision on the Merits); Spain (Decision of the Constitutional Court
of Spain, Case No. 130/1995, (1995) 3 Bulletin on Constitutional Case-Law 366); Switzerland (V
Malcolm Langford
The first signs of recognition of the need for a minimum threshold appeared
in the 2001 General Conference of the International Labour Organization. The
final resolution begins by referring to the original vision of the ILO Constitution,
namely the ‘extension of social security measures to provide a basic income to all
in need of such protection and comprehensive medical care’ (emphasis added).
It simultaneously affirmed social security as a ‘basic human right’ and notes
the importance of improving and extending social security coverage to all. The
resolution recommends that countries with limited resources prioritize pressing
needs, and that they consider ways to address those living in the informal economy.
This is not to overstate the breakthrough in the ILO – much of the document is
not concerned with the lack of a basic social security for all, which has led to a
discussion amongst some on the possible need for a new ILO standard.
As noted, this growing emphasis on ensuring a minimum level for all
coincides with developments in economic, social and cultural rights. The
widespread ratification of international human rights treaties in comparison
to ILO Convention 102 (forty-one ratifications) means that that human rights
treaties potentially provide a path towards holding more states accountable for
developing social security systems. Moreover, in the field of social security, ‘it is
likely that the ICESCR requires that states go beyond their incremental obligations
under ILO conventions and address the excluded’ (Langford 2007: 41). Ginnikin
(2003: 2) has claimed more strongly that ‘This situation of low coverage reflects
a failure by governments, by countries and the international community to meet
their obligations under Article 9 [of the ICESCR]’. A number of national courts
from Switzerland198 to Colombia199 have indeed found that there is an obligation to
provide a minimum level of social security.
In January 2008, this understanding of a minimum core obligation of all
states to provide some form of basic social security was affirmed by the UN
Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2008) in General Comment
No. 20. States have the immediate duty:
To ensure access to a social security scheme that provides a minimum
essential level of benefits to all individuals and families that will enable them
to acquire at least essential health care, basic shelter and housing, water and
sanitation, foodstuffs, and the most basic forms of education. If a state party
cannot provide this minimum level for all risks and contingencies within its
maximum available resources, the Committee recommends that the state
v. Einwohnergemeine X und Regierungsrat des Kantons Bern (BGE/ATF 121 I 367, Federal Court
of Switzerland, 27 Oct. 1995)). See also Supreme Court of Argentina, Etcheverry, Roberto E. v.
Omint Sociedad Anónima y Servicios, General Attorney’s brief of 17 Dec. 1999, Court decision
of 13 Mar. 2001 and Constitutional Court of South Africa, Khosa & Ors v. Minister of Social
Development & Ors 2004(6) BCLR 569 (CC).
198. V v. Einwohnergemeine X und Regierungsrat des Kantons Bern (BGE/ATF 121 I 367, Federal
Court of Switzerland, 27 Oct. 1995).
199. T-207/95, T-254/93, T-539/94 and T-431/94. See Sepúlveda (2008) and Arango and Lemaitre
Social Security and Children217
party, after a wide process of consultation, select a core group of social risks
and contingencies.
This minimum-style obligation has been a stable part of the Committee’s approach.
In 1991, it was official derived from the general duty of states in Article 2(1) of
ICESCR to ‘take steps to “progressively achieve” the rights within ‘maximum
available resources’ (UN CESCR 1991). In other words, a state must immediately
meet a minimum standard and then progressively realize an adequate level over
time. However, the Committee is less axiomatic than Ginnikin and remains
sensitive to country situations. A state can claim it lacks sufficient resources, but
it carries the burden of proof if it fails to meet the minimum.200 To make this
argument, the state must also demonstrate that it has sought to secure international
assistance (CESCR 2008: para. 61).
9.3.2. E conomic Interest and Emerging Models
These human rights arguments have coincided with the increase in interest in
social security and/or cash transfers in development policy. There are two
principal empirical reasons for this. The first is the persistence of income poverty
in developing countries despite high levels of economic growth. For instance, Son
and Kakwani (2006) demonstrated that over 237 spells or periods of economic
growth amongst eighty developing countries, only 23 per cent of these led to
pro-poor outcomes in income poverty (i.e. the average increase in income for
the poorest deciles was higher than average). This suggests that redistribution,
and not just growth of average income, plays a critical role in reducing poverty.
This conclusion is largely buttressed by transatlantic econometric studies of North
America and Europe. Brady (2005: 1) concludes that ‘substantial, even dramatic,
differences exist across rich Western democracies’ due to the respective size of
the social welfare state. Other studies have also indicated that initial high levels of
income equality are important for ensuring that future growth is pro-poor (World
Bank 2006).
Second, a number of Southern countries have managed to develop social
security and cash transfer schemes or programmes despite assumptions that they
lacked the financial capacity and administrative competence. These have included
unconditional schemes such as South Africa’s child, disability and old age grants
and India’s and Brazil’s old-age pension system. It has also included conditional cash
transfer programmes. Mexico’s Progresa and Brazil’s Bolsa Familia programmes,
which condition grants to children on mothers meeting various conditions, such
as school attendance and health check-ups for children, are the most well known.
200. In order for a state party to be able to attribute its failure to meet at least its minimum core
obligations to a lack of available resources, it must demonstrate that every effort has been made
to use all resources that are at its disposal in an effort to satisfy, as a matter of priority, these
minimum obligations (CESCR, 2008: 60).
Malcolm Langford
India’s Rural Employment Guarantee Act also provides the right to 100 days of
income each year if basic employment cannot be provided by the state. Evaluations
of these different policies and programmes have demonstrated that they have had
a direct impact in reducing poverty with some multiplier and knock-on effects in
other areas (Aguero, Carter and Woolard 2007; Medeiros, Britto and Soares 2008;
Villanger 2008; Ravillion 2007).
The emerging proposals on child grants are not uniform. They can be crudely
distinguished by different policy constellations amongst development economists
and institutions. One school of thought is largely represented by the International
Labour Organization and HelpAge International (Cichon and Hagemejer 2006;
Kulke 2007; Stefanoni 2008) although World Bank economists such as Ravillion
(2007) are sympathetic to some arguments. The two organizations have called for
a Global Social Security Floor on the basis of both human rights and economics.
They prefer a fiscal space approach to affordability and often reveal a preference
for universal and unconditional schemes.
The other school of thought is best represented by current World Bank
policy and a range of economists associated with the Latin American schemes.
In the early 2000s they moved from a principal focus on privatization to also
supporting targeted means test social schemes (Bakvis 2007). This has now
developed to embrace conditional cash transfer programmes. Fizbein and Schady
(2009) for the World Bank found that ‘there is solid evidence of their positive
impacts in reducing short-term poverty and increasing the use of education of
health services’. In January 2009, the Bank announced increased loans to the area,
which is likely to escalate with the decision by the G20 in April 2009 to provide
5 per cent of the 1 trillion G20 global stimulus to support social protection, boost
trade and safeguard development in low-income countries. Much of this funding
will come via the World Bank, although it is not clear how much will be allocated
for grants for social protection and how much will be in the form of grants.
9.4. Affordability of Child Grants: a
Human Rights and Economics Test
We now turn to the main question in the chapter of assessing whether such social
security/cash transfer schemes are affordable and under what conditions: for
example, targeted or universal? Can we find a comfortable fit between human
rights normative standards and the economic evidence? Can the seemingly more
‘rights-friendly’ approach of the ILO be justified economically or do the World
Bank’s recommendations provide a more realistic picture of what can and should
be achieved? It should be noted from the outset that the structure of many cash
transfer programmes, current and proposed, do not meet international human
rights and labour rights standards since they are not established as national
systems in law. For the purpose of comparison at hand, we will treat them as
potential social security models.
Social Security and Children219
The biggest conceptual barrier to the introduction of social security systems
in the South has been the widespread assumption that states cannot afford them. In
the human rights context, this assumption requires proof. The general test is that a
state must use its ‘maximum available resources’ for economic, social and cultural
rights, and is contained in international human rights treaties such as ICESCR
and CRC and a number of constitutions in Southern countries. Interestingly,
regional human rights bodies have affirmed the principle in the European Social
Charter and African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, even though both
instruments do not allow states to explicitly rely on such a defence.201
This principle is variously viewed as both an obligation of conduct and a
defence for failure to meet an obligations or right. But what does the principle
mean in practice? In General Comments, the UN CESCR (1991 and 2008) has
emphasized that the devotion of resources to the rights must be ‘adequate’ and
‘reasonable’, and has further emphasized principles of non-discrimination,
participation, avoidance of deliberative retrogressive measures and the need
for general accordance with ‘international human rights standards’.202 The UN
Committee on the Rights of the Child (2003) has set out similar principles and
also emphasized the need to prioritize children.
These principles are of course quite vague and the usual response from
human rights lawyers is that one needs to turn to contextualized adjudication
and assessment processes. In the case of economic and social rights, this is now
possible with the recent explosion of jurisprudence (Langford 2008b; Coomans
2006). However, looking to adjudicators on this particular principle of the use
of maximum available resources is difficult since courts tend to be very cautious
about making orders that impact on the allocation of resources; the doctrine of
separation of powers between the judiciary and executive/legislature looms large
here in judicial reasoning.
Nonetheless, courts have made orders, concerning all manner of human
rights, that have has budgetary consequences, even within this cautionary
framework. In Langford (2005), I argued that we can discern that adjudicators
tend to be influenced by the following contextualized factors when assessing such
cases, namely: (1) the seriousness of the effects of the violation; (2) precision of
the government duty; (3) contribution of the government to the violation; and
(4) manageability of the order for the government in terms of resources. Most
of these cases tend to concern the allocation of resources within a particular
sector. For example, when faced with an argument that a particular health
treatment or service is unaffordable, courts have assessed the claim by examining
its proportion of the health budget. Where the figure is minimal, courts tend to
201.See SERAC v. Nigeria, African Commission on Human Rights, Case No. 155/96, Decision
made at 30th Ordinary Session, Banjul, The Gambia, from 13 to 27 October 2001; Complaint
No. 13/2002, Autism-Europe v. France, Decision on the Merits (European Committee on Social
202.CESCR, Maximum Available Resources Statement, para. 8.
Malcolm Langford
be less sympathetic to government claims.203 However, in countries which have
recognized a ‘minimum core’, considerations of resource constraints are sometimes
given less weight (Sepulveda 2008).
If we want to examine the affordability of a particular social right from a
country or macro budget perspective, then the jurisprudence of international
human rights committees is potentially more useful. For example, in its concluding
observations, the CESCR has taken notice of the resources of a country in making
recommendations to states on the right to social security. To a wealthy state like
Canada, the UN CESCR (2006b) urged the establishment of social assistance at
levels which ensure the realization of an adequate standard of living for all, and
interrogated the state very closely on its existing social security schemes. For
countries in transition, such as Russia, the Committee required ‘the raising of
minimum pension levels’ (UN CESCR 2003: para. 50) and criticized Georgia for
failing to meet the minimum (UN CESCR 2002).204 In Senegal, the UN CESCR
(2001) only urged the country ‘to allocate more funds for its 20/20 Initiative,
designed as a basic social safety net for the disadvantaged and marginalized
groups of society’, although it is arguable that it could have required much more of
Senegal given ILO research (Gassmann and Behrendt 2006).
These back of the envelope ‘Geneva observations’ of a country’s available
resources for the right to social security are obviously not particularly rigorous
from an economics perspective. The Committee is gradually taking up Robertson’s
(1994) call to develop standards and indicators to measure the extent to which
resources (financial, natural, human, technological and informational) are
available. But their approach is likely to be focused on the mutual setting of
benchmarks that states must meet the next time they come before the Committee
(Riedel 2003).
It remains an open question whether economists can really answer
the question with any greater ease than human rights lawyers. The essential
problem does not disappear. How does one take into account the direct and
indirect polycentric consequences of different funding allocations? Finding the
economically optimal level and distribution of social expenditure that meets the
human rights test of maximum available resources is a challenging task. This is
because the human rights resources test requires assessment of:
1. the resource envelope including current and potentially untapped resources;
2. consideration of the effects on other human rights if there is redistribution
within the budget or prioritization of some rights over others; and
3. negative and positive externalities that impact resource availability in the
short, medium and long-term.
203.See. Eldridge v. British Columbia (Attorney General) [1997] 3 S.C.R (Supreme Court of Canada);
TAC v. Ministers of Health, 2002 (10) BCLR 1033 (CC) (South Africa).
204. Conclusions and recommendations of CESCR: Georgia, UN Doc E/C.12/1/Add.83 (2002),
para. 17.
Social Security and Children221
The first factor is particularly elastic as it could involve reallocation of existing
items or new sources of income (tax, borrowings, aid, increased efficiency) while
the latter makes for difficult forecasting.
To a certain degree, the issue is not new in economics. This human rights
question mimics the challenge Samuelson (1954) laid out regarding public goods.
He concluded that the determination of the optimal level and distribution of
private and public goods was close to impossible without an ‘omniscient calculating
machine’. This was because the marginal utility of consumption of public goods
could not be determined through standard competitive pricing, which could be
used for private goods. There is simply no market for goods which are, by definition
or social construction, non-excludable and/or non-rival (Kaul, Grunberg and Stein
1999). Samuelson dismissed the possibility of using questionnaires to discover
utility preferences as people would send false signals in order to free ride. Highly
deliberative democracies such as Scandinavia were considered as a possible way
of capturing the utility preferences of all citizens but such societies remain the
exception rather than the rule and consensus is partly mythical. A third possibility,
foreshadowing Rawls, was the use of a Kantian categorical imperative where
utopian signalling could be marshalled to set preferences. Today one might also
have added human rights as an external signalling device. But given the number of
human rights, which are just one subset of public goods, the complexity problem
does not disappear for states with significant resource constraints.
The above does indicate that both economics and human rights communities
join common cause in being somewhat distrustful of the ability of standard
majoritarian democracies to determine the optimal level of distribution of public
goods, whether based on utility functions or normative human rights standards.
At the same time, neither has developed a fundamentally authoritative alternative
to the post-factum of democratic decision-making.
Economists have though offered a number of simpler tests, including in
the field of child grants, on each of the three elements of the resources test set
out above. Human rights scholars have sought to give some of these tests a more
human rights character (Felner 2008; Sakiko 2008). Anderson (2008) has proposed
a new methodology which would allow an assessment of all three steps, although
in a slightly different order, so as to determine whether a government is failing
to use maximum available resources.205 Such evidence can be particularly useful
in the policy and democratic deliberation context, and also to a certain degree in
more legal forums as the Mahlungu case makes clear.206
205. He examines whether the increase in expenditure on a particular human right, holding all
human rights related expenditure constant, would be affordable within current and potential
resources adjusted for externalities and feedback loops.
206. Mahlungu v Minister for Social Development Case No 25754/05 (High Court) in South Africa.
See discussion in Section 5.3.
Malcolm Langford
9.5. R eviewing the Evidence
on Fiscal Affordability
9.5.1. Affordability of Targeted or Universal Schemes
The literature on child grants and social protection for developing countries
has generally been dominated by assessing the affordability or other features of
targeted as opposed to universal schemes. Such schemes usually function through
some form of means-testing with the aim of ensuring that the exclusion of
non-poor and the inclusion of the targeted poor is maximized (Ravillion 2007).
This emphasis on targeting has been justified by many on the basis that Southern
countries cannot afford universal schemes, that targeted schemes are the most
effective in reducing poverty, and that many of the best practices emerging from
the South have used targeting. It is also common in the literature to see references
to economists being in favour of targeted schemes and human rights, or social
justice advocates in favour of universal schemes, which are said to avoid the
problem of stigmitization and are more attuned to the idea of universal rights. The
lively debates over whether Brazil’s Bolsa Familla Programme should be extended
universally are but one example (Villanger 2008).
The reality however is more complex, and if we take a strict approach to the
fields of economics, human rights and political science, we find both conflicting
views and evidence. There are well-known but often under-mentioned theoretical
economic arguments against targeting: administration costs are usually higher,
there are high levels of under-inclusion of the poor, and work disincentives and
false reporting can flourish if current beneficiaries seek to avoid going over the
qualifying income threshold. These elements emerge in evaluations of some
schemes. World Bank economist Ravillion (2007) found in a review of social
protection programmes in thirty-five Chinese cities that the coverage of and
impact on the poor was not related to the degree of targeting. Kakwani, Soares and
Son (2005) found that the impact on poverty from the use of 0.5 per cent of GDP
for child grants in sub-Saharan Africa had roughly the same impact on poverty
regardless of whether a universal or targeted child grants scheme was used. In
South Africa in January 2009, the Social Development Minister actually urged
indigent parents to apply for child support grants due to the high numbers of
potential beneficiaries not included on the potential indigent register, a common
problem with targeting.
If we turn to human rights scholarship and jurisprudence, we can actually
find support for targeting if resources are not available for broad-based schemes
or it is a way to promote substantive equality (UN CESCR 1991, 2009). To political
science, both universal and targeted schemes are promoted as being palatable to
electorates and sustainable over the long-run. Universal scheme advocates assert
that the ‘non-poor’ will support them as co-beneficiaries, while those in favour of
targeted schemes point to the palatability of lower consumption of fiscal resources
and perceived efficiency of directly addressing a social problem.
Social Security and Children223
These intra-disciplinary conflicts means that if we are concerned with child
grants in particularly poor countries, one needs an open mind on universal vs.
targeted schemes. Moreover, it is in such countries that the arguments can move
to their extremes. For instance, resources are highly limited but the conditions
for targeting are the most challenging: administration is difficult and close-knit
communities may be reluctant to divide themselves on income grounds. There
are also policy variants in between strict universal and targeting approaches, such
as geographical targeting, broad targeting or ‘loosely enforced’ targeting, which
can be considered. Each country is obviously characterized differently in terms
of the number of poor, available resources and bureaucratic efficiency. It is thus
important to examine the affordability of both universal and targeted schemes.
Universal Schemes
In ILO-commisioned studies, Mizunoya, Behrendt, Pal and Léger (2006) and
Franziska and Behrendt (2006) respectively estimated what it would cost to provide
a universal child grant in five Asian and two African countries, as part of a basic
social protection package. For the Asian countries of India, Nepal, Bangladesh,
Pakistan and Viet Nam, the first scenario involved a universal child grant set at
US$0.25 a day in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) for all children 0–14
years old. This was based on 25 per cent of the US$1 a day international poverty
line. In the case of Senegal and Tanzania, the benefit was set at 35 per cent of
the national food poverty line and was restricted to school-age children, with all
orphans added in the Tanzanian scenario. It is questionable though whether school
age children should be prioritized over infants for the African grants. Empirical
results from South Africa indicate that child benefits have their greatest impact
on child nutrition in the earlier years of an infant’s life (Jorge, Carter and Woolard
There are two important conditions or assumptions behind these proposed
benefit levels. They are not intended to take all children above the poverty line.
Rather the intention is to move a substantial number of households towards or over
the line and be complemented by old age and disability pensions and healthcare
access as part of a basic social protection package. In the case of Senegal, the
authors calculate that the introduction of the child benefit would reduce the
poverty headcount from 20 to 14 per cent and the poverty gap by 37.5 per cent.
We could also get a glimpse of the reasonableness of the level of benefit
through a comparison with other countries. This is commonly done with
neighbours in a region (Felner 2007), but this is impossible in the case of a
universal child benefits.207 Universal child grants exist in about half the Western
countries (Clearinghouse on International Developments in Child, Youth and
Family Policies 2009). Table 9.1 compares the benefit levels in Senegal and
207. In the case of pensions it is partly possible, as there are universal pension schemes in seven
developing countries, ranging from 0.1 to 1.7 per cent of GDP (Villanger, 2008).
Malcolm Langford
Norway as percentages of national poverty lines.208 It shows that the proportions
of the national poverty lines are roughly similar. However, the result in Norway is
understated since the standard benefit in Norway is supplemented for parents that
are single, live in certain regions or don’t use kindergartens, and is complemented
by a range of other allowances and tax breaks. Thus, in comparative terms, the
proposed benefit in Senegal seems reasonable in terms of making a contribution
to the realization of the right to social security. Moreover, these proportions are
also consistent with the benefit levels set in many of the targeted Latin American
schemes (Villanger 2008).
Table 9.1. Modelled and actual benefits as
proportion of national poverty lines
Senegal (Francs)
Every family
Norway (Kroner)
Every family
Level of benefit (per 28 days)
National poverty line
Proportion of gap
Sources: Franziska and Behrendt (2006), NAV (2009) and Norwegian Central Bureau of Statistics (SSB),
We now turn to the fiscal affordability of such proposed grants. Economists
customarily use the percentage of GDP as one rule of thumb and human rights
scholars and the CESCR have embraced this measure to a certain degree (CESCR
2006; Robertson 2004; Felner 2007; Sakiko 2008, and see discussion in Anderson
2008). One disadvantage of this approach is that it doesn’t take into account
possible future aid flows, which could result in substantial budgetary support in
some countries.
In the two ILO studies, the cost of the benefits as a proportion of GDP was
calculated by first multiplying the child benefit against the beneficiary population
and adding 15 per cent for administration costs.209 The proportion of GDP was
calculated over a twenty-year period and the percentage for the first year of the
scheme is set out in Table 9.2. Over a twenty-year period at moderate growth rates,
these amounts would generally halve.
208. This type of threshold is usually more accurate and higher than the international poverty line,
although in the case of Tanzania it is much lower.
209. Disaggregated in the Senegal and Tanzania case studies by urban and rural with slightly different
benefit levels as a result.
Social Security and Children225
Table 9.2. Universal child benefits: African/Asian
projections versus European countries
Child benefit as
% of GDP (2006)
Child cash benefits
- % of GDP (1998)
All child and
family benefits
% of GDP (2006)
Viet Nam
Sources: Franziska and Behrendt (2006), Mizunoya, Behrendt, Pal and Léger (2006), OECD (2001b),
and OECD (2007).
Table 9.2 also shows the costs of the universal child benefits and all child and
family allowances as a percentage of GDP in select European countries. One
finds that the amounts are roughly similar except in the case of Nepal where the
proportion is above the European frontier. If one includes all child and family
allowances in these selected Western countries (third column), then the picture
changes significantly.
Nonetheless, this suggests that for Nepal, as well as Tanzania and Bangladesh,
a universal child benefit at the proposed level may not be currently affordable
within domestic recourses. For Nepal, the total cost of the proposed overall basic
social security package was actually 17 per cent of GDP due to the high healthcare
costs and the authors considered this unaffordable. However, when a senior
Bangladesh official was questioned on the ILO studies at a workshop in 2008, he
replied that the grants were affordable and that it was only a matter of political
However, one is immediately struck by the inconsistencies of this ILO study
with the International Poverty Centre (IPC) study by Kakwani, Soares and Son
(2005). In one simulation, they tested the cost to GDP of a universal child benefit
calculated respectively at 20, 30 and 40 per cent of the national poverty line – see
Table 9.3. This allows some comparison with the ILO study since the proposed
benefit for Senegal was 17 per cent of the national poverty line. For Tanzania it
is 35 per cent of the national poverty line but 17 per cent of the international
poverty line, which in this case is unusually more than the national line. What is
immediately noticeable from the IPC study is that for 20 per cent of the national
poverty line all the figures are considerably above the ILO results.
Malcolm Langford
Table 9.3. Universal child benefits, IPC Study
20 per cent
30 per cent
40 per cent
Burkina Faso 98
Burundi 98
Cameroon 96
Côte d’Ivoire 98
Ethiopia 00
Gambia 98
Ghana 98
Guinea 94
Kenya 97
Madagascar 01
Malawi 97
Mozambique 96
Nigeria 96
Uganda 99
Zambia 98
Source: Kakwani, Soares and Son (2005).
Franziska and Behrendt (2006) make passing reference to this inconsistency
but state that Kakwani, Soares and Son (2005) are using much higher levels of
benefits. This assertion is not correct as the calculations I have performed for
Tanzania and Senegal show that the proposed benefits levels are not dissimilar.
One possible explanation is that the ILO studies use the 2006 level of GDP, while
Kakwani, Soares and Son (2005) appear to use much earlier growth figures. They
are unfortunately not clear as to what year they take for the analysis or whether
their adjustment to 1993 prices means that they are using 1993 GDP. Given the
high levels of economic growth in Africa since 1990,210 one should certainly opt
for the latest GDP figures possible. This gives more credence to the ILO over the
IPC results.
In the Asian paper, Mizunoya, Behrendt, Pal and Léger (2006) also examine
the impact of a basic social protection package (including a child benefit) on
the state’s budget. If the countries maintained their current allocations to social
protection (e.g. in Bangladesh this is only 6.4 per cent of the budget), then the
210. These are the growth figures per year in sub-Saharan Africa: 2002 (3.5 per cent), 2003
(4.0 per cent), 2004 (6.0 per cent), 2005 (6.2 per cent), 2006 (6.4 per cent), 2007 (6.8 per cent).
The estimates for the following three years are: 2008 (5.4 per cent), 2009 (1.5 per cent) and 2010
(3.8 per cent). Figures come from the International Monetary Fund (2007; 2009).
Social Security and Children227
countries could only absorb 5–10 per cent of the costs of the proposed universal
basic social protection schemes. If however, 20 per cent of the total budget was
used for social protection – an increasingly accepted benchmark – then the
authors calculate that India, Viet Nam and Pakistan could almost finance the
full amount of the benefit. Bangladesh and Nepal would only be able to finance
about 40 per cent of the cost. The ILO concludes that these countries would need
external support for the remainder.
However, the ILO authors fail to explain why taxation could not also be used
as an option. For instance, tax as a percentage of GDP in Bangladesh in 2005 was
8.5 per cent, while in India it is 17.7 per cent (Heritage Foundation 2009). It is
thus not surprising that they find that the benefit is more affordable for India than
Bangladesh if the current fiscal budget is used. Thus, the ILO modeling could
have added taxation as a variant model, perhaps using the highest tax share of
GDP amongst the five countries. If this was 15-20 per cent, it is not necessarily
excessive. In the West, taxation revenue accounts for 30 to 50 per cent of GDP.
We therefore need to be careful with proposals that simply propose a largescale use of international resources for child benefits (Townsend 2008), without
appreciating that some countries are simply taxing too little. A better system
would be international aid that provides: (i) start-up and smoothing finances,
(ii) matching finances for the poorest countries, and (iii) incentives to increase the
level of taxation to a reasonable level.
Targeted Schemes
Literature on the projected affordability of targeted schemes for Africa, for example,
is available, but difficult to compare. It is often produced on the basis of a block
grant to poor households or with a fixed resource constraint as opposed to a child
grant. What could be useful is an estimation of what a South African style meanstested child grant would cost in Africa or Asia. Hanlon (2009) is one exception,
and estimates that a targeted child grant and pension based on the South African
model would cost Mozambique 0.8 per cent of GDP.
What we can do is examine the percentage of GDP for existing targeted child
grant schemes in the South and North. This is done in Table 9.4. These percentages
show that the well-known targeted schemes in the South (left-hand column) are
currently less costly in terms of GDP than similar means tested schemes in the
North. Indeed, the costs in Africa are likely to be of the same magnitude. Similar
figures are generated by Franziska and Behrendt (2006). If a benefit of 70 per cent
of the food poverty line was targeted to households without able-bodied members
then the cost would be respectively 0.2 and 0.8 per cent of GDP in Senegal and
Tanzania respectively.
Malcolm Langford
Table 9.4. Targeted schemes as percentage of GDP
% of GDP
% of GDP
New Zealand
South Africa
United States
Sources: OECD (2001b).
These results suggest that the costs of targeted schemes are not excessive. Moreover,
they mostly fall below the costs of universal schemes, but not always if one compares
Table 9.4 with Table 9.2. The trade-off here is that the impact on poverty may be
less, particularly for those schemes which aim for very precise targeting, such as in
Mexico and Zambia. For instance, in addition to the studies discussed above, in the
ILO studies the universal child grant led to a 40 per cent reduction in the poverty
gap in Senegal and Tanzania, but the targeted transfer led only to a 2 and 15 per cent
reduction despite its promise to focus on the poorest of the poor.
9.5.2. Comparing Child Grants with Other Social Allocations
The next question, addressed in this sub-section, is whether child grants should
be chosen when there are resource constraints that require trade-offs or choices
between human rights. This may occur in the context of reallocations or more
likely in how newly available funds should be used. There is a rich literature in
the health sector on economic models to determine the best use of limited health
funds (Stinnett and Paltiel 1996), but less has been done in the area of addressing
income poverty and the comparative role of child grants. The growing evidence
on the impact of child grants (both modelled and actual) could be used to enable
comparisons with other type of policies through a systematic review. Ideally, one
would also need to capture the multiplier effects of policies (see 4.3 below), and
give them a quantitative value. For example, it is claimed that child benefits lead to
increased schooling and health and a decrease in child labour.
Zapada (2007) has sought to comparatively evaluate the direct income
poverty impact of child grants in comparison with a job creation programme.
The impact of 350 Kenya Shilling targeted child grants to school-age children was
contrasted with a job creation programme with low wages for unemployed, out-ofwork seasonal workers and workers with low earnings. The study finds similar
impacts on poverty headcounts, severity and depth, but that the job creation
programme had a higher impact on depth and severity of urban poverty. Of
course, this model rests on a number of assumptions and the author acknowledges
that a job creation programme is more administratively demanding, and that the
other objectives and multiplier effects would need to be taken into account for a
full evaluation.
Social Security and Children229
9.5.3. Externalities
The final question is how do the negative and positive externalities of child grants
affect the resource position. This debate on the relationship between the social
welfare state and economic growth has been particularly strong amongst OECD
countries. Mares’ (2007) review of empirical literature, measuring the relationship
between social protection/taxation on the one hand with growth/employment on
the other finds a ‘fragile’ and inconclusive relationship. According to her, ‘there is
considerable evidence that social programmes provide a wide range of “positive
externalities” which outweigh the potential distortionary effects of higher taxes’.
Similar conclusions were reached by an ILO team dispatched to answer the
question (Cichon, Scholz et al 2004). In essence, the reviews indicate that it is
often the shape not the size of the welfare state that influences the relationship.
For instance, centralized wage fixation systems tend to moderate wage growth in
the face of promised social policy improvements and, curiously, high replacement
ratios for unemployment benefits can create incentives for employers to provide
on-the-job training.
Evaluations of this nature in the South are difficult given that social
protection systems are in their infancy in many ways and, in particular, there have
been no comprehensive studies of both the positive and negative impacts of child
grants. Anderson (2008: 51) does review fourteen studies on the determinants of
economic growth and the role of health and education spending, and concludes
that ‘the negative effects on economic growth associated with financing government
expenditure appear to be small, compared to the positive effects on growth of
raising health and education indicators’.
One analysis of the future impact of the South African child grant reveals
that the improvement in human capital (measured in increased future earnings
from improved nutrition) has an economic value 60 to 130 per cent higher than
the cost of the actual scheme (Aguero, Carter and Woolard 2007). Indeed, the
broader impacts on education, health and child labour as well as direct-income
poverty lie at the heart of the Mahlungu v Minister for Social Development Case
No. 25754/05 (High Court) in South Africa. A South African mother with NGO
support is challenging the state’s resistance to extending the eligibility child grant
from 15 to 18, and has relied on the government’s own empirical assessments of
the positive effects of the benefit.
9.6. Conclusions
The question posed at the beginning of this chapter was whether a model that posits
that human rights provide the normative standards while economics provides the
tools for choice-making and trade-offs within it can actually function in practice.
In the current chapter, we discussed an issue that appears principally in the field of
choice-making and trade-offs, namely fiscal allocations for child benefits in poor
countries. However, once we set the normative standards and field for choice-
Malcolm Langford
making, we could not identify clear and conclusive economic answers on tradeoffs. The relative costs and benefits of different choices for each of the three tests
for maximum available resources for child grants were not clearly borne out by
existing empirical evidence.
First, the cost estimates for universal grants vary widely between studies
examined, although the lower cost estimates seem more plausible. In the case
of targeted schemes, the fiscal envelope is certainly smaller and thus ‘available’,
but it seems questionable whether very tightly targeted schemes meet the test
of ‘maximum’ resources since the impact on poverty is much lower. For the
second test on alternatives, the evidence is not abundant, but does give comfort
to suggestions that child grants can have at least similar impacts to other human
rights friendly policies. For the third, positive externalities are more likely to
weigh out the negative externalities on economic growth and thus future resource
availability, at least for a basic social security package.
