A manifesto for rights-based approach to changing the world
n recent decades the rights-based approach has gained considerable sway over the Indian mind. The popular media is replete with stories of groups asserting their rights with varying degrees of righteousness. Considerable space has been found for this approach within academic discourse as well. The growth of this approach is built around its moral edge. Who can resist the attraction of championing the rights of the underprivileged in a highly unequal society? In the process, though, we run the risk of allowing the force of this moral pressure to make us adopt an uncritical view of the rights-based approach, ignoring the more serious challenges that result from this view of policy.
Duncan Green’s From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States Can Change the World is, above all, a manifesto for the rights-based approach. It builds the intellectual case for this worldview touching the right academic — the book has a foreword by Amartya Sen — and ethical chords. Beginning with the assertion “I have rights, therefore I am”, Green goes on to argue that “Feeling that one has a right to something is much more powerful than simply needing or wanting it. It implies that someone else has a duty to respond. Rights ... enable people ... to make demands on those in power, who are known in the jargon as ‘duty bearers’”.
The significance of this argument is perhaps best captured by its influence on policy makers, including those in India. Recent years have seen a series of initiatives to guarantee rights demanded by citizens’ groups, including the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Right to information Act and the legal guarantee of food security.
At the heart of this approach is the dichotomy between the individual and the state. As individuals become aware of their rights they become ‘active citizens’ and it then becomes the duty of an ‘effective state’ to guarantee these rights.
The focus on the two categories of citizens and the state is so complete that when Green speaks of a social contract he is referring to “a deal, whether explicit or implicit, that builds confidence and trust between citizens and the state.”
The fundamental problem with this dichotomy is the sharp separation between the rights of citizens and the duty of the state. All that the citizens have to do then is to demand their rights and target a state that is not willing or able to deliver those rights.
There is very little role for the citizens themselves in creating rights that can be protected. Green does point to the need for citizens to accept responsibilities. But there is very little discussion on what those responsibilities are and how they should be determined. The demand that all individuals, including the poor, must meet their responsibilities then remains no more than a pious appeal.
For any set of responsibilities to be more meaningful they would have to be widely accepted. And to gain wide acceptance they cannot be imposed by the state. They would have to be negotiated among citizens, or groups of citizens. The required social contract then is not just between some abstract category of citizens and the state, but also between different groups of citizens with differing perspectives. The negotiations that could generate such a social contract would necessarily have to acknowledge the existence of other categories, including family, caste, class, race and religion. In the absence of such an explicit negotiation we would have all groups, or even individual anchors of television shows, claiming to speak for citizens as a whole. And recent Indian experience tells us that this can quite easily lead to a cacophony of self-righteous indignation.
The way out of the confusion generated by a multitude of rights-based demands would be to develop a consistent framework to deal with conflicting demands for rights. But as so often happens in the arguments for the rights based approach there is little room for discussion on conflicting rights. Indeed, there are points in the book where even the requirement of consistency is also not met. Green begins by arguing for an improvement in the capabilities of individuals, pointing out that an increase in income need not lead to a commensurate improvement in capabilities.
The benefits of a higher income could easily be distorted by gender biases, personal heterogeneities, and much else. But Green goes on later to argue for cash transfers to the poor, which are no more than increases in income. If “Cash transfers put poor people in the driving seat, spending resources on the things that matter most to them”, so would an increase in income. If we accept the contrary view of the Capabilities approach that an increase in income is not enough, then cash transfers too are not the answer.
In the absence of an effective consistent framework to analyse the conflict between the demands for specific rights of different groups, it is easy to slip into a wish list reflecting the particular set of values.
And the values Green favours are built around the individual. There is no sympathy in his case studies for collective identities groups in different parts of the world may choose to champion. In failing to address the rights of others to champion values contrasting his own, Green inadvertently reminds us of the very thin line that divides the rights-based approach from self-righteousness.
( Narendar Pani is professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore )