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Think, feel, and act rights-based

A personal introduction to the human-rights-based approach

Frankly, it took me decades to embrace a rights-based approach. And when I first heard about the approach back in 2003, I thought: “Really? It sounds like this approach will make people more dependent!

I must admit, that in my early career I went through phases when I was fairly convinced that the trickle-down effect would solve poverty and inequality. Yes — trickle down. I was sure that development actors should focus on making people self-sufficient or enabling them to succeed by themselves rather than looking for hand-outs from the state. I believed in the self-help approach.

Nowadays, I see this completely differently.

How I learned to think rights-based

Around 2005, I realized the limits of community-based interventions in Ethiopia. We worked in a large program on soil and water conservation with terracing, protected forest closures, and gully rehabilitation. While the technical side was sound, for instance, the type of terracing, or the plants used to rehabilitate the gullies, there was a creeping realization that the main challenge was not the technology, but the political and legal framework of the country.

The ecological tragedy in the country was just too obvious, despite the claims that millions and millions of trees were planted each year. Citizens did not adhere to by-laws, national park borders, or to half-heartedly proclaimed forest closure areas. Why? Because by-laws were not enforced. There was a vacuum of power when it came to protecting or rehabilitating the environment at all levels, from the national level down to the village.

Around that time, a friend recommended the book, Political Ecology, by Paul Robbins to get a new perspective. It was an eye-opener. I realized that unless the structural side changes, for instance in terms of political participation, citizenship, and the rule of law, the environmental tragedy cannot be resolved. This realization made me think and act more along advocacy and rights. I started initiating advocacy programs that contributed to legal frameworks that encouraged community ownership over natural resources and incentivized protection.

When I realized, I felt rights-based

A few years later, I started working in India. During my meetings in dalit [1] communities in Madhya Pradesh, my emotions shifted. To date, dalits live here in separated parts of the village, remain caught up in the caste system. Upper caste villagers, and often enough the state system too, discriminate against dalits. Different plates for dalit children in schools, violence against dalit women, the profession of manual scavenging, of cleaning dry toilets for the higher castes, and even bonded labor is still a reality in many of those villages. Here, I could feel the injustice like never before, the unethical distribution of power in a village and the day-in and day-out consequences of that system on citizens’ lives. It made me angry, and I felt I could relate to the struggle dalits face.

At the time, we worked closely with Jansahas, a local NGO that works on dalit rights, on building dalit institutions, on campaigns, and on legal services. I admire the work of Jansahas. It felt like they do the right things to fight such deeply entrenched discrimination. The dalits have constitutional and human rights, which need to be protected. In fact, everyone has human rights that need protection.

What is a human rights-based approach?

A human rights-based approach (HRBA) is about enabling people (the rights-holder) to know and claim their rights and about increasing the ability and accountability of individuals and institutions (the duty bearers) who are responsible for respecting, protecting, and fulfilling rights. ​The approach is grounded on the principle that every human has a set of universal rights.

Here are two examples:

A child has the right to live. If the family cannot provide sufficient food for the child, for instance, because of drought or conflict, the state has an obligation to step in. This child has this right to be assisted and shall not be a beneficiary at the mercy of somebody. If the state is not present, the international community must play the role of duty bearer—and is obliged to support the child.

If we, as development actors, follow a human-rights-based approach, this means we focus our efforts on making the state or the international community accountable to step in and help children in such situations.

A dalit woman in Madhya Pradesh has the right to be free of discrimination, like anybody else. If we use a human-rights-based perspective, we will not focus our work on meeting her immediate needs, for instance by supporting her financially, but instead engage and collaborate with her, so she can realize her rights to be free of discrimination—for instance by building Dalit institutions as Jan Sahas does.

Some organizations such as ActionAid have championed HRBA for more than 20 years, and it has been adopted by many organizations, including the UN, donor organizations, and many NGOs. Some of them have embraced it fully, but many have only adapted the new terminologies of the rights-based approach, while project realities remain more needs-based.

Needs-based versus rights-based approach

Distinguishing between a needs- and rights-based approach can help explain a shift in thinking and action that occurred in the last few decades. This comparison may also be relevant for your organization or initiative.

Underlying question

Needs-based Approach​

Human Rights-based Approach​

What do you want to reach with the intervention?

Satisfying needs

Realizing rights

Which challenges do you address?

Focus on immediate causes

Focus on structural causes

At which level do you address challenges?

At micro-level

At micro-, meso-, and macro-level

Who is your target group?


Citizens or rights-holder

How do you relate to your target group?


Collaborative partnership

How do you support your target group?

Offer immediate benefits

Advocate for, engage and build capacities of rights-holder or citizens to realize rights


Compassion, care, commitment

Justice, equality, solidarity

What is your motivation?

Charity: “It feels good to help”

Empowerment: “They are citizens: they are entitled to rights”

The table illustrates the differences in motivation, values, and approach. We need to acknowledge that being “rights-based” is a different mindset and a distinct perspective of looking at those you want to support.

A rights-based future?

The shift in thinking from a needs- to a rights-based approach is in full swing, but it has not yet changed the practice of many institutions, both in the global North and the South. The old system which is based on funding relations (i.e., transferring money from rich to poor countries, north to south, from richer individuals to poorer ones), was long functioning under the banner of charity and doing good. Those unequal power relations are now often described as “neo-colonial.” Undeniably, the development architecture has colonial features. And they are resilient, as they go to the core of the question, how organizations are governed, and funded, how many and which kind of people they employ and how they try to create impact.

In other words, if development actors, such as donors, international NGOs or national civil society organizations want to transition to an approach based on collaboration, rights, and citizenship, they cannot just change the way they implement projects. They also need fundamental organizational change. Most organizations have started acting this way, but very few have turned their organizations upside-down.

What makes me optimistic is our work with youth. Here we realize that many young people – even in the most challenging parts of the world—have a strong sense of social justice and human rights, and a passion to change their society. Some of them engage in protests demanding responsible governance in their country or environmental movements, such as Friday for Future, but they also make up a new generation of development actors, civil society workers, journalists, and politicians. Supporting this new generation in its journey, especially in fragile and transitional contexts, provides opportunities to build resilient, rights-based institutions and democracies and to make quicker transitions. We must ensure that the development actors embrace the rights-based approach in the next few years, not in the next few decades.

Exercise for workshops:

1. Define the rights-based approach and use the table to clarify the differences between needs-based versus a rights-based approach to your audience. Explain your own experiences and journey with both approaches. Where are you right now?

2. Then ask the group to reflect on the following questions for five minutes:

  • What is your journey in relation to the needs-based and rights-based approach? Have key events changed your perspective?

  • How do you feel about both approaches today?

  • Is your organization rights- or needs-based? And what does that mean for you?

3. Divide the group into pairs and give them 10 minutes to discuss the three questions.

4. Then open up the discussion in the plenary for another 10–15 minutes to go deeper into some concerns and conclude.



[1] Dalit, also known as untouchable, is a term for people belonging to the lowest stratum castes in India. Dalits were excluded from the four-fold varna system of Hinduism.


About the Author:

Joachim Schwarz is passionate about social justice and on a mission to support like-minded civil society actors and social entrepreneurs to become more powerful and innovative. Hence, in 2014 he left his NGO career to build the Civil Society Academy. He is an outstanding facilitator and coach with expertise in social innovation, leadership, organisational change, and advocacy. After more than 20 years in Africa and Asia, he is now based in Berlin.

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