Obviously the research in this area will continue to grow in the coming
years as social protection becomes more popular in development. This chapter has
indicated some of the regressional analysis that is needed. Thus economic
uncertainty over the questions may narrow over time, although given the debate
in the West over the externalities, it is unlikely that economic evidence will be
available to resolve all the questions.
However, the human rights framework demands that states take immediate
steps towards the realization of the right to social security. Therefore, where the
economic evidence is open or seems more directed by ideology, it is arguable that
human rights considerations should be uppermost. Many of the states surveyed
seem capable of having sufficient domestic resources to begin providing a child
grant. Thus we might argue that any decision to not take steps to provide a child
grant or for most countries to set very low levels of benefits or highly targeted
benefits would be problematic, and require strong justification on the basis of a
state’s human rights obligations.
Thus a nuanced approach is needed in assessing the boundaries of human
rights and economics where there are potential or real conflicts. Where the human
rights claim exhibits relativity dimensions, preference might be given to economics.
On the other hand, where economic claims are ambiguous, empirically weak or
strongly contested, the preference might work in the opposite direction. In the
current example, the conclusion is somewhere in the middle.
Fiscal affordability and questions of targeting vs universal benefits are only
two of the issues that loom large on the economics–human rights axis in the
merging social protection movement in development. Another is the imposition
of conditionalities, such as school attendance and health check-ups for children
(Fizbein and Schady 2009). There are now attempts to replicate this Mexican
model in places as distinct as Ethiopia and New York, United States. The World
Bank has signalled that it will put increasing resources into such programmes.
In the case of conditionalities, we might find that the human rights arguments
are possibly stronger than economic considerations. Emerging economic evidence
indicates that unconditional schemes tend to have a similar impact on poverty,
Social Security and Children231
nutrition and school attendance (Aguero, Carter and Woolard 2007). However, it
is a contested field and evaluations are ongoing. One possible case to be considered
is where school attendance for girls is unlikely to rise with an unconditional grant
in some countries, such as Pakistan (Chaudhury and Parajuli 2006). However,
other research from Pakistan has indicated that there was not a significant change,
and that other factors such as school availability and quality are more important
(Mukhatar 2007; Lyod 2007).
From the human rights side, conditionalities are seen as highly problematic
since they make a basic right dependent on other behaviour, which defeats the
purpose of a right. Some even label conditionalities a straight-out violation of
the right to social security. Others note that placing the responsibility on women
to carry out the conditionalities can be disempowering even if they receive the
benefit on behalf of the child (Bradshaw and Quirós Víquez 2008). Therefore, with
inconclusive economic arguments and stronger human rights concerns, one is
probably more likely to come to a conclusion that human rights should prevail and
conditionalities should not be used if a scheme is meant to provide a human right.
That does not end the story though. The strongest arguments for conditionalities
are actually political – they are easier to sell to sceptical middles classes. But
whether human rights trumps politics is not up for discussion here.
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Hunger and Human Rights:
The Appealing Rhetoric versus Dreary Reality
Dan Banik
10.1. Introduction
Despite several decades of development, hunger and malnutrition remain among
the most pressing economic and social problems facing the world today. It is claimed
that over a billion people still cannot meet basic needs for energy and protein,
more than 2,000 million people lack essential micronutrients, and hundreds of
millions suffer from diseases caused by unsafe food or unbalanced food intake.
And a couple of hundred million children under the age of five are underweight,
stunted, or short for their age. Poor nutrition and hunger cause billions of dollars
in economic loss, due to lower productivity and the increased disease burden.
Malnutrition, for instance, reduces an individual’s lifetime earnings by more than
10 per cent, and widespread malnutrition can erase 2 to 3 per cent of a nation’s
GDP. In South Asia, anaemia, usually due to iron-poor diets, takes an even
higher economic toll. In the past few years, the prices of most agricultural food
commodities have increased significantly, mainly due to widespread crop failures
and below-average harvests, notably affecting the global stocks of wheat and maize.
The increasing demand for biofuel production, which has drawn considerable
subsidies in many developed countries, has also contributed to the rise in food
prices.211 And according to recent FAO estimates, the number of hungry people
increased by about 50 million in 2007 as a result of high food prices.212 Thus, food
and nutrition insecurity remains one of the greatest global challenges today.
Corresponding to the evolvement of the discourse on food and nutrition
insecurity has been the trend, in recent years, of academics, voluntary organizations,
bilateral and multilateral development organizations, and others that have shown
an interest in viewing poverty reduction as a matter of human rights. Indeed, there
has been growing criticism of so-called ‘conventional’ development strategies
encouraged and pursued by national and international agencies to combat extreme
211. (accessed 26 July 2008)
Dan Banik
poverty and hunger. The solution, many argue, is to adopt a human rights-based
approach to development (hereafter referred to as HRBA), which enjoys several
advantages over traditional development strategies. Among such advantages is the
ability to ensure genuine participation of the poor and to improve accountability
of policy-makers and implementers. The abolition of poverty is also increasingly
being spoken of as a matter of international redistributive justice and a human
rights problem. An important reflection of this was the UN Millennium Declaration
(2000), where world leaders reaffirmed their commitment to do their utmost to
help individuals and groups facing ‘the abject and dehumanizing conditions of
extreme poverty’, and committed themselves ‘to making the right to development
a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want’.
In recent years, UNICEF has pioneered HRBA-related work within the fields
of children’s rights,213 and UNESCO has explored the claim that extreme poverty is
a violation of human rights. Bilateral donors have also embraced the HRBA, albeit
with diverse intensities and perspectives, and we have witnessed the creation
of specific departments or officers in DFID, Sida and NORAD, among others,
promoting rights-based approaches. And while many NGOs (e.g. OXFAM, CARE,
Save the Children) and critics of mainstream development theories and practices
defend rights-based approaches as an alternative paradigm to address poverty
directly, more conservative actors (e.g. USAID, and perhaps even the UNDP)
tend to link concern for rights with agendas related to good governance and
democratization – treating rights in solely instrumental terms, as means towards
more effective poverty reduction strategies.214 To a large extent, the same applies to
the World Bank, which has generally struggled to conceptualize rights in relation
to mainstream approaches and views currently in vogue, such as the recent focus
on the concept of ‘empowerment’, and has (for example in the most recent World
Development Report) accorded a rather limited role to human rights. Some fear
that the current emphasis on anti-corruption highlighted by the Bank may lead to
still more instrumentalized and narrow views of rights, with little direct relevance
for the eradication of poverty.
Given the increased reference to the linkage between human rights and
poverty reduction in the development discourse, this essay critically examines
whether – and to what extent – a human rights-based approach can help reduce
hunger. While some developmental organizations, mainly in the UN system, argue
that a focus on human rights can provide a sense of urgency to global efforts aimed
at combating poverty and hunger, others (mainly individual voices in the World
Bank and IMF) argue that the actual impact at the national, regional and local levels
is limited. And while there is a rich and growing literature on human rights-based
approaches to development and poverty reduction – including the right to food –
there is an urgent need to focus on how global theory can be operationalized into
213. See and, in particular, Human Rights
and Poverty Reduction: A conceptual Framework.
214. See UNDP’s Human Rights Strengthening Programme (HURIST) at
governance/hurist.htm, and UNESCO’s documents on mainstreaming human rights.
Hunger and Human Rights: The Appealing Rhetoric versus Dreary Reality239
effective national practice. The empirical material is mainly derived from studies
in India and Malawi undertaken in the period 2000-2007. Using the HRBA in
relation to food and nutrition security, I argue that if the human-rights approach is
to make a substantial impact on hunger and malnutrition, we must pay immediate
attention to the following three sets of interrelated issues:
• First, it is important to examine how, when and why global and national
policies incorporate elements of HRBA. Specifically, how the right to
food can be more forcefully incorporated in the national discourse on
human rights.
• Second, we need to understand better the identities of, and motivation
behind, the political, economic and social actors involved in demanding/
resisting the implementation of the right to food as part of the legal and
policy landscape in developing countries. How do they employ the HRBA
in their actions to achieve food and nutrition security, and what reactions
does this produce? We also need a better understanding of the nature and
impact of legal, including judicial and administrative, activity in the areas
of food and nutrition insecurity.
• Finally, we need to re-focus on the strategies available to the poor that
enable them to demand political accountability and recur to the legal
system to see their rights enforced.
10.2. The Human rights-based approach
to development: A Brief Overview
While the human rights-based approach to development (or HRBA) was generally
neglected until the end of the 1990s, it has, in the past few years, received a
considerable amount of attention, particularly from UN agencies, international civil
society organizations and donor agencies. The general agreement appears to be that
the HRBA is a conceptual framework: 1) for the process of human development that
is normatively based on international HR standards; and 2) operationally aimed at
promoting and protecting human rights (OHCHR 2006). It is claimed that the HRBA
is an important tool not only for poverty reduction, but also in efforts to combat poverty
production, since it entails a comprehensive re-definition of the aims and approaches
to development, such that the boundaries between human rights and development
disappear. Indeed, most adherents agree that the approach ‘creates claims and
not charity’ or philanthropy, and hence ‘the end of development […] differs, and
consequently the whole process of thinking about it, of defining the nature of the
problem, changes as well – a new vision emerges’ (Uvin 2004: 129). As Jonsson (2003:
16) very succinctly puts it, ‘A human right represents a specific relationship between
an individual who has a valid claim and another individual, group, or institution
(including the state) with a duty to respect, protect, and fulfil the right’. He goes on
to argue that ‘Except for very young children, all individuals have both valid claims
(rights) and duties’. Similarly, there is considerable emphasis in the HRBA of the process
of development and the manner in which development policies are implemented. In
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other words, ‘the means, the processes, are different, even if many of the goals remain
the same’ (Uvin 2004: 129). In addition, Jonsson (2003: 20) forcefully argues that ‘A
human rights approach will change what most UN development agencies are doing;
how they work, and particularly why they do their work’.
But what is really new about the HRBA, and what explains its recent
popularity among many developmental agencies? In relation to traditional
development theory and practice – often referred to by the human rights school
as the ‘basic needs approach’, Jonsson (2003: 20) writes that the HRBA differs in
two important ways. First, the basic-needs approach does not recognize the idea
of a duty-bearer, and hence no-one has a clear-cut responsibility to meet the needs
of the poor and ‘rights are vulnerable to ongoing violation’. In contrast, the HRBA
places emphasis on the poor having the ability to claim their rights from the dutybearers. Importantly, the universal, inviolable and inalienable characteristics of
human rights protect the poor from losing their rights if they are incapable of
claiming them. In other words, ‘If no one protests the denial of a right, or if an
individual fails to make use of his or her right, the fulfilment of this right will be
compromised, but not lost’, and this is where empowerment of the community as
a whole is important, in that one can extend solidarity and help another person
to claim his or her rights. The HRBA consequently emphasizes the principle of
equality in that community resources must be shared equally, ensuring that access
to various services are enjoyed by all. By comparison, the basic-needs approach
often tends to place greater emphasis on acquiring additional resources to
improve the access of marginalized groups to various basic services. Thus, while
conventional development approaches do not necessarily recognize ‘wilful or
historical marginalisation, a human rights approach aims directly at overcoming
such marginalisation’ by being more actively involved in the political discourse on
such issues (Jonsson 2003: 20).
Second, and as has been briefly mentioned earlier, is the focus of the HRBA
on the process and not simply on the outcomes of development interventions.
Jonsson terms this as a difference related to ‘motivation’ and argues that while
basic needs can often be met through ‘benevolent and charitable actions’, the
HRBA is based on ‘legal and moral obligations to carry out a duty that will permit
a subject to enjoy her or his right’. And this implies that a duty-bearer must accept
the responsibility of taking rightful action and be motivated by a desire to promote
justice, features that are negated by the basic-needs approach’s emphasis on charity
and benevolence (Jonsson 2003: 20-21).
Human rights therefore ‘contribute to human development by guaranteeing
a protected space where the elite cannot monopolize development processes,
policies and programmes. The human rights framework also introduces the
important idea that certain actors have duties to facilitate and foster development’
(OHCHR 2006). But most importantly, linking human rights to development
actually forces development practitioners to confront the tough questions of their
work: matters of power and politics, exclusion and discrimination, structure and
policy (Uvin 2004). As Sengupta (2005: para. 23) puts it, ‘if poverty is considered
as a violation of human rights, it could mobilize public action which itself may
Hunger and Human Rights: The Appealing Rhetoric versus Dreary Reality241
significantly contribute to the adoption of appropriate policies, especially by
Governments in democratic countries’. At this stage it is important to keep in
mind the distinction between ‘rights-based development’ and ‘human rightsbased development’, since these terms result in some confusion when used
interchangeably by various international organizations and aid agencies. Asbjørn
Eide (2006: 250) observes that a rights-based approach can ‘cover any kind of
rights and is locally determined as a result of power relations’, and can include
‘established property rights irrespective of whether their origin, use or inheritance
principles are “just”’. By comparison, a human rights-based approach ‘builds on
the international normative system of rights and the obligations undertaken by
(most) states, which makes possible a growing international consensus on the
content of the rights and the corresponding responsibility of the duty-holders’
(Asbjørn Eide 2006: 250).
Despite the above, the human rights vocabulary in relation to development
has remained primarily one of rhetorical appeal. The result is, alas, one where an
excessive amount of attention on the HRBA in general is currently directed at
the rhetorical level rather than on the practical implementation of development
policies (Eide 2006; Hansen and Sano 2006). And as de Gaay Fortmann (2000)
puts it, ‘the basic weakness of human rights is that they are mainly proclaimed
rather than implemented’ (cited in Hansen and Sano 2006: 44). Indeed, in spite
its theoretical underpinnings, the HRBA has proved difficult to operationalize in
practice, and the right to food is as affected by this as many other, and related,
socioeconomic rights (e.g. water and health). And although ‘a human rights-based
development is desirable and possible […] doubts persist whether it is probable’
(Gaay Fortmann 2000: 253). In the rest of this chapter, I will briefly discuss some
challenges related to implementation of the right to food at the international level,
before focusing on the challenges associated with implementing the HRBA in
relation to food and nutrition security at the national and local levels. Among the
various rights categorized under the umbrella of economic, social and cultural
rights, ‘the right to food’ or ‘the right to adequate food’ has by far received the
greatest amount of attention. This should come as no surprise given the gravity
of the persisting global problem of food and nutrition insecurity. But how and
to what extent can the HRBA positively influence policies related to food and
nutrition security?
10.3. International Human Rights
Instruments and the Right to Food
In essence, the right to food really means that national governments should not
pursue policies that will increase malnutrition and food insecurity. In addition,
governments are required to maximize available resources to eradicate hunger and
protect those vulnerable to food insecurity from the actions of others that may lead
to a violation of the right to food. The right to food is a basic human right protected
under international human rights and humanitarian law, and is recognized directly
Dan Banik
or indirectly by virtually all countries in the world. According to Article 25.1 of
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR 1948), ‘Everyone has the
right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and
of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary
social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness,
disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances
beyond his control’. Subsequently, Article 11.1 of the International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR 1966) provided that ‘The States
Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate
standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing
and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions’. The right
to adequate food is also mentioned in several other articles of the ICESCR, and in
the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC 1989) there was specific mention
of state responsibility to combat disease and malnutrition (e.g. Article 24.1c and
d and Article 27.3).
However, food as a basic human right received major international
acceptance in November 1996, when the World Food Summit reaffirmed the right
of all humans to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to
adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger. The
Summit also provided the High Commissioner for Human Rights with a specific
mandate to define more clearly the rights related to food and propose ways to
implement and realize them.215 Following this, the UN Committee on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights – in General Comment No. 12 – observed: ‘The right
to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in
community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate
food or means for its procurement in ways consistent with human dignity’. Hence,
states parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights have a legally binding obligation to take steps to ‘respect’ (not undertake
any steps that will hinder or prevent existing access to adequate food), ‘protect’
(ensure that no agency deprives individuals of their access to adequate food) and
‘fulfil and facilitate’ (proactive engagement in strengthening both access to and
utilization of resources, such that the livelihoods of the poor are not threatened)
the right to food. Similarly, the first of the eight Millennium Development Goals
(MDGs), drafted by 189 heads of state in September 2000, emphasizes the urgency
of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger by focusing on a right-based approach.
In recent years, the FAO has developed a set of ‘Voluntary Guidelines’ on the
right to food, which propose practical steps for national implementation of the
right. In addition to providing practical guidance to countries in progressively
implementing the right to food, the guidelines represent the very first attempt
to both interpret and recommend actions related to an economic, social and
cultural right. Defining ‘food security’ as one ‘when all people, at all times, have
physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their
215. Paragraph 61 of the World Food Summit Plan of Action, Objective 7.4.
Hunger and Human Rights: The Appealing Rhetoric versus Dreary Reality243
dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’ (FAO 2004: 5),
the guidelines emphasize the following four pillars of food security: availability,
stability of supply, access and utilization. At the national level, the guidelines
are particularly concerned with emphasizing ‘the need to enable individuals to
realize the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, the right to freedom
of expression and the right to seek, receive and impart information, including in
relation to decision-making about policies on realizing the right to adequate food’
(FAO 2004: 6).
Despite the above, and particularly in terms of the effectiveness of the
human rights discourse on food, some have recently questioned whether such
an approach can really reduce and eradicate hunger, since ‘inadequate food
supply may be the result of complex, structural problems, outside the control of
particular states and authorities’ (Mowbray 2007: 546). For example, while the
FAO guidelines provide many useful recommendations, they have been criticized
for being excessively focused on national-level obligations, and thereby toning
down the impact of the international economic system, and the negative impact
that various types of economic factors and the market may have on food security
(Mowbray 2007: 559). Thus, there are repeated claims from international civil
society organizations and selected developing country governments that the world
economic order, WTO rules, trade barriers, etc. systematically obstruct access to
regional and global markets for their goods. They also point to high subsidies
given to the agricultural sector in industrialized countries, which again make it
difficult for poor countries to export their agricultural products to the Western
world. Moreover, the role of non-state actors is not given adequate attention in the
guidelines. And by emphasizing legal and technical measures for the promotion
of food security, the guidelines encourage ‘cosmetic changes which will not attack
the underlying inequalities of power and wealth which lead to hunger’ (Mowbray
2007: 560).
Some of the above concerns have also been reflected in successive reports of
the Special Rapporteur on the right to food. Following a mission to the WTO in
2008, Olivier De Schutter (2008: 23) concludes that member states of the WTO
must ensure that their actions under the WTO framework – ‘through transparent,
independent and participatory human rights impact assessments’ – are ‘fully
compatible with their obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food’.
His recommendations further include limiting ‘excessive reliance on international
trade in the pursuit of food security’, and encouraging ‘national parliaments
to hold regular hearings about the positions adopted by governments in trade
negotiations, with the inclusion of all affected groups, including in particular
farmers’ organisations’.
Another perspective is that, in order to be taken seriously, the right to food
‘must be seen in the wider perspective of realising this right progressively with
economic development, and consistent with the standards of human rights in
general’ (Sengupta 2007: 107). However, Sengupta is much more sympathetic
towards a focus on national-level obligations, arguing that the right to food requires
context-specific policies, and hence ‘any attempt by the right-to-food community,
Dan Banik
or by any international institution, to specify policies that would be applicable
across all countries would be simple-minded and can, at most, be regarded as
illustrative’. Sengupta is therefore much more in favour of each country abiding
by its own mechanism for formulating, implementing and monitoring food policy
and subsequently taking the necessary corrective actions as and when required
(Sengupta 2007: 109).
In general, I believe that the discourse on the international right to food
has been excessively focused on the process of formulating and ratifying human
rights instruments on the topic. Hence, a large number of UN organizations,
together with international civil society actors, have focused their efforts on
securing agreement and documentation on the importance of pursuing a humanright-to-food agenda. By contrast, the actual implementation on the ground has
not attracted much attention among these same actors. There have, however,
been some attempts at operationalization, and Nyamu-Musembi and Cornwall
(2004) identify the following ways in which the HRBA as an operational tool has
been used: as a set of normative tools by organizations (e.g. DFID and Sweden’s
Sida) in their developmental work, which emphasizes solidarity with poor and
marginalized groups; as a set of instruments that help guide assessments and
based on which checklists and indicators are developed that in turn are useful
in assessing the quality and effectiveness of development programmes (UNICEF
is a good example in this context); as a set of principles that are integrated into
programming (e.g. CARE’s Household Livelihood Security Approach); attempts
at creating and strengthening governance issues related to accountability (e.g. the
role of UNDP); and programmes aimed at helping organizations representing the
poor to develop so-called advocacy skills (e.g. the work of Action Aid).
At the international level, a group of United Nations agencies have, in
particular, attempted to operationalize the HRBA. Thus, in May 2003, UN
agencies arrived at a Statement of Common Understanding (the Stamford
Declaration), which specifically refers to the following three main principles
that should guide the work of UN agencies: a) ‘All programmes of development
co-operation, policies and technical assistance should further the realisation of
human rights as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and
other international human rights instruments.’ b) ‘Human rights standards
contained in, and principles derived from, the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights and other international human rights instruments guide all development
cooperation and programming in all sectors and in all phases of the programming
process.’ c) ‘Development cooperation contributes to the development of the
capacities of ‘duty-bearers’ to meet their obligations and/or of ‘rights-holders’ to
claim their rights.’216 While these principles have at least established a common
platform for the UN, they have also been criticized for being vaguely formulated
and not really being of much operational use (Alston 2005). The extent to which
216. (accessed 2
August 2009).
Hunger and Human Rights: The Appealing Rhetoric versus Dreary Reality245
rights, and the interdependencies among them, are operationalized varies – from
general statements formulated by the UN or donor agencies, to country strategies
and concrete programmes for poverty reduction. Thus the interconnectedness
between human rights and food, or for that matter poverty in general, is expressed
in differing, interrelated, and sometimes inconsistent claims. Related to this is the
fact that UN agencies tend to have very different ideas about how the right to
food should be realized: while FAO, UNICEF, WFP and UNDP routinely mention
the right to food, there is no attempt to adopt a unified strategy to realize this
right. The importance attached to human rights in key policy documents related
to development, and in particular those addressing poverty, varies significantly
depending on the ideological or organizational culture of the institution: some
may perceive human rights as central and of intrinsic value, others as merely
instrumental means to other ends. And Uvin (2007: 603) argues that ‘The risk
always exists that taking up a rights-based approach amounts to little more than
making nice statements of intent regarding things that it would be nice to achieve,
or duties we would like the world to assume one day, without setting out either the
concrete procedures for actually achieving those rights or methods of avoiding the
slow and dirty enterprise of politics.’
Not only does each UN agency have a different conception of the right, they
also vary enormously in their level of commitment and the actual emphasis they
place on applying the HRBA in relation to food. For example, selected individuals
and departments in FAO and UNICEF may be keener to adopt an HRBA than their
colleagues at WFP, who tend to focus more on short-term food relief where the
HRBA appears less suited for application; or the UNDP, where several key officials
openly question the added value of the approach. And even if they agree on the
importance of the HRBA, the problem of coordinating UN agencies’ efforts remains
a major challenge. Thus, even though individuals and agencies may subscribe to the
right to food, they may not necessarily collaborate or adopt common strategies with
those working on the right to health or the right to water. Indeed, it appears that
although the right to food has been on the international agenda for a considerable
amount of time, the increased focus on newer types of rights has created a conceptual
inflation. And there are numerous voices questioning the value-added of ‘rightsproofing’ every sector of development activity.
I have also argued elsewhere (Banik 2010a) that the development agenda
today continues to remain elusive, partly due to our preoccupation with
sensational crises, while we forget that the poor suffer and are hungry on a daily
basis, even when we do not brand such suffering as deserving of a ‘crisis’ label.
In recent years, three types of crises have been on everyone’s lips: one related
to the financial system, another related to food, and the third related to climate
change. The strange thing, however, is that by using the term ‘crisis’, one gives the
impression that things just happen without a reason, i.e. no one can be blamed,
and no decision can be identified as having triggered a process that led to the
crisis event. This to me is a mistake, and although I am aware that crises tend to
push people into action, I believe we should actively work towards adopting a
non-crisis perspective in the development agenda. It has now become a routine
Dan Banik
performance on the world stage to react to highly visible and sensational disasters
such as famines. Those that react quickly and generously stand to gain a token of
goodwill that will serve them well in international relations. By contrast, events
that are slow but steady (and often somewhat less visible), such as undernutrition
– which is characterized by the entire (and long) process of impoverishment and
which allows for considerable time to intervene – are generally swept under the
carpet. A focus on a ‘crisis’ appears to awaken us from our slumber and provides
us with some form of moral urgency, and even legitimacy, to propose and/or
undertake changes. And such responses, although useful in the short term, can at
best be described as ad hoc approaches of a fire-fighting nature. Thus the challenge
of fighting poverty requires us not to separate the event (or a crisis) from the
prior causes and processes. This is also where an HRBA can make a most useful
contribution to changing our thinking.
In the last few years, there has also been a sharp rise throughout the world
in the prices of most agricultural food commodities, caused mainly due to crop
failures and below average harvests in many parts of the world. Global stocks of
wheat and maize have been particularly affected. Another cause for this increase
in food prices has been attributed to the growing demand for biofuel production,
which has attracted considerable subsidies in many developed countries.217 In
addition to food, oil prices have also increased, and for the 41 poorest countries
in the world, it is estimated that the combined impact will be a negative shock
that will reduce the GDP in these countries by between 3 and 10 per cent.218
According to recent FAO estimates, the number of hungry people increased by
about 50 million in 2007 as a result of high food prices.219 Some countries are, of
course, more affected than others. Thus food and nutrition insecurity, which has
been one of the greatest global challenges today, has been further worsened. But
the rhetoric that accompanied the dramatic increase in food, oil and commodity
prices, particularly in the period 2006-2008, masked the real challenges and
dilemmas that governments in poor countries faced in taking steps to control the
rise in prices on the one hand, and on the other, ensure that the agricultural sector
benefited from these events or that the poorest of the poor continued to be able
to access an adequate amount of food to survive. Suddenly, everyone was talking
about how the crisis was going to affect the poor, when in reality most of those
who were hardest hit were those who were already vulnerable during the so-called
‘normal’ or ‘non-crisis’ period. The point here is that – and perhaps because we
may feel overwhelmed by the enormous challenges in front of us – we often tend
to focus simply on the present, which in reality is a very short period during which
some emergency or hastily elaborated actions are taken. Then we move on to focus
on the next crisis before resolving the present one.
217. (accessed 26 July 2009).
218. Estimates based on World Bank figures in the Call for Proposals (FY 2010) from the NorwegianFinnish Trust Fund on Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development (TFESSD),
219. (accessed 26 July 2009).
Hunger and Human Rights: The Appealing Rhetoric versus Dreary Reality247
The food crisis is one that has existed for many years; typically attracting
world attention when large numbers of people die (e.g. during famines), while
the fact that over one billion people suffer from undernutrition on a daily basis
continues to be a silent emergency. Reports emerging from Ethiopia in September
2009 highlighted the failure of the rains and the need to provide food assistance to
5 million additional individuals in addition to the 8 million already receiving such
assistance. The situation appears equally serious in Somalia and parts of Eritrea,
Uganda, Tanzania, Southern Sudan and the Central African Republic, with severe
drought followed by a failure of staple crops such as maize and rice.220 I fear that the
response from the international community now and in the future will be virtually
the same as in previous years. United Nations agencies, in particularly the World
Food Programme, UNDP and UNICEF, together with influential organizations
such as OXFAM, will appeal for funds from rich country governments to provide
emergency assistance. The amounts available will perhaps prevent a large-scale
loss of lives, but very little will be done to promote long-term food security (e.g.
by increasing investments in agriculture) and tackle the underlying causes of
vulnerability of peoples and countries in Africa to famine.221 And, a year or two
later, another drought will result in equally high, if not higher, numbers of people
in need of food aid. The seriousness of the problem is reflected in the latest World
Development Report (WDR 2010), which discusses in detail world hunger and the
impact of recurrent and frequent droughts and the financial crisis on food and
water insecurity. As the report highlights, in order ‘To avoid encroaching into
already-stressed ecosystems, societies will have to almost double the existing rate of
agricultural productivity growth while minimizing the associated environmental
damage’ (WDR 2010: 133). Tied in with this are the enormous challenges ahead
related to the politics of food trade, food buffers, food distribution, and water
sharing and allocation. But, as the report highlights, we can try to scale up what we
currently know to be approaches that are promising for farmers and good for the
environment, such as ‘zero tillage’, which, although it has been applied largely in
high-income countries, is also increasingly being practised in India and Brazil.
10.4. Implementation of Anti-Hunger
Policy at National Local Levels
The traditional blindness of development policy towards questions related to
power, conflict, exclusion and discrimination leave development bureaucracies and
experts poorly prepared to implement a rights-based approach to development and
poverty reduction. Another important hindrance is the lack of common concerns
between human rights activists and organizations and development practitioners
220. ‘A Catastrophe is looming’, The Economist, 26 September 2009.
221. Marchione (2009) argues that during the decade 1998-2008, the right to food became ‘a casualty
of the war of terror’ and cites the fact that in the period 2002-2005, assistance to developing
countries for agricultural development was under USD 500 million.
Dan Banik
at the country level (Uvin 2004). Concerns for poverty and concerns for rights
violations tend to be seen as separate issues, and even though the current focus on
the promotion of democracy, good governance and anti-corruption has opened
up some channels to reconnect rights with development practice, it appears that
there is a great risk that food security will generally take second place to other
more pressing concerns of powerful players (such as terrorism). Related to this
is the claim that the HRBA suffers from conceptual clarity at national and local
levels, particularly at programmatic levels where anti-poverty policy is actually
implemented. The main difficulty here is the lack of awareness among policymakers regarding what human rights principles actually entail, and excuses
are frequently made with reference to lack of available financial resources. For
example, and according to a UNICEF official, reluctance to embrace human rights
approaches is often expressed by national partners or certain religious groups
based on financial resources, cultural practices and misconceptions of the term
‘human rights’. There is therefore an urgent need for formal and informal dialogue
and negotiations coupled with lobbying, networking and flexibility in trying to
promote the HRBA, which will in turn help strengthen the conceptual clarity and
understanding of the approach.222
In order to examine the usefulness of the HRBA in food and nutrition
security, Sengupta (2005; 2007) suggests a focus on three interrelated features.
First, it should be possible to predict and express the concrete outcomes of the
approach in terms of a fundamental value that can be compared to human rights.
Second, we ought to be able to establish that there exists a feasible process of
realization, i.e. that a specific right can actually be delivered, and in this respect a
crucial feature is the design of the process of delivery. Third, the process or design
should clearly specify the responsibilities of individual stakeholders so that they
can be held accountable should the right not be delivered. Following from the
above, respecting, protecting and fulfilling the right to food would imply that there
must be a way to assess why the right is not fulfilled, particularly if right to food
is accepted by the government. At the same time it is important to understand
who the actors responsible for causing food insecurity are. In other words, food
insecurity may be caused by several factors, which may not be under the state’s
control. If a government argues, as is commonplace today, that inadequate food
production was the main cause of increasing food insecurity in the country, then
from an HRBA perspective this will only be a valid argument if it can be proven
that there does not exist any feasible programmes to improve food security. This is
also where conventional strategies of development differ from the HRBA.
Using the HRBA to actively shape and formulate food and nutrition policies
implies, therefore, that policies should be able to first identify relevant agents or
duty-bearers, and thereafter specify the obligations of these agents. Moreover,
policies should specify how the duty-bearing individuals can carry out their
222. E-mail correspondence in a UNDP-facilitated Internet debate on the linkage between human
rights and the Millennium Development Goals, 5 May 2006.
