Tag Archives: Human rights

Last Week Today: The Global Legacy Award goes to?

The week in global news

The Global Legacy Award goes to…?

Cue drum roll.

Tony Blair.

Right. Naturally. Of Course. We totally picked him too.

We don’t understand why people are so outraged at Save the Children’s decision to choose an accused war criminal to receive the award. He totally deserved it for his “leadership on international development.” And while this may signify that we can no longer rely on political activism from large and professional charities, we don’t believe any mistake was made, because if a mistake had been made, surely STC would have said, right?

Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister

Americans are protesting across the country due to a grand jury’s decision not to prosecute white police officer Darren Wilson for shooting dead Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson.

Police cleared large protest sites in Hong Kong on Wednesday, but protestors returned and violent clashes continue.

And 40,000 Masai people will be evicted from their homeland in Tanzania, because the Dubai royal family bought the land to hunt big game.

This week on the blog

Volunteering abroad with children: A game of double standards?

Working with children in Western countries requires qualifications and background checks. Not so in developing countries. Ruth Taylor asks what’s with the double standards?

Fair trade: All it’s cracked up to be?

Fair trade-certified companies are ethical and sustainable, and they pay their workers a living wage. Right? Liza Moiseeva investigates how fair trade really affects farmers.

Coffee farmers in El Salvador. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Coffee farmers in El Salvador. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

This week in globaldev

Pictures: Workers in the informal economy

The death of international development

Say ‘burn rate‘ one more time

Raising the minimum wage isn’t enough

Doing development differently

Video: Why are some people poor and others are rich? (08:47)

Current opportunities

Community Manager: Use your experience in content and community management to grow the AidSource network. | WhyDev

Fundraising Director: An experienced fundraiser is wanted to raise much needed funds for a Speech Therapy program in Cambodia. | OIC: The Cambodia Project

You can also check out our events and listen to the MissionCreep podcast.

Featured image is Tony Blair, UK’s former Prime Minister. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The MDGs: human rights in small doses?

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of editing the previous two posts (here and here) regarding the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It’s clear now that not many if any will be met. Those that have been or are being met are not being welcomed with the cheers of a rousing success, but the pursed lips and raised eyebrows of concern. And rightly so – there is much still yet to be done.

A little late to the game but relevant to this matter nonetheless is a podcast I was listening to. The Guardian Global Development podcast episode from March 27, 2012. On it the panel members were discussing the MDGs and what was to be done next, whether they are a success and what needs to change for the next go round. It was at roughly at the 32:30 mark that an audience member asked about human rights and human development.

Global development podcast

The audience member asks about human rights in regards to the MDGs, which have no explicit element to them. Rather, they focus on more tangible and ‘acceptable’ development goals that any government can accept. Listening in, the panel sounds like they’ve immediately dismissed the question, never harkening back to it or specifically speaking about human rights. Rather, they address the MDGs relevant to their particular area of expertise.

The big one mentioned was maternal health and the right to it, which Mike Miesen discussed in his post ‘MDG 5a: An Update On Maternal Mortality‘. Mike writes about the need for the world to re-evaluate and ramp up its work on reducing the mateernal mortality rate, as at the moment we’re failing to reach that 75% reduction rate. Scott Weathers also contributed a post about the MDGs, ‘Goals are good, but do the MDGs need to be simplified?‘ Soctt asks the equal vital question of how to make the goals manageable and understandable. This though may have an adverse effect on any human rights aspects, if they exists, included in the MDGs as they could be left out entirely or watered down to such a degree that few would recongise them as human rights.

In discussion with a friend, who initially told me about this very episode, we came to wonder – have human rights in fact been included in the MDGs? She like me, not so much waffles between opinions, but remains unsure – and for the following reasons.

1. One argument is that the MDGs been broken down into their relevant sectors reflected and thus made manageable for governments, without the obvious tropes commonly associated with human rights – no direct calls for votes, democracy, representation or judiciary measures. Supporting evidence would be the focus on women’s health, equality and education for all, both implicitly grounded in human rights.

Good Ol' Gurban Berdimuhamedov aka Berdy aka Big Berdy aka Big Bird
Good Ol’ Gurban Berdimuhamedov doesn’t want to swallow something so difficult as human rights.

Those human rights that certain countries, like Turkmenistan, argue as a right such as ‘the right to food’ are included – even as the debate, albeit small, remains as to whether this in fact a right. The argument here often falls on the definition of ‘the right to life’, given that food is a necessity for life but there is no guarantee that anyone should have access to/receive it. Hence, countries such as Turkmenistan will provide bread, rice, salt and other rations as part of the state’s ensuring the ‘right to life’ of its citizens, while arguing that the US does not as they do not provide such staples.

2. The contrary argument being the fact that there is no clear language in any of the MDGs calling for human rights as a whole, especially those that extend to housing, governance and rule of law. Instead there is talk of trade, debt relief and aid coordination – all worthy in their own rights and not to be dismissed, but not directly connected to human rights either. Many of the matters associated with everyone, not just women, are not included in the MDGs.

Leaving certain rights out, one can argue that human rights are being dismissed entirely – as its a one for all and all for one deal. Piecemeal implementation allows for privileged application, creating the inequality that the MDGs seek to eradicate. But, given the UN’s perennial inability to implement anything beyond its obligation to annual pay raises for its employees, how are they are expected provide for and guarantee rights for all?

