By Johan Blomqvist, Centralasiengrupperna / Novi Ritm
Osh, Kyrgyzstan


On the 17th – 18th of April, 2015, Centralasiengrupperna’s partner organization ‘Novi Ritm’ in Osh, Southern Kyrgyzstan, held a two-day event informing about human rights. At the event, speakers from different organizations, such as OSCE, UNHCR and OCHCR, told about their work with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as their main tool. Since then there have been thoughts and discussions within Novi Ritm about what and how we could (and should) work with human rights. A springboard for the discussion has been the concept of a Rights-Based Approach (RBA) – something that has proven to be more complex than it first seemed.

Although much mentioned in contemporary development discourse, RBAs still remains an unstable concept and exactly what it consists of is unclear (Cornwall & Nyamu-Musembi, 2004; Ljungman, 2005). Amongst the plethora of approaches, as they have been criticized for being (see Piron, 2005 for an overview of the critique), we find Human Rights Approaches (HRAs), Human Rigths-Based Approaches (HRBAs) and Rights-Based Approaches (RBAs).

According to Piron (2005), the main distinction between approaches lays in the degree of ‘legalistic’ and ’empowerment’ priorities; and whether an approach emphasizes the one over the other (remembering that both are important to any rights-based approach). HRBAs and HRAs are grounded in the international human rights system, including its norms, standards and principles set out in various international UN declarations, conventions and other instruments. RBAs, on the other hand, take their starting point in localized and context specific legal settings – focusing on rights in relation to citizenship; and the participation and empowerment of the poor, or civil society mobilization, rather than structural or institutional reforms.

This is the first out of two blog posts about Rights-Based Approaches (RBAs) and the connection to the work of Novi Ritm. In what I thought would be a short post about what a RBA (now short for all related approaches) is, I will instead try to answer three questions:

  • What is the background to RBAs, and why have they become so central in development discourse today?

  • What are RBAs and what are the principles behind the approaches?

  • How is Novi Ritm’s work already aligned with a RBA?

To do this I will start by sketching out the historical context as a background to where RBAs have emerged. I then summarize the main characteristics of the approaches; before I finally get to the point where I discuss and argue why a RBA is relevant in the context of Novi Ritm. I will argue that Novi Ritm already, without explicitly saying so, works with a RBA – a work that needs to be continued and constantly redefined.


Although the principles making up the RBA discourse have roots dating back to anti-colonialist struggles – where major parts of the population were excluded from any kind of participation – the concepts have a rather short history in development discourse. Even in the immediate post WWII era, development and human rights were considered separate domains – where development was reserved for economists; and human rights for lawyers and activists. It was in 1986, when the ‘New International Economic Order’ (NIEO) movement launched its package of reforms that rights went global. NIEO pointed out the inequalities between North and South, calling for the duties of all states to end the debt burden and unfair trade rules (Cornwall & Nyamu-Musembi, 2004).

However, during the cold-war there continued to be disputes over what kinds of rights were seen as ‘development rights’. Thus, a common strategy for using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was interrupted by ideological differences between the West and the East blocs – where the former championed civil and political rights; whilst the later argued for the economic, social and cultural rights. When the stalemate ended in the 1990s with the fall of the Soviet Union, the UN relaunched and reasserted its mandate to mainstream human rights in all of the UN’s development work (Ljungman, 2005).

Furthermore, a transformation of global civil society was on the way, where depoliticized service delivery was no longer seen as enough to change social- and power structures to bring about broader goals of social justice and empowerment. Much thanks to the Vienna conference on Human Rights in 1993 and the World Social Development Summit in Copenhagen in 1995, collaborations between mainstream western NGOs and human rights organizations started taking place (Cornwall & Nyamu-Musembi, 2004). The increasing realization that poverty is a multidimensional concept that does not only depend on lack of things or money, but on a lack of rights and unequal power relations (Kirkemann-Boesen & Martin, 2007; Hargreaves, 2010), means that more global and local actors have turned their eyes to RBAs.

At the same time, bilateral and institutional donors made attempts to ‘bring the state back in’ (as opposite to the ‘rolling back of the state’ in the 1980s), giving (proportionally) more and more money directly to government budgetary support (Lewis & Opoku-Mensah, 2006). In turn, access to NGO funds has more often come to be framed in terms of advocacy and rights-based approaches to development (Wallace, 2003). By doing so NGOs have been switching from delivering ‘hardware’ (tangible things, e.g. schools, roads, bridges, water supply, etc.) to ‘software’ (intangible things, e.g. empowerment, knowledge and awareness, and advocacy).

