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Does Human Rights work face special challenges in assessing impact?

2011 October 7

On the 3rd and 4th October the International Council on Human Rights Policy organised a workshop in Geneva about assessing the impact of human rights work in the current ‘results-based management’ (RBM) environment. The agenda covered  a range of issues t but part of the discussion that most t interested me was whether and how human rights work differed from and therefore had to be assessed differently from development practice With nearly 30 participants representing international human rights and grant making organisations there was a useful sharing of views about impact –  for example Amnesty’s definition is ‘ significant and sustainable changes, sales positive or negative, decease expected or unexpected, in the lives of people and communities brought about by human rights interventions’.

The workshop discussed how those international human rights organisations (HROs) that (unlike Amnesty do not have a large membership base) and are reliant on organisational grants are under increasing pressure to understand and assess impact in relation to the achievement of pre-determined results.  Participants worried that donors  – governments and philanthropic foundations are viewing human rights as similar to ‘development’ work.   ‘Human rights work is about shifting power’, said one participant, ‘ that is why it is different from development work’.  My response was that it all depends how you understand ‘development’!  Those of us involved in the Big Push Forward initiative, see our development practice as support to social transformation and  it would be hard to distinguish the particularities of human rights work from rights-based and social justice approaches to development.

A common challenge for both human rights and development practice is that we work in dynamic environment, context specific environments, involving both a multiplicity of actors and inequitable power relations, making it difficult, if not impossible to predict when and how the changes we are seeking to the status quo will come about.  Participants stressed both the long term nature of change – results might not be achieved within the standard 3-5 year funding – and the need for flexibility and planned opportunism when things suddenly change.  Mention was made of the Arab Spring and the difficulty HROs in the region were having in switching their activities at short notice when tied into a 3 year funding cycle with pre-determined results agreed with the donor.

One particularity of human rights work is it involves not only helping make good change occur – the greater realisation of human rights – but also the prevention of bad change happening – i.e. systemic human rights abuses.  It reminds me of when the British Foreign Office was first required to start thinking in RBM terms and an ambassador colleague grumbled about how to demonstrate that their diplomacy had stopped the outbreak of conflict. Hard to imagine doing a randomized control trial on that one!

Another particularity is that some of the work is dangerous for those struggling against oppressive authorities requiring a consequent responsibility of the organisations working from safe places like Geneva to support activists in a manner that does not enhance this danger.  For example it might be necessary not to reveal what has been achieved and who was involved in achieving it.  Finally, a unique aspect of human rights work, is assessing impact against the standard of the international conventions and in that respect the workshop discussed the importance of HROs working together to improve their evaluation approaches and to prevent their grant-makers imposing methods that risked undermining human rights work.

2 Responses
  1. October 24, 2011

    An excellent post.

    Hugo Slim and Peter Uvin have also written particularly well on these issues.

    My own comment relates to two experiences regarding human rights work in Central America back in the 1980s, when the UK Charity Commission was still unconvinced of the link between the eradication (or alleviation, or reduction – take your pick) of poverty and work that was explicitly in support of human rights as defined in the UDHR and in international humanitarian law (IHL), e.g. the right to freedom of association. Today, all development interventions are supposedly rights-based, although the 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development remains largely theoretical.

    The first experience is the case of a national Human Rights Commission, which had received a 3-year grant from a US foundation. When the Commission applied for a renewal of the grant, they were turned down on the basis that there was ‘nothing innovative’ in the proposal, which sought a continuation of its work in documenting violations, briefing the UN Special Rapporteur and official delegations, and making representation in Geneva. Their comment was: ‘The violations are not innovative either, they just follow the same pattern of scorched earth, massacres, disappearances, torture and summary execution’, but the funding was not renewed.

    The second concerns the fundamental question of attribution. Again, a national human rights committee in another Central American country focused on mothers of the disappeared. Its members undertook the dangerous and gruesome job of finding corpses that had been thrown onto rubbish tips, showing marks of torture; photographing them so that mothers and wives searching for their loved-ones might be able to identify them; documentation and denunciation, etc. Aid agency staff working in the region understood (a) the importance of supporting people’s own struggle for human rights as they saw fit and (b) the need for us to keep a low profile regarding this support both for our own agencies to be able to continue their work, and to protect the security of the committee. Back at the head office, however, the head of the advocacy team asserted that if our NGO’s label could not appear publicly on it, then we shouldn’t be supporting this work. In other words, that development and humanitarian programmes should provide attributable advocacy material.

    Thirty years on, these two stories continue to trouble me.

  2. October 19, 2011

    Self Impact Assessment: A Comparative Analysis of Development and Human Rights Non Governmental Organizations

    Koldo Casla

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