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Poverty reduction

New paradigm

Germany’s Development Ministry is paying increasing attention to human rights. Its focus is on people’s rights, rather than on needs and concerns of vulnerable groups. Seen that way, government institutions have a duty to perform well and to reach out to the marginalised. The new paradigm already has some tangible impacts in practice.

[ By Juliane Osterhaus and Monika Lüke ]

In July 2004, Germany’s Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) published its Human Rights Action Plan 2004 to 2007. This plan is soon to be updated. BMZ is thus promoting the international trend to base development programmes more systematically on human-rights considerations. For a long time, human rights and development policy have not been well coordinated, even though there are critical synergies.

Human rights form a unique framework of rules because they are legally binding, reflect moral and political values with worldwide approval, and enjoy the support of the international community. Orientating development cooperation towards human rights improves outcomes in terms of poverty reduction, peace and economic growth. After all, discrimination and social exclusion – for instance, in the education or health sectors – cause high economic costs, inhibiting development. Hence, human rights are of instrumental value. At the same time, BMZ emphasises human rights as important goals in their own right.

Seen from a human-rights angle, poverty is not primarily the result of difficult economic or geographical conditions. Rather, poverty results from unfair power relations and breaches of fundamental rights, such as those to education or participation in decision-making.

The human-rights approach marks a paradigm shift. To reduce poverty becomes a governmental duty, it is not about welfare or charity. We now consider people holders of rights, instead of regarding them as impoverished target groups. Moreover, we see governmental agencies under an obligation to perform. The focus is no longer on needs and concerns of disadvantaged people, but rather on the universal legal claim to a dignified existence. Human rights – and awareness of them – contribute to empowerment. In practice, it follows that governmental and non-governmental agencies in partner countries deserve support when shaping their political and institutional environment in a way that allows all people to participate in a prospering market economy and to articulate, assert and enforce their rights. The human-rights principles of non-discrimination, equality of opportunities, participation, empowerment, accountability and transparency provide valuable guidelines in this context.

In practical terms, the focus on human rights means that German development agencies are increasingly tackling issues that were previously considered “sensitive” or even an “interference in the domestic affairs” of other countries. Such issues include the over-arching governance environment, the fight against corruption or reform in the security sector. German agencies – on behalf of the BMZ – are directly dealing with breaches of human rights, such as the mass phenomenon of gender-related violence (which includes the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in Africa) and the growing challenge of human trafficking.

The general perception of human rights is still that they are primarily associated with civil and political liberties (such as the freedoms of speech and the press, the prohibition of torture or the right to a fair trial). German development policy emphasises the equality and inter-dependence of all human rights, including social, economic and cultural human rights, such as those to food, education and the highest attainable standard of health. Germany thus explicitly acknowledges the United Nations’ understanding of human rights, and so do Germany’s partner countries.

First results in Kenya

Some argue that the new approach did not change much, as development policy was always geared towards these objectives. However, first empirical evidence shows that the Action Plan already has tangible results. The concept was first tested in Kenya and Guatemala, and the results of the initial implementation are indeed encouraging.

Today, the Kenyan government’s agriculture programme, which is supported by Germany, is targeting subsistence farmers. Previously, only medium-sized and small farms which sold produce on markets received assistance. In the past, therefore, evaluations only checked whether market-oriented farms had become more productive. Today, in contrast, evaluators also consider impact on the living conditions of subsistence farmers and poor rural households.

The water sector has been a priority area of German-Kenyan cooperation for years. Change has occurred in this field too, thanks to the human-rights approach. Kenya has established a Water Services Trust Fund to provide funds for improving water supply to urban slums, among other things. Providing fast-track access to safe drinking water for impoverished areas has become a priority. In this context, Germany is supporting the establishment of water kiosks for low-income groups.

Kenya has acknowledged the right to water by ratifying two relevant treaties, the International Pact on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Accordingly, the Government of Kenya is under obligation to make sure that the poor have access to water on affordable terms. For this reason the Kenyan government is currently reviewing the tariff system with support from GTZ (German Technical Cooperation). For customers at water kiosks and consumers that only use very small amounts, tariffs are being reduced and cross-subsidised through the system. The programme also seeks to involve those who are particularly affected by poverty in the planning and implementation of low-cost water supply and sanitation. To allow such participation is a constituent element of the human rights approach.

It is sometimes argued that water supply in poverty-struck urban areas must take second place to supply in middle-class residential areas, because the latter can be reached more easily and will pay the necessary charges. In the light of the human-rights approach, however, the argument of “difficult” economic environments is no longer acceptable.

The right to water places a government under the obligation to take steps to ensure reliable supply to all classes and communities and to prioritise expansion of networks to the poor over improving the supply for the middle-classes. It may be necessary to provide special assistance to particular groups that were disadvantaged in the past. If resources are limited, the non-discrimination principle means that governments must first take action where the need is greatest. It is left to policymakers to decide whether to bank on public or private providers. However, if the water sector is privatised, the government must make sure that the right to water is enforced for all.

Klaus von Mitzlaff directs the GTZ office in Kenya. He says that emphasis on human rights “was an effective policy instrument in Kenya, helping us to focus our cooperation projects more consistently towards poor groups affected by discrimination and to support corresponding policy reform.”

The key advantage of the human-rights approach compared with other concepts and strategies lies in the fact that it is based on legally binding commitments, which have been undertaken by partner and donor governments alike. The human-rights approach is thus consistent with a central concern of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, namely greater ownership of the partner countries. Another asset is the enhancement of accountability. The local population can judge agencies on the basis of universal human rights standards and principles and, hence, hold them accountable. Doing so will help to limit misuse of power by the state.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.