Hunger and Human Rights: The Appealing Rhetoric versus Dreary Reality249
obligations in relation to promoting food security. In other words, policies should
specify a mechanism by which one can judge that agent X is actually carrying out
his or her obligations. Finally, if a duty-bearer fails in his or her duty in relation
to the right to food, then there ought to be a provision for undertaking corrective
actions. This may not always entail a reprimand, but at the very least it involves
changing the design of policies and programmes. But how does this all work in
practice? The above discussion highlights the urgent need to focus on the whether
and how the HRBA can be operationalized and implemented at national and local
levels. Almost every country formally recognizes the right to food, some even
accord the right prominence in their constitutions. And yet, this fundamental
human right continues to be violated every day. I will argue that the majority of
scholarly contributions linking human rights to food and nutrition policy focus
on theoretical justifications, and even those that claim to focus on national and
local implementation issues do not really tackle the challenges head on. In the
following section, I will propose three sets of questions that, when taken together,
provide a relatively good overview of the potential benefits and pitfalls of using
the HRBA in relation to food and nutrition security. Will the applicability of an
HRBA approach drastically improve the current situation? And if so, how and to
what extent?
10.5. Incorporation of a Global Theory
into National Practice
How has the right to food been incorporated in the national discourse on human
rights? One of the biggest challenges for the supporters of HRBA is the feeling
among many development practitioners that the human rights community is
preoccupied with events taking place in UN headquarters and in donor capitals,
where good intentions are reiterated without appreciation of the traditional
practice of states to pay lip service to human rights language, include binding
obligations, and their simultaneous reluctance or downright unwillingness to
incorporate such provisions in national law and policy-making. Therefore, a crucial
step to understanding and thereby evaluating the impact that the HRBA can have
in relation to food is to understand the factors that explain the considerable gap
between the international human rights discourse and instruments on the one
hand, and the politics of incorporating the same discourse in national settings on
the other. Malawi provides an illustrative example in this context. On any single
day, around 35 per cent of the population in the country go hungry.223 While the
causes of poverty are numerous, four major categories that continue to produce
poverty and hunger in the country include low agricultural production, low
non-farm income, low education and poor health.224 In addition, the growing HIV
224. (accessed 12 December 2009).
Situational Analysis of Poverty in Malawi (1993).
Dan Banik
problem has, in recent years, further aggravated the problem (ActionAid 2005: 5).
Malawi drafted and put into force a constitution in 1994 which draws considerable
inspiration from human rights principles. Although there is no explicit mention
of a right to food, provisions in the Constitution relating to the right to life (e.g.
Section 16) can be interpreted to provide for the right to food. Interestingly,
Chapter IV of the Constitution is dedicated entirely to human rights. Of particular
importance is Section 30, which provides for a ‘right to development’ whereby
‘[a]ll persons and peoples’ can enjoy ‘economic, social, cultural and political
development, and women, children and the disabled in particular shall be given
special consideration in the application of this right’ (para. 1). Accordingly, the
state is required to ‘take all necessary measures’, including ‘equality of opportunity
for all in their access to basic resources, education, health services, food, shelter,
employment and infrastructure’ (para. 2). The state is further required to ‘introduce
reforms aimed at eradicating social injustices and inequalities’ (para. 3).225 Despite
such constitutional guarantees in the area of social and economic rights, low levels
of economic growth combined with high levels of unemployment, frequent food
shortages and recurrent natural disasters (mostly drought) have, however, slowed
down the process of realization of these rights. Another problematic area concerns
the numerous policies related to agriculture and food security that, according to
one estimate, are 43 in number and exist in addition to hundreds of sub-projects
and practices spread across the country (OECD DAC 2008: 3). Coordinating
these, with an explicit focus on HRBA, is proving to be a major challenge. Take the
case of the country’s food and nutrition security policy (adopted in 2005), where
the Ministry of Agriculture is responsible for coordinating its implementation
and reports directly to the Cabinet Committee on Food and Nutrition. During
the policy drafting process, the international donor community, which largely
funds Malawi’s national budget, insisted on compliance with FAO’s Voluntary
Guidelines and the ICESCR. However, in the final version, the reference to human
rights principles was drastically toned down, and the reference to the ICESCR as
a structural base for implementation was deleted (FIAN and Rights & Democracy
2006: 30). Rather, a greater emphasis was placed on international trade, and
subsidies to small farmers were reduced and would be continued only if they did
not ‘have negative impacts on the market (para. 1.2.8, cited in FIAN 2006: 30).
In terms of implementation of food security programmes, and with
assistance from multilateral institutions and bilateral donor agencies, the civil
service in Malawi has achieved a certain degree of professionalism, particularly
at the highest echelons of government, with the recruitment of several competent
officers at the principal secretary level. The lack of institutional capacity required
for the successful implementation of nutrition policy is, however, particularly
absent at the middle and lower ranks of the civil service. The low level of salaries,
absence of proper facilities (particularly in hospitals and health centres), and the
225. Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, available at
html (accessed 13 February 2009).
Hunger and Human Rights: The Appealing Rhetoric versus Dreary Reality251
country’s patronage-oriented political system are some of the reasons behind this
predicament. As Booth et al (2006: ix) argue, politicians have undermined civil
servants’ capacity to formulate and implement development policy by refusing to
delegate power for fear of losing their ability to ‘use policies for short-term political
gain or patronage’. In addition, there has been a slow but steady erosion of civil
service ethics and a steady increase in corruption levels (Booth et al 2006: ix). In
recent years, opposition parties in parliament have also accused the government
of distributing food aid, fertilizer subsidies and funds unequally between the three
major regions of Malawi – the southern region has traditionally received greater
allocations than the comparatively poorer northern region (Banik 2010).
Thus, there appear to be good reasons for scepticism about the ability of states
to translate international proclamations into viable and implementable policy.
States tend to sign international agreements because it is best for them to do so and
not lose face in an international setting. Not signing would result in uncomfortable
questions that its leaders may not be willing to articulate. Moreover, not signing
would result in considerable pressure from other countries, particularly donors,
with potentially disastrous consequences for the amount of foreign aid earmarked
for food and agricultural activities. Thus focusing our attention on national and
local realities is crucial. This can be undertaken by understanding the source of the
right to food (direct or indirect?) and the extent to which the government takes it
seriously. Not all countries are as concerned about food security as Malawi. And
if things are difficult to implement in Malawi despite an explicit political interest
in the topic, then it would be natural to be sceptical about implementing such
policies in settings where such interest is absent.
Despite Malawi’s large-scale dependency on foreign aid, a common
complaint among politicians and administrators related to their interactions
with donor representatives in designing and implementing development policy.
For example, some were concerned with the trend whereby donors tended to
‘lecture the government on various issues without understanding properly what
the government says and believes in’. As Piron (2005) argues, ‘power relations
between recipient governments and donor agencies are highly unequal’ and
characterized by ‘a lack of transparency with regards to how aid agencies allocate
financial resources, set priorities, and assess performance’. This is particularly
true in the Malawian case. In addition, several national-level politicians in the
country pointed to the fact that effective accountability mechanisms are totally
absent in the international aid industry, and donors and multilateral institutions
are seldom held accountable by individuals and communities in countries where
they provide assistance. Moreover, there is seldom much information available
to national governments regarding the measures undertaken by aid agencies
to stand accountable for failed projects and negative impacts resulting from an
intervention. Further, representatives of some prominent NGOs in Malawi claimed
that there is no consistent commitment on the part of donors and the government
to operationalize and apply an HRBA. In fact, they argued that there was hardly
any interaction between the two sides on the issue of linking human rights with
food, water, health, education and other aspects of development. Some of the ‘new’
Dan Banik
donors, like Taiwan (which was a close ally until January 2008), were accused of
continuing to be obsessed with handouts and charitable acts, which in essence go
against the principles of a human-rights approach. A senior UN official appeared
to take some self-criticism when he observed that linking human rights and
development in countries like Malawi has not achieved the desired results, as most
donors ‘begin at the wrong end of the development aid spectrum.’ Accordingly,
organizations like UNDP and UNICEF target formal duty-bearers – through
financial allocations to institutions such as the Human Rights Commission,
Parliament and the Ombudsman – without providing adequate support to rightholders (Banik 2010b). Consequently, there is a ‘demand failure’ in that the poor
in Malawi do not have the ability to claim their rights – particularly in respect to
the right to food and housing – as effectively as some of their counterparts have
done in South Africa and India.
10.6. Political, Economic and Social Actors
Involved in Demanding/Resisting the
Implementation of the Right to Food as
Part of the Legal and Policy Landscape
Here, I am particularly interested in highlighting how various actors employ the
HRBA in their actions to achieve food and nutrition security, and what types of
reactions this produces. At the outset we also need to question who accepts a
right to food. Is it only UN and civil society organizations funded by international
donors, or it is also largely accepted by the national political and administrative
leadership? This is further related to who pushes the right to food agenda at
national and local levels, and what tactics they employ towards this end. Here, the
recent and impressive right to food movement in India that has been championed
by civil society organizations provides a good example. The country has, since
the mid-1980s, witnessed an increasing trend of seeking judicial redress in the
interest of the public on issues such as pollution control and media reports of
alleged starvation deaths in various parts of the country (Banik 2007). When
in early 2001 major national newspapers reported that people were dying from
starvation in several parts of India, the Rajasthan branch of an NGO – People’s
Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) – submitted a writ petition to the Supreme
Court in mid-April 2001, questioning whether the right to life guaranteed under
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution also included the right to food.226 The
petition requested the Court to intervene to prevent deaths due to starvation,
which were occurring despite surplus food stocks in the possession of the central
and state governments. It further asked, ‘Does not the right to food which has
been upheld by the apex Court, imply that the state has a duty to provide food,
especially in situations of drought, to people who are drought-affected and [...]
226. Writ Petition (civil) 196 of 2001, submitted in April 2001.
Hunger and Human Rights: The Appealing Rhetoric versus Dreary Reality253
not in a position to purchase food?’227 In subsequent correspondence with the
Court, the petitioner demanded that state governments throughout the country
be directed towards radically improving the functioning of employment guarantee
schemes and social security programmes. Subsequently, and in several rulings
in the period September 2001–October 2002, the Supreme Court ordered 16
states, including Orissa, to identify families in distress and to provide them with
immediate food assistance. In particular, the Court issued an order for improving
the implementation of food and employment-related schemes like the National
Mid-Day Meals Programme (NMMP) and the Swarna Jayanti Gram Swarozgar
Yojana (SGRY). In October 2002, it ruled that chief secretaries (as heads of statelevel civil services) were responsible for the overall implementation of the judicial
orders and would be held accountable for any confirmed cases of deaths due to
starvation within their respective states. In doing so, the Supreme Court firmly
established that the right to food was a constituent of the right to life, and the
corresponding government obligation to protect the right to food of its citizens.
For the monitoring and implementation of its orders at the state level, the Court
also appointed a commissioner in May 2002 (hereafter referred to as the Saxena
Commission). After a detailed enquiry process – and in his third report to the
Supreme Court in May 2003 – the Commissioner expressed frustration over the lack
of urgency and the ‘routine violation of Supreme Court’s orders by the respondent
governments’. Citing an ‘overarching lack of state commitment to the prevention
of hunger and starvation,’ he went on to claim that ‘The elimination of chronic
hunger does not get anything like the priority it deserves in policy planning and
budget allocations’ (Saxena Commission 2003). For example, the Commissioner
found that, a year after the deadline set by the Supreme Court had elapsed, several
state governments had failed to provide cooked mid-day meals in primary schools
and that coverage of the NMMP programme in the remaining states, including
Orissa, was patchy. The same applied for employment-related schemes like the
SGRY, since ‘the most deprived areas [...] often ended up getting a very small
share of SGRY funds’ and governments found it ‘politically or administratively
expedient to spend the funds elsewhere’ (Saxena Commission 2003). In terms of
Orissa, the report concluded that the general tendency of the state government
was to ‘solve problems by ignoring them’. And the report found that district
administration in Orissa and Maharashtra ‘often under-reports the magnitude of
severe malnutrition’. The Commissioner thus concluded that, although Supreme
Court intervention on the right to food was ‘potentially effective’, the ‘initiatives
have only made a small impact in the massive problem of chronic hunger’. Hence,
he urged the Court to ensure that stronger accountability mechanisms were put in
place for the monitoring and enforcement of its orders (Banik 2007: 82).
The general conclusion is that in order for judicial interventions to
have a major impact, the actions and recommendations of the courts must be
taken seriously by the political and administrative leadership. There must be
227. ‘PUCL petitions Supreme Court on starvation deaths’, PUCL Bulletin, July 2001.
Dan Banik
stricter sanctions (e.g. jail) for non-compliance. State governments in India are
habitual violators of court orders; not just the controversial ones, but also orders
concerning routine state offences related to discrimination against certain groups
and individuals. Politicians in Orissa are no different and have simply dismissed
legal and quasilegal findings, and the courts, in turn, have had neither the capacity
nor the power to enforce their directives and extract accountability from those in
responsible positions. In any case, the courts do not intervene on their own unless
petitions are filed by concerned individuals or civil society organizations. Since
the mid-1990s, such civil society activism has declined. This also points to the
relative inactivity and lack of influence of NGOs in some states (e.g. Orissa and
West Bengal) in the area of food and nutritional security. By comparison, there
has been an increase in NGO efforts to seek judicial redress on the right to food
in other Indian states. But the Indian case also shows that there are numerous
shortcomings that have not adequately been addressed by the civil society-led
right to food movement. These relate to lack of agreement on definitions of
malnutrition, undernutrition, starvation and famine, which in turn often lead to
inaction and denials by bureaucrats and politicians. Moreover, there is often a
tendency to focus on sensational crises (e.g. large-scale starvation deaths) rather
than attending to issues relating to chronic hunger or undernutrition that is much
less visible to policy-makers.
What, then, does it mean to be a duty-bearer? The evidence from India
shows that politicians and bureaucrats resort to a considerable amount of blamegame. Most power-holders do not understand the concept of a duty-bearer in the
human rights senses. The general attitude remains one of providing charity to the
masses in the form of handouts to gain popularity and votes before elections. And
civil servants seldom make efforts to assess food-insecure regions, groups and
individuals, primarily when most such regions are typically remote geographically
and hence require travel in difficult terrain in order to acquire thorough and
first-hand information about food and nutrition-related problems. Moreover, at
least in India, undernutrition and starvation in many states (e.g. in Orissa and
Madhya Pradesh) are highly correlated with indigenous groups (‘tribals’) who are
generally the victims of socioeconomic and political discrimination, exclusion
and marginalization. This is particularly relevant in the case of land-grabbing and
ownership rights of customary land.
10.7. Strategies Available to the Poor to Demand
Political Accountability and Recur to the
Legal System to See their Rights Enforced
The final set of issues I wish to raise relate to the means, options and resources
(including information) available to the poor in order to claim their rights. And
here the role of the press, political parties and social movements in strengthening
such claims are important. In addition, we need to question the importance of the
legal system in influencing policy design and action related to food and nutrition
Hunger and Human Rights: The Appealing Rhetoric versus Dreary Reality255
security, and the typical nature of legal, including judicial, activity in the areas
of food and nutrition insecurity. In the development discourse, a considerable
amount of attention is directed at poverty reduction, while very few speak of
inequality reduction. It is this reluctance to address the problem of inequality
by both international and domestic actors that must be addressed at the earliest,
particularly if we want to make substantial progress on issues of hunger. Inequality
is also at the heart of explanations as to why people are denied basic rights, and
we need to go beyond simply speaking of violations of rights to understanding
what causes such violations in the first place. Here, power relations, particularly
at village levels, nature of land and other property rights, the role of and respect
accorded to women in local society, etc. are all crucial.
In terms of the politics of starvation in India, political parties and news media
in addition to NGOs have been very active in raising the issue of chronic and acute
food insecurity in legislative and judicial arenas at the highest levels. However, the
poor themselves have also generally been active in protesting. One good example
of this is the numerous protests and demonstrations of the rural population in
eastern India following the aggravation of the drought towards the first half of
1997. Local protests were organized by farmers, opposition parties, interest groups
(especially farmers’ organizations) and local voluntary organizations, demanding
the immediate launch of relief operations in areas that had not been formally
classified as ‘drought-hit’. Such protests included blockades of roads and railways,
strikes, disruption of public services, and gherao (where an important official is
prevented from leaving his office until a solution to a problem is found) of highranking district officials.
The Malawian experience in this context is very different. While much
has been achieved at the national policy level in terms of a Poverty Alleviation
Programme (PAP), the impact of policy implementation at the village level has
been negligible and most often ‘accidental’ (Chisinga 2002). This is primarily due
to the lack of information-sharing between national and local levels, and the weak
system of communication, which leaves villages isolated from the centres of power.
Large groups of rural Malawians have little or no access to newspapers, televisions
and radio sets, with access to the relatively small national media largely limited
to the urban centres of Lilongwe, Zomba and Blantyre. Moreover, journalists
seldom undertake investigative reporting (the situation is much better, although
not entirely satisfactory, in India),228 relying mainly on ‘telephone briefings,
press conferences called by officials and similarly formal exercises’ (Chirwa et al
2003: 99). Given high levels of illiteracy and a social structure, which does not
generally encourage protest (there are seldom reports of food riots) unless during
election years, and with the general apathy of political parties to articulate the
needs and interests of the rural poor, the general ability of the rural poor in the
country to express their wishes are indeed quite limited. The task of demanding
political accountability and legal recourse has therefore fallen mostly on selected
228. For further details, see Banik (2007: ch. 6).
Dan Banik
individuals (e.g. academics and newspaper editors) and civil society organizations,
often funded by Western donors. However, gaining acceptance for the justiciability
of socioeconomic rights such as food has been a major problem.
Since 1994, the courts in Malawi have indeed been active and innovative in
several respects – including the positive manner in which the Bill of Rights was
interpreted in relation to prisoners’ rights, etc. However, the major focus of the
judiciary has been on civil and political rights. Judges are not only often unfamiliar
with international human rights terminology and instruments, but many feel
uncomfortable applying international human rights law since they have difficulty
applying international provisions to suit domestic realities (Hansen 2002: 40).
Interviews with several judges of the Supreme Court in 2007 revealed that most
judges on the bench did not believe that economic and social rights are justiciable.
Indeed, there was great reluctance to encourage litigation on such rights as food,
water, health and housing. In comparison, many younger judges of the High
Court of Malawi, housed adjacent to the Supreme Court building in Blantyre,
had a much more progressive view on the matter. Many claimed to have tried to
gain the Supreme Court’s interest in development-related issues, but felt that such
attempts were thwarted by ‘older and more conservative’ judges in the Supreme
Court who were ‘obsessed with consolidating political rights’ and who at the same
time held the view that ‘the government cannot do more to reduce poverty given
resource constraints.’ Like in many developing countries, formal justice systems in
Malawi lack legitimacy among large groups of the poor in that they are perceived
to be elite-controlled, expensive, and arenas for corrupt transactions. As a result of
these barriers, most people do not seek justice from formal courts. Rather, the poor
seek recourse from traditional leaders, family counselors (ankhoswe), religious
leaders and other non-state actors. And Kanyongolo (2006: 26) estimates that the
country has over 20,000 so-called traditional leaders, at different levels of seniority,
who administer village-level justice. However, the informal justice system is not
without its share of weaknesses, which could result in potential discrimination of
women and disadvantaged groups as the system may be characterized by unequal
power relations, lack of accountability, decisions contrary to formal law leading
to right-deprivation and human rights violations, etc. Nonetheless these informal
structures often show more promise of making justice accessible to the poor than
the formal systems. And yet informal systems have traditionally not received much
attention in national reform processes, as traditional ‘rule of law’ approaches that
do not adequately focus on accessibility issues have been preferred by both donors
and national governments (Wojkowska 2006).
The introduction of multiparty elections in 1994 – after almost four decades
of dictatorship – gave Malawians and donors alike new hope that democracy
would be better able to tackle widespread inequalities in power and wealth. The
past decade has, however, revealed and reaffirmed the dominant role played by a
small group of elite politicians in national-level politics. Thus, and in relation to
Amartya Sen’s (1994, 1999) argument that political freedoms play an important
instrumental role in addressing pressing economic need, Englund (2006: 6) finds
that the experience with political freedom in Malawi suggests that ‘the mere
Hunger and Human Rights: The Appealing Rhetoric versus Dreary Reality257
allowance of arguments and disputes to take place in public is less crucial to
democracy than what those arguments are about’. The point here is that the idea of
democracy and human rights introduced in Malawi in 1994 primarily caught the
imagination of elite politicians, bureaucrats and journalists, together with donor
representatives. The overwhelming preoccupation with political freedoms failed,
however, to mobilize the large majority of rural poor, and ‘[f]or all the evocations
of participation and empowerment in the rhetoric of freedom, the rural and urban
poor had few opportunities to participate in defining what freedom, human rights,
and democracy might mean in a Malawian context’ (Englund 2006: 6). While a
very narrowly defined system of rights – mainly related to elections and the right
to vote – resulted in some political squabbles, the power-holders were successful
in silencing discussions on the fulfilment of economic and social rights. And the
political discourse on food security has, in recent years, primarily become one of
agricultural subsidies, particularly in relation to the amount and price of fertilizers
that are available to farmers.
The reliance of Malawi’s economy on foreign aid has also made the country a
hotbed for experimenting with the applicability of a human rights-based approach
to development and poverty reduction. Chiweza (2008) argues that despite the
rhetoric of rights in the 1994 Constitution, the interplay of formal and informal
legal mechanisms has caused serious setbacks for the legal empowerment of women,
particularly in relation to property and inheritance rights of widows who are often
dispossessed of their land under the pretext of respect for traditional norms of
entitlement among ethnic groups. Thus the problem is really about the positioning
of Malawian women in the gap between two quite different discourses on property
and inheritance – the official land policy, advocating more individualistic Western
norms, on the one hand; and customary land regimes that are rooted in communal
entitlements on the other. Chiweza, too, observes that legal rights alone cannot
deliver empowerment unless there is a societal recognition of the validity of such
rights together with a corresponding improvement in women’s status in society.
Similarly, White (2010) provides empirical evidence of how certain poor women
are forced into having sexual intercourse with fishermen to access fish or with
forest guards in order to access firewood to cook food.
10.8. Conclusion
The added value of pursuing an HRBA in relation to food is considerable and
includes a change in focus, away from viewing development as charity and a
specific outcome or achievement, to one where development interventions are
evaluated on the process by which they empower the poor. The right-to-food
movement in countries like India, Brazil and South Africa has quite impressive
results to show. In this essay I have tried to focus on the typical disconnect that
exists between a global theory, such as that of the HRBA and its operationalization
and implementation at national and local levels in developing countries. The
development agenda today has now become full of buzzwords that promise more
Dan Banik
than they deliver, and new terms and approaches are coined and adopted by
development agencies with recurrent frequency. While this can be seen as a way to
address the continued rise of poverty and the lack of development in many parts of
the world, such buzzwords appear to have become more a matter of rhetoric and
less about operationalization on the ground. International efforts to promote a
right to food appear to be mired in a language of crisis – only when the problem is
substantially large enough (e.g. large numbers risk death from starvation) does the
international community tend to react. It is precisely for this reason that we need
to focus our attention on understanding and reacting to vulnerability to hunger by
analysing how, and to what extent, an approach like the HRBA can have a positive
impact on the promotion of food security in large parts of the developing world
that are plagued by hunger. And while there are numerous features that can be
raised and discussed in this context, I have focused on three sets of inter-related
First, I have argued that we need to re-focus our attention on examining
and understanding how, when and why a global theory such as the HRBA is
incorporated into the national political, legislative and judicial discourse and
practice. Here it is important to understand the source of the right to food and
to what extent governments understand the force and importance of such rights
and thereafter make serious attempts to implement them. We need to go beyond
simply signing treaties and agreements in international forums to understanding
the practical difficulties and challenges that governments and other champions of
HRBA face on a daily basis while formulating and implementing public policy. An
issue that I have not discussed here – but one that appears relevant in this context
– is implementation of the right to food in fragile and conflict-prone states.
Second, we need to go beyond believing that all actors at national and local
levels are convinced of the added value of a human rights approach. The reality is
that while some actors support and/or actively promote the right to food, others
may actively resist such attempts. Governments often have to cope with numerous
and conflicting priorities, and hence may not necessarily undertake measures
to remove hunger and malnutrition in accordance with their international
obligations. The judiciary may also not be convinced that the right to food
is justiciable and may resist attempts by civil society organizations to hold the
government accountable whenever the right is violated. Moreover, organizations
that actively advocate integrating human rights with development often form a
small minority in many developing countries. Consequently, they may not be able
to exercise much political influence. Hence, the human rights community must
persuade other interest groups to join the cause. This would also entail raising
these issues during elections and in public debates. Thus, an active discourse on
the benefits of using an HRBA in relation to food (or alternatively in relation to
extreme poverty) will be useful in order to arrive at a societal consensus that food
insecurity, hunger and undernutrition are bad things that need to be avoided.
Finally, we must focus on the strategies available to the poor to demand
political accountability and recur to the legal system to see their rights enforced.
Here it is important to identify the sets of conditions under which public action
Hunger and Human Rights: The Appealing Rhetoric versus Dreary Reality259
can be successful or unsuccessful in promoting government commitment to tackle
undernutrition and starvation. This requires a closer look at the types of actions
that citizens adopt to pressure their government, and the corresponding responses
that such actions elicit. Western donors providing foreign aid must follow up their
support for social, economic and cultural rights in international forums by not
withholding financial support at programmatic levels.
The HRBA framework provides for the poor being entitled, through a
participatory approach, to the most effective poverty reduction strategies available.
This can be particularly problematic, as there are no indicators to assess, evaluate
and test the contents of such strategies and the methods by which they are realized.
What types of poverty should one be concerned with and what types of rights?
Do some forms of poverty and particular rights receive greater prominence than
others? Whose rights? What does it mean to be a right-holder and duty-bearer?
Indeed, in several developing countries, politicians and bureaucrats argue that the
HRBA has been forcibly imposed on their countries rather than being formulated
on the basis of local knowledge and national discourses and processes. If public
policy on food and nutrition security is to succeed, initiatives must come from
within the country at local, regional and national levels.
ActionAid. 2005. Rights and Responsibilities to End Poverty, ‘Ufulu ndi Udindo
Pothetsa Umphawi’. ActionAid International Malawi Country Strategy
aai per cent20malawi_csp.pdf (Accessed 09 December 2009).
Aliro Omara, J.M. 2007. Promoting a Rights-Based Approach to Food and
Nutrition Security in Uganda. W.B. Eide and U. Kracht (eds), Food and
Human Rights in Development: Evolving Issues and Emerging Applications,
Antwerpen and Oxford: Intersentia.
Alston, P. 2005. Ships Passing in the Night: The Current State of the Human
Rights and Development Debate Seen Through the Lens of the Millennium
Development Goals, Human Rights Quarterly, (27): 755-829.
Andreassen, B.A. 2006. The Human Rights and Development Nexus: From Rights
Talk to Rights Practices. D. Banik (ed), Poverty, Politics and Development:
Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Bergen: Fagbokforlaget.
Andreassen, B.A. 2007. Political Science, Human Rights and the Right to Food
Discourse. W.B. Eide and U. Kracht (eds), Food and Human Rights in
Development: Evolving Issues and Emerging Applications. Antwerpen and
Oxford: Intersentia.
Andreassen, B.A. and Marks, S.P. (eds). 2006. Development as a Human Right:
Legal, Political, and Economic Dimensions. A Nobel Book. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Dan Banik
Banik, D., St. Clair, A., McNeill, D. 2006. Ethics, Rights and Poverty: Global Theory
and National Practice. Project proposal, Research Council of Norway.
Banik, D. 2007. Starvation and India’s Democracy. London and New York:
Banik, D. 2008. Rights and Legal Empowerment in Eradicating Poverty, London:
Banik, D. 2010. Support for Human Rights-Based Development: Reflections on
the Malawian Experience, The International Journal of Human Rights,
14(1): 32-48.
Booth, D., Cammack, D., Harrigan, J., Kanyongolo, E., Mataure, M. and Ngwira,
N. 2006. Drivers of Change and Development in Malawi. Working paper
261, London: Overseas Development Institute.
CEPA. 2005. The Right to Food and Access to Land: Towards a Rights Based
Approach to Food Security in Malawi. A position paper submitted to the
Civil Society Task Force on Land and Natural Resources, Lime, Blantyre,
Part III
Economic Perspectives
on Poverty and
Human Rights in the
Global Economy
Trade Liberalization,
Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights
Guiguo Wang229
11.1. Introduction
In this highly globalized world, the economic development of every nation
is dependent on other nations in the form of trade in goods and services and
investment. Such economic interdependence is the most important phenomenon
of today’s world and constitutes the key for shaping its future, including reduction
of poverty and improving human rights. Recent joint efforts by all the major
nations to resolve the financial crisis is one such example of this, and the foremost
economic exchange among nations is of course trade.
With an average annual growth rate of 7.7 per cent (UNCTAD 2008: 26,
Table 1.2.1), global trade had reached US$ 13,833 billion by year 2007, almost six
times that of the year 1980 (UNCTAD 2008: 2, Table 1.1.1). For the same period,
global GDP increased from US$ 11,922 billion to US$ 54,274 billion (UNCTAD
2008: 388, Table 8.1.1), and GDP per capita increased by more than twice to US$
8,302 in 2007 (UNCTAD 2008: 389, Table 8.1.1). However, income inequality
is an undeniable fact. Available studies show that about 70 per cent of income
inequality is explained by differences in incomes between countries and only
30 per cent by inequality within countries (United Nations Development Policy
and Analysis Division 2006: 2). The majority of global income, as expressed by
world GDP, remains in the hands of the developed countries. With 16 per cent
of the world’s population, developed countries as a whole generated 73 per cent
of the world’s nominal GDP in 2006. The difference in GDP per capita between
developed countries and developing and transition economies still remains
huge.230 Worldwide, the number of people in developing countries living on
229. Dean and Professor of Chinese and Comparative Law, School of Law, City University of Hong
Kong; Distinguished Professor of Law, Hunan Normal University, China; Chairman of The
Hong Kong WTO Research Institute; Arbitrator of China International Economic and Trade
Arbitration Commission, and Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre.
230. This gap has narrowed slightly: the ratio between per capita GDP in developed and developing
countries reduced from 20.4 times in 1990 to 16.1 times in 2006; however, it has widened in
absolute terms, from US$20,000 to US$26,000 in current dollars (UNCTAD 2008: 2).
Guiguo Wang
less than US$ 1 per day fell to 980 million in 2004, down from 1.25 billion in
1990. This achievement is however unequally shared. Poverty reduction has been
significant in East and South-East Asia mostly due to rapid economic growth. In
contrast, poverty rates in Western Asia more than doubled between 1990 and 2005
(UNCTAD 2008: 60).231
International organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary
Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have endeavoured to
fight against poverty. In 1999, the World Bank and the IMF introduced ‘Poverty
Reduction Strategies’ which cover over seventy low-income countries. These
countries are required to complete the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers to
describe their macroeconomic, structural and social policies and programmes
to promote growth, reduce poverty and associated external financing needs to
provide the basis for assistance from the World Bank and the IMF as well as debt
relief.232 The IMF has also established the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility
to provide a low-interest lending facility for low-income countries.233
Trade and economic growth are closely related to each other, export expansion
promoting economic growth. Moreover, foreign exchange earned from exports
enables countries to import advanced technology, which may in turn promote
domestic productivity. The current general trend is an increase in trade liberalization
in both developed and developing countries, which is reflected in a greater share of
foreign trade of their respective GDPs. This tendency has been most accentuated
in South, East and South-East Asia, owing to the expansion of foreign trade in the
previously closed economies and to the expansion of production networks across the
region (United Nations Development Policy and Analysis Division 2006: 4). Statistics
prove that the more liberalized the market, the higher the proportion of trade in
GDP of the country concerned. Take China as an example: after implementing the
policy of domestic reform and opening to the outside world in the late 1970s, the
ratios of trade to its GDP increased from 5.9 per cent in 1980 to 37.1 per cent 2007
(UNCTAD 2008: 4, Table 1.1.1; 390, Table 8.1.1).
Poverty has now become part of the question of international public goods and
is a multidimensional problem with no simple solution. Nevertheless, trade should
be able to play an important role in reducing poverty through the promotion of
economic growth. A study shows that developing countries with higher degrees of
openness in trade have been faster to catch up with the living standards in developed
countries than those with less openness (Nordstrom, Ben-David and Winters 1999).
