What’s in a Name?

Human Rights, Human Development, and Human Dignity

David L. Richards

Over the past decades, the terms ‘human rights’ and ‘human development’ have been characterized as being: complementary to one another, purposefully distinct from one another, or synonymous for one another. As well, there has been a clear sequence to this usage over time. Initially, human rights and human development were accepted as being conceptually distinct terms. Then, human rights and human development were increasingly portrayed as being complementary with one another. Of late, there are hints of wider spread comfort with the thought that the human rights framework completely absorbs, or encompasses, human development. Those comfortable with this arc towards conceptual unity would call it progress. Others might dismiss it as a misunderstanding of what they know to separate human rights from human development. I believe the swing towards conceptual unity to be progress and, perhaps, looking briefly at the background of these terms may help shed light on why there is increasing agreement that human development and human rights are two windows with views of the same terrain: human dignity.

The term ‘human development’ roughly traces back to economists wishing to differentiate themselves from their traditionalist colleagues concerned fundamentally with GDP growth. The departure point was that these newly-labelled ‘development economists’ did not regard economic growth as an end in itself. Rather, the end of interest was human outcomes (e.g., infant mortality, life expectancy, education). The link back to economics was the thesis that these individual-level outcomes were, to some important extent, a function of the macroeconomic health of states. At the same time, scholars in other social science disciplines such as political science, sociology, psychology, and ultimately even anthropology, were becoming increasingly active in the field of ‘human rights’.

Both human rights and human development quickly became fairly ubiquitous in a variety of settings, but they travelled different paths. The term human development primarily took root in intergovernmental institutions previously focused on macroeconomic stability and/or poverty, and in the agencies of governments offering foreign assistance. The term human rights primarily took root in academic and advocacy circles, as well as foreign policy-making circles (even if only to publicly denigrate human rights as wishful liberalism that would interfere with the grown-up games of hard power-based realpolitik). Yet, both the rights and development camps were investing in the same outcome: ensuring human dignity for as many persons as possible, everywhere. Over time, a growing number of academic, advocacy, business, and government careers and cash were attached to both human development and human rights—especially development—giving something to protect those involved with each; including protection of the terms themselves.

The most popular distinction between human rights and human development is that while human rights are legal entitlements, development goals are a set of aspirations. However, this defence does not bear up under simple scrutiny. A germane question here would be: what development aspiration seeks to improve human dignity in a manner not found in the International Bill of Human Rights (IBHR)? None come to mind and, in fact, longstanding development aspirations tend to fall squarely into the category of internationally-recognized human rights known as ‘economic, social, and cultural rights’. Some defenders of development would make a further differentiation between rights and development by adding that development aspirations are greater in scope and/or depth than human rights guarantees. For example, while there is an internationally-recognized right to universal primary education—human development aspires to provide access to secondary and tertiary education, especially for women. As bases for differences between human rights and human development, however, such arguments are based upon strict textualist readings of the IBHR that ignore the desired end—human dignity. To believe that a primary education has the same effect on human dignity in 2012 as it did in 1948, or even 1966, is to ignore fundamental social/political/economic changes that have taken place in the world in the meantime. One’s view of human dignity must be dynamic enough to accept changes in the scope and depth of rights needed to protect dignity in a quickly changing world. That is, for example, the dignity to be provided by education in 2012 demands more than that which was mandated to be afforded at the primary level in 1948. As I have written elsewhere, we are ultimately worth as much as we decide we are, and an insistence upon restricting our vision of human dignity by means of textualist readings of international instruments is a crime against our right and our ability to decide we can be better, both individually and together.

A second oft-cited distinction between human rights and human development is that economic human rights are problematic to implement since they are entitlements and this necessitates that some entity—most likely states –be the duty-bearer. Thus, the improvement of human dignity via human rights rather than human development puts an obligation to fulfil these rights on states. The argument continues that these costs are unfair to poor states. This line of thought feeds off a twin misunderstanding resulting in the belief in a distinction between what are called ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ human rights. Negative human rights (e.g., civil–political rights) are deemed affordable because they merely require a state to refrain from engaging in violations of these rights. On the other hand, positive rights (e.g., economic rights) are purported to require state action and cost a great deal.

Such arguments ignore the important simple fact that governments solve problems by collecting and spending money. Whether the issue is infrastructure, defence, or torture, governments must spend money to solve these problems. This does not ignore the political, as effective policies must be crafted, but ultimately they are to guide the spending addressing pending problems. All responses to human dignity, bar none, cost money to implement. Further, just as leeway is given to states in crisis by allowing derogation of respect for certain civil and political rights during declared states of emergency, poorer states are given leeway on respect for economic rights through the principle of progressive realization.

Some would even cast uncertainty as to who is the rightful duty-bearer in any case should development goals be human rights entitlements. However, this is a problem long-solved, as we are all duty bearers for one another: as members of the one group from which none of us can voluntarily leave—homo sapiens—and as subjects to the impulses provided by altruistic genes that compel us, as a species, to help others in situations where there is no utility to ourselves for doing so. Indeed, is not the whole endeavour of international development built upon both moral reciprocity and the premise that we ultimately depend on one another for our survival and success? One could be cynical and posit that the reason some support assistance for citizens of other countries is to create and support markets for capitalism. It would be foolish to believe that motive does not exist, but equally foolish, I think, to make the case that it is dominant. Therefore, the issue of who is the duty-bearer does not appear to be a reasonable objection to viewing development goals as benchmarks in achieving critical parts of human dignity, to which we are all entitled via human rights.

This short piece can only touch the surface of the reasons for which human development goals must be recast in their true light as economic right entitlements should we continue to hope to provide lives of human dignity to persons around the world. However, the timing is right for an involved, serious discussion of the issue, as the UN’s post-2015 UN Development Agenda provides the perfect opportunity to give these aspirations or goals their due as rights.

David L. Richards is Associate Professor of Political Science and Human Rights at The University of Connecticut. Email 

See a UNU-WIDER interview with David Richards here.

WIDERAngle newsletter
December 2012
ISSN 1238-9544