South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Development plans in Nepal have focused on poverty alleviation for decades, and poverty alleviation remains a declared principal objective of government. However, its people are no less poor than they were a decade ago.
Poverty is an immense moral problem that may prove to be the greatest threat to future world stability and security. More than one in five of the world’s population endures extreme poverty: in addition, two in five individuals have to exist on $2 a day and almost one in two on $2.50 a day. The poorest ten per cent of world population must survive on less than 0.7 per cent of world income while the richest ten per cent enjoys as much as fifty per cent. Poverty seemingly becomes more acute and intractable every day. Ensuring greater livelihood security for those living in poverty is a major thrust of development efforts, but it remains a huge challenge. The fact that poverty continues to affect adversely the lives of billions of people indicates that much of humanity is being denied rights that they hold as human beings. The poor are denied not just the basic necessities required for a dignified life; they are denied also their rights to equality, to protection against harm, and to full participation in public life. There is, therefore, an urgent need to think deeper than development projects currently in order to address the underlying causes of poverty, inequality and social injustice.
During the past 60 years, Nepal has seen considerable political upheaval and transformation. Absolute Rana rule gave way to assertive monarchy; then to multi-party democracy with a constitutional monarch; then, after ten years of civil war, to a federal republican system. At the end of all that change, one soul-searching question needs to be asked: have we really achieved much by way of economic, social and political development? Are we, as a nation, any better off now than we were sixty years ago?
Poverty and Human Rights
In recent years, the traditional view of poverty has changed dramatically as it has come to be recognized as a denial of human rights that undermines the dignity and worth of the individuals. Poverty is lack of power and to live in uncertainty and insecurity.  It means deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security and power that are needed to provide a standard of living that brings with it the enjoyment of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. It violates personal freedom: its elimination should be seen as a basic entitlement and human right and not merely as a problem to be tackled by charity. Poverty so violates human rights that it must be tackled by a world that claims to be working towards full-scale adoption of human rights.  Based on the fundamental principle of the equality of all human beings, it demands that nationally and internationally there is a legal duty to create a moral, political, and economic order that will grant all persons the opportunity to live with dignity. �
The understanding of poverty that has emerged in recent years is of sustained or chronic deprivation of the essentials needed to enjoy, not only an adequate standard of living, but also all other human rights. Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor A. K Sen has made an outstanding contribution to welfare theory and to the concepts of human development. One concept that he has elaborated is that of ‘capability’, a humanist alternative theory that regards poverty as a condition beyond the mere lack of income and living essentials. The ‘capability’ concept views the impact of poverty not merely as a daily life experience, but rather as the denial through social constraints and personal circumstances of any real opportunity to lead a valuable and valued life. ‘Capabilities’, which vary in form and content but are also interrelated, include the capability of satisfying bodily needs, so avoiding starvation and undernourishment, and of escaping ‘preventable morbidity or premature mortality’. The ‘capability’ notion of poverty, therefore, looks beyond mere economic considerations towards a more mental or semi-spiritual concept of well-being. The ‘capability’ approach views poverty broadly as a partial or complete inability to exercise (either positively or negatively) certain freedoms, such as the freedom to avoid hunger, or disease, or illiteracy, or powerlessness. These freedoms are fundamental in protecting minimal human dignity: hence the ‘human rights’ approach, which adopts the view that such freedoms are the inalienable rights of all individuals. In conjunction with the ‘capability’ approach, poverty has been hotly debated in the international human rights arena, and as a subject it has moved rapidly up the international human rights agenda. Thus the traditional understanding of poverty has shifted in favour of recognition as a denial of human rights.
Today the human rights ‘codex’ comprises numerous legal and political texts and procedures relating to civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, and the so-called ‘third generation rights’. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1966, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) 1966, and a number of regional level human rights treaties can be interpreted as providing a framework for dealing with poverty. The ICCPR covers freedom of expression, freedom of movement, of association, and of assembly, freedom from wrongful deprivation of liberty, freedom from forced or compulsory labour, and freedom to participate: these are freedoms daily denied to the poor. Moreover, these rights should be viewed in conjunction with more positive measures: for example, the right to life extends to measures to reduce infant mortality, to increase life expectancy, and to eliminate malnutrition and epidemics.
Why Human Rights-Based?