The former WTO Director-General Mike Moore once pointed out that: ‘although
trade alone may not be enough to eradicate poverty, it is essential if poor people are
to have any hope of a brighter future. For example, thirty years ago, the Republic
of Korea was as poor as Ghana. Today, thanks to trade-led growth, it is as rich as
231. UNCTAD (2008: 60).
232. For more, see
EXTPRS/0,,menuPK: 384207~pagePK: 149018~piPK: 149093~theSitePK: 384201,00.html.
233. See
234. See
Trade Liberalization, Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights265
To reap the benefit of trade, countries must actively involve themselves in
economic globalization, which is unavoidable in any event. As part of this process
the domestic markets of both developing and developed countries must be
liberalized, and developed countries should make their markets more accessible
to products from developing countries. In this process, it is essential for developed
countries to further open their markets to the goods from developing countries
such as agricultural, textile and tropical products, in which developing countries
have comparative advantages. Only by so doing may trade benefit and in turn
promote the economic growth in poor countries (see Rodrik and Rodriguez 2001).
The reality is, however, though understandable, that while pushing developing
countries to open up their markets and enforce intellectual property protection,
some developed countries carry out protectionism in sectors where developing
countries have crucial interests like agriculture and textile. This in fact is not only
a trade issue but also an issue of human rights, in particular, the well-being of the
people in developing countries. Trade in agriculture is of profound significance
for human rights in developing countries, many of whom depend on agriculture
for their livelihood and subsistence. The heart of the issue relating to agricultural
trade is subsidies by industrialized countries, which result in falling prices and job
insecurity in developing countries, and eventually become a matter of survival
(see the International Federation of Human Rights 2005). Yet, the solution to the
issue is not simple and is largely politicized in developed countries.
The international community is fully aware of the poverty issue. To deal with
poverty, at the Fourth Ministerial Conference in November 2001, WTO members
agreed to launch the Doha Development Agenda. This emphasizes the special
needs of developing countries, especially Least-Developed Countries (LDCs), to
ensure that they benefit from the growth in world trade. The Declaration adopted
at the Ministerial Conference undertook to improve the effective participation of
LDCs to prevent their marginalization in world trade. It also paid special attention
to the interests of developing countries and LDCs with the purpose of ensuring
their share in the growth of world trade commensurate with the needs of their
economic development.235
11.2. Globalization and Trade
The WTO is the only multilateral organization dealing with trade between nations
whose nature is characterized by a high degree of integration or globalization.
Among the 153 members, about two-thirds are developing countries.236 The
practice of decision-making by consensus following the General Agreement on
235. See the Doha Ministerial Declaration adopted on 14 November 2001, paras 2–3.
236. Although there is no official definition in the WTO context for developing countries, a country
may declare itself as a developing member to invoke provisions of the WTO agreements that
grant preferential treatment to developing countries, whilst such claim is subject to challenges
by other members.
Guiguo Wang
Tariffs and Trade (GATT 1947) remains unchanged since the creation of the
WTO, in which each member, being developed or developing, has one vote at the
Ministerial Conference and the General Council in case no decision is reached by
consensus. In practice, however, developing members, which constitute a majority
of the membership, can rarely play an important role in the WTO. Many even have
difficulties understanding the complicated rules, procedures and implementation
of the same, not mentioning their inability to use the mechanisms. Ultimately,
whether the WTO can achieve its desired objectives and contribute to the
development of the world economy depends on whether it can enable developing
countries to substantially and effectively participate.
The WTO deals with the special needs of developing countries through
special provisions of relevant agreements, which provide favourable treatment to
developing countries. The Committee on Trade and Development was especially
created to deal with technical issues, assistance and other issues relating to
developing members.237
During the GATT era, the interests of developing countries were not given
special attention. Before the Kennedy Round, Article 18 of the GATT 1947 was
the only provision that specifically dealt with the rights of developing countries,
according to which the attainment of the objectives of GATT would be facilitated
by the progressive economic development of the Contracting Parties – particularly
of those contracting parties the economies of which could only support low
standards of living and were in early stages of development. Therefore, these
countries should enjoy greater freedom than developed countries to resort to
quantitative restrictions and other restraints in order to implement economic
development programmes and policies designed to raise the general standard of
living of their people.238 In the entire history of the GATT, however, it was rare for
any developing countries to resort to Article 18 for introducing import restrictions.
Before 1955, under the strict interpretation of Article 18, Contracting Parties
invoking the provisions not only had to demonstrate that their domestic industries
were comparatively feeble, but also had to prove their need in the early stage of
development. The report and review system of Article 18 itself posed particular
difficulties to developing countries, which did not have advanced financial
systems or lacked an understanding of the international market. Therefore, even
those developing countries which had balance-of-payment problems preferred to
invoke the less restrictive balance-of-payment provisions only as an exception (see
Thomas 2000). Even in such circumstances, it was often the case that imminent
needs in national economic development prevented developing countries from
imposing restrictions on imports from developed countries.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a growth in influence of developing countries in the
GATT. This was taken into account at the Kennedy Round through the addition
of Part 4, consisting of Articles 36, 37 and 38 on special treatment of developing
238. GATT, Article 18.1 and 18.2.
Trade Liberalization, Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights267
countries. Article 36 stated the reasons for the enactment of Part 4 and explained
the necessity for promoting the economic and trade development of developing
countries. Paragraph 8 of the Article declared that when developed countries
negotiated with developing countries on tariff reduction or elimination of other
trade restrictions, they should not expect reciprocal treatment from the latter. It
also stipulated that for the purposes of satisfying the needs of trade and economic
development of developing countries, Contracting Parties should consciously and
purposively reduce or eliminate tariff and other trade barriers.239 The effectiveness
of Article 37 which dealt with substantial commitments of developed countries,
such as reducing or eliminating barriers on products from developing countries,
however, was substantially undermined by the provision ‘to the fullest extent
possible’ by which the enforcement of the provision was left to the discretion of
developed countries. In practice, developing countries often found it difficult to
secure concessions from developed countries due to the mismatching of export and
import products (Trachtman 2003).
Besides Part 4 of the GATT, the ‘Decision on Differential and More Favorable
Treatment, Reciprocity and Fuller Participation of Developing Countries’ adopted
on 28 November 1979,240 commonly known as the Enabling Clause, was a measure
specifically designed for developing countries. The most important effect of the
decision was to provide a legal basis for the implementation of the Generalized
System of Preference (GSP).241
By the time the Uruguay Round negotiations began, developing countries had
gained a lot more strength in the international community. One of the preferences
stated by developing countries during the Uruguay Round was longer transitional
periods for implementing relevant agreements. The Agreement on Trade Related
Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) allows developing
countries to implement the provisions of the agreement in four years,242 whilst the
transitional period for least-developed countries is ten years.243 The Agreement
on Agriculture,244 the Agreement on Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary
Measures (SPS Agreement),245 the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing246 and the
Agreement on Customs Valuation247 have similar provisions.
239. GATT Article 36, para. 9.
240. GATT Doc. L/4903.
241. The Generalized System of Preferences refers to trade preferences given by developed countries
to developing counties. Under this system, developed countries may unilaterally reduce or
eliminate tariffs on processed or semi-processed goods from developing countries. With the
Enabling Clause in place, GATT Contracting Parties may selectively give developing countries
preferential treatment without violating the MFN obligations.
242. Under normal circumstances, the transitional arrangement of other members is one year. See
Article 65.2 of the TRIPS.
243. TRIPS Agreement, Article 66.
244. Agreement on Agriculture, Article 15.
245. SPS Agreement, Article 10.
246. Agreement on Textiles and Clothing, Article 6.
247. Agreement on Customs Valuation, Article 20.
Guiguo Wang
It is plausible to have provisions for differential treatment for developing
countries. At the same time, it is important to make such provisions meaningful
in practice, in other words, to meet the needs of developing countries. In this
regard, there is still room for the WTO to take further action. For instance, with
regard to the Understanding on Rules and Procedures Governing the Settlement
of Disputes (DSU), the special procedures for developing countries and LDCs
only require other members to take into account their interests. What developing
members need is capacity to participate in the dispute resolution system, despite
the WTO provisions for capacity-building for developing and LDC members,
which have little value in practice.
Article 15 of the Agreement on Anti-Dumping, while requiring developed
countries to pay special regard to developing countries, stipulates that where
implementation of anti-dumping duties affect the essential interests of developing
countries, the developed members concerned should explore the possibility of a
constructive remedy. Yet, there is no specific provision as to what may constitute
‘essential interests’ and who should determine whether anti-dumping duties will
affect the essential interests of developing countries.
The Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (SCM Agreement)
also includes provisions on the special treatment of developing countries. The most
important special arrangement on developing countries allows LDC members and
a small number of low-income developing members to provide subsidies for the
purpose of export.248 Whilst this provision sounds promising at face value, most
of the beneficiary developing members lack the needed funds to provide subsidies
– in itself the most significant problem in the area of subsidies and countervailing
The Agreement on Safeguards, another example, stipulates that no safeguard
measure may be imposed by a developed member on an imported product
originating from a developing member where such imported product does not
exceed 3 per cent, ‘provided that developing country members with less than
3 per cent import share collectively account for not more than 9 per cent of total
imports of the product concerned’.249 In practice, for specialized products from
developing countries, the 3 per cent threshold can easily render the special treatment
effectively useless, in particular, when taking into account the total volume of
9 per cent from all imports from developed members. The same is true with regard
to the arrangement that developing members may impose, over shorter intervals,
safeguard measures on the same products from developed members: 250 very often,
by imposing safeguard measures, the importing developing member concerned
may be hurt as badly, if not more than, the exporting developed member.
Aside from the provisions on special interests of LDCs, the negotiating
parties of the Uruguay Round adopted the following two decisions: ‘Decision on
Measures in Favour of Least-Developed Countries’ and ‘Decision on Measures
248. SCM Agreement, Article 27.
249. Agreement on Safeguards, Article 9, para. 1.
250. Agreement on Safeguards, Article 9, Para 2.
Trade Liberalization, Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights269
Concerning the Possible Negative Effects of the Reform Programme on LeastDeveloped and Net Food-Importing Developing Countries’.251 The former
decision, to a large extent, restated the Enabling Clause. It required all members
to take measures to ensure the effective participation of LDCs in the world trade
system.252 Similar to the Enabling Clause, the ‘Decision on Measures in Favour of
Least-Developed Countries requires ‘expeditious implementation of all special and
differential measures taken in favour of least-developed countries’. The Decision
also encourages the parties, to the greatest extent possible, to ‘further improve GSP
and other schemes for products of particular export interest to least-developed
countries.’253 In other words, despite the fact that the WTO stresses the principle
of one single undertaking and that there are substantial requirements under the
principle of MFN, developed countries may give GSP treatment to LDCs.
The ‘Decision on Measures Concerning the Possible Negative Effects of the
Reform Programme on Least-Developed and Net Food-Importing Developing
Countries’, to a large extent, focused on the food security of LDCs and the net
food-importing developing countries. The issue of food security resulted from
liberalization of trade in agriculture under the WTO. In order to safeguard the
food demand of LDCs and the net food-importing developing countries, the
WTO Members decided to establish an appropriate mechanism ‘to ensure that the
implementation of the results of the Uruguay Round on trade in agriculture does not
adversely affect the availability of food aid at a level which is sufficient to continue to
provide assistance in meeting the food needs of developing countries’.254
The above decisions have provided the legal basis for the continued
enforcement of GSP. One of the results of the Uruguay Round is increased access
by members to each other’s market, which ironically has reduced the beneficial
effect of the GSP enjoyed by LDCs and other developing countries. This is coupled
with the non-binding nature of the provisions related to granting by developed
countries of preferences to developing countries and LDCs; preferences under
current GSP have become very uncertain and unstable. In addition, alternations
in local content requirements under the increasingly complex rules of origin have
also increased the instability of the GSP (Sutherland, Bhagwati et al 2004).
As part of the measures for implementing their Uruguay Round
commitments, most developed countries amended or extended the GSP at the turn
of the century. The newly amended GSP of the EC became effective on 5 March
2001,255 becoming commonly known as the ‘everything but arms’ system. On the
whole, the preferences given by the EC GSP to products originating from LDCs are
the most apparent. Yet, as the beneficiaries are limited to LDCs, other developing
countries cannot benefit. The increase in Customs Unions and Free Trade Areas
251. These two decisions were adopted as ministerial decisions at the negotiating committee of the
Uruguay Round on 15 December 1993.
252. See the preamble of the ‘Decision on Measures in Favour of Least-Developed Countries’.
253. Preamble of the ‘Decision on Measures in Favour of Least-Developed Countries’, para. 2.2.
254. ‘Decision on Measures Concerning the Possible Negative Effects of the Reform Programme on
Least-Developed and Net Food-Importing Developing Countries’, para. 3.
255. EC Regulation 416/2001, Official Journal L60, 1 March 2001.
Guiguo Wang
has also eroded preference for the GSP. Another reason for the current GSP to
be subject to criticism is that although preference should be given unilaterally, in
reality, recipient countries are burdened with obligations unrelated to trade.256
Although there are problems relating to GSP, very few cases have been
brought by developing countries in connection with preferential treatment. This is
another indication that the WTO dispute resolution system needs improving so as
to be user-friendly insofar as developing countries are concerned. One exception
in the history of the WTO is the EC-Tariff Preferences Case.257 This dispute
originated from Council Regulation (EC) No. 2501/2001 (hereinafter the ‘EC
Regulation’) passed by the EC Council on 10 December 2001. The EC Regulation
contains five arrangements on tariff preference for developing countries including
a general arrangement and special arrangements to combat drug production and
trafficking (hereinafter ‘Drug Arrangements’), which provides for more favourable
tariff treatment to twelve countries listed in its Annex I.
India claimed that the EC Regulation258 had violated Article 1.1 of the GATT
on MFN and that the EC could not invoke the Enabling Clause ‘Decision on
Differential and More Favourable Treatment, Reciprocity, and Fuller Participation
of Developing Countries’ as a defense, and thus requested the establishment of
a Panel. The Panel Report, circulated on 1 December 2003, supported the claim
of India and ruled that the Drug Arrangements constituted nullification and
impairment of India’s benefits under the GATT.259 As a result, the EC appealed
against the Panel’s report.
The Appellate Body found the Drug Arrangements inconsistent with the
Enabling Clause for the following reasons. First, the application of the Drug
Arrangements was confined to twelve developing countries, yet, there were no
criteria and prerequisites for selection of beneficiaries nor standards to adjust the list
of beneficiaries. Second, the modification mechanism of the Drug Arrangements
showed that whether or not the beneficiary’s problems in combating drug
production and trafficking could be resolved, the Drug Arrangements would not
be modified, nor would the beneficiary status be changed. Third, the EC Regulation
provided no mechanism to assess if the Drug Arrangements had met the needs of
relevant developing countries. Fourth, according to the EC Regulation, when the
economy of a beneficiary had reached a certain level, the EC might remove the
country from Annex I either altogether, or in respect of certain product sectors;
256. ‘Decision on Measures Concerning the Possible Negative Effects of the Reform Programme on
Least-Developed and Net Food-Importing Developing Countries’, para. 94.
257. EC - Conditions for the Granting of Tariff Preferences to Developing Countries, Report of the
Appellate Body circulated on 7 April 2004 and adopted on 20 April 2004, WT/DS246/AB/R
(‘EC-Tariff Preference, Appellate Body Report’).
258. When requesting the establishment of a Panel, India claimed that the EC Regulation violated
Article 1: 1 of the GATT. Later on, India restricted its claim to the Drug Arrangements, while
reserving the right to claim concerning the other two arrangements.
259. EC - Conditions for the Granting of Tariff Preferences to Developing Countries, Report of the
Panel circulated on 1 December 2003 and as modified by the Appeal Body adopted on 20 April
2004, WT/DS246/DS/R (‘EC-Tariff Preference, Panel Report’).
Trade Liberalization, Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights271
the stated criteria however had no direct connection with the objectives of the
Drug Arrangements.260
The ruling of the Appellate Body concerning the EC-Tariff Preference will have
a profound effect upon the rights of developing countries. The WTO Agreement
contains special arrangements for developing countries and in some earlier cases
these special arrangements were considered as the rights of developing countries
instead of exceptions to the WTO Agreement.261 According to the Appellate Body’s
finding, the developed countries may treat the developing countries differently
in dissimilar situations. The current international community is quite diversified.
Even similarly situated developing countries or developing countries at the same or
similar stage of economic development may have dissimilar needs. In some other
cases where developing countries concerned may have similar needs, the degree
of needs may differ. These uncertainties may give rise to abuses of the Enabling
Clause. From this perspective, the conclusion of the Appellate Body concerning
the EC-Tariff Preference may not positively contributive to the negotiations of the
Doha Development Agenda, nor to the overall resolution of development issues.
Another impact of the EC-Tariff Preference lies in the requirement in respect
of the Notice of Appeal. The lack of legal professionals, especially experts in common
law and funding is a serious problem facing the developing Members of the WTO.
Although increasing the burden of proof on the part of claiming party is consistent
with the principle of judicial efficiency, this requirement may further deter developing
countries in resort to the dispute settlement mechanism of the WTO.
The Report of the Appellate Body also has positive effects on developing
countries. According to the Report, developed country members must satisfy
the following conditions when granting preferential treatment only to some
developing countries: (1) the beneficiaries must be similarly situated; (2) the
preferential treatment granted and the needs of the said developing countries
must have an intrinsic relationship; and (3) when granting differential treatment
among developing countries, the developed countries concerned must set out
criteria and conditions in relation to choosing and modifying beneficiaries. The
requirement of concrete conditions and criteria will evidently increase the capacity
of developing countries for foresight in their challenges to developed countries
through the WTO dispute settlement mechanism.
On the whole, the Uruguay Round improved the system, providing special
preferences to developing countries and LDCs, which constitutes a substantial
contribution to the resolution of poverty among those countries. What is
important is that through codifying the preferential arrangement, the international
community is not only aware of the difficulties of developing countries and LDCs,
but also demonstrated its willingness to help resolve the same. Having said this,
there is still a substantial difference between the special arrangements in treaties
and the needs of those countries. There is also a huge gap between the black letter
260. EC-Tariff Preference, Appellate Body Report, paras 183–84.
261. This helps strengthen the position of developing countries in their negotiations in the Doha
Development Agenda.
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treaty provisions and their implementation. Such issues are not easily resolved,
although both developed and developing countries have placed much hope on the
Doha Round negotiations.
11.3. Trade and Health
Enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental
rights of every human being. In a world of information asymmetry, mandatory
product standards are indispensable to give consumers greater health and
safety protection. In particular, with increases in living standards, people raise
their requirements for product safety, sanitation and environmental protection.
It goes without saying that the higher the standards required of product safety
and sanitation, the better the protection offered to individuals. Many countries
have enacted regulations and policies with respect to product quality, which
have a direct bearing on their economic and technological advancement. Whilst
protection of human health may reasonably require countries concerned to
impose high standards for importation of products, it is subject to abuse unless a
creditable international mechanism such as the WTO is in place.
The main function of the former GATT and now the WTO is the reduction
of tariffs and the elimination of trade barriers. With the increasing reduction in
tariffs and the elimination of other trade barriers, countries began to resort to
non-traditional protectionist means, a result of which has been the abusive use
of anti-dumping, countervailing and safeguard measures in the first instance and
then moved to environment, food security and standards and quality for other
imported products. This trend has been triggered by the fact that countries, on
the one hand, have assumed international obligations to liberalize trade, but on
the other hand, either out of domestic political pressure or otherwise, try not to
open their market as wide or as early as should be the case. In order to satisfy both
the international community and domestic necessity, politicians, with the help of
trade experts, consistently invent new trade or non-trade barriers contrary to free
trade, but which confusingly avoid violating their international obligations. This
occurs because the regulatory non-trade barriers in place are more complicated
and elusory than the equivalent straightforward trade barrier. For instance, it is
very hard to challenge a nation for applying a high sanitary standard on imported
products, as the higher standard is imposed by the higher living standards
their people may enjoy, despite the fact that the very imposition of unnecessary
standards would have an adverse effect on trade. The WTO tries to curb unhealthy
developments, albeit with little success.
The current WTO regime can be traced back to the former GATT, under
Article 20 of which Contracting Parties might adopt or enforce measures necessary
to protect human, animal or plant life or health, only if such measures were applied
in a manner that would not constitute an arbitrary or unjustified discrimination
between countries, or a disguised restriction on international trade. However, due
to a lack of detailed provisions and an effective dispute resolution mechanism
Trade Liberalization, Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights273
within the GATT, Article 20 never functioned well. The situation improved
little, even after the adoption of the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade,
commonly known as the Standards Code at the Tokyo Round.
The Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement) and the
SPS Agreement resulting from the Uruguay Round were quite different from the
Standards Code. First, the TBT Agreement and the SPS Agreement work together
by dealing with different aspects of trade. Second, the TBT Agreement applies to
all technical regulations, standards and procedures, except for measures provided
in the Agreement on Government Procurement and the SPS Agreement. Third,
the fundamental presumption of the TBT and SPS Agreements is consistency with
Article 20 of the GATT, whose very purpose is to regulate and harmonize the
adoption of regulations, standards and measures for protecting the health and life
of human, animal and plant. As such, WTO members are encouraged to adopt
international standards, guidelines or recommendations,262 whilst in practice their
implementation must be assessed against the provisions of the GATT as well.
Under the TBT Agreement, with respect to technical regulations, members
must ‘ensure that technical regulations are not prepared, adopted or applied with a
view to or with the effect of creating unnecessary obstacles to international trade.’263
‘Unnecessary obstacles’ refer to restrictions which exceed the objectives originally
intended in the regulations concerned. A technical regulation is thus consistent
with the TBT Agreement, unless its objective is to create actual restrictions or
impediments to trade.
The EC-Sardines case264 is of importance with regard to the TBT Agreement,
concerned with the implementation of Article 2 thereof. The essential dispute
revolved around EC Council Regulation 2136/89 (‘EC Regulation’), which
regulates the marketing of species of fish that must use certain names. The EC
Regulation, adopted on 21 June 1989 and becoming effective on 1 January 1990,
provided common marketing standards for preserved sardines. Article 2 of the EC
Regulation provided that
only products meeting the following requirements may be marketed as
preserved sardines: (i) they must be covered by CN Codes 1604/13/10 and
ex 1604/20/50; (ii) they must be prepared exclusively from fish of the species
‘Sardina pilchardus walbaum’; (iii) they must be pre-packaged with any
appropriate covering medium in a hermetically sealed container; (iv) they
must be sterilized by appropriate treatment.
Preserved sardines exported from Peru were prepared from Sardinops sagax. Peru
claimed that the EC Regulation was inconsistent with the TBT Agreement and
262. TBT Agreement, Article 2.4. SPS Agreement, Article 3.
263. TBT Agreement, Article 2.2.
264. European Communities, Trade Description of Sardines, Report of the Appellate Body, WT/
DS231/AB/R (hereinafter ‘EC-Sardines, Appellate Body Report’).
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GATT. The Appellate Body stated in its findings that a technical regulation under
Annex 1.1 of the TBT Agreement referred to a
document which lays down product characteristics or their related processes
and production methods, including the applicable administrative provisions,
with which compliance is mandatory. It may also include or deal exclusively
with terminology, symbols, packaging, marking or labeling requirements as
they apply to a product, process or production method.
A document must meet three criteria to fall within the definition of a technical
regulation: (i) it must apply to an identifiable product; (ii) it must lay down one
or more characteristics of the product; and (iii) compliance with the product
characteristics must be mandatory.
In the light of the findings of the Appellate Body in the EC-Sardines case,
where a technical regulation does not satisfy the above three criteria, it may not be
considered as consistent with the TBT Agreement. Meanwhile, where a relevant
international standard cannot fulfil the legitimate objectives of a domestic technical
regulation, the technical regulation may not adopt the international standard. In
this regard, the members must clarify their objectives while preparing a technical
regulation. In cases where international standards are adopted, the principal
constituents and fundamental principles of the relevant technical regulation must
comply with the international standards.
As the EC-Sardines case demonstrates, the TBT Agreement is very technical
in nature. There is plenty of room for the members to adopt international standards
with respect to their obligations. For example, a member concerned can always
advocate that fulfilment of the objectives of a technical regulation will inevitably
cause an adverse effect or obstacles with regard to trade. This indicates that the
effective implementation of the TBT Agreement still has a long way to go.
With regard to the SPS Agreement, to further the purpose of protecting
human, animal or plant health or life, measures shall be applied only ‘to the
extent necessary’, and be based on scientific principles.265 Moreover, they shall
not constitute unjustifiable or arbitrary discrimination, including discrimination
among members of the WTO as well as between domestic and foreign enterprises.266
In order to ensure that ‘such measures are not more trade-restrictive than required
to achieved their appropriate level of sanitary and phytosanitary protection’, while
ensuring that such measures are technically and economically feasible, the SPS
Agreement requires that the design of measures take into account technical and
economic factors in the risk assessment process when determining whether the
‘to the extent necessary’ requirement is satisfied. The decision of whether a level
of protection of a certain measure is appropriate depends upon whether there
are better alternatives. Where another measure – reasonably available taking into
265. SPS Agreement, Article 2.2.
266. SPS Agreement, Article 2.3.
Trade Liberalization, Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights275
account technical and economic feasibility – may achieve the appropriate level of
sanitary or phytosanitary protection and is significantly less restrictive to trade,
the Member concerned is obliged to choose the other measure; otherwise, it may
violate the obligation to provide an appropriate level of protection.267
The SPS Agreement was designed to serve as a catalyst to increase market
access in food and agricultural markets for developing countries where they have
comparative advantage. The difficulties in implementing the SPS Agreement have
seen expectations for developing countries, especially LDCs, fail to materialize.
The higher standards required for imported goods by many developed countries
have turned out to be disguised trade barriers. It was estimated that African
countries lost US$670 million in agricultural exports because of the higher EU
standard for aflatoxin as compared to the Codex Alimentarius standard; the ACP
secretariat estimated that the operational costs of complying with SPS represented
2 per cent to 10 per cent of the value of products exported by ACP countries;
China was estimated to have lost US$9 billion of exports in 2002 alone due to SPS
barriers in the EU, Japan and the United States (Shafaeddin 2007).
To meet the requirement of the SPS Agreement, developing countries have to
reform their standard regulations and standard-setting process.268 Standards must
be upgraded to international levels and the capacity to undertake risk assessment
must be created. Notification and enquiry points must be established.269 In order
to derive benefits from the Agreement, exporting countries must also restructure
public agencies and educate personnel so that the SPS regulatory regimes of trading
partners can be followed and the country is capable of responding (Friis Jensen
2002: 31). The costs for a country in implementing the SPS Agreement are twofold:
the production cost of respecting the SPS requirements of the importing countries,
and the cost involved in conformity assessment procedures. In either case, the cost
for developing countries is much higher than that for their developed peers, as
most of the latter have similar safety, health and technical domestic regulation
and standards. Insufficient financial resources, under-developed technology and
absence or weakness of institutional mechanisms are just some of the difficulties
facing developing countries (Finger and Schuler 1999: 16).
According to Article 4 of the SPS Agreement, different standards proven
to be of the appropriate protection level of the importing member should be
recognized. In practice, however, importing countries often require ‘sameness’
instead of ‘equivalence’ – a practice that has led developing countries to interpret
as unwillingness the refusal of developed countries to accept the SPS measures
adopted by other countries as equivalent.270
267. SPS Agreement, footnote 3. In cases where the relevant scientific evidence is insufficient but
adoption of the measure is necessary, any member may introduce provisional measures on
the basis of available pertinent information. This provision is an exception to the technical
268. SPS Agreement, Article 3.
269. SPS Agreement, Annex B.
270. WTO, Equivalence: Consideration of Article 4 of the SPS Agreement – Summary of the Discussions
of the SPS Committee. G/L/423. Geneva: World Trade Organization, November 2000.
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The Australia–Salmon case271 is instructive for interpretation of the
risk assessment obligations of members. This case concerned the Quarantine
Proclamation of Australia, which was issued on 19 February 1975. This Quarantine
Proclamation prohibited the importation of dead salmon unless the salmon had
been treated prior to importation. The Australian Director of Quarantine believed
that such treatments were helpful in preventing the introduction of any infectious
or contagious disease or pest affecting persons, animals or plants. Pursuant to
the Proclamation, the Director of Quarantine permitted the entry of commercial
imports of heat-treated salmon products for human consumption and other
salmon for scientific research. Canada requested access for uncooked, fresh, chilled
or frozen salmon. In response, Australia conducted an import risk analysis on the
salmonid product (‘Pacific Salmon’). The Australian Salmon Import Risk Analysis
published in 1996 (‘1996 Final Report’), provided that the quarantine measures
should be applicable to the Pacific Salmon. Consequently, based on the 1996 Final
Report, the Director of the Quarantine banned the importation of Pacific Salmon
on 13 December 1996 based on sanitary considerations.272
This case concerned the Australian prohibition of both Pacific Salmonid
Product and Canadian Salmon. However, with respect to the introduction of
the prohibition on Canadian Salmon, Australia did not conduct any form of
risk assessment. On these grounds, the WTO Panel found that Australia acted
inconsistently with Article 5.1 of the SPS Agreement.273 The question of whether
the Australian import prohibition on Pacific Salmon was inconsistent with
Article 5.1 was appealed by Australia. The Appellate Body took the view that
the Panel erroneously emphasized that the heat-treatment requirement was not
based on risk assessment, but instead that the heart of the case was whether the
‘import prohibition’ was based on a risk assessment. Therefore, the Appellate Body
reversed the Panel’s finding.274
In the view of the Appellate Body, the question of whether the 1996 Final
Report was in accordance with the provisions of Article 5.1 of the SPS Agreement
on risk assessment must be addressed, and that in the light of Annex 1.4 of the SPS
Agreement, a risk assessment must:
271. On 5 October 1995, Canada, requested consultations with Australia, pursuant to the SPS
Agreement, regarding the government of the latter’s prohibition on the importation of
untreated fresh, chilled or frozen salmon from Canada. Because they failed to settle the dispute,
Canada requested the DSB to establish a Panel. A Panel was constituted on 10 April 1997,
and circulated its report on 12 July 1998. See Australia – Measures Affecting Importation of
Salmon – Report of the Panel, WT/DS18/R (hereinafter ‘Australia–Salmon, Panel Report’). On
22 July 1998, Australia appealed on certain issues of law in the Panel Report. The Report of
the Appellate Body was circulated to Members on 20 October 1998. See Australia – Measures
Affecting Importation of Salmon – Report of the Appellate Body, WT/DS18/AB/R. (hereinafter
‘Australia–Salmon, Appellate Body’).
272. Australia–Salmon, Panel Report, pp. 1–2.
273. The parties to the case did not appeal this aspect of the Panel decision. Australia–Salmon, Panel
Report, p. 154.
274. Australia–Salmon, Appellate Body Report, p. 35.
Trade Liberalization, Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights277
(i) identify the disease whose entry, establishment or spread a Member
wants to prevent within its territory, as well as the potential biological and
economic consequences associated with the entry, establishment or spread of
these diseases;
(ii) evaluate the likelihood of entry, establishment or spread of these diseases,
as well as the associated potential biological and economic consequences; and
(iii) evaluate the likelihood of entry, establishment or spread of these diseases
according to the SPS measures which might be applied.275
The Australian 1996 Final Report identified twenty-four diseases whose entry,
establishment or spread Australia wanted to prevent within its territory, as well as
the potential biological and economic consequences of the diseases, which met with
the first requirement. Regarding the second criterion, however, the Report only
conducted some evaluation on the possibility of entry, establishment, or spread of
disease. The Appellate Body concluded that ‘some’ evaluation of likelihood was not
enough.276 With regard to the third requirement, the Appellate Body stated that the
‘measures which might be applied’ referred to those which may reduce the risks.