The line between human rights and development, in my opinion, is never an easy one to walk. It’s why there are so many organisations with a range of operating procedures. It’s the impetus for MSF’s creation. To say their entirely separate is if anything to deny the very reason that we’re in this business to begin with – to help people – because not everyone needs the same sort of help.

My questions for the readers of WhyDev are these:

  • Are human rights included in the MDGs? If not should they be?
  • If they are, then have they been blunted or reframed to be more acceptable?
  • Do human rights have a place in development, particularly on the global scale?


Why including people with disabilities is common sense.

One reason why the issue of disability is treated as something too specialised for the ordinary NGO is the misconception that the number of disabled people within the target population is insignificant. This myth arises because many disabled people are invisible.

– Allison Harris & Sue Enfield in DisabilityEquality and Human Rights: A Training Manual for Development and Humanitarian Organisations

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over a billion people in the world, or 15% of the world’s population, live with disabilities. This number is higher in lower income countries, although most commonly the rate is underestimated due to the lack of accurate data. If you were to try and identify some of the most poor and vulnerable members of any community, you would have to look no further than those with disabilities.

How do we best address the issue of inequality that arises amongst people with disabilities?

Previously, specific programs to address the needs of those with disabilities was the only method, but now, more and more agencies are moving towards mainstreaming disability issues into their existing programs. In terms of government aid agencies, AusAID is leading the charge on this front, following a twin track approach to disability. This means specific programs for those with disabilities, but also including the concerns of people with disabilities as part of all mainstream projects.

Image courtesy of CBM (2012) Inclusion made easy: A quick program guide to disability in development, p18-26.


I’m personally a big fan of this approach, and it’s also good to see AusAID leading the charge here. Mainstream organisations are often far better placed to address the needs of people with disabilities than disability specific organisations.

Why? When disability organisations take up work that is too far outside their core area, interventions run the risk of becoming less effective.

Let’s take the example of income generation. For a disability organisation, most of their expertise and experience lies in working with closely with disability. This may involve physical rehabilitation, getting children with disabilities into school, or analysing difficulties with accessibility amongst other things. They are aware of the barriers commonly faced by people with disabilities in accessing vocational training, startup funds for enterprise or even simply common services such as banking.

Their core work however does not involve income generation. There are plenty of organisations who already do this work, and do it well, with innovation. Integrating the needs of people with disabilities into their programs makes far more sense, and this is a perfect example where disability organisations can partner with mainstream organisations to achieve this.

There are some great examples of this already happening. The disability organisation, CBM, have produced an excellent guide on disability inclusion, which gives practical advice to mainstream development organisations on how they can integrate people with disabilities better into their work. Almost every section of development is individually accounted for, from Advocacy to WASH, from Disaster Management to HIV/AIDS.

Planning for people with disabilities early can avoid accessibility disasters like this occurring. Photo my own.


We simply cannot afford not to include people with disabilities.

My gut feeling is that many mainstream development organisations do not include people with disabilities, because they are hesitant about the time and energy needed to do so. They see people preaching about inclusion as nuisances, who add another layer of compliance that they do are unable to conform with due to limited resources.

I would like to come at the issue from another angle. We simply cannot afford not to include people with disabilities.

As an example, simple adaptations to make buildings accessible for people with disabilities are often deemed “too expensive” in countries that do not have large budgets.

However, installing appropriate access for people with disabilities while a building is being constructed costs only 1-2% of the total building costs. If people with disabilities are excluded from participating within the labor market, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there is a 1-7% loss of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Putting aside the business case for including those with disabilities into the labor market, there is a greater issue at stake here, which is the human right of social inclusion. With the case of constructing buildings, as with most programs in development, considering and preparing for the needs of people with disabilities beforehand can save time, money and energy in the long run.

This often means making sure that there is a line for disability in the budget. If disability is included in the budget beforehand, it is more difficult to ignore it when it comes to implementation.

Inclusion of people with disabilities doesn’t have to be a chore. But it does involve some pre-thought and planning. If we truly want to help improve the lives of the world’s poor and vulnerable we cannot continue to ignore those that are at the most vulnerable end of the spectrum.


When talking about human rights is irrelevant

Go in search of your people;
Love them;
Learn from them
Serve them;
Begin with what they have;
Build on what they know;
But of the best leaders when the task is accomplished, their work is done, the People will remark: “We have done it Ourselves”

Chinese Verse (source unknown)


I had the pleasure of working with Handicap International in China last year. As someone who had recently graduated from studying an MA in International Development Studies, it was an amazing opportunity to compare theory with practice. We all know that what we learn in a classroom is often miles away from what happens or works in practice. How it actually differs though, is something that is difficult to predict.

In my very first week in China, I gave a presentation to a group of young university students who were volunteering to raise awareness about issues related to disability. During my presentation, I spoke heavily about human rights. What I found was that there was almost no reaction to the idea that people with disabilities had human rights that needed to be realised. Why wasn’t this resonating?

While studying development, one of the central tenets stressed is the rights-based approach. For those who are unfamiliar, this approach is a conceptual framework based upon international standards that should be used to promote and protect human rights.

In her book “Human Rights Approach to Development”, Julia Häusermann justifies using a rights-based approach because it is a normative framework to protect and promote the human rights of marginalised groups. The idea is that by stipulating a set of internationally agreed standards, which are often backed by international law, this should provide the impetus for the realisation of rights. At times during my studies, we were encouraged to give trainings about human rights, and to try and get local people thinking about this issue so that they could push for change in their own communities. This concept was one that I always struggled with at the time. How is it possible for bottom-up change to occur through a set of standards that are determined in a top-down fashion by the UN? It seemed paradoxical.

In China, I soon realised how limited the rights-based approach was in trying to instigate change. Although the rights-based approach may be a good foundation and framework upon which development workers can base their own approach, thinking that it will create change in countries like China is perhaps a little naive. What strikes me about using this approach is that it falls under the information deficit approach to creating change. In other words, once you educate people about human rights, and outline the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), they will be able to grasp this concept easily and energise themselves to create positive change. Simply not knowing about something is the reason why these rights are being ignored.

If this logic holds true, then the people who heard my presentation should be able to analyse gaps in human rights issues and demand that their government brings about change so that human rights are no longer ignored. Right? Wrong.

In China, my experience was that most people perceive human rights as a ‘Western’ concept. This means that plugging knowledge gaps with information about human rights is futile, because it isn’t locally appropriate. I learnt that Chinese people tended to have a very pragmatic view about solving problems (see photo below); if there was a problem, people wanted to know how to go about solving it (and more often than not, they wanted someone to tell them how to do it).

The pragmatic approach to solving problems in China (photo my own).

During my presentation to university students, I learnt very quickly about the gap between this “Western concept” and Chinese perspectives. The students were young people who were more likely to be “Westernised” than many of their older counterparts. I explained the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and linked that to people with disabilities. I explained that if we all accepted that people with disabilities were human beings, then it follows that they too have human rights that need to be respected and realised.

However, this topic hardly provoked any reaction. It just didn’t seem to gain traction. Puzzled, I went back to my colleagues to ask them how I could improve my talk. They were generally polite (possibly a little too polite), but one hinted that while the human-rights approach was interesting, it was a little bit too theoretical for the intended target group.

After some reflection, I decided to change my approach. Instead of talking about human rights as a conceptual framework, I decided to focus more on barriers.

I discussed how, for a child who uses a wheelchair, a disability is created by the barriers that society erects in front of this child. How it is not so much the fact that the child cannot walk in school, but the fact that there are no ramps in place, or no policy on how he or she can participate while the other children are running around during sport.

Looking at the problem from this angle is actually quite refreshing. Because no matter how clever you are, or no matter how much you care, you cannot go back in time and prevent a child with cerebral palsy from being born with that impairment. We cannot change what happens to the body. But, through society as a whole, we can lower barriers. We can promote inclusion by collectively focusing on  steps that lower barriers that prevent participation.

Immediately, I saw a change in the students’ response. Rather than talking about a conceptual framework that meant very little to them, they had a real tangible way in which they could improve the lives of those around them. It helped them see past people with disabilities as pitiable and helpless. It kick-started change and a desire for action.

The rights-based approach is not a useless concept. It can be a good start for us, particularly those with a ‘Western’ education, to wrap our heads around why we do what we do. It can be the underlying foundation for development work. But it cannot be a driver for change in a local context, when it clashes so heavily with the national psyche. Coming into a country like China and expecting to create change by throwing around concepts such as human rights is naive, and antithetical to the very nature of a bottom-up approach to development.

Thankfully, I was able to use the good advice of my local colleagues to develop a more effective strategy for promoting disability awareness. Hopefully, it enabled at least some Chinese people to begin creating their own change, and lowering barriers for participation for people with disabilities. Then, and only then, would they be able to say, “We have done it Ourselves.”


Mining and development: how to get the balance right?

One of the common themes in recent development discourse has been the dichotomy between natural resource extraction and human and environmental rights. Mining is ubiquitous in the developing world, boosting foreign direct investment and creating jobs, but bringing with it a series of social and environmental problems that have often torn communities apart and fermented social unrest. The connection between mining and international development is an important one, but the antagonism between the two sides of the debate has allowed for certain sectors to be neglected. One such sector is that of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM).

Artisanal and small-scale mining, particularly gold mining (ASGM), has always represented an important development opportunity. Today, with the price of gold hovering around US$1600 per ounce, ASGM has seen a huge resurgence. Current estimates place the amount of direct artisanal gold miners at up to 15 million people globally. The secondary economy that stems from this sector represents employment for up to 50 million people. ASGM is unique in that miners on the ground receive near “spot” or market price for the gold that they produce, creating thriving local economies and making the trade one of the most economically fair and equitable for the rural poor. However, the sector is plagued with problems, and the typical policy response has only served to worsen things.

The Peruvian government’s recent incorporation of informal mining into the criminal code, which created sentencing guidelines of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for those involved in the activity, caused massive protests in the Madre de Dios region of the country. These uprisings consisted of some 10,000 artisanal gold miners, caused three deaths and 30 injuries, and brought the importance of ASGM into the public spotlight, both in Peru and abroad. The protests represent another example of why the formalisation of ASGM is a complicated process that is unlikely to succeed without innovative measures that do more than simply criminalise activities.