The rights-based approach seeks to integrate the principles of the international human rights system into the processes involved in the struggle against poverty. This can only happen, though, if human rights are made central to policy-making and are accepted as the political choice. As Professor P. Twomey insists, people must be granted the means – political, institutional, and material – to claim, exercise and monitor their human rights and to be active participants in the decision-making process. This approach to the struggle against poverty, as Julia Hausemann argues, ‘puts people first and promotes human-centred development’. It recognizes the ‘inherent dignity of every human being without distinction, recognizes and promotes equality between women and men, and promotes equal opportunity and choices for all. It further promotes national and international systems based on economic equity in the access to public resources and social justice’. Above all, it promotes mutual respect between people. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has defined the human rights-based approach to development in the following way: ‘A rights-based approach to development is a conceptual framework for the process of human development that is normatively based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights. Essentially, a rights-based approach integrates the norms, standards and principles of the international human rights system into the plans, policies and process of development. The norms and standards are those contained in the wealth of international treaties and declarations.’ The core, then, of the human rights approach to development explicitly refers to human rights achievement as an essential element of the development objective. It provides a structure for human development that is aimed at promoting and protecting human rights. The rights-based approach thus empowers rights holders to claim their rights.
The human rights-based approach to struggle against poverty aims to strengthen the accountability of duty bearers for protecting human rights by, for example, changes in policies, laws and programmes; by more effective enforcement of laws against rights violations; by increases in allocations of budgets and resources for the poor, the marginalised and the at-risk people at all levels; by changes in awareness, attitudes, behaviour, practices, norms and values; by improvements in the quality and responsiveness of institutions and services; by an economy that enables greater participation by rights’ holders in decisions as they are being taken; and, most importantly, by promoting equity, inclusion and non-discrimination. The human rights-based approach to development is guided by a set of inter-connected principles and elements that has been internationally recognised as forming the core of the human rights-based approach. These include the express application of the human rights framework, ensuring empowerment and participation with non-discrimination and prioritization of vulnerable groups, accountability, universality and indivisibility of human rights, and good governance.
Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International, notes that, by framing poverty in human rights terms, the rights holder is empowered while duty holders are immediately made accountable for respecting and protecting his rights. Human rights thus give a voice to the voiceless, and individuals have a right to express their views freely, to organize, and to assemble peacefully. It is a bottom-up effort so that those living in poverty are granted knowledge of their rights and can effectively engage with official institutions. Khan further argues that the struggle against poverty aims not merely to increase material assets but to achieve freedom, justice, and dignity. She is adamant that the human rights-based approach offers the best hope of success.
The human rights approach to poverty alleviation furthermore highlights the impact that discrimination, in law or in practice, has in causing deprivation. The human rights’ approach brings discrimination into sharp focus, allowing acknowledgement of the problem to become an essential first step towards addressing it. The next step includes legislation that guarantees equality and non-discrimination, followed by action programmes to overcome the legacy of past discrimination, and by education of the public to overcome prejudice and bigotry especially where these are rooted in politics and culture.
What of Nepal?
Development plans in Nepal have focused on poverty alleviation for decades, and poverty alleviation remains a declared principal objective of government. However, its people are no less poor than they were a decade ago. Each five-year plan has shown a sizeable increase in development expenditure over its predecessor, and each has been financed largely through external aid. Yet there has been no obvious improvement in the standard of living of the population. As it is observed that planning development in the country has ‘long been subverted to serve the political and economic interests of a small class of Nepalese elite. Instead of creating a new, progressive social order and the good society where everybody could enjoy life, planning has legitimized the authority of the ruling elite, thereby propagating the old order as well as the socio-economic disparities and poverty inherent in it.  Simply put, development is a class ideology, with planning acting as its populist decoy.’ Other Asian countries have introduced democratic systems under similar socio-economic conditions, and they have ceased to be comparable with Nepal. Our development process has failed to comprehend the essentials of development. There have been frequent interventions and changes, but there has always been a vacuum between providers and receivers, government and users. Government and its ministers have considered themselves to be masters at ignoring the intended target group, the ordinary people of Nepal. Those people are denied the opportunity to review and monitor the whole process of development.
In all sectors the government simply does not understand or apply the required levels of accountability, transparency and participation. Social exclusion remains the fate of some caste and ethnic groups, of many women, and of the population in general in remoter areas.  These all remain far behind in terms of income, assets and most human development indicators, and the country will never achieve its development goals if it prolongs the social exclusion of such a large group of deprived citizens. A human rights legal framework of action in the struggle against poverty would be based on participation, accountability and transparency. It would spotlight its root causes on a non-discriminatory basis with equal opportunity and participation irrespective of race, colour, sex, language, politics, nationality, social class, property, or birth. The struggle against poverty by way of the human rights approach takes the debate beyond disparities in income to disparities in access to basic rights, for example to health-care, education, shelter and social assistance. Is it not time to re-think our attitude to poverty by integrating this holistic approach into our development policies and programmes?

(The writer can be reached at: [email protected])

Source: ( – 25/03/2012