Towards a People-Centered Development Model: What the Right to Development Can Achieve for Local Communities

Thien Hoang and John Mwebe

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Development, Mr. Saad Alfarargi (5th from Right) with civil society members. Dakar, Senegal. Credit: OHCHR

The United Nation Declaration on the Right to Development recognizes that

“development is a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom”

In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed a Special Rapporteur on the right to development to meet with government officials, civil society, non-government organizations and, other stakeholders via a series of international conferences and regional consultations. Four regional consultations (Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean and Asia) were conducted in 2018 to consult on and gather good practices and recommendations from around the world.

On behalf of the International Accountability Project, John Mwebe and Thien Hoang contributed recommendations at two regional consultations and shared their experiences working with communities who are leading the fight towards a more community-centered development model. In April 2019, the Special Rapporteur invited the International Accountability Project, among 10 other civil society groups, to a global conference to review and summarize the recommendations from the 4 regional consultations. To conclude this process, the Special Rapporteur will present a final report to the UN Human Rights Council on September 11, 2019.

John and Thien recently chatted about their insights into what the right to development would mean for communities and why we should all be paying attention to these United Nations processes. Transcribed below is their conversation:

Thien Hoang is a community organizer (Southeast Asia) at the International Accountability Project. John Mwebe is a Program Coordinator (Africa) at the International Accountability Project.

John Mwebe: Hi Thien. Let’s begin! I think our first question would be “What is the right to development?”

Thien Hoang: Thank you, John. Let’s start with the definition; the right to development, according to the United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development, recognizes people’s political, social and economic rights to improve their lives. The adoption of the declaration in 1986 marked an important shift in how we understand development. Before, in the aftermath of World War II, countries focused almost exclusively on national economic growth as a measure of development. Now, there is a larger recognition that development should include not just economic growth but also the rights of people and groups.

John: For me, the right to development is entirely about putting people at the center of their own development. Often, when we discuss the right to development, we speak of the benefits communities would “receive” from the development process but the right to development means communities are able to decide their own development and make their own plans and projects.

Thien: That’s a good point. So, you see the right to development as centered around communities and what communities decide. But are communities really recognized as agents of development?

John Mwebe at a community-wide training in Uganda

John: No, but it should be about people who will be directly affected by development; it should be about their agency because quite often governments, companies, banks, and others deny them their rights. I see the right to development as fundamentally about the agency of communities.

Thien: I see. This connects to what I was saying about the idea of development as economic growth, which has been the dominant narrative for many decades. Even now, governments prefer to speak in terms of “economic growth” rather than “human rights” because it allows for development to be something that is engineered by the State and comes from the State. In many places, communities are afraid to speak their mind because anyone speaking out against the government’s vision for development can be labeled an “enemy of the state”. This is a worrying trend in Southeast Asia, especially in the Mekong region. If you accept the top-down development model, then anyone expressing their opposition to a development project can be smeared as someone who is against the state and the development of the country as a whole. This is a scary reality for many people.

John: Yes, that’s something we oftentimes encounter in our work. This means it’s important to connect these high-level conversations about the right to development to the challenges faced by communities

Thien: I think with the right to development model, communities are definitely the drivers of development. To be frank, I don’t think any model that doesn’t center human rights really works. For example, with the current set-up, many projects fail because time and again, community demands have been ignored or cast aside and consequently, the project has to be abandoned or is completed at a very high cost to both the local communities and the country as a whole. You can have a situation where the government may end up in debt, which eventually gets passed down to the people. In this chain of events, local communities rarely have a say in these decisions, but they are then expected to pay the price.

John: I agree and to add, the right to development is important because it is a concrete framework through which communities can determine the development they want. We all have different interests. Some of us belong to agrarian communities, others could be pastoralists or hunter-gatherers. As such, our demands for development are going to be very different. But if I am at the center of determining my needs, then I can live out a dignified life and make decisions for myself and my community.

Thien: That’s a good way to think about it. I think based on our experiences, we can offer a few shared recommendations that move us towards a community-led and rights-respecting model for development.

John: Maybe we can think of these as principles, or at least, how to measure if development is responsive to community needs. The first one would be that community leadership is key to creating meaningful participation in development

Meaningful public participation means that those affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process. Governments, companies and development banks need to disclose information about development projects in a systematic and timely manner and in the language(s) of affected communities. At IAP, we advocate the adoption of People’s Plans i.e. a development plan that is designed and enforced by and for the local community. People’s Plans highlight community development priorities to lead the creation of national and regional development plans as well as individual project plans.

Community members affected by flood management plans in Biñan City participate in an event discussing People’s Plans

Thien: And we have seen the effectiveness of People’s Plans in the Philippines, for example. I think related to that; we can recommend that local expertise should inform decision-making.

Thai Baan research is a great example of this. In the 2000s, the Thai government sought information on the social and environmental impacts of the Pak Mun Dam. The local community, together with university volunteers and civil society, collected information about local fish, livelihood activities, natural plants and herbs, ecosystems and the complex ways in which they interacted with their environment. This was information no one else had and it was a completely new methodology in terms of the community leading on designing and writing up their own research process. The research was especially helpful in negotiations with the government. This approach has since been successfully adapted to other countries in the Mekong region.

John: In Uganda, there is something similar taking place where communities exchange and adopt good practices. There have been efforts to register the customary land of the community because people know that without this registration, developers may try to seize the land. Being able to register their land means investors, governments, companies, and others will be forced to come negotiate with them and work with the community on their own terms. This is an innovation that was replicated by other pastoralist communities in the country so that they were able to a) secure their land and b) determine what type of development, if any, they wanted. These kinds of approaches can be shared and adapted to many countries and contexts.

Thien: If we are speaking on a more regional or international level, to circle back to the right to development, I think more needs to be done to on a global level to protect human rights defenders and support communities seeking justice. We need a binding, legal mechanism for communities to access remedy or hold decision-makers accountable. Take the example of the Don Sahong Dam in Laos. The dam was built by a Malaysian company, Mega First. The Mekong is a regional river that runs through six countries. Damming it would cause transboundary impacts to many downstream countries. Earth Rights International and communities in Cambodia filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM). Even though SUHAKAM acknowledged the case, they have ruled that the case is outside their jurisdiction. In such situations, a binding treaty on the Right to Development would be very useful.

John: I think that highlights the problem quite well. There are no legally binding mechanisms that govern what the obligations of the state are to local communities. In that way, the right to development is essential if communities are to lead their own development.

I think this concludes our conversation for now but there’s definitely plenty to follow up on. Thank you, Thien.

Thien: Thank you, John!

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to development will represent the final report on September 11, 2019 at the 42nd session of the Human Rights Council. Read the outcome documents from each regional consultation and the final report, “Outcomes of the regional consultations on the practical implementation of the right to development: identifying and promoting good practices.

IAP contributed actively to the consultations since it believes documenting the experiences and shortfalls of the current development model will contribute to the implementation of policies and processes to promote community-led development. Read IAP’s submission to the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Right to Development regarding a binding instrument on the Right to Development.

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.