Peru is one of the largest gold producing countries in the world, with the informal sector representing at least 50,000 ASGM miners, thousands more indirect jobs, and an estimated production of 30 metric tonnes of gold annually. The problem, the government rightly claims, is that a large number of these miners are using methods that wreak havoc on the environment and the health of local populations – mercury use being a major issue. The miners also illegally occupy land, evade taxes, and in some cases employ children. Although such problems pose great challenges, criminalising informal gold mining without taking the needs of such a substantial sector into consideration is not the solution. Not only does this create social unrest, criminalisation and marginalisation, but also provokes an employment crisis while deepening poverty.

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining is largely unheard of outside of the developing world, despite the fact that such mining represents unique histories in the expansion and modernisation of many countries. More than a century ago artisanal gold miners were involved in their own struggles with the authorities in Canada, the United States and Australia during the gold rush era. The ability of governments at the time to carefully navigate the complex situation resulted in a give and take process where the informal social contracts and extralegal arrangements already established by the miners themselves were eventually incorporated into law.* Legal impositions would only have served to stifle the sector and to create burgeoning black markets. Instead, governments were able to incorporate artisanal gold mining into the formal economy, enabling it to become a vital part of the growth of modern societies and a foundation for many of our existing land rights and laws today.

What happened a century ago is happening now in many countries like Peru. A new gold rush is underway and it is largely driven by poverty, with millions of people relying on it for a living. It is now the task of Peru and other countries to take the measured steps necessary to engage artisanal gold miners and to work with them to develop regulations that are achievable and context-driven. Prohibitive laws need to be accompanied by reasonable time-frames and support to avoid pushing artisanal gold miners further towards the informal market. Educational activities and technical interventions addressing better and safer mining practices must be utilised alongside market-based incentives. Sustainable artisanal gold mining could become a reality with the political will and resources to make it happen.

The first step towards achieving formalisation of the sector, however, is for governments to recognise the importance that ASGM plays in people’s economic and social well-being. A representative of the protesters in Peru said that the government was prioritising and favouring large-scale mining companies over artisanal gold miners. This favouritism is commonplace and it presents a unique challenge to which there is no precedent – large-scale mining was non-existent during the gold rushes of a century ago. Although large-scale mining today remains an important source of foreign direct investment, it is essential that governments recognise that, particularly in regards to gold, artisanal mining represents a much larger employment sector with real economic opportunities.

The social unrest in Peru illustrates the dangers of sweeping regulations that criminalise large sectors of the informal economy without taking specific needs and complexities into consideration. The problems that ASGM present are not insurmountable and solutions can be achieved with focused activities and a willingness to engage miners. With high prices of gold and millions of artisanal gold miners, an incredible economic and social opportunity has presented itself. Governments can choose to either reject it and likely worsen the problem, or they can embrace it and allow for artisanal and small-scale gold mining to fulfill its development potential.

*For further reading on the impact of gold mining on North American and Australian society see Hernando de Soto’s “The Mystery of Capital” and Douglas Featherling’s “The Gold Crusades: A Social History of Gold Rushes, 1849-1929”


The universalism of human rights (conditions apply)

In February 2012, the Ugandan government’s reintroduction of the controversial bill that would create stricter punishments for homosexuality (which is already illegal) got me thinking. Not just about how heinous I think the bill is, but about the power struggle that the Ugandan government is engaging in with the US and the UK, both formidable sparring partners. In recent months, leaders in both the US and the UK have made public statements regarding the importance of respect for homosexuality and demanded that this priority be expressed in their nations’ aid packages. In essence, rather than simply (or not so simply) tying aid to the fiscal and economic priorities of “developed countries,” (terminology is a discussion for another day) aid may also be tied to their policies regarding gender and sexual orientation, as well.

Now here is my disclaimer: I am unabashedly, strongly, march-on-the-streets pro-gay rights and am proud to work on a team that researches how best to address gender inequalities across Africa. I also lived in Uganda, outside the small town of Mbale, for about 18 months, during which time I fell head over heels in love with the country – with the enormous, glaring hole of the climate of loathing for homosexuality.

With that said, one might assume that I am rejoicing that the US and UK have made protection of gay rights abroad a priority. To be honest, a part of me really has been celebrating this. But there’s another part, the overly contemplative, trying-to-hide-from-the-ugly-side-of-aid-but-can’t development worker part. The fact is, the US and UK may not be discussing legalizing the death penalty for homosexuality in their own legal codes, but there are still very significant and meaningful gaps in their treatment of hetero vs. homosexual citizens.

For example, in the US, sexual acts between persons of the same sex were only legalized at the federal level with the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 –just nine years ago! Before that, fourteen states had sodomy laws on the books, including Idaho, which punished “offenders” with “imprisonment in the state prison not less than five years” and theoretically up to a life sentence. Furthermore, there is currently no federal prohibition against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and it is, in fact, legal in the majority of states (29). Though the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was first introduced in the US Congress in 1994 and has been reintroduced in every Congress except the 109th, it has never been passed. This is not to say that the US has not made strides against anti-homosexual discrimination, but there is still a long way to go. Of course, with an election looming, Obama may have a vested interest in showing his pro-gay rights constituents that making progress on the issue is a priority, though he lacks the political capital to pass the ENDA or a federal marriage equality act. Enter foreign policy.

