The human right to development

[Maryland Legal Aid’s assistant director of advocacy for income security Peter Sabonis offers a spoon-size serving of human rights fundamentals.]

In 1986, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Right to Development. Relatively speaking, the declaration is the “stepchild” of human rights, overshadowed by the negative and positive human rights related to politics and economics. At best, it is a non-binding declaration of aspirations.

Conceptually, however, the right to development is the keystone to realizing the rights to education, health care, food, housing, employment, living wages, and income security.

Obviously, these rights cannot be attained without resources. The right to development makes it clear that the distribution of resources in countries and communities should be governed by principles of equal participation and self-determination of community members, and that resource use objectives should be focused on realizing human rights. Put simply, “The human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development.”  [Art. 2.1].

Most of our resource allocation decisions are made by the marketplace, where only one principle–self-interest–is recognized and rewarded. Yet in the U.S., these markets have had to step aside and recognize “community” interests relative to health, safety,  welfare, and morals. In short, the “police powers” of state and local governments have been used, at times, to curb or shape real estate development. Government subsidies, such as low-interest loans, favorable tax treatment, and discount lease payments can alter market dynamics and guide resource allocation.

The human right to development passes no judgment on these government preferences, but suggests that all development approaches include the following elements:

•    express linkage to rights
•    accountability
•    empowerment
•    participation
•    non-discrimination and attention to vulnerable groups

To make this more concrete, two international economists (Jakob Hansen and Hans-Otto Sano) opined the implications of this approach:

•    legal entitlements must become constituent concerns of development policy
•    good governance is enhanced by accountability
•    rights-based development is efficacious for combating poverty and redressing political and economic power structures that perpetuate it
•    development should do no human rights harm

An example of development without a rights-based approach is Baltimore’s Empowerment Zone (EZ) project of 1994-2004. The federal government awarded a 10-year, $100 million grant to develop sustained economic and community development opportunities for residents and businesses in a targeted group of poor communities in Baltimore City.  According to a University of Baltimore assessment, the EZ’s job creation efforts alone netted 5,777 employment positions. Over ten years, that’s a little more than 500 jobs per year.

Using the federal and other funds leveraged by the project, the EZ spent on average, $4,103 for each job created. UB concluded that this was “very effective” leveraging.  It’s hard to argue with that, but the UB assessment failed to examine the wage rates for such jobs. A rights-based development approach might have expressly required jobs that paid the human right to living wages.

The paucity of the EZ vision was revealed recently in an expose by the Daily Record on the $1.8 billion East Baltimore Development Initiative, a 2002 spin-off of the EZ. After leveling an East Baltimore neighborhood near Johns Hopkins Hospital and forcing the relocation of 732 residents, the project has stalled because of the recession.

Worse, the development initiative could provide little job creation and financial data at a recent city council hearing–a hearing attended by at least one relocated resident who is struggling to meet higher housing costs in a new neighborhood.

A rights-based EZ vision could have built accountability and transparency into the development project, and could have ensured that the project’s economic objectives would not have come at the expense of the local residents’ human right to housing.

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