- Development and Human Rights: Rhetoric and Reality in India by Joel Oestreich
Nongovernmental and multilateral development agencies have increasingly adopted a rights-based approach (RBA) to development over the past two decades. Has the RBA resulted in concrete changes in these agencies’ strategies and tactics in the field? How do these organizations, which have traditionally been perceived as doing “technical” and politically neutral work, navigate the politics of human rights that are inherent in the RBA? In his thoroughly researched, theoretically grounded, and concisely written book, Joel Oestreich analyzes the work of United Nations specialized agencies in India to provide insight into these questions.1
Oestreich examines how several UN development agencies—including the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), UN Women, and the World Bank—have interpreted and implemented the RBA in their work in India. He finds that there is wide variation both within and among [End Page 233] agencies in their commitment to the RBA and their translation of the RBA into practice. Despite this inconsistency, staff members at UN specialized agencies do increasingly view their mission through the lens of promoting human rights.
Furthermore, this commitment to the RBA is not “mere rhetoric,” in the author’s words; it has led UN agencies to make real changes in their work in India. It would be meaningless for UN agencies simply to recast their development programming as the fulfillment of economic and social rights, because the provision of goods and services is what these agencies have always done. However, organizations like the UNDP and UNICEF are beginning to address politically sensitive issues—namely, the enforcement of civil and political rights— that require some confrontation with the Indian government. This is important for Oestreich because, as these agencies encounter resistance from national and local authorities, it demonstrates that their commitment to the RBA is real.
Oestreich focuses on five specific civil and political rights that UN agencies have promoted in India: the decentralization of political power; nondiscrimination in the provision of public services; access to justice for marginalized populations; the right to information; and women’s rights.2 As they have begun to actively promote these rights, UN staff members have been forced to adopt new strategies for dealing with the political resistance that they encounter.3 For example, UN staff often “camouflage” their rights-based activities by reframing them in technical, non-controversial terms such as “building local capacity.” They use data on human rights violations from the Indian government or impartial third parties in order to bolster credibility and then promote public education through mass media. They use the good offices of the United Nations to bring conflicting parties together to resolve conflicts, and they tend to advocate for “soft” approaches to accountability, such as grassroots education and local empowerment, rather than “hard” mechanisms of legal enforcement that would invite confrontation.4
The promotion of civil and political rights by UN specialized agencies in India leads to several key conclusions in the book, which have important implications for development and human rights practice, as well as our understanding of the role of the UN in international politics. First, the RBA is an inherently political process, insofar as it challenges structures of power and involves conflicting interests and values. This is important to recognize, because both international development and human rights have frequently been cast by theorists and practitioners as technical, politically neutral activities. Development has been perceived as a nonpolitical process whereby economists and technical experts efficiently maximize growth for the benefit of everyone. The protection of human rights has been perceived as being led by independent jurists advancing nonpolitical legal standards that can be enforced equally on everyone. Neither of these perceptions is entirely accurate. Development and human rights often involve utility trade-offs, political struggles between unequal groups, and inherent conflicts over values. The RBA recognizes that both development and human rights operate in the political realm and requires the empowerment of [End Page 234] marginalized populations to advocate for their own...