In the global arena, governments and citizens of developed countries can identify problems that exist in their own countries, such as poverty, economic inequality, and female empowerment, and quickly turn their –and their electorate’s — gaze outward. Problems in one’s own country may appear complex, historically rooted, and challenging (perhaps nearly impossible) to tackle. But in other countries, where one can adopt a sufficiently distant and simplistic perspective, it can all seem so easy. For example, racism in the US – well, now, that’s a tricky issue, embedded in a sad and guilty history of slavery and oppression, and entrenched in a complex cultural and socio-economic context. But tribalism? Well, that’s just stupid. Get it together, Africa! Stop the needless discrimination and fighting! Surely it’s that easy… isn’t it?

By adopting this attitude, it allows those living in developed countries to avoid acknowledging or addressing the imperfections, contradictions, and inequality existing in their own societies, while still feeling like crusaders for global justice. Then, of course, it becomes possible to demonstrate their dedication to “the cause” by flexing a little muscle since, after all, aid is a gift, right? And what’s a little manipulation nudge between friends?

In the US, Obama would need to find a way to pass legislation through Congress. However, in Uganda, a little tug on the purse strings requires no such dance. Before than attempting to control legislative outcomes in developing nations, though, it may be worthwhile to consider why and how proposals, such as Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, managed to get popular support in the first place.

I am not suggesting that the US or the UK should stop pursuing a rights-based agenda abroad, nor am I attempting to comment on Uganda’s legislative priorities. Rather, I suggest that these countries take a long, hard look inward and ponder their own selves – their values, motivations, and the actions that result – before deciding what other nations should or should not do.

Children in an urban world: Reflecting on the topic of The State of the World’s Children 2012

By Nikola Balvin

At 89 per cent urban and with four of its cities making The Economist’s top ten most liveable list (Melbourne at no. 1, Sydney at no. 4, Perth at no. 8, and Adelaide at no. 9), Australia seems to “do” urbanisation exceptionally well.

Infrastructure and transportation systems are generally good, there are plenty of hospitals, schools and libraries, and children can interact safely in parks and other community settings. The challenges faced by countless urban centres around the world — such as children living on the street, urban gangs and informal settlements — are not common in Australia, with its most disadvantaged communities living in the outback of the Northern Territory.

Australian cities are home to people from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and while the disparities between Melbourne’s Toorak and Broadmeadows, Sydney’s Vaucluse and Fairfield, and Perth’s Peppermint Grove and Karawara are apparent to any observer, the stark divides that exist between the favelas and new developments of São Paulo or the slums and mansions of Mumbai are rarely, if ever, present. Australian cities also seem to do well in terms of their child-friendliness, with standards such as safe water and sanitation, safe streets, and plenty of opportunities to play and participate in cultural and social events easily accessible to most children and young people in urban areas.

So, while there is always room for improvement, and decision-makers at all levels of government and members of civil society need to ensure that the rights of every child are fulfilled, some of the biggest opportunities for Australia to improve the lives of poor and marginalized urban children lie in assisting her neighbour Asia. The 2012 edition of UNICEF’s flagship publication The State of the World’s Children examines the lives of children growing up in urban settings and finds that denials of children’s rights to survival, health, nutrition, education and protection are widespread, particularly in middle-income and developing nations. The report has many interesting examples that describe the situation of children in the urban areas of Asia – currently home to 66 of the 100 fastest-growing urban areas (half of these in China) and to 50 per cent of the world’s urban population (3.5 billion). Projections indicate that by 2050 Asia will hold 54 per cent of the world’s urban population (6.3 billion).

Slums – in which children grow up often without secure tenure, registration, running water, adequate sanitation and surrounded by disease and poverty – are a notorious aspect of rapid urbanization. For example, in 2011 India’s slum population was projected to reach just over 93 million; that is over a quarter of its urban residents living in slums.

In Bangladesh, the under-five mortality rate for children in slums was found to be 79 per cent higher than the overall urban rate, and 44 per cent higher than the rural rate.

Similar disparities exist in children’s education. In 2004-2005, the primary school attendance rate of children living in the slums Delhi was a low 55 per cent, while the overall city average was 90 per cent. A more disparate pattern emerged in the rates of secondary school attendance for children living in the slums of Bangladesh, where in 2009 only 18 per cent attended secondary school, while the overall secondary school attendance in urban areas was 53 per cent.

Besides slums,The State of the World’s Children outlines many other challenges faced by children who are growing up urban. Motivated by the search for a better life, many children partake in migration to urban areas. In 2008, almost a tenth of China’s children migrated with their parents. Setting up a new home poses many difficulties, but when migrating without the company of an adult, a child is at particular risk of ending up on the streets, impoverished, in exploitative work or abused. Trafficking is another grave child exploitation connected to cities. Studies indicate that in the major Indian cities, most trafficked girls are forced into sex work, and in Bangladeshi cities large numbers of girls and boys are exploited in street sex markets and brothels. The list of challenges identified in the report goes on.

