This article examines the meaning and relevance of a human rights-based approach to development (HRBA) for actors on the ground. It is one of the first scholarly studies to empirically analyze the operationalization of this approach. We use a new frame of analysis and new empirical material on the Kongo Central province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to examine how this approach is brought into practice. This article is inspired by the widespread international acclaim for HRBAs as well as by the critical literature on this approach. It was found that there is a wide gap between the conceptualization of the HRBA at the international level and its operationalization on the ground, but that some dimensions are less problematic than others. This article will argue that a deficient implementation challenges the legitimacy of the HRBA, and of the human rights framework more broadly, and that more attention to the operationalization and implementation of this approach is needed in order to reap its potential benefits.