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Rights-Based Approach

Read more about the two distinct approaches to providing help to those in need - The needs-based approach and the rights-based approach.

There are two distinct approaches to provide help to those in need: a needs-based approach and a rights-based approach. The traditional needs-based approach seeks to solve problems that exist on a practical level. A needs-based approach does not require downward accountability to beneficiaries and there is no moral or legal obligation on the state and/or other statutory bodies to protect or assist. A rights-based approach starts from a different premise, namely that the rights of individuals in a population should drive the support effort. While many rights are derived from needs, a rights-based approach adds legal and moral obligations, and accountability. In a rights-based approach, individuals and groups are encouraged and empowered to claim their rights; this is the true meaning of capacity building. Individuals are not seen as helpless victims or objects of charity (as often occurs in a needs-based approach), but rather as people claiming their legal entitlements. 

Human rights violations can be identified through a rights-based approach. This, in turn, requires from us to have a good knowledge of the areas where we work. To evaluate violations in a context, we must understand the local situation, and programmes must be based on an understanding of cultural norms, traditions and practices.  There is no blueprint or template that can substitute for a thorough participatory and gender-sensitive assessment in emergencies. Addressing the factors that contribute to rights violations will lead to activities and engagement with civil society organisations and government institutions in the local culture. This will, hopefully, promote an environment that respects people’s human rights, basic needs and dignity. A rights-based approach uses international human rights law to analyse inequalities and injustices. Policies, programme and activities are then developed to remove obstacles to people’s enjoyment of their human rights. This approach identifies rights-holders and the rights to which they are entitled, as well as the corresponding duty-bearers and their obligations. It seeks to strengthen the capacities of rights-holders to make claims, and of duty-bearers to respond to these claims.  Duty-bearers are found throughout a society, including in the household and community, as well as on national and international levels.

Given the inequalities and discrimination that women and girls face, their participation and empowerment are crucial to making real and sustainable improvements. The complementary relationship between the work of human rights and humanitarian organisations is especially important, since both aim to protect people from rights violations and ensure that they can live their lives safely and with dignity. 

A rights-based approach, however, is not without problems. Human rights are not universally accepted (despite all states having signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).  Imposing human rights and expecting cultures and communities to embrace 'universal' human rights, can create tensions between agencies and communities. These tensions can be very difficult to resolve and can lead communities to be wary of organisations, because they perceive them to be undermining local traditions and values.

Further reading:

The document “Principles into practice CARE” describes CARE International's process to incorporate the rights-based approach into their development programme. [EB1] CARE's defines RBA as a mean to deliberate and explicit focus on enabling people to achieve the minimum condition for living in dignity. Lessons and challenges encountered by CARE suggest that RBA enhances the sustainable impact of their programme by addressing inequity and marginalisation by applying rights-based approaches. You can find the document below.

According to the paper “Applying a RBA” by the Danish Institute for Human Rights, a rights-based approach to development is a framework that integrates the norms, principles, standards and goals of the international human rights system into the plans and processes of development. The document further contains a comparison between a Needs Approach and Right-Based Approach, as well as a definition of Rights-holders and Duty-bearers. Last, the document also describes several steps of RBA programming. You can find the document below.