The 1996 Final Report examined a large number of different risk reduction factors
for each of the twenty-four diseases of concern, and also provided ‘some’ evaluation
to the extent to ‘which these factors could reduce risk’, but it failed to evaluate the
relative risks associated with different options. On these grounds, the Appellate Body
found that the 1996 Final Report did not meet the third requirement. Inasmuch as
the 1996 Final Report did not meet the second and the third requirements, it was
inconsistent with Article 5.1 and Annex A.4 of the SPS Agreement and therefore, the
Australian measures applied to the Pacific Salmon were not based on a proper risk
assessment and were inconsistent with the SPS Agreement.277
The Australia–Salmon case also concerned the question of whether Australian
measures were inconsistent with Article 5.5 of the SPS Agreement. Following the
Appellate Body Report in EC-Hormones, the Appellate Body pointed out that
a violation of Article 5.5 of the SPS Agreement needed to prove the following
three elements: (i) the member concerned adopted different appropriate levels of
sanitary protection in several different situations; (ii) those levels of protection
exhibited differences which were arbitrary or unjustifiable; and (iii) the measure
embodying those differences resulted in ‘discrimination or a disguised restriction
on international trade’.278
What, then, are the tests for determining which level of sanitary protection
should be adopted in a given situation? The Appellate Body stated that situations
could not be compared unless they presented some common elements. It required
Australia–Salmon, Appellate Body Report, p. 36.
Australia–Salmon, Appellate Body Report, p. 39.
Australia–Salmon, Appellate Body Report, pp. 40–42.
Australia–Salmon, Appellate Body Report, p. 42
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the parties concerned to provide evidence that these situations involved either a
risk of ‘entry, establishment or spread’ of the same or a similar disease or of the
same or similar ‘associated biological and economic consequences’. Therefore, for
different situations to be comparable under Article 5.5, there is no need for both
the diseases and biological and economic consequences to be the same or similar.
It is enough if these situations involve either a risk of the same or similar disease,
or a risk of the same or similar ‘associated potential biological and economic
consequences’. Moreover, it is sufficient for different situations to have in common
a risk of entry, establishment or spread of one disease of concern, and there is
no need for these situations to have in common a risk of entry, establishment or
spread of all diseases of concern. In the view of the Appellate Body, the import of
Pacific Salmon and other fish and fish products were different situations under
Article 5.5.279
There were differences in SPS measures and corresponding levels of
protection introduced by Australia between the Pacific Salmon and other fish
and fish products, for which the only justification could be that imported salmon
had a higher risk. However, on the basis of all the available evidence, the risk
of Pacific Salmon was comparable to other fish or fish products. As a result, the
Australian sanitary measures and the corresponding levels of protection were
found to be arbitrary and unjustifiable.280 As such, they were also discriminatory
and disguised restrictions on trade which by definition are inconsistent with the
WTO Agreement. The finding was based on ‘three warning signals’ as well as three
‘other factors more substantial in nature’. The first warning signal was ‘the arbitrary
or unjustifiable character of the differences in levels of protection’. The second
warning signal was the substantial difference in levels of protection between an
import protection on Pacific Salmon as opposed to tolerance for imports of herring
and live ornamental finfish. The third warning signal was the inconsistency of the
SPS measure with Articles 5.1 and 2.2 of the SPS Agreement. The first additional
factor was the fact that the two substantially different SPS measures that Australia
applied led to discrimination between Pacific Salmon on the one hand and herring
and live ornamental finfish on the other. The second additional factor was the
substantial but unexplained change in conclusion between the 1995 Draft Report
and the 1996 Final Report. The third additional factor was the absence of controls
on the internal movement of salmon products within Australia compared to the
prohibition of the importation of Pacific Salmon.281
The SPS Agreement aims to place the testing measures of each member
within a multilateral mechanism and therefore minimize trade restrictions on
international trade. To encourage members to adopt the generally approved
measures and standards rather than taking unilateral measures, the SPS Agreement
requires, on the one hand, that sanitary or phytosanitary measures ‘conform to
technical standards, guidelines or recommendations’, and on the other hand, that
279. Australia–Salmon, Appellate Body Report, pp. 43-46.
280. Australia–Salmon, Appellate Body Report, p. 47.
281. Australia–Salmon, Appellate Body Report, pp. 48–54.
Trade Liberalization, Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights279
measures based on international standards, guidelines or recommendations be
presumed to be of the extent necessary and hence, in accordance with the SPS
Agreement and the GATT.282 Encouraging members to participate in international
organizations is another means of making the SPS measures conform with
international standards.283
Moreover, the SPS Agreement also requires that members give mutual
recognition to the SPS measures of other members. It mainly requires that the
importing members recognize the SPS measures imposed by the exporting
members with one precondition.284 According to Article 4, the measures of
the exporting members have to achieve the appropriate level of sanitary and
phytosanitary protection of the importing members. On condition that such
requirement is met, it is immaterial whether the measures of the exporting member
are the same as those of the importing member. In order to examine whether
the above requirement is met, the importing member may request to review the
exporting member’s testing, inspection and other relevant procedures while the
exporting member has the obligation to provide a reasonable opportunity for the
importing member to conduct such a review.285
Another issue relating to the mutual recognition of SPS measures is
the sanitary and phytosanitary characteristic of the country of origin and the
destination. The heart of this provision is that the importing member should
consider the appropriateness of the measures applied, ‘inter alia, the level of
prevalence of specific diseases or pests, the existence of eradication or control
programmes, and appropriate criteria or guidelines which may be developed by
the relevant international organizations.’ In a word, the importing member shall
not impose a disguised restriction on international trade by applying inappropriate
testing measures. On this basis, the SPS Agreement advocates that ‘Members shall,
in particular, recognize the concepts of pest- or disease-free areas and areas of low
pest or disease prevalence.’ Any exporting member may claim that areas within its
territory are ‘pest- or disease-free’ or ‘of low pest or disease prevalence’, and provide
282. The SPS Agreement, Articles 3.2 and 3.3. Pursuant to Article 5.8, when a member has reason
to believe that a specific sanitary or phytosanitary measure introduced or maintained by
another member is constraining, or has the potential to constrain, its exports and the measure
is not based on the relevant international standards, guidelines or recommendations, or such
standards, guidelines or recommendations do not exist, an explanation of the reasons for such
sanitary or phytosanitary measure may be requested and shall be provided by the member
maintaining the measure. And the latter, that is, the Member that applies the measure has the
obligation to explain.
283. Specifically, Article 3.4 requires that members shall play a full part, within the limits of their
resources, in the codex Alimentarius Commission, the International Office of Epizootics, and
the international and regional organizations operating within the framework of the International
Plant Protection Convention.
284. For example, in Japan–Agricultural Products, Japan permitted exporting countries to test their
own exported products on condition that the exporting countries’ testing measures complied
with Japanese importing standards.
285. Obviously, if the exporting member refuses to provide the importing members with an
opportunity to review, the importing member concerned may refuse to accept the former’s SPS
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‘the necessary evidence thereof in order to objectively demonstrate […] that such
areas are, and are likely to remain, pest- or disease-free areas or areas of low pest
or disease prevalence’. The purpose of such a claim is to seek the recognition of
the importing member and that products can be exported unrestricted by the SPS
measures of the latter.286
It is clear that both TBT Agreement and SPS Agreement advocate the use
of international standards and guidelines to facilitate trade, and both include
provisions specifically applicable to developing countries, in particular provision
of technical assistance with respect to the preparation and implementation of
technical regulations and sanitary and phytosanitary measures.287 Yet, both at
the same time are silent on specific procedures for establishing those standards
and on how to provide assistance to developing countries. As a result, since the
establishment of the WTO, such commitment has remained mostly on paper, while
most developing countries are short of financial and human resources to actively
take part in the process of standard-setting, which has undeniably always been the
exclusive domain of developed countries despite treaty provisions encouraging
participation by developing countries in international standard organizations
(Michalpoulos 2001: 93). Without the full participation of developing countries,
their special needs and circumstances may not be fully reflected in the formation
of international standards and requirements, which is the root of current problems
with the contemporary system.
Intellectual property protection is now an important part of trade and in
turn is closely related to health, patent rights and trademarks for medicine, among
others. In this regard, the TRIPS Agreement has placed developing countries in a
dilemma of either ignoring the deterioration of public health or violating WTO
rules. The patentability of medicines enables the big pharmaceutical companies
from developed countries to keep the price of medicine at a high level. According
to a report by the UN, in India where no patent protection to the medicine for
curing AIDS is provided, 150 grams of medicine can be manufactured with
US$55, while it requires US$697 and US$817 to manufacture the same amount
under patent in Malaysia and the Philippines respectively (see Sykes 2002). The
imported medicines become unaffordable for most of the patients in developing
countries, especially in LDCs where diseases like AIDS and malaria are widely
spread. Since the mid-1990s, Brazil began to implement an AIDS prevention
scheme, encouraging the manufacturing of pharmaceutical products in Brazil. Its
patent law encourages domestic production and compulsory licensing,288 which
resulted in the pharmaceutical products of Brazil being reduced by 82 per cent in
286. In order to prevent abuse of this right, the SPS Agreement requires that ‘reasonable access shall
be given, upon request, to the importing Member for inspection, testing and other relevant
procedures’. See the SPS Agreement, Article 6.3.
287. TBT Agreement, Article 11. SPS Agreement, Article 9.
288. Article 68 of Brazil’s Patent Act stipulates that all patents must be applied for within three years
of the grant thereof, otherwise the government may grant compulsory licenses. Where the
patent holders use import as a means to enforce patent rights, Brazil will allow parallel imports
of the products.
Trade Liberalization, Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights281
five years (see Hoen 2002). However, the Brazil Patent Act was challenged by the
United States under the WTO DSM, which claimed that the Brazilian measure
constituted a form of discrimination against American patent holders. Although
the dispute was settled by agreement in which Brazil agreed to hold consultations
with the United States on the compulsory licensing of US patents,289 the issue
relating to the interpretation of Articles 27 and 28 of the TRIPS has not come to
an end.290 Since 2005, when the Indian Patents (Amendment) Ordinance required
patents to be granted on new medicines to implement TRIPS, developing nations
have no longer been able to import affordable generic drugs from India (see
Médecins Sans Frontières 2005).
Having considered the complexity and importance of the TRIPS, including
its effect on the public health of all members, the Declaration on the TRIPS
Agreement and Public Health was adopted at the Doha Ministerial Conference.291
It expanded the possibilities of compulsory licensing and parallel imports
of medicine but failed to address the problem of insufficient pharmaceutical
manufacturing capability in developing countries. This drawback was partly
compensated by the TRIPS Council’s Decision of 30 August 2003, which allows for
these countries to import generic drugs from a country that issues a compulsory
license, so long as both parties inform the WTO of all relevant details. The WTO,
however, has only received notifications from Canada as an exporting country and
Rwanda as an importing country.292 For this reason, some scholars criticize the
Doha Declaration as being far from a panacea for the availability of medicines in
developing countries under TRIPS (see Sykes 2002).
Health services are listed by the WTO Secretariat as a sector of trade in services.
Health is, however, a human right and a public good. The total privatization and
marketization of the healthcare market cannot resolve its externalities. Article 1.3
of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) excludes the healthcare
services supplied in the exercise of government authority from its coverage. For
most developing countries, public and private healthcare suppliers coexist. The
liberalization of health services may therefore exacerbate existing problems with
access and equity of health services and financing, especially for poor people
in developing countries.293 While the opening up of the domestic healthcare
market in developing countries may create job opportunities, it is still possible for
local health professionals to pursue better-paid jobs abroad, which thus worsen
domestic health personnel shortages. On the one hand, the export in health
professionals can produce foreign remittance, on the other hand, their outflow
results in a loss to governments in terms of the previous investment in training
them. It is estimated that for South Africa the loss in investment from doctors
289. See WTO Doc. WT/DS199/4, 9 July 2001.
290. The United States argued that the compulsory licensing provisions of Article 31 of the TRIPS
should be interpreted side-by-side with Article 27.1, thus no member may take measures
inconsistent with the Agreement based on public health reasons. See Gathii (2002).
291. Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health, adopted on 14 November 2001.
292. IP/N/10/CAN/1, IP/N/9/RWA/1.
293. For more, see UNCTAD 1999.
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who subsequently emigrated has reached tens of millions (see Bundred and Levitt
2000). Although for developing countries the price competitiveness in the health
service market may attract foreign patients and thus increase foreign exchange
income, limited medical facilities and professionals mean that increases in foreign
patients translate into less health services accessible for domestic patients. This is
another dilemma facing developing countries – trade having failed to make their
healthcare services strong.
11.4. Agriculture Remains a Thorny Issue
No matter what agreements are reached as to whether or not developing
countries and LDCs are beneficiaries of economic globalization and hence trade
liberalization, an indisputable fact remains that agriculture is still critical to
developing countries, especially LDCs, as it is, for most of them, the largest sector
of employment,294 the largest source of GDP,295 and the largest source of foreign
exchange earnings. About 75 per cent of the poor population worldwide reside
in rural areas and make their living on agriculture (McCalla and Nash 2007).
Therefore any assessment of the effect of the current trade system on reducing
poverty must take into account agricultural trade.
Agricultural trade has always been the crux between developing and
developed countries in the WTO. Prior to the Uruguay Round, non-tariff barriers
including the export subsidies and import restrictions of developed countries with
regard to the agricultural industry constituted serious obstacles for developing
countries wishing to participate in international trade, which resulted in
restrictions to their foreign exchange earning capacity. Without sufficient foreign
exchange to import technology from developed countries, it is extremely difficult,
if not impossible, for developing countries to realize modernization.
Current agricultural subsidies cause the domestic and export price of
numerous commodities to remain lower than their cost of production in industrial
countries (World Bank 2003: 126). The direct effect of agricultural subsidies in
developed countries is that, on the one hand, the products of developed countries
become more competitive in the markets of developing countries; on the other
hand, it is more difficult for the products of developing countries to get access
to developed countries. Agricultural subsidies in developed countries have been
criticized by scholars, international organizations and developing countries for
contributing to poverty in the developing world.296
294. In low-income countries, agriculture accounts for about 60 per cent of the labour force. Even
in middle-income countries, the sector still accounts for more than 25 per cent of employment
(World Bank 2003: 103).
295. In low-income countries, agriculture produces about 25 per cent of GDP. In middle-income
countries, the sector still accounts for more than 15 per cent of GDP. When coupled with agrorelated industries and food-related services, its share, even among middle-income countries, is
typically 25 per cent to 40 per cent of GDP (World Bank 2003: 103).
296. For example, see Cline (2005) and Stuart and Fanjul (2005).
Trade Liberalization, Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights283
Take Jamaica as an example; its unique natural situation makes itself an
ideal place for milk production. However, because of cheaper EU subsidized milk
powder, increased imports have brought serious losses to local farmers. In 1999,
dairy farmers like Phyllis March had to pour away more than 1,000 gallons of milk
that could not be sold.297 Needless to say, this constitutes a substantial loss for a
small farmer who makes a living by selling milk.
The same situation takes place in other territories and sectors. The misery
suffered by Mohammed Ali Indris in Ethiopia is another example. Five years ago,
his annual income from selling coffee and corn was US$320, which was enough to
cover the living expenses of his whole family. However, the competition of foreign
subsidized agricultural products led to a substantial reduction in the market price.
Even with a four times increase in sales volume, Mohammed could not earn
enough money to pay for his family’s expenses. As a result, not only did he have no
money to send his children to school, but also had to sell his farm cattle to repay
the loan lest he be sent to prison.298
The Jamaican and Ethiopian experiences are shared by other developing
countries that account for 80 per cent of the world’s population. It was reported
that,299 before China joined the WTO, the Chinese government encouraged
farmers to grow industrial crops by providing the latter with bank loans. Many
farmers in Guangxi Autonomous Region hence engaged in growing sugarcane
and sugar production. Their living standards grew very fast. Take a farmer, for
example, who borrowed money from a bank to plant sugarcane and started to
produce sugar. By doing so, he was able to earn RMB2,500 annually and was full
of hope. The WTO membership of China, however, led to an influx of subsidized
imported sugar into the Chinese market, which resulted in a sharp decrease in
sugar prices thereof. This farmer’s income decreased to less than RMB0.8 daily.
With this small amount of money, he can barely cover his child’s education fee,
not to mention the original plan to reconstruct his house. Not only that, he had no
money to repay the loan.
As the Uruguay Round has already brought agricultural trade within the
multilateral discipline of the WTO, one may wonder why the poverty situation of
developing countries and LDCs has not improved. The answer is that the WTO has
failed to shake the foundation of protectionism in agriculture. According to the
Agreement on Agriculture, each member should implement tariffication and tariff
bindings on import measures. Ironically, the peak tariff on agricultural products is
still as high as 200 per cent (OECD 2003: 5), and the current average agricultural
297. See Canadian Council for International Cooperation, ‘What direction for development? Focus
on agriculture’. This document was distributed by the Canadian Council for International
Cooperation at the Fifth WTO Ministerial Conference.
298. See Canadian Council for International Cooperation, ‘What direction for development? Focus
on agriculture’.
299. This information was disclosed by a survey report of Oxfam Hong Kong published in a local
newspaper during the Cancún Ministerial. The report was prepared by surveyors of the Chinese
Academy of Social Sciences and Chinese Agricultural Ministry. The author had an opportunity to
discuss the issues in detail with the surveyors during the Cancún Ministerial in September 2003.
Guiguo Wang
bound tariff is 60 per cent (World Bank 2003). Moreover, the tariff of agricultural
products increases along with the sophistication of the level of manufacturing,
which aggravates import protection and adversely impacts developing countries’
export interests. So far as export subsidies are concerned, under the Agreement
on Agriculture, the member that imposes export subsidies must include in its
schedule commitments on reduction of subsidies. In other words, the member
may continue to provide the subsidies, given it undertakes to reduce the subsidies
The above situation is explainable in terms of certain aspects of the current
multilateral system under the WTO. In the first place, the tariff deduction method
for agricultural products reached in the Uruguay Round makes it possible for
developed countries to maintain high tariffs on sensitive agricultural products
imported from developing countries. The Uruguay Round required members to
commit to an average cut in tariffs rather than a cut in average tariffs. As a result,
developed countries can choose to reduce agricultural tariffs in the field where
tariff levels are already low and then easily met the WTO’s requirements. For
example, if the original tariff for a product is 2 per cent, a 1 per cent cut represents a
50 per cent tariff reduction. But these fields are generally not sensitive agricultural
products and, therefore, the tariff cuts would not have a substantial impact on the
agricultural industry of the importing countries.300
Secondly, the bound tariff system on agricultural products does not work to
the advantage of developing countries. According to the WTO Agreement, both
developed and developing countries have the same right to bind importing tariffs.
However, in practice, applied tariffs in developing countries are always lower than
the bound tariffs, while the applied tariffs of the developed countries are, as a
general rule, higher than the bound tariffs.301 This de facto inequality does not
only have direct adverse impacts on the export of agricultural products of the
developing countries, but also creates a psychological obstacle to the negotiations
at the Cancún Ministerial.
Thirdly, there are problems with the method used to calculate domestic
subsidies under the WTO. According to the Agreement on Agriculture, subsidies
in general are grouped and represented by green box, blue box and amber box.302
When calculating the aggregate of domestic support, WTO allows blue box
subsidies to be included, but in ascertaining the subsidy deduction the blue box
subsidies would not be taken into account. This results in an over-estimation of
domestic support and makes it easier for the member concerned to satisfy the
requirement of a reduction in subsidies. Moreover, the aggregate support itself
does not require the subsidy reduction in certain fields. There is also a tendency
300. At the moment, there is no international agreement on what constitutes sensitive products. As
such, the issue is almost completely left to the discretion of the importing countries.
301. A survey of the World Bank indicates that for some developing countries, the tariff overhang is
five times more than the applied tariff; while the applied tariff of OECD countries is two times
more than the bound tariff. See World Bank (2003: 103).
302. Green box subsidies are not restricted; blue box subsidies are for special circumstances; and
amber box subsidies should be reduced gradually. For details, see Wang (2003: Chapter 7).
Trade Liberalization, Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights285
for developed countries to try to avoid important issues and dwell on the trivial to
elude the obligation of reducing subsidies. As a result of the above manoeuvres, it
is possible that a member’s subsidies in agriculture may increase constantly, while
its aggregate domestic support decreases.
Fourthly, the peace clause of the Agreement on Agriculture restricts
developing countries from resorting to WTO dispute settlement mechanisms
on issues concerning agricultural subsidies, provided those subsidies satisfy the
requirements of the Agreement on Agriculture.303 With the expiration of this
clause at the end of 2003, this problem has officially come to an end. Taking into
consideration the complexity of the subsidies provided by the developed countries
in agriculture, it will take a long time for the developing countries to figure out
what subsidy is prohibited and what is not, not to mention taking such matters to
the Dispute Settlement Body of the WTO.304
11.5. The Future
Trade, health, reduction of poverty and human rights are highly interrelated. The
right to health is an important aspect of human rights under which states are obliged
to ensure that public health services, as well as medicines and health care, are made
available to all and are accessible to all (WHO 2005: 8). Therefore, for the purposes
of protecting or improving human health, the establishment and monitoring by
states of product safety, sanitary and phytosanitary standards should be considered
as measures for safeguarding human rights. Yet such measures may be contrary to
measures aiming at reduction of poverty, the solution of which is also an important
part of human rights – albeit not explicitly referred to in international human
rights documents – as it is closely related to fundamental economic rights. Both
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights refer to the right of everyone to an adequate
standard of living, including adequate food, clothing, housing and medical care
and necessary social services.305 Those who do not have enough money (poverty)
obviously cannot afford adequate food, clothing, housing and medical care and
their economic rights cannot be realized. For the international trading system,
whilst trade liberalization is the aim, its ultimate goal must be, inter alia, raising
the standard of living, in particular the living standards of those who live below
the average, namely the people of developing countries and LDCs.
According to available statistics, at the beginning of the twentieth century,
the standard of living of 1.2 billion of the world population was below US$1 a
303. For details see Agreement on Agriculture, Article 13.
304. Even between the members that invented and have used such subsidies such as the United States and
the EU, there is hardly any agreement as to what is a prohibited subsidy and what is permissible. This
illustrates the essential problems for negotiations on reduction of agricultural subsidies.
305. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, International Covenant on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights, Article 11.
Guiguo Wang
day and that of 1.6 billion was below US$2.306 Statistics also show that, since the
1950s to the beginning of this century, international trade grew seventeen times,
whilst the total amount of world production only increased by six times over the
same period.307 This shows that growth of trade does not necessarily coincide with
growth of production, and if we take into consideration the relatively small portion
of developing countries and LDCs in world trade, their benefit from this increase
is even less. Therefore, in order to enable developing countries and LDCs to share
the fruits of world trade, namely reducing their poverty, it is important for such
countries to have the needed capacity to enter the markets of the developed world.
After decades of multilateral trade negotiations, especially the Uruguay Round
negotiations, the tariffs on industrialized products have reduced significantly, but
tariffs on competitive products from developing countries and LDCs still remains
comparatively high. This in effect makes developing countries unable to benefit
from the general reduction of tariffs.
The Doha Ministerial Declaration places emphasis on providing a major
opportunity for developing countries, including ‘gradually reducing with a view
to phasing out, all forms of export subsidies and substantial reductions in tradedistorting domestic support’.308 Yet, despite repeated promises by politicians, the
conclusion of the Doha Development Round still seems very far away, which is
substantially attributable to the vast gap between the developing and developed
countries, especially on agricultural trade. As for developing countries, immediate
elimination of agricultural subsidies is important, but for developed countries to
do so would equally affect their interests. This serious disagreement on agricultural
trade led to the failure of the Cancun Ministerial in 2003 and the non-success of
the Hong Kong Ministerial in 2005.
Although the Doha Round resumed in July 2007 after being suspended for
almost six months, no substantially breakthrough has occurred to date. Because
the Singapore Issues309 were excluded from the agenda in the Geneva Ministerial
of 2004, the developed countries now lack motivations to substantially eliminate
agricultural subsidies and reduce tariffs on agricultural products. In July 2008, the
United States offered to cut its ceiling on trade-distorting agricultural subsidies
to US$15 billion, which is well below the US$48.2 billion ceiling allowed under
WTO rules. Yet, taking into account the fact that current US spending on tradedistorting farm programmes is about US$7 billion, such an offer means the
306. Opening Address by the Director-General to the Ministerial Conference of LCDs entitled
‘Implementation of the Programme of Action for the LDCs and Combating Poverty’, Cotonou,
Benin, 5 August 2002, p. 1.
307. Opening Address by the Director-General to the Ministerial Conference of LCDs entitled
‘Implementation of the Programme of Action for the LDCs and Combating Poverty’, Cotonou,
Benin, 5 August 2002, p. 2.
308. Doha Ministerial Declaration, para. 13.
309. At the WTO Ministerial Conference of 1996 in Singapore, four working groups were entrusted
with looking into the issues of transparency in government procurement, trade facilitation,
trade and investment, and competition policy, these subjects often now being referred to as the
‘Singapore Issues’.
Trade Liberalization, Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights287
possibility for the United States to increase agricultural subsidies in the future.310
The EU also committed a 60 per cent cut of its tariffs on agricultural products,
but still lower than the 66–73 per cent rate of reduction in the modalities.311
Dissatisfaction with the compromises made by the United States and the EU in turn
led to some developing countries’ insistence on a special safeguard mechanism for
developing countries, which would allow them to raise tariffs temporarily in order
to deal with import surges and price falls. This finally led to a collapse in the talks
in Geneva in July 2008.
The deadlock did not come to an end until the holding of the G20
summit.312 Surprisingly, the leaders agreed that it was critically important to
reject protectionism in the face of the unprecedented financial crisis. They also
decided to ‘refrain from raising new barriers to investment or to trade in goods
and services, imposing new export restrictions’ and to ‘strive to reach agreement
this year [2008] on modalities that leads to a successful conclusion to the WTO’s
Doha Development Agenda with an ambitious and balanced outcome’.313
According to the Revised Draft Modalities for Agriculture,314 a document
prepared by Ambassador Crawford Falconer, chairperson of the agriculture
negotiations, reductions in Overall Trade-Distorting Domestic Support (Base
OTDS) for agriculture
shall be the sum of:
(a) the Final Bound Total AMS specified in Part IV of a Member’s Schedule; plus
(b)for developed country Members, 10 per cent of the average total value of
agricultural production in the 1995–2000 base period (this being composed
of 5 per cent of the average total value of production for product-specific and
non-product-specific AMS respectively); plus
(c) the higher of average Blue Box payments as notified to the Committee
on Agriculture, or 5 per cent of the average total value of agricultural
production, in the 1995–2000 base period.315
The Revised Draft Modalities for Agriculture also made an exception to developing
countries by providing that such members may maintain the AMS level at ‘20
percent of the average total value of agricultural production in the 1995–2000
or 1995–2004 period’,316 which is twice as much as that applicable to developed
310. US Offers To Cut Farm Subsidies By $1.4 Billion To Help Trade Talks, Herald Tribune, 22 July,
311. Committee on Agricultural Special Session, Revised Draft Modalities for Agriculture, 10 July
2008, TN/AG/W/4/Rev.3.
312. The G20 was held on 15 November 2008 in Washington DC as a result of the worldwide
financial crisis, which was triggered by the subprime mortgage lending of financial institutions
in the United States. For the purpose of resolving the crisis, state heads of the twenty most
important countries gathered to find a solution.
313. Para. 13 of G20 Declaration on Financial Crisis adopted on 15 November 2008.
314. See WTO document, TN/AG/W/4/Rev.4, 6 December 2008.
315. WTO document, TN/AG/W/4/Rev.4, 6 December 2008, para. I-A(1).
316. WTO document, TN/AG/W/4/Rev.4, 6 December 2008, para. I-A(2).
Guiguo Wang
country members. The question is again whether developing country members
have the resources to fund such expensive subsidies.317
The tiered reduction formula does not work for developing country members
either. According to the formula, the reduction of the Base OTDS should be
achieved as follows: 318
a) where the Base OTDS is greater than US$60 billion, or the equivalent
in the monetary terms in which the binding is expressed, the reduction
shall be 80 per cent;
b) where the Base OTDS is greater than US$10 billion and less than or
equal to US$60 billion, or the equivalents in the monetary terms in
which the binding is expressed, the reduction shall be 70 per cent;
c) where the Base OTDS is less than or equal to US$10 billion, or the
equivalent in the monetary terms in which the binding is expressed, the
rate of reduction shall be 55 per cent.
Developed country members whose level of Base OTDS is at 40 per cent or more
of the average total value of agricultural production in the 1995–2000 period are
required to make an additional effort in reducing the Base OTDS.319
The Revised Draft Modalities for Agriculture were prepared by the
Chairperson based on the previous negotiations, and therefore may or may not be
agreed by the WTO members. Another set of difficulties is that the ascertainment
of the reduction of subsidies is at least as complicated as the determination of
subsidies, if not more so. This together with the concerns of developing country
members have made the future conclusion of the Doha Round very unpredictable.
Even Secretary-General Pascal Lamy was not optimistic upon the release of the
Chairperson’s text, saying:
With these revised texts we are closer to our goal of clinching modalities
in agriculture and industry, a stepping stone towards the conclusion of the
Doha Round. We still have a long way to go before the Round is concluded
and all Members are asked to cast their ballot on the final package. However,
the modalities step would send a signal that all WTO members stand united
to face the challenges of the current economic crisis. It will confirm that they
reject unilateral beggar thy neighbour solutions.320
317. For instance, when China joined the WTO, it was permitted to subsidize its agriculture to
9 per cent of the average total value of agricultural production. Yet, in reality China’s actual
subsidy level was not even up to one-third of the permissible level, even though China’s
economy is in much better shape than most of the developing country members.
318. WTO document, TN/AG/W/4/Rev.4, 6 December 2008, Para. I-A(3). Developing country
members also enjoy differential treatment according to which those ‘with Final Bound Total
AMS commitments, the applicable reduction in the Base OTDS shall be two-thirds of the
relevant rate’ applicable to developed country members and net food-importing developing
country members are not required to undertake reduction commitments. WTO document,
TN/AG/W/4/Rev.4, 6 December 2008, Para. I-A(7).
319. WTO document, TN/AG/W/4/Rev.4, 6 December 2008, Para. I-A(4).
320. See, checked on 6 December 2008.
Trade Liberalization, Reduction of Poverty and Human Rights289
Developing country members themselves may constitute another difficulty to the
success of Doha Round. Although developing countries in general share common
and unified interests, their experiences, needs and expectations are dissimilar. For
instance, whilst agriculture subsidies are considered by some developing countries
as obstacles, the net food import countries welcome subsidized grains and other
agricultural products. The cotton-producing countries are concerned about the
subsidies by developed countries to the cotton industry, while importers of cotton
may benefit from such subsidies. This situation further complicates the already
difficult negotiations.
By the time of completion of this article, the deadline made by the G20 leaders
has well passed. Yet no substantial progress has been made for the conclusion of
the Doha Round. Unless a breakthrough can be made quickly, countries may be
forced to resort to trade protectionism in the face of the unprecedented financial
crisis. This shows that countries have not learnt from the lessons that humanity
has experienced in the past, that trade protectionism is bound to lead to other
difficulties and problems for the world. The irony is that everyone agrees that
international trade brings wealth to humanity and therefore liberalization of trade
is unavoidable in order to improve the standard of living for the people in the
world, and that reduction and ultimate elimination of poverty of the world to a
large extent also depends on trade liberalization. Yet, despite the common belief
in trade liberalization, each nation due to natural selfishness tries to make use of
permissible and sometimes non-permissible means to raise barriers to trade. It is
national selfishness and short-sightedness that have prevented the conclusion of
the Doha Round. The world is now again at a crossroads and if the right decision
is made by both developed and developing countries on further liberalizing
trade, every nation will benefit, which in turn will contribute to the reduction
and elimination of poverty and improvements in the living standard of the whole
world. No matter what choice may be made by current leaders, the trend of
globalization cannot be reversed. In the long run, further trade liberalization is
still a ‘must’. It is just a matter of time.
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Finger, J.M. and Schuler, P. 1999. Implementation of Uruguay Round
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Perspective, Center for Development Research Working Paper 2.03.2002,
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Gathii, J.T. 2002. The Legal Status of the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public
Health under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Harvard
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Hoen, E. 2002. TRIPS, Pharmaceutical Patents, and Access to Essential Medicines:
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and Poverty, WTO Special Studies. Geneva: WTO.
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Countries. Geneva,
Stuart, L. and Fanjul, G. 2005. A Round for Free: How Rich Countries are Getting
a Free Ride on Agricultural Subsidies at the WTO, Oxfam International
Briefing Paper.
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Institutional Challenges in the New Millennium, Report by the Consultative
Board to the Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi, paras 95–97.
