Sunday, June 07, 2009

Poverty and human rights

Chris Blattman follows on a conversation by Bill Easterly over whether poverty is a human rights violation. Disagreeing with an Amnesty International report which Easterly says makes this link (though I don't think it's clear from the quote he cites), Easterly writes,
The only useful definition of human rights is one where a human rights crusader could identify WHOSE rights are being violated and WHO is the violator... Poverty does not fit this definition of rights. Who is depriving the poor of their right to an adequate income? There are many theories of poverty, but few of them lead to a clear identification of the Violator of this right. Moreover, human rights are a clear dichotomy – someone violates your rights or they do not. But the line between poor and not-poor is arbitrary – it is different in different countries, and on a global scale, many still argue what is the right dividing line that constitutes poverty. So calling poverty a “human rights violation” does not point to any concrete actions that the “violator” must stop in order to restore rights to the “violated.”
Blattman adds,
Unfortunately, I fear the rights-based approach to poverty is about as effective as its ideological predecessor (see central planning) and has even less intellectual content... I could wave aside the philosophical quarrels if I thought the rights approach to poverty worked in practice. Unfortunately, I fear it reinforces all of the mistakes of past aid: it ignores the agency and the incentives of the poor; it focuses less on creating opportunities and structuring incentives, and more on public works and handouts. As an advocacy and fundraising mechanism, however, the rights approach may be unmatched.
I wonder what "works in practice" means here. In a historical moment in which we've come to understand that "development" and "aid" have become controversial concepts themselves for myriad reasons (from ideological to practical), and in which there are multiple competing definitions of poverty (see this book for an overview) and human rights (see here, for example), the object of Easterly's and Blattman's claims is unclear.

It's an appealing idea to consider poverty as human rights violation. It likely actually is in a very general sense - to the extent that the wealthy participate in a global economy with rules favorable to them and unfavorable to the poor (who have had little say in writing the rulebook). But it may not be the greatest idea as an exclusive basis for development and humanitarian work. This runs to the philosophical nature of a right.

As philosophers generally see it, a "right" involves not only the protection of some set of negative and/or positive liberties for the rights-bearing agent but also concrete obligations and duties on the part of others to refrain from harm (in the negative case) or to provide effective assistance (in the positive case). Further, and this is a matter of dispute, a right is then only meaningful if there is some concrete way to carry out these obligations/duties in practice (this could be handouts - which would be an unimaginative approach - or it could be help in reconstructing the basic institutions of a society). This practical point just is part of the philosophical quarrel over rights, especially human rights, and Easterly's remarks hint at this basic idea.

It's a mistake in my view, however, to isolate the philosophical considerations from concrete policy, as suggested in the "if it worked in practice" claim. The "works in practice" criterion just is part of the question of rights already and a robust view of human rights by definition won't be divorced from its practical aspect. To suggest otherwise, as both Easterly and Blattman do, is to build a strawman.

A further consideration is that emphasizing "works in practice," while obviously important, also assumes the status quo as the appropriate default position. What "works" will indeed work easiest through existing institutions. But status quo institutions are usually also the source of the problem. So we also need to carve out better (i.e., more ideal) approaches that can be used as bases to critique currently existing practices. That's the role presumably of a human rights approach.

Whether we call them "rights" or not, don't we still usually seek to transform the rules or guidelines or patterns of current practice into better rules, etc. (which, by definition, are outlined in ideal form)? An approach emphasizing rights should remain in our toolbox, but it can't be the sole tool. That's the real issue. Making poverty an issue of human rights is functionally meaningless unless we have other tools at our disposal to work on the structural conditions of poverty so that we might be able to works in the direction of ideals that the rights discourse helps to articulate.

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