Perspective: Linking Rights with Development

The trend toward the cross-linking of issue areas and policy agendas is increasingly accepted and necessary in today's interdependent world as leaders search for creative solutions to complex global problems.

Among the most potentially fruitful of such cross-connections is the convergence of human rights and development.

Historically, the human rights and development agendas have often followed divergent paths of analysis and action. Yet over the last decade, the global action plans emerging from the UN global conferences spanning from Rio to Istanbul have established basic links between the two areas. Recently the World Bank, UNICEF, UNDP and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as influential thinkers such as Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, have all sought to strengthen the connection.

This year's Human Development Report takes the connection further, bridging an important conceptual gap between the human rights and human development agendas, clarifying and codifying the linkage.

Both agendas, the report argues, are concerned with safeguarding fundamental freedoms and promoting human well-being.

"The basic idea of human development - that enriching the lives and freedoms of ordinary people is fundamental - has much in common with the concerns expressed by declarations of human rights," Human Development Report 2000 states. "A more integrated approach can thus bring significant rewards, and facilitate in practical ways the shared attempts to advance the dignity, well-being and freedom of individuals in general."

The report outlines a potentially powerful recipe for fostering positive social change. It suggests that social development must increasingly be regarded as a process of "enhancing human capabilities" and expanding opportunities, while human rights are seen as giving rise to the idea that various social actors have duties to ensure that individuals and communities are indeed able to develop and exercise such capabilities and opportunities. A "rights-based" approach to development is proposed to bring together the methods and insights of these two different agendas in mutually reinforcing ways.

As the Report points out, a human rights perspective on questions relating to social progress can ensure that a full spectrum of human entitlements - political, civil, social, cultural, economic, educational, nutritional and medical - become integral to development planning and activity. A human rights focus also directly incorporates notions of family, community, corporate, media and institutional accountability and responsibility in the pursuit of development goals. In this way, the mechanisms and instruments of the international human rights regime can be enlisted to advance development priorities.

Within a human rights context, development gains are more likely to be equitable in their impact and not accentuate patterns of social exclusion or discrimination. Moreover, this concern with justice emphasizes the process as well as the outcomes of development. Such an orientation is vital if new forms of participation and action are to emerge at all levels of society.

The development field, in turn, has much to contribute to the universal recognition and achievement of human rights. Use of the qualitative and quantitative tools of development can provide an analytical framework for understanding both the resources and constraints that affect the implementation of rights. By taking account of evolving social and economic conditions, policy makers can clarify the most effective pathways toward attaining the full constellation of rights in any particular country.

Yet, however admirable its attempt to link the human rights and development discourses, the Report barely touches upon a fundamental question that lies at the heart of the social transformation that it envisions. While acknowledging that a focus on human rights brings a moral dimension to the development arena, the Report fails to explore how the spiritual and moral roots of human motivation can be tapped to secure human rights and achieve development.

Bahá'ís see the entire enterprise of civilization as a spiritual process involving the progressive awakening of humanity's moral and creative capacities. While the recognition of human rights and new approaches to development are central to social advancement, Bahá'ís believe that meaningful social transformation cannot occur without touching those moral and spiritual forces that lie at the heart of human consciousness and purpose.

Indeed, without a focus on moral development - often ignored by thinkers and activists - the noble objectives of social justice and prosperity promised by the human rights and development agendas will never be fully realized.

This is so because the establishment of peaceful and progressive modes of living requires a reordering of the norms and social arrangements created by society's members. Such a reordering occurs only when people's inner lives are transformed. The creation of communities based on fairness, cooperation, reciprocity and genuine concern for others is ultimately a matter of the heart; it involves a change in basic attitudes and values that comes only through recognition of the essential moral and spiritual nature of the challenges that confront us.

Even those who may not be religious can recognize the innate dignity of human beings - that each human being is born into the world as a trust of the whole. This recognition of each person's inherent dignity is not sufficient to bring about conditions of equity, harmony, and freedom, however; genuine social progress can only flow from spiritual awareness and the inculcation of virtue. Thus the need for moral education programs that cultivate the qualities of nobility, goodness, and beauty that animate human nature.

Further, Bahá'ís believe, moral education is not only about shaping values and attitudes, but also about imparting skills and methods to foster constructive patterns of human interaction. Building up the moral fabric of collective life involves the development of a wide range of capacities. Among these are learning how to use methods of decision-making that are open, non-adversarial and inclusive; how to achieve unity of purpose and action among all members of a community; how to replace relationships based on dominance and competition with relationships based on respect, collaboration, and service to others; how to imbue social interchange with an acute sense of justice; and how to instill rectitude in private and public administration.

The fact that the world community is pluralist in character should not deter governments and international agencies from giving serious attention to the question of moral development. For too long, certain deeply entrenched prejudices, falsely posing as values, have obstructed human freedoms and blighted social progress. The discriminatory treatment of women is a prime example. Today, at a moment when an interdependent world is taking form, all its inhabitants, 'Abdu'l-Bahá states, "must now become imbued with new virtues and powers, new moral standards, new capacities."

In a very real sense the international human rights regime is the fruit of an ongoing process of moral dialogue among diverse nations and peoples. This cross-cultural undertaking has gradually given rise to a new ethos of human solidarity and collective responsibility. A "rights-based" approach to development is one of its latest manifestations.

But clearly the cooperative search for justice cannot stop here. The conceptual and practical integration of the rights and development agendas suggests something much more profound: the emergence of a true "civilization of character" in which the freedoms and innate capacity of every human being can at last be realized.