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“Solution”, Chicago Journal of International Law, Vol. 3(1), p. 48
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Trade, Finance and Development in the New Economic Order, American
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UNCTAD. 2008. UNCTAD Handbook of Statistics 2008. Geneva: UNCTAD.
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Countries, 10 September.
Human Rights and Extreme Poverty:
An Economist’s Perspective
Arjun Sengupta321
12.1. Introduction and Background
Since 1989 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) has been
discussing extreme poverty as a major source of deprivation – one that affects all
human rights and constitutes a violation of human dignity – and has therefore
called for immediate national and international action to eliminate poverty. In
1998, the Commission decided to establish the mandate of an independent expert
on the question of human rights and extreme poverty. Anne-Marie Lizin served as
the independent expert from 1998 to 2004, and I succeeded her in 2004.
In its resolutions 1998/25, 2004/23 and 2005/16, the UNCHR invited the
independent expert to focus on three areas: the relationship between extreme
poverty and the enjoyment of human rights , the obstacles encountered and progress
made by women living in extreme poverty, and the impact of discrimination on
extreme poverty.
This chapter builds on four reports on these subjects that I submitted to
the UNCHR in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, respectively, as well as on my mission
report on extreme poverty conditions in the US, which was considered by the
UNCHR in 2006. I have added findings from my experiences in some African,
Asian and EU countries to suggest how looking at extreme poverty from the
perspective of human rights adds considerable value to the discourse on poverty
and its eradication. In 2005, I outlined my general approach to the mandate in
my first report to the Commission (Sengupta 2005) by defining ‘extreme poverty’
as a combination of income poverty, human development poverty and social
exclusion. My aim was to focus on the multi-dimensionality of poverty and its
attributes which can be addressed by means of specific policy interventions.
I explored how this definition can be linked to the concept of human rights
and how the policies to remove such poverty can be presented as obligations to
The author is grateful for the research support provided by Rita Nangia of the Asian Development
Bank and Namrata Pathak, and Menka Chandiramani of the Centre for Development and
Human Rights, New Delhi.
Arjun Sengupta
fulfil those rights. I also suggested concrete actions that could contribute to a more
efficient eradication of poverty based on the principles of human rights.
In my second report (Sengupta 2006a), I sought to show the value of
approaching extreme poverty in terms of the violation or denial of human rights
following the definition of extreme poverty I had provided in the foregoing
report. I also focused on the obligations it implied for relevant actors to ensure
the implementation of programmes combating such extreme poverty. During the
same period, I carried out a fact-finding mission to the US from 24 October 2005
to 4 November 2005. Despite the country’s high per capita income, a significant
proportion of its population has consistently been extremely poor, according to
our definition. I met and consulted with people living there in extreme poverty
and representatives of civil society organizations and the government. The findings
of that mission were included in the report I submitted to the UNCHR (Sengupta
On 23–24 February 2007 the Office of the High Commissioner for Human
Rights organized an Expert Seminar in Geneva on my work on human rights
and extreme poverty. The key topics discussed included: 1) a clear definition
and indicators for extreme poverty, including the elements to be considered
and a threshold of ‘extremeness’; 2) extreme poverty as a problem not limited
to developing countries; and 3) extreme poverty as a combination of income
poverty, human development poverty and social exclusion. The discussion there
also highlighted issues such as the legal empowerment of the poor; the need to
safeguard social security expenditure with international support; the role played
by national agencies, transnational companies and developed countries in the
fight against extreme poverty; and strengthening participatory approaches
transcending domestic sovereignty.
In my third report (Sengupta 2007) to the UNCHR, I expanded on the
approach to extreme poverty as a violation of human rights and suggested methods
of dealing with extreme poverty based on my findings from several case studies of
different regions and the results of the expert consultation.
In my fourth report (Sengupta 2008), I took stock of all the issues related
to extreme poverty and human rights, particularly the issues of social exclusion,
identified as a component of extreme poverty and seen as a key characteristic in
many approaches to extreme poverty adopted in the EU. I visited Brussels, where
I met a representative group of beggars, rag pickers, homeless and unemployed, all
of whom were socially excluded. Their problems went far beyond income poverty
and called for a concerted attempt to change societal attitudes and practices. In
that fourth report, I also considered the importance of international development
cooperation and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) in Africa as tools for
eradicating extreme poverty.
Section 12.2 discusses my working definition of extreme poverty – as a
combination of income poverty, human development poverty and social exclusion
– as well as whether these types of poverty are cumulative (union) or overlap
(intersection). Section 12.3 indicates the significance of looking at extreme poverty
from a human rights perspective and what value it adds to poverty eradication
Human Rights and Extreme Poverty: An Economist’s Perspective295
programmes that treat poverty as a violation of human rights and to national and
international actions to combat poverty. Section 12.4 lays out the characteristics of
such actions that take a human rights approach, while Section 12.5 discusses some
of the anti-poverty programmes I observed during my missions as Independent
Expert to the US and to various African, Asian and EU countries. The chapter
concludes (Section 12.6) with a discussion of the contribution an economist’s
perspective can make to human rights approaches to poverty.
12.2. The Definition of Extreme Poverty
My working definition of ‘extreme poverty’ as a combination of income poverty,
human development poverty and social exclusion highlights the extreme
vulnerability of a segment of the poor. In view of this definition, a society could
be expected to accept responsibility for mitigating at least this kind of poverty.
Extreme poverty is an extreme form of deprivation, according to widely accepted
definitions of severity of deprivation, especially when all of the above elements of
deprivation coexist.
12.2.1. Income Poverty
The first dimension of poverty, of course, is income poverty. Conventionally,
poverty has been viewed as the lack of income or purchasing power to secure basic
needs. Such poverty can be considered in absolute or relative terms, depending on
how one understands ‘basic needs’. A simple absolutist interpretation would be to
fix a minimum daily amount of calorie intake from food necessary for survival
in a reasonably healthy condition, supplemented by some minimum amount of
non-food items regarded as essential for a decent social existence. An alternative
form of this absolutist interpretation of income poverty would be to agree, by
consensus, to a per capita level of expenditure as a poverty line, such as US$1–2 per
day, in terms of a comparable level of purchasing power.322 This approach would
avoid the difficulties involved in determining minimum calorie requirements
from food and minimum amounts of non-food item consumption.
Income poverty can also be viewed from a relativist perspective. Basic
needs may be dependent on the sociocultural norms of a country such that even
though a person’s income meets the requirements of subsistence and essential
consumption, he or she may be regarded as poor if his or her income were not
to allow him or her access to goods and services required to satisfy sociocultural
norms. For instance, a group of people would be deemed poor in the US if their
income were not to give them access, say, to minimally decent housing, with
322. As noted in Chapter 2 above, the World Bank has recalculated the income poverty line at US$
1.25 per day, although others have contested this definition.
Arjun Sengupta
heating and sanitation, or reasonably warm clothing or transportation between
places of residence and work – even if their income were more than sufficient to
provide food that satisfied the calorie requirement and other essential consumer
goods. Poverty would still be related to access to goods and services and therefore
purchasing power or income, although the poverty line would be much higher
in some countries than in other, poorer countries. Alternatively, relative poverty
can be viewed in terms of income distribution. For example, people belonging
to the lowest 10 per cent on the scale of income distribution can be regarded, by
social consensus, as extremely poor.
The distinction between poverty and extreme poverty within this framework
of income poverty would essentially be a question of the degree or extent of the
phenomenon. Since poverty is defined in terms of access to and availability of
goods and services, ‘extreme poverty’ would mean the command over a much
smaller basket of goods and services and/or the prevalence of a longer duration of
poverty. Or if some groups remain poor over generations, they could be described
as suffering from chronic poverty and considered to be extremely poor. Within a
relativist framework, people affected by chronic poverty may suffer from a rigidity
of social standing because society expects them to behave in particular ways or
play particular roles from which it is difficult for them to deviate – behaviours
or roles that differ from those of people with higher income and who are part of
the social mainstream. Those suffering from chronic poverty would thus tend to
become socially excluded.
12.2.2. Human Development Poverty
The second dimension of poverty is human development poverty, where extreme
poverty may be regarded as severe deprivation of human development. The
international community has affirmed, in virtually all international forums,
that poverty is not confined to economic deprivation but also extends to social,
cultural and political deprivation. Growth in gross national product (GNP) was
the goal of development in the 1950s and 1960s. However, in the last two decades,
the poverty discourse has moved far beyond the narrow focus on the income
criterion. While it is true that steady growth in per capita income is a necessary
condition for the improvement of all the different components of well-being, it is
not sufficient, especially if certain elements, such as being healthy or being well
educated, are considered more important or more pressing than others. A policy
of maximizing income growth does not take into account the problem of income
distribution or allocation of resources to areas that may be socially more desirable
than their market value. For example, the benefits of primary education, especially
in rural areas, may be socially much more valuable than what those who receive
such education would be willing or able to pay. Therefore, in a market economy
even with high income growth, the expansion of primary education or the salaries
paid to primary school teachers would be much less than what would be most
desirable according to social valuation. Under such circumstances, it would
Human Rights and Extreme Poverty: An Economist’s Perspective297
thus be necessary to adopt specific policies of market intervention to reallocate
resources or to redistribute incomes, even in a rapidly growing economy. A policy
of maximizing income growth alone will not necessarily maximize the well-being
of the people.
For several years, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, this concern with
elements of well-being, which could not be secured only by increased GDP
growth, was accommodated by targeted expenditure of resources and provision of
goods and services in an attempt to adjust the structure of economic activities of
aggregate demand and supply to supplement the policy for maximizing economic
growth. It was only with the emergence of the human development literature that
income growth ceased to be an objective characterizing development and was
recast as an instrument for promoting development. This indicates the role of
economic policies and the concomitant role of policy-making institutions, such as
the state and other corporate and non-corporate authorities.
The first Human Development Report (1990) of the United Nations
Development Programme (UNDP) stated that promoting individual development
has to be carried out in terms of human development, which it defined as the
process of expanding people’s options, giving them greater opportunities for
education, health care, income, employment, etc. Income is but one constituent
element of well-being, though it also plays an instrumental role insofar as it enables
the enjoyment of other elements that contribute to well-being. To operationalize
this notion, the UNDP report introduced the Human Development Index (HDI),
based on available data from different countries, which captures three essential
components of human well-being: longevity, knowledge and basic income for
a decent standard of living. Poverty could then be regarded as deprivation, and
extreme poverty as severe deprivation of human development.
Amartya Sen has provided the rationale for regarding HDIs as components
of well-being by giving a multidimensional definition of poverty as capability
deprivation, where ‘capability’ is defined as the freedom or ability to lead a life of
value in terms of what a person chooses to be or to do. Thus, extreme poverty can
be regarded as extreme deprivation of such capability. The role of such freedoms
is both constitutive and instrumental. For instance, the freedom to lead a healthy
life is a constitutive element of a person’s well-being, but it is also instrumental
insofar as it allows the person to enjoy other freedoms, including freedom of work
and movement. Capability poverty, then, means deprivation of basic capabilities
and is a composite of income poverty and human development poverty in both
the constitutive and the instrumental sense. The indicator levels to be identified
with poverty and extreme poverty have to be decided by some form of consensus
about the meaning of ‘basic’ in the expression ‘basic capabilities’, which would
differ across countries.
The World Summit for Social Development also stated in its 1995 Copenhagen
Declaration (WSSD 1995a) that poverty has various manifestations, including
lack of income and productive resources sufficient to ensure a sustainable
livelihood; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; minimum access to education
and a lack of other basic services that increases morbidity and mortality from
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illness, homelessness and inadequate housing; an unsafe environment; and social
domination and exclusion. It further stated: ‘Absolute poverty is a condition
characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe
drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information.
It depends not only on income but also on access to social services’ (WSSD
1995b: para. 19). This characterization of poverty has been reiterated on several
occasions, such as at the World Food Summit in Rome in 1966, in the United
Nations Millennium Declaration of 2000 and at the World Summit on Sustainable
Development in 2002.
12.2.3. Social Exclusion
The third dimension of poverty is social exclusion, which can be seen both in
its constitutive role with intrinsic value and in its instrumental role. Social
exclusion is an extension of the relativist concept of income poverty, except that
it goes beyond simple purchasing power to cover other elements not captured
by the concept of income. Social exclusion affects the level of different human
development indicators and often the level of income itself, just as income and
human development would influence social exclusion. It is this relational aspect
of social exclusion that adds considerable value in identifying problems associated
with poverty.
In his report on Chronic Poverty and Lack of Basic Security commissioned by
a French government body, Father Joseph Wresinski (1987, 1994: iv) observed:
The poor are pushed into areas where others rarely penetrate: inner city
slums, the outskirts of towns and isolated rural dwellings. When they appear
in the public eye, it is often because they have been made homeless in their
own neighbourhoods. Geographically segregated and socially isolated, they
are cut off from the cultural, political and civic life of the country.
Wresinski suggests that it is this exclusion that traps poor families and that any
effort to reduce poverty will not be successful unless it addresses the effects of
Social inclusion is seen as crucial in many of the approaches that the EU
has adopted to eradicating poverty. The EU programmes include eradicating child
poverty by breaking the vicious circle of intergenerational inheritance, making
labour markets more inclusive (EC 2009a), ensuring decent housing for everyone
that promotes social inclusion related to homelessness (EC 2009b), tackling
financial exclusion, overcoming discrimination, and increasing the integration of
people with disabilities, ethnic minorities and immigrants by adopting a threepronged approach: increasing inclusion of vulnerable and marginalized groups,
increasing access to mainstream services and opportunities, and enforcing
legislation to overcome discrimination and developing targeted approaches to
respond to the specific needs of each group, particularly immigrants and ethnic
Human Rights and Extreme Poverty: An Economist’s Perspective299
minorities. The Open Method of Coordination (OMC; EC 2000, 2009d) was also
established at the Lisbon European Council in March 2000 as a framework for
political coordination without legal constraints between EU Member States for
the identification and promotion of policies with regard to social protection and
social inclusion.
Incorporating the notion of social exclusion in the definition of extreme
poverty clearly adds considerable value to the understanding and treatment of
the problem because deprivation resulting from social exclusion may be quite
different from deprivation of income or of human development. Measuring social
exclusion may be difficult because it requires focusing on specific failures and social
relations that may be both context-specific and intertemporal in nature. However,
such difficulties should not lead to the omission of exclusion from the notion
of poverty. Several attempts have been made in different EU countries, notably
Belgium and the UK, to estimate social exclusion and to establish a relationship
between social exclusion and other aspects of poverty that lead to the denial of
basic freedoms or security to different people. In many developing countries,
statistics exist on the number of people who are socially marginalized, excluded
or ostracized, as well as on their living conditions. In India, a substantial debate is
underway on the living conditions of members of the lower castes and tribes who
are socially excluded and on whether affirmative action by the government should
be extended to all such people or be confined to those who are also income poor.
In this regard, adopting the view that people who are socially excluded suffer from
extreme poverty would add considerable value to the discussion in both developed
and developing countries.
Thus in my reports I have presented poverty as a composite of income poverty
(i.e. income below a minimum level barely sufficient to meet basic needs), human
development poverty (i.e. deprivation of food, health care, education, housing and
social security needed for human development), and social exclusion (i.e. being
marginalized, discriminated against and left out in social relations). ‘Extreme
poverty’ would be regarded as extreme deprivation, and ‘chronic poverty’ would
be used to describe the condition of those who suffer from income poverty and
human development poverty, as well as social exclusion, for such a long time that
social relationships become ossified inasmuch as the affected group is expected by
others to remain deprived and socially excluded forever.
This view of extreme poverty conforms to the prevalent definitions, the
most comprehensive of which, used in human rights reports on extreme poverty,
is based on Wresinski’s concept of the lack of ‘basic security’, combining the
European view of social exclusion as a lack of participation and rupture of social
bonds, with other economic and social factors that prevent one’s enjoyment of
freedoms and human rights.
Nothing would be lost if this definition were to be recast as a composite
of income poverty, human development poverty and social exclusion. Capability
poverty can also be regarded as a simultaneous deprivation of income and human
development, as well as social exclusion. The recast definition would combine
income and human development as components of capability, both as constituent
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and instrumental variables. Although the capability approach is individualistic and
can be said not to capture the relational notion of social exclusion, Sen (2004: 4)
rightly notes that ‘we have good reasons to value not being excluded from social
relations and in this sense social exclusion may be directly a part of capability
poverty’, which he considers to deprive one of things one values. Social exclusion
can thus be both constitutively a part of capability deprivation and instrumentally
a cause of capability failure.
12.2.4. Union or Overlap
The total universe of a country’s poor should be regarded as the aggregate or union of
all three groups – those who are income poor, those deprived of human development
and the socially excluded. Extreme poverty in such a case would be a portion of each
of these categories selected in terms of the severity of the conditions of deprivation.
Since this number can be very large in many developing countries, a society
may choose a set of criteria that limit the number of people suffering from extreme
poverty to a smaller subset – thus, to an overlap or intersection of the three sets of
people who are income poor, human-development poor and socially excluded, or
those suffering from all three categories of poverty – resulting in a smaller number
of people than implied in the union approach.
The advantage of the overlap or intersection approach is that every member
of society could be made aware of the severity of the poverty conditions. Following
the Rawlsian principle of justice, which emphasizes the need to concentrate on the
most vulnerable segments of society, it should therefore be possible to appeal to
people’s sense of justice and persuade them to accept the obligations associated
with the elimination of extreme poverty – which makes a small segment of the
population extremely vulnerable, causing it to suffer from the loss of all liberties
or freedom of action. If extreme poverty is to be regarded as a denial of human
rights, obligations to eliminate extreme poverty must be recognized and accepted
by society. The ‘overlap’ definition increases the chances of such acceptance. Also,
because this approach focuses on a smaller set of people, it becomes possible to
develop indicators for these forms of poverty based on existing data that capture
not only the outcomes but also the processual aspects of activities, and thus not
just the availability of goods and services but also access to them. The eradication
of poverty thereby becomes more manageable, with limited sacrifice of resources
and privileges of other segments of the population, which any re-distributive
policy needed for this purpose would entail.
12.3. Poverty Seen from a Human Rights Perspective
The significance of recognizing a desirable objective as a human right is that it is
translated into a corresponding enforcement of obligations. Human rights are then
recognized as highly valuable objectives to which all individuals in a society are
Human Rights and Extreme Poverty: An Economist’s Perspective301
inherently entitled as human beings. Agents of society – individuals, institutions,
corporations and governments – are regarded as having obligations to enable
individuals to enjoy their rights. And the state is regarded as the primary dutybearer and thus as being obliged both to frame laws and mechanisms to influence
the behaviour of other agents and to protect, respect, promote and fulfil human
12.3.1. Social Objectives and Obligations
When an objective of social arrangement is accepted as a human right, it implies
that all agents of society would regard the fulfilment of that objective as a ‘binding’
obligation, one that supersedes all other policy objectives. Because not all social
objectives can be regarded as human rights, it is helpful to apply what may be
described as Amartya Sen’s (1999: 227–31) ‘legitimacy’ and ‘coherence’ tests. A
social objective must be of sufficient importance to inform a society’s constitutional
norms as standards of achievement, the realization of which would provide
legitimacy to the behaviour of all agents and authorities, especially the state. The
objective should also be ‘coherent’ so that the obligations or duties that have to be
carried out, and the agents who have to do so, can both be specified.
There may be several different social objectives, but the obligation to realize
human rights ‘trumps’ all others. Obligations would be binding for the agents in
the sense that if an agent were not to carry out the specified obligations, there
would be a mechanism of reprimand and sanction in order to induce appropriate
corrective or compensatory actions. If the obligations are incorporated into the
domestic legal system, this mechanism is ‘legal’, and disputes relating to them can
be settled in courts of law. If the rights are recognized in international human
rights law, then states parties to international human rights treaties are bound by
this obligation.
The state authorities are the primary duty-bearers. It is up to the state
authorities to take appropriate steps to implement the rights through direct action,
or by establishing rules and procedures and adopting specific laws to induce other
agents to adopt appropriate action. In addition to state authorities, all other states
and members of the international community that recognize human rights have the
obligation to cooperate among themselves and take whatever action is necessary
to realize the rights in all countries belonging to that community. Normally, other
states and international institutions provide assistance and take complementary
action to help the national state authorities to realize the rights of their citizens. In
certain situations, and by following appropriate procedures, other state members
of the international community can supersede the national state authority and
directly help citizens realize their rights when these national states fail to fulfil
their obligations or act against their citizens. States are also subject to monitoring
and continuous review by civil society and human rights institutions.
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12.3.2. Poverty as a Violation of Human Rights
The human rights language is obviously appealing, for if poverty is considered
a violation of human rights, it could mobilize public action that itself could
contribute significantly to the adoption of appropriate policies, especially by
governments in democratic countries. Also, the international community, donor
states, international institutions, multilateral institutions and multinational
corporations would have to cooperate to enable nation states to implement antipoverty programmes. The poverty reduction programme would then be a matter
not of charity but of duty, which would include the possibility of claiming rights
through the legal system and courts. It would make a government’s intervention
‘justiciable’ insofar as a ‘violation’ of this right would have a potential cost for the
government, as cases could be taken to courts.
Another value addition of the human rights approach is that when the
interventions involved in the application of instruments to reduce poverty are
opposed by the rich, the adoption of extreme poverty as a denial or violation
of human rights would help to overcome their resistance by: a) increasing the
cost to the rich of opposing those interventions, thereby implying a change in
their opportunity sets; b) convincing the rich of the desirability of reducing the
incidence of poverty, implying a change in preference on the part of the rich; and
c) limiting the sacrifices of wealth and privileges to a small set of people without
impinging much on the position of others. Countries may adopt policies to
resolve internal conflicts and reduce extreme poverty, as would be required by an
international convention, even without becoming parties to it. However, the effect
of peer pressure could prove quite a relevant consideration for many countries
joining the convention, as they would not wish to be isolated as the only country
not following the obligations after having ratified such a convention. In fact, the
value added to poverty reduction by an international convention increases as a
function of both the importance of peer pressures and the effect of its monitoring
and ‘naming and shaming’ provisions on parties.
There is considerable debate as to whether extreme poverty can be described
as a violation of human rights, or whether it is a condition that is caused by human
rights violations. If extreme poverty can be identified in itself as a violation of human
rights, it becomes an obligation for both the concerned states and the international
community to make the best efforts directly to remove it. The discussion would
then effectively centre on which policies would have the maximum impact for
poverty eradication and, if such policies are not adopted, which agencies would
be responsible and accountable, and what steps could be taken to compensate for
less than ‘best efforts’ made by the respective duty-bearers. However, if extreme
poverty were associated with conditions created by the non-fulfilment of the
various human rights, the obligations would turn on the realization of those rights.
That might or might not be sufficient to eradicate extreme poverty. In the latter
proposition, human rights are taken in their instrumental role in creating a state
of well-being for the right-holder, leading to the eradication of extreme poverty.
Human Rights and Extreme Poverty: An Economist’s Perspective303
In the former proposition, human rights are constituent elements of well-being,
identified with the eradication of extreme poverty.
It can be demonstrated, both empirically and logically, that a denial of some
human rights would cause and be instrumental in creating a state of extreme
poverty. It also should be possible to demonstrate that the fulfilment of all human
rights would facilitate the removal of basic insecurity, as defined by Wresinski, and
thereby the eradication of extreme poverty. However, it is plausible that people can
enjoy basic security without enjoying all human rights; so the lack of basic security
need not be equivalent to a lack or denial of human rights as such.
The case is similar with respect to capability deprivation. Unless the
freedoms that are lacking when there is a deprivation of capabilities that are
identified with and claimed as human rights, equivalence between capability
deprivation and human rights deprivation cannot be established. International
human rights law currently recognizes only a limited number of such freedoms
as human rights – including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
The space of capability is much broader, consisting of all kinds of freedoms that
are necessary to enable an individual to lead a life of value. A number of steps
must first be taken, however, before all such ‘freedoms’ can be elevated to ‘rights’.
As Sen (2004: 328) puts it, ‘rights involve claims (specifically claims on others who
are in a position to make a difference)’ and ‘freedoms are primarily descriptive
characteristics of conditions of persons’. Society has to recognize certain freedoms
to be enjoyed by its members as a fundamental value or norm, binding them in
the society and claimed by them as ‘rights’. These freedoms have to be universal,
enjoyed by all equally and without discrimination. They must fulfil the criteria of
‘legitimacy’ and ‘coherence’, and they must be claimed following ‘due’ procedures,
through an accepted ‘norm-creating’ process. Basic capabilities that correspond
to the notion of extreme poverty would cover only a subset of the total space of
capabilities. If that subset is taken as consisting of freedoms currently recognized
as rights, then extreme poverty, or basic capability deprivation, can be designated
a lack of human rights.
Incidentally, the condition of extreme poverty can be considered as the
violation of the right to development (established in the Declaration on the Right
to Development of 1986 and reiterated by international consensus in the Vienna
Declaration and Programme of Action of 1993) for those a society deems poor.
But there is still no consensus on the content of this right and the nature of
corresponding obligation; so I have not pursued here the approach of equating
extreme poverty with the denial of human rights to development, a subject I have
explored extensively as the Independent Expert on the Right to Development
(Sengupta 2002).
Thus it may not always be possible to go beyond the instrumental role of
human rights to the assertion that poverty is equivalent to a violation of human
rights. The absence of those rights may be the result of existing social arrangements
for which no individual party can be blamed or held accountable. It depends
upon the states parties that have taken on obligations as legally and morally
binding. Several states have not yet fully ratified the international human rights
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conventions, and even those that have done so have failed to incorporate them
into their domestic legal systems or to respond to international criticisms. Such
states do not deny the importance of human rights, or the value of these norms;
rather, what they object to is having to accept the legality of these rights. In such
cases, claiming that poverty is a violation of human rights will contribute little to
the actual alleviation of poverty.
It so happens that the fulfilment of most of the human rights that have been
recognized in international human rights law through the covenants on economic,
social and cultural rights and on civil and political rights can be described as the
basis of conditions of life without poverty. If these rights – such as the right to
food, health care, education and an adequate standard of living – were fulfilled,
it is difficult to imagine that a society would still have conditions of poverty. This
does not mean that poverty is to be defined as the violation of human rights, for
these two concepts are not equivalent. If rights were realized, there might not be
any poverty; but even if there were no poverty in a society, there could still be
violations or denials of some human rights.
Despite being signatory to the international covenants, countries have shown
no political will to adopt poverty reduction programmes or have not accepted the
‘obligations’ that would follow from their legal recognition of the relevant human
rights. Hence, in view of this, the notion of extreme poverty, as defined above, is best
proposed as a concept that would appeal to the international community of states to
accept the obligations that promise to effectively remove those conditions that create
extreme poverty and that are regarded as consistent with human rights norms.
The idea is to identify a group as extremely poor whose number is limited
so that a society does not find it unmanageable to deal with their problems. Once
such a group has been identified, the removal of their conditions of extreme
poverty must be taken on as an obligation corresponding to the fulfilment of
human rights norms. Even if the countries concerned may not be able to ensure
the realization of all human rights, those rights, whose denial has directly caused
extreme poverty, should be subject to immediate fulfilment. The international
community and all Member States should voluntarily accept the obligations to
eliminate extreme poverty as a core element of their human rights obligations.
The remainder of this section discusses national and international actions
that would be required to implement poverty eradication programmes from a
human rights perspective.
12.3.3. A
pplying a Human Rights Perspective to National
Actions to Combat Extreme Poverty
Besides aiming directly at fulfilling civil, political, economic, social and cultural
rights in order to eliminate income and human development poverty and social
exclusion, an important requirement to conduct human rights policy is for all
states that have ratified international human rights treaties to incorporate them
in their domestic legal systems and establish their own national human rights
Human Rights and Extreme Poverty: An Economist’s Perspective305
commission, which would adjudicate, review and recommend appropriate
remedial actions when human rights are claimed to have been denied to individuals
and groups who seek such actions. There should be a universal campaign to set
up such institutions all over the world, as well as a universal campaign to spread
human rights education.
Measures have to be taken in a planned and coordinated manner to promote
a development programme that facilitates the realization of human rights. These
rights are supposed to be realized progressively; some more immediately than
others, and the speed of progression will depend on both the flexibility of social,
legal and economic institutions and the availability of resources. For the removal
of extreme poverty, such programmes must be aimed at the most vulnerable,
those lacking essentially in income and human development. Dependence on the
markets alone can seldom achieve these specific targets and may often accentuate
the deprivation of vulnerable groups even further. This highlights the importance
of reforms in the system of governance for implementing any effective programme
for rights-based development.
The generation of sustainable employment opportunities, especially for a
population’s poorer members who reside in rural or urban areas and particularly
in unorganized sectors, can have a substantial impact on eradicating extreme
poverty. Such a programme should rely on establishing connectivity with markets,
skills and finance. To make the programme sustainable, it should be allowed to
expand to include eventually the unemployed labour force of the country as a
whole. Employment provides income and allows access to all human development
facilities, which in turn increases labour productivity and contributes to
employment sustainability.
Employment generation programmes in the informal sector have to be
based on three essential measures. First, those targeted must have access to
training, which means that facilities have to be set up throughout the country
for the transmission of specific but low-grade and simple skills. The programme
must be driven by market demand for skills, with public support to increase
supply by training and vocational education. Secondly, the products of these
semi- and low-skilled workers must have access to markets. Connectivity with
markets depends on information, transport facilities and telecommunications.
Connectivity with product markets has to be supplemented by access to input
markets and essential services for engaging in production, such as access to
power, water, shelter and sanitation, and then to finance. Expanding microfinance
facilities, such as those that have been instituted in many developing countries,
together with the reorientation of a country’s existing financial intermediary
institutions through adequate refinancing and appropriate risk-sharing, must be
taken up in these countries supported by central banks and often by national and
international financing institutions.
A plan for employment generation consistent with human rights standards,
respecting international labour rights and removing the constraints induced
by income poverty, human development poverty and social exclusion, will be
universally relevant both in developed and developing countries.
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12.3.4. A
pplying a Human Rights Perspective to
International Actions to Combat Extreme Poverty
International obligations for the realization of human rights take the form of both
international cooperation to which all states of the world pledged themselves under
Articles 55–56 of the Charter of the United Nations (UN 1945) and obligations
specified in various international conventions.
Agencies of the international community may be galvanized to adopt policies
specifically aimed at removing income and human development poverty and social
exclusion by following policies based on human rights standards of participation,
accountability, transparency, equity and non-discrimination. The reorientation of
their methods of operation is imperative for all agencies, such as the United Nations
Development Programme (UNDP), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the
World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of
the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and
the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). But most
important would be the role of the World Bank and the International Monetary
Fund (IMF). It is a necessary to coordinate official development assistance (ODA)
with policies of international cooperation, as well as to increase it.
Within the existing mechanisms, it would be useful to concentrate on the
operations of the World Bank and the IMF and their implementation of poverty
reduction strategies explicitly in the form of human rights fulfilment. To this end,
a first requirement may be the amendment of the Articles of Agreement of the
World Bank and the IMF.
It may also be necessary to make the funding of poverty reduction strategies
open-ended and allow international financial institutions to recommend the
effective expansion of cooperation in the fields of trade, debt and technology
transfer, and additional funding, when countries successfully conduct their
strategies in a rights-based manner. In addition, it may be useful to set up a
financing facility of callable funds created on the basis of commitments by all
countries to contribute 0.7 per cent of their GDP. The funds would be available
only after the World Bank and the IMF had determined that the poverty reduction
strategy had been implemented in accordance with human rights standards.
In addition, for each implementing country an independent body consisting
of independent experts could be set up to monitor the programmes and to
adjudicate on appeals by all the concerned parties, focusing on responsibilities
and recommending remedial actions. Even if those recommendations were not
binding, the exercise would facilitate the programme’s implementation.
Finally, a special window could be created within the World Bank and the IMF
for developing countries’ financing plans to expand employment opportunities for
the poor, the marginal and the vulnerable in the unorganized sector. This would
be the international counterpart of the national action described above.
Human Rights and Extreme Poverty: An Economist’s Perspective307
12.4. Characteristics of a Human Rights
Approach to Poverty Reduction: ENPAT
Although most experts argue that developed countries have no legally binding
international obligation to provide international aid and development assistance
to developing countries, the existing international legal framework on
international cooperation encourages wealthy developed countries to assume a
moral and political obligation to reach out to developing countries in the spirit of
international cooperation.