When researching this report, what stood out to me the most were not only the stark disparities between the lives of children from wealthy and poor homes, but also the many opportunities to address them. Because of the size and proximity of urban populations, children and young people in urban areas often have better access to education, health services, technology, social activities, quality food and water and so on. The problem is that too many children live next to these services and amenities, but cannot access them and do not benefit from them. The onus is on governments at all levels to place children’s rights at the centre of urban decision-making and ensure that those who are currently left out have equitable access to such services.


Editor’s note

Australia would do well to begin by asking our urban planners and policymakers to pay much greater attention to the rights and interests of children. This means bringing children’s voices into community and local government policy in the implementation and planning of cities.

All this needs to be within a child-focused policy framework. The unified call by Australian child rights organisations for a National Children’s Commissioner would go part of the way to address the shortfalls in oversight of policy, accountability, monitoring and participation.

Australia can also assist children in neighbouring countries through advocating for their rights, providing aid and through knowledge transfer on how to make urban life an equitable one. Because cities that are fit for children benefit everyone.

To view the report visit www.unicef.org.au



Nikola Balvin is an Australian living and working in New York as a Research Officer, in the Division of Communication, for UNICEF.

FPIC and Indonesia: Indigenous Forest Rights in Development

Indonesia’s stretch of territory is made up of over 17, 500 islands and is the world’s largest archipelago. The nation is dense in tropical forest and has the third largest coverage in the world (behind Brazil and the Democratic republic of Congo), of approximately 100 million hectares of tropical forest. Due to this wide geographical spread, different types of forests can be found, such as the evergreen lowland dipterocarp in Sumatra and Kalimantan, seasonal monsoon forests and savannah grasslands in Nusa Tenggara, nondipterocarp lowland forests/alpine areas in Papua and extensive mangrove regions nationwide. Within the different sub zones lives an amazing diversity of wildlife including the iconic red haired Indonesian orang-hutans (forest men), proboscis monkeys, gibbons, tigers, rhinoceros, elephants, cassowaries, birds of paradise and numerous other rare insect, bird, reptile and mammal species. Indonesia has a precious and unique ecosystem, but as exploitative forest practices are on the rise, many animals dependent on forest ecosystems have become endangered and face very real threats of extinction.

Collecting traditional herbs

It is not just animals that are affected by detrimental forest practices, many indigenous Indonesians (warganegara pribumi) are facing major upheavals in their lives as these practices increase. Those most affected are the isolated indigenous communities living deep in the jungle (masyarakat terasing) who depend entirely on forest resources to support their survival,livelihood, traditional culture and lifestyles. It is these masyarakat terasing who are most vulnerable to detrimental impacts of forest management decisions that determine their access and ownership rights to land. In an era of increased outside interest in Indonesian forests by parties involved in a number of fields including Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) projects, mining companies, oil and logging companies, plantation projects, industrial developments (both government and private) and other interested industries, there has never been a more arresting need for confident legal protection of indigenous people’s land and human rights.

Although discussions, debates and internal negotiations regarding indigenous rights have been on the UN table for three decades, it was not until the 13th September, 2007 that an official Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly by a majority of 144 states in favour and 4 votes against (out of interest, those states against were Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States). The fact that this declaration has been adopted for less than four years reflects an historical poor state of protection and a startlingly delayed rights-based representation of indigenous sovereignty worldwide. The declaration codifies and articulates a series of rights relating to customary law, natural resource use, land ownership, self-determination and lastly, indigenous autonomy in decision making processes under the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).

Article 19 of UNDRIP states that:

States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.

While Article 32(2) outlines that:

States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.

As a declaration, UNDRIP does not have the status of binding International law and as is, Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) can only be considered a principle of best practice. Although FPIC is not a legal requirement, many private companies and governments recognise the vital importance of this realisation and are working towards implementing meaningful FPIC with Indigenous communities. FPIC is a rights based model that has been designed to give more autonomy and ownership to Indigenous populations. It is not a set of consultations with already established outputs that is ‘presented’ to a said community; it is a process of informed and mutual negotiations that benefit counterparts and stakeholders involved in an ethical fashion.

To gain a deeper understanding of the issues, let’s take a closer look at what each of these principles entail.

  • FREE. Indigenous people exercise free choice void of coercion, force, manipulation, bribes or alcohol to come to a consensus. Independent bodies not related financially or politically to the project developers should conduct negotiations to eliminate bias, act as a safeguard against misconduct and provide judicial remedies if conflict arises.
  • PRIOR: Clear and sufficient notification is given to the community so that people have space to comprehend the project, request additional information, seek advice, clarify points and ask questions. In Australia this is 12 months, however time frames vary according to communities and projects worldwide.
  • INFORMED: All relevant project information is provided in local languages and people have access to independent legal or technical advice from an outside party. Information can include preliminary assessment of the likely impact of the project, stakeholders involved in construction and operational phases (including local people, researchers, sponsors, commercial interests and partners), potential risks involved eg spiritual land concerns or pollution and projections of foreseen implications eg commercial, economic, environmental, cultural and conditions for 3rd party involvement.
  • CONSENT: Approval of the project happens when negotiations are complete and legal documents produced that do or do not give permission for a project to go ahead. Indigenous people have the right to say YES or NO to a presented project and if the community says NO then projects cannot go ahead.