It is in this context of shifting global trends that many bilateral donors (e.g. Sida and DFID) and international NGOs, such as OXFAM, CARE, Save the Children and ActionAid, have been turning towards rights-based approaches – leaving behind the old style of service delivery, for approaches that aim to empower people to claim their rights. By doing so they have moved away from a focus on charity or needs, to one that puts stress on people’s rights (Kirkemann-Boesen & Martin, 2007; Ljungman, 2005). Thus, people are set in the center of the development process – no longer viewed as passive beneficiaries, but as active citizens with rights and entitlements (Piron, 2005).

What is a Rights-Based Approach?

Major strands of approaches have already been mentioned in the introduction. Due to lack of space, a more in-depth analysis of the differences will have to be (and has already been) dealt with elsewhere (see e.g. Cornwall & Nyamu-Musembi, 2004 for a more detailed analysis of differences in perspectives between INGOs and multi-/ bilateral donors). Instead in this section I will focus on the broad similarities and general principles of RBAs, without making any claims that these are in any way universal for all approaches.

Despite the lack of a single common definition of RBAs, there are some similarities and convergences. A good starting place for an analysis is how they differ considerably from earlier ‘needs-based approaches’, which focus on securing additional resources for service delivery to particular groups. In contrast, RBAs call for existing resources to be shared more equally; and for assisting the marginalized to claim their rights to those resources. Rather than being based on charitable notions, a RBA asserts legal and, sometimes, ethical obligations of the state and international community to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of excluded and poor people (Cornwall & Nyamu-Musembi, 2004).

As mentioned earlier, RBAs builds on the notion that there is a direct link between poverty and a lack of (human) rights, such as the right to food, health, education, information, participation, etc. Thus, poverty in this case should be viewed as more than just a lack of resources – it is the manifestation of powerlessness and exclusion (Ljungman, 2005; Kirkemann-Boesen & Martin, 2007).



Focus on input and outcome

Focus on process and outcome

Emphasizes meeting needs

Emphasizes realizing rights

Recognizes needs as valid claims

Recognizes individual and group rights as claims toward legal and moral duty-bearers

Individuals are objects of development interventions

Individuals and groups are empowered to claim their rights

Individuals deserve assistance

Individuals are entitled to assistance

Focuses on immediate causes of problems

Focuses on structural causes and their manifestations

Source: Kirkemann-Boesen & Martin, 2007.

Thus, rather than focusing on meeting needs, seeing needs as valid claims for charitable actions and individuals as objects of development intervention – RBAs seek to realize rights and entitlements, recognizing the need to empower individuals and groups to claims their rights. Moreover, instead of concentrating on outcomes alone and immediate causes to problems, RBAs focus on processes as well as outcomes; and structural causes as well as their manifestations (Kirkemann-Boesen & Martin, 2007). According to Ljungman (2005), there are three features that distinguish a RBA: i.e. the legal basis; the normative framework; and the process of realizing goals (where the process itself is part of the goal).

The legal basis of RBAs takes departure in international law, and acknowledges a framework consisting of ‘rights-holders’ and ‘duty-bearers’. All human beings belong to the first category by virtue of being human. In the second category, duty-bearers – the state and all its organs – are obliged to facilitate, provide and/or promote the human rights. Furthermore, other actors, e.g. international financial institutions, I/NGOs, aid agencies, private sector actors, etc. are ‘moral duty-bearers’ – assumed to take responsibilities in the promotion and protection of human rights. Thus, at the very core of a RBA, is the realization of human rights through strengthening duty-bearers to fulfill their role; and to empower rights-holders to claim and invoke their rights (Ljungman, 2005).

Offering a RBA-roadmap for policy makers and practitioners is a normative framework – a vision of what ought to be. A set of normatively based principles that are backed by international law, provides a foundation for citizens to make their claims; and for holding states accountable for their duties (Cornwall & Nyamu-Musembi, 2004). There are six key human rights principles: (1) universalism and inalienability; (2) equality and non-discrimination; (3) indivisibility and interdependence of human rights; (4) participation and inclusion; (5) accountability; and (6) the rule of law (Ljungman, 2005). Similar lists of principles can be found under the more easily-to-remember acronym PANEL: Participation/ inclusion; Accountability; Non-discrimination/ equality; Empowerment; and Linkages to human rights standards/ legality (see e.g. Ling, et al., 2010).