In this connection the eradication of extreme poverty may be regarded as
the primary objective of development policies, an objective that can be achieved
only by way of a rights-based approach to development. Such policies must
internalize the basic principles of international human rights norms: equity,
non-discrimination, participation, accountability and transparency. In my reports,
I have proposed a development compacts model of international cooperation. To
implement a rights-based poverty reduction programme, it is necessary to resolve
the issue of donor conditionalities such that developing countries, while receiving
international aid and assistance to fulfil their development objectives, do not have
to sacrifice ownership in the design and implementation of their policies and
programmes. This approach calls for developing countries to accept obligations
to fulfil and protect human rights. The international community, including donor
countries and international agencies, must ensure that developing countries that
meet their obligations will have free access to trade and finance. It must be ensured
that the conditions or obligations accepted by the developing countries are in their
best interest and closely monitored by themselves in a manner consistent with the
rights-based approach.
As such the international community has adopted a framework of international cooperation to achieve poverty reduction targets under the aegis of
developed donor countries and international financial institutions such as the
World Bank and the IMF. PRSPs, initiated by the IMF and the World Bank in
1999, are prepared by low-income countries; they detail a given country’s strategies for poverty reduction, linking national action, donor support and development outcomes and involving domestic stakeholders and development partners,
including the IMF and the World Bank. I introduced the acronym ‘ENPAT’, which
is shorthand for ‘Equity, Non-Discrimination, Participation, Accountability and
Transparency’, the key characteristics of the rights-based approach of development, in my first report in 1998 (Sengupta 1999: para. 57–80) to the UNHCR
as the Independent Expert on the Right to Development. ENPAT applies to the
policies for promoting the right to development based on both national actions
and international cooperation. The same approach applies equally for any action
aimed at poverty reduction, especially in connection with international cooperation for a poverty reduction strategy promoted by the IMF and the World Bank
(Adejumobi 2006). Different authors have named these elements differently, but
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ideas are fully incorporated in the original 1999 concept of ENPAT for the right
to development.323
12.4.1. Equity and Non-Discrimination
Equity is to be construed as such with respect to growth, structure and distribution
of resources in the economy, as well as equitable distribution of income and benefits
accruing from the exercise of rights. Non-discrimination entails abstention
from discriminating on the grounds of sex, race, language, political affiliation or
socioeconomic status in the design and implementation of policies and practices
and in the practice of democracy and the rule of law, while particular attention is
paid to the well-being of vulnerable groups.
Social safety nets, including cash transfers, food and price subsidies, public
works and so on, are aimed at the poor or those at risk of poverty to protect them
against the insecurity of unequal distribution of income and to help them to
overcome vulnerability to shocks and adversities that can render them completely
destitute. However, in most developing countries, especially in Africa, the right to
social security has not been achieved, for the fruits of economic growth have failed
to trickle down to the poorest and most vulnerable. Gender inequality is also a
major obstacle to rights-based economic growth.
12.4.2. Participation
All members of a community that adopts a rights-based approach to development
should be able to participate, either individually or collectively in a) decisionmaking about policy priorities, b) formulation of programmes to implement
policies, c) monitoring the process of implementation, and d) evaluating outcomes
and then taking corrective actions.
For example, technocrats, in collaboration with IMF and World Bank officials,
have usually prepared the interim PRSPs, which are the basic documents used for
drafting the final papers, and have done so without any external participation.
That needs to be changed to make such strategy papers integral to the rights-based
programme of poverty reduction.
12.4.3. Accountability and Transparency
Accountability concerns the transformation of right-holders from passive
recipients of aid into empowered claimants. Since duty-bearers are accountable for
any failure to fulfil their duties, appropriate legal procedures should be put in place
323. The concept of ENPAT was further elaborated in Sengupta (2000), para. 25.
Human Rights and Extreme Poverty: An Economist’s Perspective309
to cover the process of implementation, indicators to assess the process, reforms of
the judiciary and other institutions that can provide evaluation and assistance in
overcoming corruption, and effective governance.
States and the international community at large have the responsibility to
realize universal human rights. Thus, monitoring and accountability procedures
should involve not only states but also extend to global actors, such as the
donor community, intergovernmental organizations, international NGOs and
transnational corporations whose actions have a bearing on the enjoyment of
human rights.
Due to the gross inadequacy of the national monitoring and evaluation
system, the PRSP approach faces serious challenges in ensuring transparency and
accountability. The monitoring and evaluation system should examine the input,
process and outcome of PRSPs and should also be participatory in nature, such
that it includes the voices of civil society, academia, the private sector, the media
and other stakeholders.
12.5. R esults of the Independent
Expert’s Country Missions
In this section I present findings from my mission report on extreme poverty
conditions in the US and the policy experiences of some African, Asian and
EU countries. I have conducted studies in the US, the EU, Africa and Asia to
identify the implementation of poverty reduction policies within a human
rights framework in a specific environment. Thus, in the economically advanced
region of the EU, where social protection systems are well-developed, poverty
reduction programmes have been devised to focus on those ‘at risk of poverty’.
For developing and underdeveloped regions in Africa and Asia, poverty reduction
programmes also reflect each country’s sociopolitical and economic development.
Hence, the focus of my studies has been more on programmes that provide for
welfare services and access to basic services in the form of health, education and
safe drinking water. In Africa, the added burden is of lack of participation by
democratic institutions in such programmes and even lack of governance in many
12.5.1. Poverty Reduction in the US
Even with its high per capita income, the US has not eradicated extreme poverty
as I have defined it. I conducted a fact-finding mission there from 24 October
to 4 November 2005 (Sengupta 2006b). Based on my findings, I made several
observations and recommendations applicable to the situation at that time,
including the following:
i) Despite the economic wealth of the US and the efforts of its government,
the poverty rate remains high compared to other wealthy nations, and
Arjun Sengupta
there is no evidence that the incidence of poverty, and especially extreme
poverty, is waning.
ii) Government programmes and policies have not effectively remedied
the vulnerable situation of those groups most at risk of extreme poverty,
notably African-Americans, Hispanics, immigrants and single-womenheaded households.
iii) The US has yet to implement any national anti-poverty legislation. All
that exists is a patchwork of sundry laws that address aspects of poverty
in a limited manner.
iv) If the US were to adopt a comprehensive national strategy and
programmes based on human rights principles, it would be possible to
reduce poverty and eradicate extreme poverty.
v) Social safety nets for poor families should be administered through
entitlement programmes, and measures should be taken to facilitate
participation in these programmes and ensure that cumbersome
enrolment procedures do not discourage those who qualify for social
benefits from applying.
vi) The full participation of those living in poverty should be ensured in
the design, implementation, monitoring and assessment of programmes
for combating poverty. Such programmes should build on poor people’s
own efforts, ensuring the full participation of those concerned and
responding to their actual needs.
The US was encouraged to adopt the following steps towards a rights-based
programme of poverty eradication. First, US authorities, in cooperation with civil
society and expert organizations, should identify a segment of its population that
is suffering from conditions of extreme poverty (defined in terms of a combination
of income poverty, human development poverty and social exclusion). Secondly,
once this group has been identified, US authorities should adopt legislative
provisions to accord them the legal entitlement to the programmes that are needed
to lift them out of these conditions of poverty. This legal entitlement would allow
the extremely poor, or their representatives, to seek redress in the courts if they
are denied their entitlements. Thirdly, to finance such programmes, the federal
government may wish to create a fund with the sole purpose of abolishing the
conditions of extreme poverty.
In the meantime and in response to the more recent financial crisis, the US
Congress adopted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which
includes numerous anti-poverty programmes, such as ‘Pathways Out of Poverty’
grants, which are aimed at helping disadvantaged populations to escape poverty
and to achieve economic self-sufficiency through employment in energy efficiency
and renewable energy industries ( 2010). According to the Center
on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the Act has succeeded in keeping more
than 6 million Americans out of poverty and reducing the severity of poverty
for another 33 million (Sherman 2010). The Act’s main provisions include a new
tax credit called the ‘Making Work Pay’ tax credit, an expanded Child Tax Credit
Human Rights and Extreme Poverty: An Economist’s Perspective311
for lower-income working families with children, an expanded Earned Income
Tax Credit, additional weeks of emergency unemployment benefits (paid after a
worker’s 26 weeks of regular state unemployment benefits expire), an additional
$25 per week for all jobless workers receiving unemployment benefits, a one-time,
$250 payment to certain retirees and veterans and people with disabilities, and,
finally, an increase in food stamp benefit levels (Sherman 2010).
12.5.2. P
overty Reduction in the EU through Social
Protection and Social Inclusion
Despite the prevailing impression that prosperity and well-being are the rule in
the EU, nearly 78 million people in the EU (or 16% of the EU population) are
currently living at risk of poverty. The ‘at risk of poverty’ rate is defined as the
‘share of persons with an equivalized disposable income, before social transfers
below the risk-of-poverty threshold, which is set at 60 per cent of the national
median equivalized disposable income (after social transfers)’. In the EU, 19 per
cent of children (under 16 years) are at risk of poverty (ETF 2008).
Poverty reduction is one of the top priorities on the EU agenda. The Lisbon
Strategy that emerged from the Lisbon Summit in 2000 addressed the key issue
of social exclusion and set the goal of poverty eradication within the region by
2010, to be achieved through the OMC. These objectives, if met, would help the
EU to achieve its larger goal of a ‘socially cohesive Europe’. The objectives were
to be fulfilled through the development of appropriate National Action Plans
against Poverty and Social Exclusion (NAPS), subject to periodic reporting
and monitoring of progress. Further improvements of the indicators for social
inclusion were made at the Laeken Economic Council in December 2001.
Social protection systems are fairly well developed in the EU; they attempt
to provide adequate coverage to ‘at risk of poverty’ populations affected by
unemployment, old age, ill health, inadequate income and parental responsibility.
The EU has also been actively involved in the modernization of social
protection systems in member countries. The Social Protection Committee,
established by the EC after the Lisbon Summit in 2000, is mandated to work on
policy challenges related to secure income, safe and sustainable pension systems,
social inclusion and high quality health care. In 2005, the EC adopted the new
Social Agenda 2005–2010 (EC 2005), which focuses on two priority areas of action:
employment and equal opportunities for all. PROGRESS, the EU’s integrated
programme for employment and social solidarity support, which runs from 2007
to 2013, further contributes to the EU’s wider strategy for jobs and growth. In
July 2008, the EC proposed to reinforce the OMC in the social field to allow the
EU to achieve better results for the 2008–2010 period and pave the way for the
introduction of a sound framework after 2010. Here 2010 is not only the final
year of the 2008–2010 OMC cycle but also the first year of a new policy strategy
for the EU and the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion.
The European Year 2010 aims to recognize the rights and capacities of excluded
Arjun Sengupta
people to play an active part in society, promote social cohesion, underline the
responsibility of everyone in the society to tackle poverty, and reinforce the
commitment of all major political players to take more effective actions.
As of 2008, 9.2 per cent of working-age adults in the EU were living in jobless
households (i.e. where no member of the family was working).324 The existence of
working poverty in the EU raises serious questions about the quality of work and
the commitment of the EU to poverty reduction.
As with increasing life expectancy, the proportion of elderly and very elderly
persons in the population has increased. Ageing also increases the pressures
to provide better curative and rehabilitative health care, and most EU member
countries are presently ill-equipped to provide such long-term care. No EU
country has effected specific legislation on long-term care; France and the Czech
Republic are among the only countries to have incorporated long-term care into
their social assistance programmes. The EU also recognizes the health care sector
as a potential generator of employment opportunities for skilled workers. With
a greater number of elderly persons in need of care, the demand for health care
professionals is on the rise; but interestingly, with more professionals reaching
retirement age, the supply of professionals in this sector is shrinking. The decline
in the number of health care professionals, in turn, raises health care expenditures
and thereby adversely affects the financial sustainability of health care. This
problem can be tackled by devising better human resource strategies.
12.5.3. Poverty Reduction in Africa
In Africa poverty reduction strategies have been based on the recognition that
engineering economic growth through structural adjustment programmes (SAPs)
may exacerbate inequality and poverty, and, in the absence of conscious efforts to
mitigate these side effects, social resentment and popular discontent may increase
such that it negatively impacts on the growth process. Poverty reduction strategies
incorporated in PRSPs are meant to counter this tendency. PRSPs typically have
three main features: macroeconomic reforms and trade liberalization in order to
stimulate economic growth; the redirection of social policy towards the provision
of welfare services to the poor and the vulnerable; and an emphasis on ownership
and popular participation. In terms of real social welfare impact, country statistics
show that PRSPs are making a visible difference. However, apart from a few
countries like Uganda and Ghana, civil society organizations, labour and trade
unions and professional associations have been sidelined in the consultation
process, and democratic institutions such as parliament and political parties
have not been included in the process. As a result, PRSPs often undermine the
growth of democracy, rather than strengthening it (Adejumobi 2006). Despite
324. See Eurostat (2010). This information relates to the EU-25, consisting of the 25 Member States
following the expansion that occurred between 1 May 2004 and 31 December 2006 (the EU
currently has 27 members).
Human Rights and Extreme Poverty: An Economist’s Perspective313
these criticisms, it is generally recognized that the PRSPs have brought antipoverty programmes to the forefront of national development policies and have
highlighted the nature of political regimes and governance in Africa.
12.5.4. Poverty Reduction in Asia
Development policy now emphasizes that national governments themselves
should identify their priority areas in order to enable them to design their own
national poverty reduction strategies within the context of social development. In
line with this approach, many Asian countries have adopted PRSPs, with the broad
participation of civil society, as the framework for their efforts at poverty reduction
and as a basis for accessing loans and grants from international donors.
Most countries in the Asia-Pacific region focus their national poverty
reduction strategies and programmes on the majority of the poor population.
These programmes aim at reducing poverty, increasing access to basic services (e.g.
education, health care and safe drinking water), and addressing issues of equity,
non-discrimination and participation through targeted safety net programmes.
Although in many of these countries the actual implementation process is still
in its infancy, success in terms of overall poverty reduction is already becoming
apparent. In Nepal, for example, the Central Bureau of Statistics (2005) reveals that
the national poverty rate per capita declined from 41.76 per cent in 1995–1996
to 30.85 per cent in 2003–2004. Viet Nam also has been able to meet significant
poverty reduction targets through the implementation of its Comprehensive
Poverty Reduction and Growth Strategy (CPRGS), which it adopted in 2000. The
incidence of poverty in Viet Nam has declined from 17 per cent in 2000 to 7 per
cent in 2005 (CPRGS 2006).
Most Asian countries also attach considerable importance to providing
social safety nets for targeted vulnerable groups in order to fulfil the criteria of
equity and non-discrimination. Bangladesh, in particular, has had significant
success in its social safety net programmes (SNPs), 27 of which represent 4.4 per
cent of public expenditure. With regard to basic education, public schools account
for the bulk of primary school enrolment in the region (89%), and their share of
overall education expenditure is 79 per cent. In contrast to education, however,
the average public sector share in overall health expenditure is only about 52 per
cent for developing Asian countries, a figure that is particularly low in South Asian
countries, which reflects the predominance of private and other forms of health
care provision in this sub-region. The low quality of many public health systems
leads even the poor to opt for private services. This is particularly the case in rural
areas, where the health systems are often administered by traditional doctors and
under-qualified practitioners. In some cases, impact evaluation studies assessing
the effectiveness of public health systems and health service delivery by NGOs
found that contracting to NGOs can be both effective in terms of attaining higher
improvements in health indicators and more equitable in terms of reaching the
poor (ADB 2004).
Arjun Sengupta
Experience of participation in PRSPs has shown that there is a need to establish
a clear framework for participation that defines guidelines and benchmarks for
determining who can be involved, when or at what stage and with what ‘level
of participation’, as well as for the methodology to be used in the process. Most
case studies point to a general failure to directly involve the poor, as well as to the
absence of a clear and appropriate framework for participation. However, some
success has been achieved in fostering community participation. Monitoring and
accountability still remain the weakest aspects of the implementation of a rightsbased approach to development. The existence, in most countries of the region,
of democratic political systems makes it possible to establish the monitoring and
accountability procedures that are an essential ingredient of the rights-based
approach to development. Yet electoral democracy on its own is seldom enough to
guarantee accountability. An extensive institutional framework needs to be in place,
including a well functioning parliament and effective parliamentary committees,
semi-judicial institutions (e.g. a human rights commission and ombudsmen), and
an effective system of decentralization.
12.6. C onclusion: The Contribution of
Economic Perspectives to Human
Rights Approaches to Poverty
This chapter has drawn on my work as Independent Expert in order to explore
the economic dimensions of dealing with freedom from poverty as a human right.
It has called attention to the intersection of the three components of poverty
(income poverty, human development poverty and social exclusion) when social
consensus on poverty reduction strategies is formulated. It has approached poverty
reduction comprehensively in a human rights framework and emphasized the
need to recognize that extreme poverty is a denial of human rights. In so doing, it
has sought to demonstrate that a rights-based approach adds considerable value
to poverty reduction strategies in all countries, whether developed or developing,
where a significant proportion of the country’s population suffers extreme forms
of poverty. The idea is to identify as extremely poor any group whose number
is limited so that a given society can deal with its problems. Once such a group
has been identified, the removal of their conditions of extreme poverty must be
taken on as an obligation akin to the fulfilment of human rights norms. Even
when the countries concerned are unable to ensure the realization of all human
rights, those rights whose denial has directly caused extreme poverty should be
subject to immediate fulfilment.
While the context-specific nature of the problems are brought out through
the study of policy experiences in the US and in African, Asian and EU countries,
the overall conclusion is that a human rights approach contributes significantly to
dealing with extreme poverty. While none of the debates among economists on
the key issues have been settled, it is nevertheless to be hoped that more empirical
Human Rights and Extreme Poverty: An Economist’s Perspective315
studies and theoretical investigation will refine and improve the rights-based
process of poverty reduction and ultimately the eradication of poverty.
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Asian Development Bank (ADB). 2006. Key Indicators of Developing Asian and
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Comprehensive Poverty Reduction and Growth Strategy (CPRGS), Steering
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European Community (EC). n.d. PROGRESS programme.
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European Community (EC). 2005. Communication from the Commission
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European Community (EC). 2000. Presidency conclusions. Lisbon European
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European Training Foundation (ETF). 2008. Eradicating poverty: the 2010
European Year starts today. 17 October. Torino: ETF. http://www.etf.
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International Monetary Fund (IMF), Articles of Agreement:
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Sengupta, A. 2007. Implementation of General Assembly Resolution 60/215 of 15
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and Extreme Poverty]. UN Doc. E/CN.4/2006/43, 2 March. New York:
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Why Should Human Rights Issues be
Addressed by the World Bank?
Some Instrumental Economic Arguments
Desmond McNeill and Luis Sanchez
13.1. Introduction
The primary reason why human rights issues should be addressed by those
concerned with development and poverty reduction rests on an intrinsic ethical
argument: all human beings share a common humanity, and this is the basis for
moral judgments concerning how one, or the collective, should treat others.
Arising out of this is a legal argument, which some also regard as intrinsic:
that the nations of the world, in the name of their peoples, have committed
themselves to a number of human rights conventions, and that these conventions
apply equally to the World Bank.325
Internationally-recognized human rights are those included in the
International Bill of Human Rights. The International Bill includes the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the two Covenants adopted on the
basis of that Declaration, that is, the International Covenant on Civil and Political
325. Perhaps the most detailed attempt to provide guiding principles is found in the ‘Tilburg
Guiding Principles of World Bank, IMF and Human Rights’ (Van Genugten et al 2003; see also
Van Genugten and Perez-Bustillo, 2001). And in her book concerning the legal obligations of
the Bank, Skogly (2001) argues that from the Articles of Agreement it follows that the Bank is a
legal person with duties and responsibilities, arguably in the same way as business corporations
are treated as legal persons; and hence the Bank has a responsibility to carry its mandate ‘within
the framework of international law’ (Skogly, 2001: 47). From this, it follows that the Bank is
also obliged to respect human rights as articulated by the UN Charter, as well as by customary
international law and ‘general principles’ of law (Darrow, 2003). This obligation entails that
Bank programmes and policies ought not to violate human rights. Skogly adds that such an
obligation is not only negative, but also positive. According to her, even though the Bank has
recognized its positive role in the promotion of economic, cultural and social rights, there is
no indication as to how this is ensured or monitored (Skogly, 2001: 55). The Bank’s former
Chief General Counsel, Roberto Dañino, argued in a legal opinion that there is no reason why
the Bank should not demand from its clients respect for human rights; but he fell short of
committing the Bank as an institution to be subject to human rights law – because human rights
law, he claimed, applies to countries rather than to multilateral institutions (Dañino, 2006).
Desmond McNeill and Luis Sanchez
Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights (ICESCR). The distinction between the two covenants is reflected also in
different legal instruments. It is often stated that while the former constitute a
core of basic freedoms with an ‘absolute’ and ‘immediate’ value, being directly
‘justiciable’, the latter are programmatic principles to enlighten public policies
concerning human dignity.
As an international organization, the World Bank is in a rather special
position. It is owned and controlled by its shareholders, predominantly rich
countries, but its task is to benefit the poor, predominantly in poor countries. As
McNeill (2007) argues, one might say that the Bank is formally accountable to its
Board, but morally accountable to the poor of the world.326 There are a number of
reasons, both intrinsic and instrumental, why it is appropriate for the World Bank
to address human rights issues. Some of these may be more relevant and more
compelling with one audience, others with another. It should not be assumed that
instrumental arguments – by virtue of their being economic, or based on some
supposed ‘more factual’ foundation – are privileged; indeed, there are grounds for
arguing that the reverse is the case. For many people, one or both of the two reasons
just stated is sufficient to answer the question: ‘Why should human rights issues be
addressed by the World Bank?’ The purpose of this chapter, however, is to set out
a purely instrumental argument based on an economic rationale: that promoting
human rights is an effective approach for the design and implementation of
policies to promote development and reduce poverty.
13.1.1. The Contribution of Amartya Sen
The Nobel Prize winning economist Professor Amartya Sen has, through a number
of works, provided what is probably the most important single contribution to the
case for human rights in development – argued both on instrumental and intrinsic
grounds. He has made a strong case, on instrumental grounds, that factors such as
the institutional context, including respect for fundamental freedoms and human
rights, may play an important role in the creation of wealth and its distribution.327
He has thus made a significant contribution to the arguments summarized in this
chapter: the so-called instrumental justification of human rights.
But he is perhaps even better known for his intrinsic arguments: his challenge
to the narrowly economistic view of human well-being. With reference to HDRs,
he stresses that an individual’s satisfaction cannot be measured only in terms of a
326. To quote President Wolfowitz’s Annual Meeting address, 24 September, 2005: ‘Implications
for the World Bank: Whether investing in education, health, infrastructure, agriculture, or the
environment, we in the World Bank must be sure that we deliver results. And by results, let
me be clear. I mean results that have a real impact on the daily lives of the poor. We stand
accountable to them.’ (Emphasis added.)
327. Economists’ interest in non-income variables as explanatory factors in economic development
has increased during the last two decades, but the specific issue of human rights seems not to
have been taken up to any great extent.
Why Should Human Rights Issues be Addressed by the World Bank321
single parameter (what economists call utility), but also in terms of the freedom
that a person has to pursue her own fate and goals according to her capacity (what
in Sen’s terminology is known as the capabilities and functionings approach). An
exclusive focus on income can result in systematic bias and policy failure due to
the focus on a single instrument when many may be relevant, and to the focus on
the wrong policy target.328 Focusing rather on fundamental freedoms and human
rights is what can lead us to better achieve those goals and to avoid those biases.
13.1.2. T
he ‘Two Pillars’ of the World Bank and
the Structure of this Chapter
The task of the World Bank is to promote development and the reduction of
poverty. In flagship documents in recent years (for example, WDR 2000 and WDR
2006) the World Bank has often presented its analysis and policy in terms of two
‘pillars’: improving the investment climate and empowerment. These are seen by
the Bank as complementary. A minority of critics might disagree; either suggesting
that true empowerment of poor people is likely to damage the investment climate,
or that a favourable climate for investment is more effectively ensured by limiting
rather than increasing the power of the people. Between these two extreme views
are those of many who would maintain that the two pillars are compatible, but that
there are also potential and actual conflicts between them when one moves from
the level of rhetoric to practice. And this may lead to disagreements, not about the
desirability of the two goals, but about the extent to which one or the other should
be given priority, where resources – economic, human and political – are in limited
supply. Evidence of this is even to be found in the mere fact that in drafting WDR
2000 there was lively debate about which of the two pillars should be treated first.
In order to appreciate the significance of this point, it is useful to recognize that
debate about the two pillars to some extent maps onto fundamental debates that
have long shaped development research and policy: concerning ‘redistribution
and growth’, and ‘the role of state and market’.
In this chapter, we will not enter into these discussions, but we will try to show
how different categories of rights may be linked to the two pillars of the World Bank,
as summarized in Figure 13.1. The links in each case are based on arguments to be
found in the literature, mainly by economists. Some of these arguments are quite
old, but take on a new twist when couched in the language of human rights. Many
of the arguments are a priori theorizing – logically compelling, perhaps, but still
not empirically based. Some are well grounded empirically. But what constitutes a
solid empirical base differs between disciplines; some will take seriously evidence
– from, say, historians and political scientists – of a primarily qualitative nature.
Others, notably economists, require statistical evidence: hypothesized causal
links being tested by correlations between quantified variables. Since the purpose
328. See Dreze and Sen (1989) and Sen (1999).
Desmond McNeill and Luis Sanchez
of this chapter is primarily to provide economic arguments, we have chosen to
refer mainly to arguments by economists – which are necessarily couched in the
language of economics, and relate especially to quantitative measures.
Figure 13.1. Categories of rights and the World Bank pillars
World Bank pillars
Human capital
Economic, social
and cultural rights
Labour standards,
including child
Women in
and investment
Civil and
political rights
The rule of law
Social stability
and uncertainty
We begin with the issue of women’s rights, which relates to the ‘women in
development’ debate which has developed especially in the last twenty years. Next,
we consider economic, social and cultural rights, which relate to the substantial
literature on human capital, and to more recent work on labour standards. Third,
we consider civil and political rights, which relate to the relatively recent, and
complex, debate on governance, democracy and the rule of law. We then devote
one section to a recent paper which deals precisely with the economic effects of
human rights, before ending with a brief section linking human rights and human
obligations, and making reference to the Scandinavian experience.
Why Should Human Rights Issues be Addressed by the World Bank323
13.2. Women’s Rights
All human rights instruments have explicitly included non-discrimination
clauses relating to the rights provided for in the conventions. Full enjoyment and
protection of the rights listed in the ICCPR and the ICESCR apply both for women
and men;329 but, in addition, there are specific principles within the covenants that
underline the need for special protection for women. This is the case, for instance,
of Article 10 of the ICESCR, which promulgates the need for special protection
of mothers. This privileged legal status illustrates the importance attached to
gender inequality issues. This in itself is a good reason to begin with the issue
of women’s rights, and to treat it as a separate issue. But it is also very relevant to
begin with the issue of Women in Development (WID)330 because it illustrates well
the significance of distinguishing between intrinsic and instrumental arguments.
The case for WID, especially in the World Bank, has been argued mainly on
instrumental grounds – for example, that promoting women’s education would
raise economic output – rather than on an intrinsic argument based on gender
equality and women’s rights.331
One simple and powerful argument for encouraging gender equality in
development policies is simply that, by doing so, we are enhancing the well-being
of half the population. There are, however, several others that have been made.
When WID was being promoted in the World Bank in the late 1980s, one of the
arguments of the division was that improved education and increased income
levels of women would tend to lower the birth rate. This argument seems to be
less emphasized in a more recent World Bank publication on the subject (2001),
but other instrumental arguments are still predominant. These may be briefly
• Inefficiencies in the allocation of productive resources between men and
women within households may lead to losses in terms of output.332
329. Article 3 of both covenants. See also the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
330. We use the term ‘Women in Development’ (WID) rather than the alternative ‘Gender and
Development’ (GAD) mainly because economic arguments have tended to relate primarily to
the former, less political, version of the agenda.
331. To quote an evaluation carried out by McNeill for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
‘Does translating the case into Bank language subvert the argument? […] There are a number
of different, and valid reasons for promoting WID, which do not rely on treating women as a
wasted productive asset, or a regrettable reproductive liability.’ (1989: 90.)
332. According to the report, in households in Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Kenya, more equal
control of inputs and farm income by women and men could raise farm yields by as much as
one-fifth of current output. With regard to the rates of productivity, it has been observed that
female farmers are not less efficient than male farmers; the lower yields by female farmers stem
from lower levels of inputs or education relative to male farmers.
Another striking conclusion from the report shows the importance of women in the family
organization and its economic performance. Indeed, empirical evidence from Bangladesh,
Brazil and the Ivory Coast shows that putting additional income in the hands of women within
the household tends to have a larger positive impact than putting income in the hands of men.
Investing in women’s welfare thus contributes to economic prosperity by creating positive
externalities to other sectors of the society.
Desmond McNeill and Luis Sanchez
• Low investment in female education reduces a country’s total output.
Education improves the efficiency of human capital.333 (See next section
on human capital.)
• Gender inequality not only has repercussions for women’s welfare but
also for their children, and thus, the next generation’s welfare.334
Finally, the report stresses the role of gender equality in the achievement of
good governance. It is claimed that enhanced women’s rights and more equal
participation in public life by women and men are associated with cleaner business
and governments. Where the influence of women in public life is greater, the level
of corruption is lower.335
In summary, in relation to the World Bank’s two ‘pillars’, one may with
confidence claim that promoting women’s rights (notably ICCPR Article 3
‘equal right of men and women’) contributes to empowerment. With regard to
the investment climate, the argument from women’s rights is also compelling: a
more efficient allocation of resources should lead to increased productivity and
These are the main (instrumental) economic arguments for promoting
women’s rights. More generally, however, one may make a case for promoting the
rights of all people in order to enhance human capital, as discussed in the next
13.3. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
The promotion of economic, social and cultural rights can be a very effective means
for enhancing levels of health and education, and hence increase what economists
refer to as human capital. At least since the time of Adam Smith, economists have
recognized that acquired abilities and improved health affect productivity, but it
was in the early 1960s that the theory of human capital became formalized.336 One
of the early contributors to human capital theory was Gary Becker. In his book
Human Capital (1964) he concludes ‘I would venture the judgement that human
333. The private rate of return for an additional year of schooling for women is generally at least as
large as that for men. This implies that women can benefit more than men from one additional
year of schooling, because women have lower average schooling. However, this does not imply
that women earn more than men from the same level of schooling.
334. Low female schooling rates translate into poor quality of care for children and then higher
infant and child mortality and malnutrition. Accordingly, mothers with more education are
more likely to adopt appropriate health-promoting behaviours, such as having young children
335. See Kauffman (1998): women in business are less likely to pay bribes to government officials,
perhaps because women have higher standards of ethical behaviour or greater risk aversion.
336. ‘This knowledge and skill are in great part the product of investment and, combined with other
human investment, predominantly account for the productive superiority of the technically
advanced countries’ (Schultz, 1961: 3).
Why Should Human Rights Issues be Addressed by the World Bank325
capital is going to be an important part of the thinking about development, income
distribution, labour turnover, and many other problems for a long time to come.’
The term has recently received an added boost thanks to work by economists
on growth theory, and more specifically on so-called ‘endogenous growth models’.
According to one authoritative source:
T.W. Schultz was ahead of his time, at least among economists. The earliest
postwar models of development emphasized accumulation of physical
capital, and saw spending on health and education as a drain on the
accumulation of ‘productive’ assets. But eventually, the newer classical
growth models incorporated formally Schultz’s insight, and related work on
accounting for growth by Hollis Chenery and colleagues at the World Bank
pointed to the contribution of more skilled workers with more human capital
to increased productivity and growth. The more recent endogenous growth
models are even more emphatic. […] In these models, the new ideas and new
technologies that are critical to high sustained growth rely fundamentally on
high levels of human capital. (Birdsall 2001)
Thus, there is now considerable evidence that there are strong instrumental
economic arguments for securing better health and education of the population.