Because FPIC is ‘relatively’ new there are still many roadblocks involved in implementing and fulfilling indigenous people’s rights in practice. As you can imagine, if the negotiating party has private, for profit interests in forest resources, there is a real danger of manipulation or lack of transparency in the negotiating process, particularly considering the unequal levels of power between counterparts. If FPIC is to be a principle of delivered dignity and real equity, monitoring needs to be consistent and impartial to ensure fairness and authentic representation of indigenous rights holders.

In Indonesia, complications in delivering FPIC can arise because it is difficult to establish legal ownership of lands by indigenous communities living in and with the forests. It is difficult to claim rights if land ownership is not even in community hands. In a recent Forest Dialogue in Riau province, one of the root causes of problems discussed was state land. “Most communities in agricultural lands are considered to be on State land and almost all forests are classed as State Forest Areas. As a result, State agencies are granting leaseholds to palm oil companies on agricultural lands and to forestry companies in State Forests without taking community rights or views into account.” This issue is not an isolated or one off concern for Indonesia. One government representative from the National Land Bureau declared that there are over 3,500 land disputes associated with the palm oil industry in Indonesia, most of which stem from land acquisition processes that take indigenous land without allowing for customary rights or FPIC processes to be.

FPIC is a right of prime importance for indigenous people worldwide. The author has recently developed a keen interest in this field while researching indigenous people’s role in benefit sharing agreements through carbon trading projects in provinces of Indonesia. The author feels that more people should investigate and learn about FPIC as a principle of development and human rights and keep watch of how it is delivered in current and future projects in Indonesia and indeed, worldwide.

Engaging youth: nothing about us, without us

In December 2009, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that proclaimed the 12th of August 2010 to 12th of August 2011 as the ‘International Year of Youth’ (IYY). Themed ‘Dialogue and Mutual Understanding’, it coincided with the 25th anniversary of the first IYY, ‘Participation, Development, and Peace’.

With half the world’s population under the age of 25, governments, Civil Society Organisations, and other development-focused agencies have seized upon adolescents and youth (defined by the UN as those between 15-24) as ‘target groups’. Funders have all emphasised youth programmes and youth empowerment activities, allocating a large amount of their budgets to the same.

It’s interesting then, that 25 years after the first IYY on participation, young people are still struggling to be included at decision-making tables across movements and issues. That youth programmes are more often than not designed and created by someone not-youth with little to no perspective on youth issues, culture and attitudes. It’s interesting that we’re talking about ‘dialogue and mutual understanding’ when a lot of young people are still struggling with the participation part of it all.


It’s a word that’s thrown around a lot, with organisations justifying ‘participation’ to funders and themselves as an appropriate number of attendees of X target group. This often ends up tokenising groups and prevents them, and others, from truly participating. The issue here is that youth are primarily viewed as a ‘target group’. Jargon notwithstanding, it relates to them as passive receivers of programmes and projects instead of actively engaging with them. Alternately, youth are approached from a ‘protectionist’ framework, contending that they must be ‘saved’ from harm, rendering them passive but also further disempowered. It prefers to work for youth, unacknowledging of the number of strong, mobilised, self-empowered youth that actively engage in issues that impact them. It, however unconsciously, chooses not to meaningfully work with young people.

So, what does it mean to work meaningfully with youth? For one, it engages youth at every level. From inception to implementation to monitoring and evaluation, along with every other step in between. It means ensuring that their opinions, beliefs, concerns, and issues are at the centre of the programme; not someone’s assumptions of what those are. Young people face many barriers towards accessing resources, exercising their rights, or realising opportunities. This can make them a vulnerable group, with high rates of human rights violations, increased societal pressure and an inability to make decisions in their lives.

Consequently, projects must ensure that they aren’t just meaningfully involving youth but that they are youth-friendly. This means creating safe spaces for young people. I’ve seen programmes that have been executed during school exams or school hours, or have provided services (say, condoms) that required young people to access them very publicly, neither of which take into account the unique challenges of working with young people and their particular realities.

Although I have highlighted how young people have been left out of the decision-making processes, there have been many recent successes for youth engagement and activism. Our television screens and twitter feeds have been ablaze with reports of young, exasperated, disenfranchised people at the forefront of revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Greece, Spain… a list of countries that grows longer by the day. While the catalysing reasons, priorities, and outcomes may differ, they all share a distinctive feature – the willingness of young people to mobilise, to act, and determination to exercise their rights.

That these have been ‘young’ revolutions has been commented on countless times, but what that actually means in terms of youth engagement, decision-making, and subsequent leadership is something that remains unclear. With the recent UK riots displaying the shocking lengths a frustrated, angry, and seemingly disenfranchised population can go to, it’s imperative to look at how young people can consistently be engaged in all aspects of governance. There has been a lot of youth-generated activity this year; to learn lessons from, and build on for a more youth-centered approach. Lessons, not just for those in positions of power, but for youth activists, advocates, and leaders themselves.

However, the youth movement must also self-reflect. Now that there is youth representation of sorts, what is being said? Are the people at the tables representative of the issues being tackled? Are they empowered to speak? Are the youth movements running the risk of homogenising the spectrum of youth issues? It’s essential to the validity of the movements to question who is speaking at these tables. Are the youth movements cognisant of the many disparities within their own spaces? And are those voices speaking for themselves, and are they heard? Are the movements looking at setting up sustainable structures?

