Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Right to accountability

Tim Ogden of Philanthropy Action wrote an interesting guest-post on Aid Watch, filling in for William Easterly while he travels around Africa. He discussed the concept of rights-based development, an approach Easterly has been critical of, calling for the world's poor to sue the NGOs that ineffectively serve them.

While it fooled me for a while, Ogden's post was satirical. I was majorly bummed, being excited at the prospect of class-action lawsuits that I realize now will never happen. What the post did illustrate, though, were the problems that go along with thinking about development and poverty alleviation as a human right's issue.

Essentially a moral argument, rights-based development argues that the world's poor have a right to better services and more resources. Critics argue that a rights-based approach creates a political struggle over what are the most important "rights" and shifts programs away from more pragmatic solutions--i.e., focusing on AIDS because it is a more destructive disease, rather than something simple like diarrhea, which kills more children in African than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. Ultimately, because rights are harder to define, they are not a good standard to hold organizations accountable to, and as Ogden says, can be abused.

While human rights may not be the standard needed to hold development organizations accountable, that does not mean accountability is not essential to effective change, just harder to define. It is easy to say there is a human right to water or education, but harder to prove an organization has increased education enrollments by so much or provided clean water for a certain amount of people, and that those actions improved the constituents' well-being.

When thinking about the charities you want to support, look for pragmatic, proven solutions. These come with their own issues, but it is easier to look for results than to figure out if organization's solutions adhere to a complex doctrine of human rights.

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