While in poor countries both health and education are of great importance, the
emphasis in economic research in rich countries has been largely on education,
and more specifically on ‘knowledge’ – both as regards theoretical modeling and
empirical research.337
Interest in the human capital theories dating from the work of Schulz, Becker
and others in the sixties has been renewed: work began in the second half
of the decade on human capital indicators in response to the 1996 OECD
Ministerial Council request. […] Major international studies were carried out
during much of the nineties on the employment trends, needs and difficulties
of member countries (OECD 1994; Bowers et al 1999). In these, […] the core
theme might be summarised as a growing need for a workforce displaying
highly intelligent, flexible, knowledge-based production and information
processing capability, together with resourcefulness, initiative and skill in
group problem solving. (OECD 1994)
A recent paper by Barrera (2005) is of particular interest since it seeks to link
knowledge and human rights. He notes that the development of human capital is
only viable if economic agents have access to the basic means to satisfy their needs.
For that reason, basic needs that contribute to the formation of human capital
See, for instance, Mankiw (1995) and Mankiw, Romer and Weil (1992), although the exact extent
to which education may influence the capacity to create wealth still remains as a controversial
point mainly due to the difficulties of measurement (how to measure the aggregated levels of
skills of an economy?).
Desmond McNeill and Luis Sanchez
constitute an element of allocative efficiency. Although his paper is concerned
mainly with knowledge, two points are more generally applicable to the case for
promoting human rights in the interests of building human capital. The first is
that prevention is better than cure: basic needs satisfaction is a cheaper ex ante
measure compared to ex post remedies. This seems to be particularly applicable to
the case of human capital creation. Take the case of child labour and malnutrition:
in forgoing an education because of the need to supplement meagre household
income, children are condemned to a lifetime of illiteracy and poverty. Malnutrition
at an early age often results in irreversible physical and mental disabilities.
A second argument is that after shocks caused by pecuniary externalities,
the higher the level of education and health standards, the easier it is to get human
capital back on stream in the economy. Indeed, malnourished and illiterate workers
are more likely to be irreversibly marginalized after pecuniary externalities.
In summary, several rights are directly relevant to human capital, such
as ICESC Article 13 on the ‘right to education’ and Article 12 on the ‘right to
physical and mental health’. In relation to the World Bank’s two ‘pillars’, promoting
rights such as these contributes to improving the investment climate, through the
potential for increased production; but also to improving empowerment.
A closely-related issue is that of labour standards, but here the argument
is rather more complex and the causal links are contested. We may, however,
summarize some of the main results in economic theory that have implications
for the expected effects of greater concern on workers’ rights in developing
Brown, Deardorff and Stern (1996), summarized in Singh and Nirvikar
(2001), set out the analytical framework required to evaluate the distributive
effects of the implementation of common global labour standards. However, their
results contradict empirical experience:
This analysis would suggest that, purely from the terms-of-trade perspective,
less developed countries (developing countries) would want higher labour
standards, and developed countries would not. Therefore the analysis seems
to be at odds with the current debates on international labour standards.
Of course this conclusion neglects different interests within countries. For
example, owners of capital may disproportionately influence policy.338
But the outcome may be very different when countries decide their own
standards rather than working towards common global standards. It is widely
assumed that international competition will drive down labour standards in all
countries to levels that are too low (known as the ‘race to the bottom’). However,
there are a number of counter-arguments. Some are based on models of local
government competition. A race to the bottom occurs in such models when
338. This is an example of the limitations of a priori theorizing, but it is not possible to do full justice
to the paper here. See Singh and Nirvikar (2001).
Why Should Human Rights Issues be Addressed by the World Bank327
standards for some aspect of firm operations (pertaining to working conditions,
environmental effects, and so on) are set inefficiently low.339 In general, with
perfect competition and a complete set of tax-subsidy instruments, this
inefficiency cannot occur. Some other models based on imperfect competition
do not support the race-to-the-bottom argument. The conclusion from the local
public economics literature appears to be that the possibility of an international
race to the bottom, taken to mean inefficiently low domestic labour standards, is
highly dependent on the particular set of assumptions made about competition
and policy instruments.340
According to Piore (1994), labour standards might create positive
externalities for the creation of human capital: if workers are better-off than
the subsistence level, they may be able to invest in their own or their children
education. He also postulates a link between working standards and innovation:
higher labour costs encourage producers to invest in innovation (Piore 1994).
A major concern that arises repeatedly in discussions of international labour
standards is whether they will have unintended effects. Rich countries are taking
an increasing interest in the way in which imported products are made, but
their instruments of intervention are primarily through trade, and thus exclude
working conditions in non-trading firms; introducing trade-oriented measures to
improve standards simply moves the problem out of the trade sector (Bardhan
2001a, 2001b).
The phenomenon of child labour is a very particular problem due to its
exceptional ethical implications. Probably one of the best attempts to illuminate
the problem is provided by Basu (2003). His paper may be briefly summarized.341
The conclusion of the model342 is that where adult wages do not yield a
minimum subsistence level, child labour will be employed. The model shows
certain dynamics that can lead the economy towards a vicious circle, in which
339. Levels are ‘too low’, in terms of the allocational efficiency of outcomes, their distributional
impacts, on the basis of criteria that emphasize rights and procedures, or some subset of these
340. Relevant models of local government competition include those of Zodrow and Mieszkowski
(1986), Oates and Schwab (1988), Bucovetsky and Wilson (1991) and Revesz (1992). Wilson
(1996) re-examines and extends this set of models to clarify when a race to the bottom could
conceivably occur.
341. According to Basu, much of the debate on child labour focused on whether policy intervention
was even appropriate. In the heyday of laissez-faire many observers believed that if child labour
was a product of the market, it must be efficient to have child labour; if one were committed
to the efficiency of the market, the state then had no reason to be involved in the market. This
would now be regarded by the great majority as unreasonable.
342. The model is based on two axioms:
The luxury axiom: ‘households send their children to work only when driven do so by poverty’.
This assumes that parents do not wish to make their children work unless compelled by
circumstances. Therefore, education is regarded as a luxury good.
The substitution axiom asserts that: ‘adult and child labour are substitutes, subject to some
adult equivalency correction’. But, of course, adults cost more, and for that reason firms may be
reluctant to make the transition to adults-only labour.
Desmond McNeill and Luis Sanchez
high levels of child labour are employed.343 At an aggregate level this micro model
is empirically supported by the fact that as nations become richer, the incidence of
child labour tends to fall.
However, the ‘poverty approach’ has not gone unquestioned. For instance,
some argue that increased land ownership may contribute to higher child labour,
since households that own (or operate) larger amounts of land will tend to make
their children work more (Bhalotra and Heady 2003). Another similar argument
against is that households that start their own business are more likely to send
children to work (Edmonds and Turk 2002).
The literature seems to support the view that, although some work can help
children acquire human capital, by teaching them the skills and attitudes needed
to function well as adults, and at times enabling them to earn the money needed
to go school, child labour generally impedes the acquisition of education and
human capital. Child labour inhibits the acquisition of human capital through
loss of education and through other channels, for instance by damaging health
or affecting attitudes. Empirical data show that starting to work at a younger age
results in foregone earnings as an adult for both men and women. Furthermore,
due to the dynamics explained above, poverty is transmitted from one generation
to another. These downward shocks not only leave families worse off but can
impede the formation of human capital among descendants.
In summary, there is a burgeoning economic literature on the subject
of labour standards, which is relevant to the instrumental economic argument
for human rights. However, the results are to a very large extent dependent on
the assumptions made; and the empirical results are so far largely inconclusive;
perhaps not surprising in view of the complexity of the issue.
13.4. Civil and Political Rights
The promotion of civil and political rights is closely linked to the issue of governance,
which has received considerable attention in development policy in recent years,
and attracted the interest also of economists. A number of attempts have been
made to test the empirical relationship between economic performance and ‘good
governance’ (often equated with democracy, some broader notion of ‘freedom’, or,
perhaps, ‘the rule of law’). Economists have tried to assess to what extent countries
with higher institutional quality yield better economic results. However, there are
several conceptual and methodological difficulties that complicate the issue and
limit the value of their results. For example:
• Statistical correlation does not necessarily imply a causal link from
good governance to better economic performance; one could explain a
343. This is not to deny that some other social factors could explain the phenomenon of child labour.
For instance Zelier (1985) describes how in the nineteenth century child labour was often
commended as necessary for building character and discipline for industrial competition.
Why Should Human Rights Issues be Addressed by the World Bank329
positive correlation by reasoning that richer countries can afford better
• Quantitative measures, or indicators, of ‘good governance’ are not easy
to establish. ‘Governance’ is not a unique parameter, but a system of
different features that may affect each other.344 Economists have paid great
attention to the role of democratic institutions in wealth creation, but also
the capacity of a regime to enforce the law; two rather different things.
Recent economic literature has made some advances beyond earlier work,345
through the use of new statistical tools and methodologies, to seek to disaggregate
the causal linkages between democracy, rule of law and economic growth. Some
of the latest findings are the following: 346
1. Democracy and the rule of law are both good for economic performance,
but the latter has a much stronger impact on incomes.
2. Higher income produces better governance (but estimates here are not very
significant). This is true both for democracy and for rule of law.
3. Rule of law and democracy are generally mutually reinforcing. Greater rule
of law produces more democracy, and vice versa. But the effects are not
always significant.
Although these findings still need further testing, it seems that, at first glance, they
would support an emphasis on human rights policies. Earlier, there was much
scepticism about the role of political and civil rights in economic development; in
part based on some historical cases in which authoritarian regimes were yielding
good economic performance (e.g. Chile during the 1970s), and in part because
previous studies found no significant relevance of democracy for economic
growth.347 Note that the conclusion of these new studies implies that it is possible
to obtain good economic performance with authoritarian regimes as long as the
law is enforced properly; but the evidence shows that a combination of effective
enforcement of the law with extensive political rights may provide a powerful
engine of economic growth, as in the case of Botswana. This new empirical
evidence is encouraging further theoretical economic research. For example,
Gradstein (2005) develops a growth model in which political rights have a positive
effect both in the enforcement of property rights and in fiscal distribution, leading
to higher rates of output growth.
344. Here we have an example of what was mentioned in the introduction about the complexity of
effects in the human rights system. While the rule of law is mainly related to the protection
of property rights, the degree of democratization points towards the implementation of pure
political rights such as freedom of thought, participation, association, speech, and so on.
However, both are embedded within the concept of governance as an explanatory variable of
economic growth.
345. Probably the most important study within these preliminary attempts is Knack and Keefer
346. See Kauffman and Kraay (2002) and Rigobon and Rodrik (2004), for example.
347. See Barro (1991) and Helliwell (1992), for example.
Desmond McNeill and Luis Sanchez
We have chosen not to include the issue of property rights in this chapter.348
The claim that property rights is a human right has been a major ideological issue
from the start, and for this reason, although it features in the Universal Declaration,
it does not feature in the two subsequent Covenants (see Eide at al 2001). This
provides a rather formalistic justification for omitting it from this chapter. Another
reason is that the relationship between property rights and economic performance
is much contested by economists.349
13.5. The Economic Effects of Human Rights
It is appropriate to devote a section to a perhaps unique attempt in the economic
literature to empirically test the economic effects of human rights. In their paper,
which also contains a useful summary of much of the relevant literature, Blume
and Voigt (2004) distinguish between four categories of rights, as follows: 350
• ‘basic human rights’: absence of torture, disappearances, political killing;
• ‘property rights’: protection of property, impartial courts, judicial
• ‘civil rights’: absence of censorship, political participation, no restrictions
on travel and religious practices;
• ‘emancipatory rights’: workers rights, absence of discrimination, social
equality of women.
In summary they conclude as follows:
Our results show that high degrees of human rights are conducive
to economic growth and welfare in a significant manner. […] Basic
human rights and property rights are conducive to investment. Social or
emancipatory rights do not have a discernible impact on investment. On
the other hand, basic human rights do not have a discernible impact on
productivity development. Here, property rights, civil rights and social rights
have a clearly discernible impact. Nevertheless, none of the four groups
of rights used in this paper ever has a significant negative impact on the
economic variables used. (3)
348. Note that the right is a negative right: the right not to be illegitimately expropriated.
349. For very poor countries a particularly important issue is rights to land. There is little doubt that
secure rights over land, and confidence that laws and informal agreements will be adhered to,
will tend to encourage investment and hence growth. But there is disagreement as to whether
this necessarily implies the adoption of the institutions associated with an individualist,
Western-style market system, or whether property and other rights can be well protected
under traditional systems. In some countries, attempts are being made to formalize land tenure
in order, in part, to encourage foreign investment in agriculture, which sometimes leads to
conflict. The case of intellectual property rights is also contested, as is the effect of these on
economic growth and distribution.
350. They use the statistical method of ‘factor analysis’ to determine these four groups and their
contents. The terms used to refer to them are their own.
Why Should Human Rights Issues be Addressed by the World Bank331
They emphasize the role that uncertainty plays in society and in economic
development. More specifically, uncertainty concerning the extent to which
human rights are respected makes the return on investment more risky, hence
reducing levels of investment and rates of growth. Blume and Voigt (2005) identify
two possible channels through which uncertainty regarding human rights might
limit economic activity:
• If government’s respect for basic human rights functions as a signal for its
policy credibility concerning property rights enforcement, then we should
expect a reduction in the flow of international and domestic investments
and in the degree of creditworthiness. Rodrik (1991) describes how
policy uncertainty might determine the way in which those signals relate
to investment decisions. He argues that investors use those perceptions
(including respect for human rights) to calculate the ‘policy reversal
probability’, which in turn determines their investment decisions.
• Arbitrary imprisonment and politically-motivated killings and torture
would lead to a general climate of anguish and fear, which does not
encourage innovative activities. Insofar as innovation enhances long-run
economic growth, the economic outlook for an authoritarian and
repressive regime is seriously limited.
On the basis of their analysis, Blume and Voigt (2005) claim that basic human
rights are a necessary but not sufficient condition for economic development.
They hypothesize:
a state whose government strictly respects basic human rights but which does
not secure for the protection of other property rights by adequate laws […]
will almost certainly not achieve high income levels. Likewise, a state whose
government protects property rights narrowly […] but does not respect basic
human rights will also have difficulties in achieving economic growth.351
Their paper thus provides a compelling instrumental economic argument for the
promotion of human rights. The problem is that their findings are proven only for
the top two-thirds of countries ranked by income per head. In other words, for the
poorest one-third of countries, the statistical correlation is not significant. And it
is these that are especially relevant for a development agency such as the World
Bank. This is not to say that their results are wrong in these countries. And one
may argue (as has been done in other contexts) that the results may come to apply
when poorer countries move up the income scale. But this is, regrettably, a serious
limitation of their work for the purposes of this chapter.
351. However, this should be taken as a general tendency rather than a necessary condition, since one
could find contradictory cases. China is an example of an authoritarian regime, with a dubious
human rights record towards its own citizens, that is actually able to attract investments. With
regard to the innovation argument, USSR would be an example of how innovative activities
might take place within the boundaries of an authoritarian regime.
Desmond McNeill and Luis Sanchez
However, the central point that they make in their paper is surely undeniable:
that the promotion of human rights is likely to reduce uncertainty and human
insecurity in a country, which not only promotes economic development, but also
promotes human well-being directly, through reducing fear and insecurity.352
13.6. Human Rights – and Human Obligations
Following Kant, a number of philosophers (for example Onora O’Neill 1986),
have pointed out that rights also imply obligations. What has not commonly been
argued, however, is that human rights, granted and guaranteed by the state to its
citizens, may thereby also imply human obligations – by each individual citizen to
the state. This may be an added instrumental argument as to why a state may wish
to safeguard the rights of its citizens: that they will thereby reinforce the correlate
responsibility of the citizen, to uphold the law, pay taxes and so on. In more general
terms, it may improve – to the benefit of all – the relationship between state and
citizen; which can also be directly beneficial in instrumental economic terms.
Here, the example of the Scandinavian countries is relevant. The social democratic
system in these countries has brought about not only a high level of social welfare,
but also a high level of economic productivity.353 Economists have attributed the
success of the model largely to a policy of ‘wage compression attained through
highly coordinated wage-setting’. (Moene and Wallerstein 2005; see also Moene
and Wallerstein 2006). In Norway, agreement to this policy followed only after
considerable political turbulence in the inter-war period; but since the Second
World War, Norway has benefited from a high degree of consensus, coupled
with a generally positive relationship between citizen and state. Halvard Vike, an
anthropologist who has specialized in the study of the Norwegian welfare state,
refers to
an awareness of the importance of having civil rights in a a political system
in which the state and the individual are involved in a reciprocal relationship.
Without necessarily being aware of it, most people have a relatively high
expectation that political power is not distant and inaccessible. It is assumed
to be relatively committed, oriented towards the common good and morally
based. (Vike 2004)354
Although we would not argue that this model arose out of a ‘human-rights based
approach’, the Scandinavian experience – of welfare states which have combined
352. Many of these issues relate, to varying extents, to what may be called the rule of law. The
argument is that economic growth is achieved through investment and innovation, and that a
prerequisite for investment is a stable society, and a degree of confidence in the future and in
other people: that crime and violence are kept in check, that contracts will be honoured, that
rules will not be changed without due process, and so on.
353. Labour productivity in the Scandinavian countries is almost unrivalled in the world.
354. Translated from the Norwegian.
Why Should Human Rights Issues be Addressed by the World Bank333
a high degree of equity with high labour productivity and economic growth – is
of considerable international interest. And recent experience in other countries
has shown that an appeal to human rights can be an effective means to give
moral and political force to claims for greater equity – whether by those who are
disadvantaged or those who seek to act on their behalf. It empowers people to
make legitimate claims on their representatives in government.
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Abouharb, M.R. and D. Cingranelli, 59, 81
authorities’ resistance to, 99-100, 102-3
collectivities/group farming, 136-7
economists’ attitudes towards, 24-5, 36-7
food, right to/food security and, 254-7,
human rights-based approach and, 26,
237-8, 254-7
institutional framework, need for, 314
justiciability, relevance, 99
NGOs and other non-state actors, role
and, 24, 309
PRSPs and, 308-9, 312-13, 314
rights/obligations equation and, 90-2, 99,
victim vs empowerment and, 37-8, 45, 46,
90-3, 308-9
Adejumobi, S., 307, 312, 315
adequate standard of living, right to
collectivities/group farming and, 145
equitable utility and, 46
ICESCR 11(1), 23-4, 242, 285
indicators, 23
informal employment and, 115
obligation to promote (corporations), 75-6
as recognized human right, 43
as right not to be poor, 2-3, 5, 23-4, 56,
297, 304
social security/social protection and, 220
statistics, 285-6
trade liberalization measures, 289
UDHR 25, 23-4, 57, 175-6, 214, 241-2, 285
work, right to and, 195
WTO/GATT and developing countries
and, 266
see also AGRA (Alliance for a Green
Revolution in Africa); sub-Saharan
Africa; and individual countries
accountability/transparency, 312-13
human rights and poverty reduction in,
PRSPs, 312-13
African Charter on Human and Peoples’
Rights (1982), ‘maximum available
resources’ obligation, 219
Agarwal, Bina
‘Agricultural Production Collectivities’, 6,
citations, 31, 136, 140, 141
notes on, xiv, 133 n. 89
AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in
aims, 67-8, 73-4
IAASTD and, 68, 71
criticisms of, 68, 70-1
NGOs and other non-state actors, role,
agricultural and rural development
see also cooperative globalization
AGRA, 67-8, 70-1
‘Agriculture for Development’ (Work Bank
Reports, 2008/2009), 65
AKST, changes of approach, 66-7
CFA, 68-9
collectivities/group farming, see
collectivities/group farming
eco-culture approach, 64, 76
education, role, 72
environmental costs/sustainability, 71, 76
farmers’ markets, 71
grain stock management, 78
human rights-based approach, 5, 70-8, 265
IAASTD (2008), 66-7
ILO standards, applicability, 73, 77
intensive high-technology approach, 64-5
monoculture, 64-5
NGOs and other non-state actors, role, 66
n. 45, 67
off-farm employment, 72
out-migration, 72-3
participation of rural communities in
policy development, 56 n. 28
seasonal work, problems of, 72-3
social security and, 77
strategies, 63-81
urban population and, 71
victim vs empowerment, 133-6, 141-2,
156-61, 257
women’s rights and, 72
workforce statistics, 133-4
agricultural trade
importance of agriculture to the economy,
subsidies, problems relating to, 282-3
WTO Ministerial Conferences, attempts to
resolve issues, 285-9
Agriculture Agreement (WTO)
bound tariff system, 284
continuing protectionism, 283-5
dispute settlement provisions, 285
domestic subsidy calculation, 284-5
Modalities for Agriculture, Revised Draft,
tariff reduction method, 284
transitional period, 267
agrofuel, problems associated with, 59-60,
64-5, 74, 76, 246
Aguero, J., M. Carter and I. Woolard, 218,
aid, see international development aid
Albright, Madeleine, 29, 118
Alexander, B.B., 180, 183, 193
Alma-Ata Declaration (1978) (’Health for
All’), 178
Alston, P., 47, 48, 244, 259
Alston, P. and M. Robinson, 48, 52
Alula, A. and F.G. Kiros, 137, 138, 162
American Declaration on the Rights and
Duties of Man (1948) (ADRDM),
social security (ACRDM XVI), 214
n. 194
Anderson (2008), 221, 224, 229
Andreassen, Bård A., notes on, xiv
Annan, A., 215, 231
Anti-Dumping Agreement (WTO), 268
APMAS, 161, 163
Arango, R. and J. Lemaitre, 216 n. 199, 231
Arias, O.S., see Perry, G.E, W.F. Maloney,
O.S. Arias, P. Fajnzylber, J. SaavedraChanduvi
Arrow, K., 38, 48
accountability/transparency in PRSP
process, 312
agriculture, role, 65
child benefits, 226-7
civil society actors, 313
collectivities/group farming in, 139
health care, 313
human rights and poverty reduction,
universal social protection schemes, 223
women in informal employment, 112
Asian values, 86
Bakvis, 218
child benefits, 225, 226-7
collectivities/group farming, 158-9
poverty reduction in, 313
social security/social protection in, 313
Banik, Dan
citations, 82, 245, 251, 252, 253, 255, 259,
‘Hunger and Human Rights’, 7-8, 237-60
Barrera, A., 325-6, 333
Barro, R., 329, 333
Basu, A., Chau, N. and R. Kanbur, 16, 17
Basu, K. and Z. Tzannatos, 327, 333
Baverman, A., 142, 163
Becker, Gary S., 324, 333
Behrendt, C., see Franziska and Behrendt;
Gassmann, E. and C. Behrendt;
Mizunoya, Behrendt, Pal and Léger
Ben-David, D., see Nordstrom, H., D. BenDavid and L.A. Winters
Berend, I.T., 137, 163
Bertucci, M.L., see Lawson, E.H., M.L.
Bertucci and L.S. Wiseberg
Bhadhuri, A., 205, 209
Bhalotra, S. and C. Heady, 328, 333
Bhaskar, A., see Menon, P., A. Deolalikar and
A. Bhaskar
bilateral investments treaties (BITs), human
rights problems and, 60
Binswanger, H, see Deininger, K.W. and H.
Birdsall, Nancy, 325, 333
Blume, L. and S. Voigt, 331, 333
Bolivia, PRSPs and, 39
Booth, D. et al, 251, 260
Borda, O.F., 137, 138
Borras, S.M., 136, 163
Boyer, R., 198, 209
Bradshaw, S. and A. Quiróz Viquez, 211, 231
Brady, D., 217, 231
social security/family benefits, 217, 222
TRIPS Agreement, compliance difficulties,
Brenner, B., see Mort, J.-A. and G. Brenner
Bretton Woods institutions, see World Bank/
IMF development policy role
Britto, T., see Medeiros, M., T. Britto and F.
Veras Soares
Brown, D., A. Deardorff, and R. Stern, 326,
Bucovetsky, S. and J.D. Wilson, 327, 333
Bulow, D.V. and A. Sorensen, 142, 163
Burchell, B. et al, 116, 129
business rights
informal economy and, 6, 120-1
range of rights, 120
Byres, T.J., 136, 163
Cambodia, PRSPs and, 39
Cameroon, PRSPs and, 39
human rights and poverty reduction, 21
social security, 220
Canadian Council for International
Cooperation, 283
Cancún Ministerial Meeting (2003), 283,
284, 286
basic capabilities, 87
capability deprivation, 297, 299-300, 303
capability rights, 87-8, 95
as conceptual bridge between poverty and
human rights, x, 86-90
definition, 87, 299-300
as economics concept, 35-6
education, role, x, 87-8, 91-2
work, right to and, 199
Card, D. and A.B. Kreuger, 119, 129
Caribbean, agriculture, role, 65
Carlos, V., 137, 163
Carr, M., see Chen, Martha et al (2004)
Carré, D., 71-2, 129
Carré, D. and A.B. Kreuger, 71-2, 129
Carter, M., see Aguero, J., M. Carter and I.
Castells, Manuel and Alexandro Portes, 106,
CEDAW, see Women, Convention on the
Elimination of Discrimination
Against (1979) (CEDAW)
CERD, see Racial Discrimination,
Convention on the Elimination of
(1965) (CERD)
CFA (Comprehensive Framework for Action
on the Global Food Security Crisis)
criticisms of, 69
scope, 68-9
Chad, malnutrition in, 61
Chandiramani, Menka, 293 n. 321
Charmes, J. and M. Lakehal, 111, 130
Chau, Nancy, see Basu, A., Chau, N. and R.
Kanbur; Kanbur, Ravi and Nancy
Chaudhury, N. and D. Parajuli, 232
Chen, Martha
‘Informality, Poverty and Gender’, 6,
notes on, xiv
Chen, Martha et al (2004)/(2005), 111, 114
n. 81, 115
Chen, Martha and Joann Vanek, 108 n. 77
Chen, S. and M. Ravallion, 22, 48
child benefits, see family benefits
Child, Committee on the Rights of, 219
child health, 136-7
child labour, 31, 45, 47, 199, 211, 229, 326,
Child Rights Convention (1989) (CRC)
disease (CRC 24(1)(c)), 242
food, right to (CRC 27(3)), 242
health, right to, 174
‘maximum available resources’ obligation,
social security (CRC 26), 214
Child, Youth and Family Policies,
Clearinghouse on, 223-4
Childress, M.D., see Sabates-Wheeler, R. and
M.D. Childress
Chile, family benefits, 213
agricultural subsidies, 288
collectivization, 136, 137, 139
land-grabbing by, 60
subsidies, impact on, 283
targeted vs universal social protection
schemes, 222
trade liberalization/economic growth, 264
WTO membership, 288
Chirwa, W., Patel, N. and Kanyongolo, F., 255
Chisinga, B., 255, 318
Chiweza, A.L., 257, 318
Cichon, M. and K. Hagemejer, 211, 213, 218,
Cingranelli, D., see Abouharb, M.R. and D.
civil society actors
see also NGOs
CESCR shadow reports, 189
changing role, 22, 162, 254
effectiveness/monitoring of, vi, 254, 312
IAASTD and, 66
inadequate involvement of, 243
in India, 252, 254
litigation role, 254
monitoring and participation role, 69, 71,
73, 81, 179, 184 n. 172, 255-6, 258,
301, 309, 313
Clearing House on Child, Youth and Family
Policies, 223-4
CLEP (Commission on the Legal
Empowerment of the Poor), 29, 118
climate change, see global warming measures;
global warming measures/climate
Cline, W.R., 282, 289
Cohen, D., 28, 48
collective bargaining, informal economy and,
collectivities/group farming, 133-68
accountability and, 136-7
adequate standard of living, right to and,
advantages, 140-3
bottom-up approach, 140-3
class, gender and social inequalities, 138-9
decollectivization, 143-4
equity and, 136-7
financing/loans, 159-61
food, right to, see food, right to/food
free riding and, 143, 162
governing principles, 139-40
history of, 136-9
human rights-based approach, 136-7
IMF/World Bank and, 136
India, 135, 138-9, 140, 142, 143-4, 148-9,
155, 157, 158, 159-61
joint production vs service collectives,
NGOs and, 148, 155, 156, 158-61
participation and, 136-7
reconstituted collectivities, 144-8
socialist vs non-socialist model, 136-7
women’s rights and, 6, 135, 138-9, 140,
148, 149-62
Collier, Paul, 4, 9, 61 n. 30, 73-4, 82
Collins, J.J., 143, 163
commercial law, informal economy and, 127
Commons, J.R., 198
conditional cash transfer programmes, 218
Coomans, F., 219, 232
cooperative globalization
see also economic globalization; New
International Economic Order
Cordóba Declaration on the Right to Food
(2008), 79-80
Declaration on the Right to Development
(1986), 62, 73-4
European Network to reduce marketing
pressure on children, 76 n. 51
food, right to/food security and, 241-7,
249-52, 258
global justice, ix-xi
global warming measures, 76
grain stock management, 78
health, right to, 172-3
international trade/WTO undertakings,
59, 77, 79
monitoring of corporate compliance, 75-6
original conceptions, 55-6, 58
poverty reduction targets, 307-8
re-orientation of international agencies,
need for, 306
regional cooperation; see also AGRA
(Alliance for a Green Revolution in
research and technological development,
social protection systems, 77
Stamford Declaration (2003), 244-5
structural changes, need for, 78-81
UDHR and, 57
UN Charter 55 and 56, 57, 180-1, 306
Copenhagen Declaration (1995), 297-8
Cordóba Declaration on the Right to Food
(2008), 79-80
Cornwall, A., see Nyamu-Musembi, C. and A.
corporations, role, 24-5, 75-6
Norms on the Responsibilities of
Transnational Corporations and
Other Business Enterprises with
Regard to Human Rights (2003), 24-5
Countdown to 2015, 66 n. 45
Customs Valuation Agreement (WTO), 267
Czech Republic, family benefits, 213
Dandekar, V.M. and N. Rath, 205, 209
Dañino, Roberto, 319 n. 325
Darling, M., 148, 164
Darrow, M., 319 n. 325, 333
Dasgupta, Partha, 32
Day, D., 116, 129
de Gaay Fortmann, B., 241
De Schutter, Olivier (Special Rapporteur on
the Right to Food), 60, 70, 76-7, 243
de Soto, Hernando, 118, 129, 130
de Toqueville, Alexis, 206
Deardoff, A., see Brown, D., A. Deardorff,
and R. Stern
debt crisis, effect, 5, 58-9
debt relief, 40
Deininger, K.W., 136, 142, 163
Deininger, K.W. and H. Binswanger, 136, 164
democracy, role and effectiveness, vi, 8-9,
31, 46, 63, 65, 78, 138, 221, 238, 248,
256-7, 308, 309, 312-13, 314, 328-9,
Deolalikar, A, see Menon, P, A Deolalikar and
A Bhaskar
developing countries and WTO/GATT,
see WTO/GATT and developing
development aid, see international
development aid
Development, Declaration on the Right to
(1986) (UNGA resolution 41/128)
cooperation obligation (Art. 3(3)), 62
equality of access to resources (Art. 8(1)),
‘Extreme poverty and human rights: the
rights of the poor: Guiding principles’
(2005), 63
inter-governmental focus, 63
positive results from, 62-3
poverty as human rights violation and, 303
Development, Independent Expert on the
Right to, 62-3, 303
development, right to
‘development’, 62
development partnership, 40-1, 62-3, 169,
MDGs and, 62-3
DFID, 21, 238, 244
differential treatment, justification, 101
dignity, see human dignity, right to/poverty
as violation of
dispute settlement, see WTO dispute
resolution (DSU)
Dobb, M., 197, 209
Doha Development Agenda (2001), 265, 271
Doha Ministerial Statement (2001)
health, 178
trade liberalization, 286
Doha Round, problems, 40, 286-9
Dorsay, E., see Nelson, P.J. and E. Dorsay
Dresler, C. and S. Marks, 175, 193
Drèze, J. and A.K. Sen, 321, 333
Drèze, J. and R. Khera, 205, 209
DSU, see WTO dispute resolution (DSU)
Earle, P., see Frankovits, A. and P. Earle
Easterly, W., 4, 9, 49
Eastern Europe
collectivitization, 136-7, 139
family benefits, 213
eco-culture approach
AGRA, 67-8, 70-1
pros and cons