As a result of the application of the above mentioned principles, RBAs recognize a coupling between process goals as well as outcomes – where the means through which results are being met is as central to development as the results themselves. Therefore human rights must be both active (dependent on the participation of individuals and groups); and practical (as they must be applicable to the daily lives of people). This means that human rights need to be both promoted and protected by duty-bearers; but also practiced and experienced by rights-holders (Ljungman, 2005). Thus, RBAs may serve as an opportunity to think about power and the dynamics, and to make linkages between participation, accountability (both for states and other development actors) and citizenship in its broadest sense (Cornwall & Nyamu-Musembi, 2004).

How is Novi Ritm’s work already aligned with a Rights-Based Approach?

As mentioned in the introduction, Novi Ritm is trying to find its position within the field of democracy and human rights – something that is not an easy task. However, without reinventing the wheel, I will argue that Novi Ritm already is on its way to adopting a RBA – without explicitly being aware of it. What follows is an outline of the ways that Novi Ritm is already aligned with a RBA.

Novi Ritm encourages active citizenship amongst young people, where they not only are passive bystanders to processes that matter to their own lives, but where they can get involved and influence outcomes. By working with young people, to give them a platform for developing their own ideas and initiatives, Novi Ritm aims at increasing the opportunities and capabilities of young people to make changes happen in their own lives, in their surrounding communities and – in the long run – society as a whole. Thus, the organization offers a space where youth can identify and explore their rights; and pursue the fulfillment rights that are relevant to the youth themselves.

To do this, Novi Ritm offers the support and guidance for those who are interested in starting their own initiatives, but also works proactively to inform youth about their rights through e.g. information campaigns and outreaches – viewing (the right to) information as a first step in empowerment processes. Although not currently part of the organization’s strategy, Novi Ritm has ambitions to include empowerment of (moral/) duty-bearers in the near future – for example, through working with teachers and other school officials in a project to tackle child abuse.

Compared to a needs-based approach, where needs can be fulfilled through e.g. charitable actions, Novi Ritm sees needs as the lack of entitlements – not only in the sense of lack of enjoyment of legal rights and a fair judicial system, but the lack of information and structural opportunities (be they institutional or cultural) for people to take part in the decision-making (at all levels) that affect their lives. An example of how Novi Ritm works with these issues today can be found in the ‘Girls group’, with its focus on how gender stereotypes affect the lives of girls and young women in the country. By illuminating taken-for-granted norms and gender roles, the group empowers girls and young women to organize and challenge the status quo of gender-based discrimination and violence.

Also at an organizational level, Novi Ritm aims at being an open and inclusive organization with a flat structure. This can be seen in the everyday operations of the organization; where inclusion of marginalized and vulnerable groups (including girls and women) are at the very focus of the organization. Moreover, in contrast to the otherwise bureaucratic and hierarchical structures of NGOs – even youth organizations – Novi Ritm has a short distance from ideas to action. From one day to another any young person who has an idea or an initiative can become a group leader, or project manager, in his or her own social project.

The organization also invites a deep sense of accountability towards its intended beneficiaries, most of whom are involved in the daily operations of the organization and its working groups. Thus, accountability is not something that is aimed upwards – towards donors, or even downwards to intended recipients, but inwards; i.e. to the very people that make up the organization. Using participatory methods and democratic principles in its work, Novi Ritm makes sure that the end goals of the organization are inseparable from the means of reaching them. This means to strive for ensuring inclusion and empowerment of the youth that are in the organization, as well as the young people that are being met by the work of the organization through its outreaches or campaigns.

In my next blog post I will explore these methods further and connecting them to the principles of a RBA.


Cornwall, A. & Nyamu-Musembi, C. (2004). Putting the ‘Rights-Based Approach’ to Development into perspective. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 8.

Hargreaves, S. et al. (2010). ActionAid: Human Rights Based Approach Resource Book.

Kirkemann-Boesen, J. & Martin, T. (2007). Applying a Rights-Based Approach: An Inspirational Guide for Civil Society. The Danish Institute for Human Rights:

Lewis, D. & Opoku-Mensah, P. (2006). Moving Forward Research Agendas on International NGOs: Theory, Agency and Context. Journal of International Development, Vol. 18.

Ling, A. et al. (2010). Literature Review on Active Participation and Human Rights Research and Advocacy. IDS Report:

Ljungman, C. (2004). Applying a Rights Based Approach to Development: Concepts and Principles. Conference Paper: The Winners and Losers from Rights Based Approaches to Development:

Piron, L-H. (2005). Rights-Based Approaches and Bilateral Aid Agencies: More Than a Metaphor? IDS Bulletin – Developing Rights?, Vol. 36, No. 1.

Wallace, T. (2003). Trends in UK NGOs: A research note. Development in Practice, Vol. 13, No. 5.