I think it’s important to pose these questions for social movements, so it guards against internally marginalising, encourages leadership and empowerment within its own movements, ensures sustainability, and meets its objectives. It needs to ask itself these questions so that it remains relevant, continues to push for youth involvement in decisions that directly impact youth, and ensures its own purpose. It’s a similar set of thoughts for creating youth-specific programming and projects or even a consensus-based entity like the currently discussed UN Youth (along the lines of UN Women). These programmes and institutions should both reflect the strong central idea that underscores the youth movement – ‘Nothing about us, without us’. An ‘us’ that is inclusive, empowering, representative, and sustainable.

What’s happening to the rights-based approach?

I wanted to share an incredible article I recently ran across, by Rosalind Eyben on Contestations: Dialogues on Women’s Empowerment:

“Recent years have seen a marked shift in official development discourse, with less emphasis on a rights-based approach and more on an efficiency approach to gender equality, a tone set by the World Bank’s 2006 action plan – ‘Gender equality is smart economics’ which a number of official development agencies committed funds to resourcing.  Other equally disturbing trends are emerging, such as DFID’s adoption of the Nike Foundation’s ‘Girl Effect’ theme of ‘stopping poverty before it starts’ by ‘investing in girls’ – an approach that entirely ignores the historically derived structural inequities that are keeping many millions of girls [and boys!] in conditions of poverty.

Nike’s message is a simple one. It is communicated in a slick two-minute animation, on YouTube and at www.girleffect.org. Take a look.  It paints a picture of ‘the other’, living in a situation of dirt, disease and despair. A girl surrounded by flies, taken out of the context of her family, community and country, objectified as the solution to the world being ‘in a mess’. It paints a totally unreal picture of linear cause-effect change. Based on the mantra ‘invest in a girl’ it tells us there is a single, simple solution and we can stop worrying about the historically derived patterns of injustice and inequity in the world. Nor do ‘we’ have to either bother with finding out more about what is happening in the lives of people in poorer parts of the world nor how they perceive their own lives and how they want to make their own futures.

It is a message that is profoundly anti-rights. And it is one that says nothing about where boys – and men – might come into the picture. It ignores notions of justice and equity in relations between people and countries that underpin a rights based approach.  The seeming triumph of the 1990s had been that social justice was seen as a sufficient reason for efforts to be made to secure gender equality. Women’s and girls’ well-being was an end in itself. Today, it is all about calculating the rates of return from investing in a person as if she were a piece of machinery.

Removing the realisation of rights, including women’s rights, from the donor agenda is part of a wider tendency to define development in terms of instruments – immunisations, bednets, numbers of children going to school, quotas for women in parliament – rather than xxx [you choose a good word, I was going to put “the social changes needed to make a fairer world”]. So we see investment in immunisations and bed nets rather than in x and y. This reflects the growing influence of large corporate sector philanthropic organisations and of the big accountancy companies. Technical solutions are sought for what are perceived to be technical problems…”

This is a very important message and distinction, one that is being lost in the midst of ‘randomised trials’ and monitoring and evaluation to ensure that X girls obtain education or healthcare. Yes, tangible results are important, but are we forgetting the rights-based approach, that tries to address the underlying problems of structural inequalities?

The Girl Effect: Well meaning but is it addressing underlying structural problems?

This doesn’t just apply to women’s rights, but in non-profit efforts as a whole. An efficiency approach is more about quantity than quality. It’s about getting more bang for our buck. It’s about saying – “we helped 1000 women obtain health care/education!” Large numbers of beneficiaries sounds good to donors, but what about the quality of the services provided? And the quality of life as a whole for each woman, man, or child we have helped? The long-term impact?

Isn’t it better to invest deeply in one community and ensure they are truly empowered, lifted up, and have an improved quality of life as a whole, rather than to provide piecemeal services, without addressing any systemic challenges? The approach that donors like is more about scaling up, than depth of impact within one community.

Ultimately, devising programs on the basis of being more economically efficient is not a rights-based approach. Think about the death penalty: arguments that putting someone to death is far more expensive than imprisoning them for life do make sense, but what about the deeper moral argument? Saying that reducing prison sentences makes economic sense because prisons are expensive is one thing, but arguing for an improved criminal justice system and abolition of the death penalty on moral grounds is another thing altogether. The moral and rights-based argument, in my opinion, gets down to what makes us human — and is thus far more powerful. It hits at the core of human rights. It’s a rights-based approach.

Is our obsession with indicators, numbers and monitoring ignoring the rights based approach?

Indicators and numbers and monitoring are important, but so is asking people what they really need, and allowing them to have a hand in devising and running projects for their own communities. It’s important not to just focus on the numbers that sound most impressive, but also what is really demanded and needed. What upholds the human rights that each beneficiary has. Even if it costs more, or is less economically efficient, or doesn’t look as sexy to donors.

And so, I agree with Rosalind when she concludes:

“…today, many donors only want to fund projects for which the exact outcome of their support can be attributed to the donor and determined in advance. This ties the hands of aid recipient organisations. It takes away their ability to consult with their members in response to a local context always in flux.  It stops that process of empowerment that happens when individuals and organised groups are able to imagine their world differently and to realise that vision by tackling the injustices in their society”.