Simon Maxwell

Human Rights and the Millenium Development Goals: contradictory frameworks?

Human Rights and the Millenium Development Goals: contradictory frameworks?

Available in Human Rights and Poverty Reduction: Realities, Controversies and Strategies, O'Neil, T (2006)

Simon Maxwell opened with two challenging questions. On one side, if we had the MDGs, was the rights-based approach superfluous? Or alternatively, if we had a rights-based approach to development, could we dispense with the MDGsMillennium Development Goals ?

To begin answering these questions, he referred to the last ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) meetings series on rights, held in 1999, on the theme 'What can we do with a rights-based approach to development?. As summarised in a Briefing Paper, this had concluded positively that a rights-based approach could be useful, but also identified challenges such as: how to balance individual and collective rights; how to operationalise the concept of 'progressive realisation' and how to specify the obligations of non-state actors?.....

A key issue was that the discourse on rights was informed by two very different positions: one built around struggle, with rights used as a vehicle for mobilising people; the other as fundamentally legalistic, centering on the justiciability of rights.

Maxwell reviewed subsequent work by ODI's Rights in Action programme, and also the experience of different donor agencies. He referred especially to an ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) review of DFID's work on human rights, which provided a useful compendium of practical experiences covering both the mobilization and justiciability approaches.

He then turned to the MDGs, setting these in the context of a wider construction on poverty reduction, and of current work by the Millennium Project in New York, whose report was shortly to be published ( He noted that human rights were not the 'driving motor' behind the MDGsMillennium Development Goals and were relatively little discussed in the Millennium Project task force reports (except land and water rights and reproductive health and HIV-AIDS issues).

The MDGsMillennium Development Goals could be seen as oversimplified targets, with an instrumental understanding of citizenship and participation, and lack of clarity as to the 'right' to expect support from donors. However, a broader view of poverty also included concerns for inclusion and participation; these were not simply rights-based values. Human rights were more comprehensive than the MDGs. Did it matter that the MDGsMillennium Development Goals were selective in order to be practical? An open-ended commitment to 'progressive realisation' could at times be a bit 'fuzzy'. The MDGs, though optional, relied on political leadership though the lack of embedded accountability and obligation was a weakness.

Concluding, Simon Maxwell identified complementarities between the human rights and MDG agendas. Rights advocates could gain from the MDGs' emphasis on short-term targets and from approaches to contractual partnership developed between aid donors and recipients (e.g. Cotonou Agreement). MDG specialists could make use of the more comprehensive normative framework of rights-based approaches and of the notion of legally enforceable obligations on duty-bearers. A synthesis would benefit both sides.

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