Development Aid and Human Rights

One of the objectives of liberal democracy is to share wealth and to provide development aid to poor countries around the world to help local populations improve their lives in terms of their health and education, assist with building infrastructure and developing existing capacities, and helping to develop a civil society that functions on the principles of rule of law.

In all of the aid-receiving countries, however, there are violations of basic human rights on a daily basis, often under the watchful eyes of numerous United Nations agencies including the International Labor Organization, which was created in 1918 at the conclusion of World War I, with the sole mandate to protect the rights of the workers and children.

Members of foreign governments and international organizations often choose to overlook these abuses and do not speak up for fear that their work visas would be cancelled and they would be expelled. Sometimes the rationale for not recognizing the issue of human rights is, that it is a cultural problem. These excuses and explanations should not be accepted by the donors and the institutions of Liberal Democracies

When people are hungry and have almost sunk to the deepest levels of despair, they will pursue any activity just to survive. The issue of child prostitution, in some instances sanctioned by the parents and other close members of the family, and that of child labor, which sees both girls and boys hauling bricks on their heads and digging trenches for an unacceptably low wage as something like $1 a day is a strong indicator of what needs to be done. Under such conditions people desperately try to keep alive, and only a very few are concerned with the protection of the most vulnerable members of the society.

In most of the aid-receiving countries, women are doing remarkable work and in many cases are the driving force to help build fragile economies. In many instances women must work and become the main breadwinners for the family. It is also quite common for very young children to do menial and very laborious work to help to sustain the family.

Some attention to the enforcement of and respect for some basic human rights such as the safety and protection of women workers should be part of the package. When people are not accorded their fundamental human rights, the most vulnerable are not protected, then the development aid, given in whatever form, surrenders its value.

It is not even a moot point that women are perpetuators and nurturers of any society and children its future. It is absolutely vital that they be protected from any form of violence and exploitation, if countries are truly serious about development and progress. Failure to accord women and children security and protection which fall under the umbrella of basic human rights is an impediment to progress, and cause a myriad of costly social problems.

The regular degradations of domestic abuse and other forms of violence directed towards women and children are well known, but are difficult to quantify because many women, due to social and cultural constraints do not report them. All too frequently national governments themselves are complicit in these acts, denying and overlooking them.

However, for the victims these attacks are life-altering experiences. They have a profound impact on women and children and on the society in general- problems which no amount of money can solve. These are some of the concerns which perhaps should be brought up by the donors to the attention of the national governments of the countries receiving aid, when aid is requested or is being negotiated.

It is encouraging that Canada has come to realize what some of us who were in the field have been saying for a long time, that development aid must address these issues if it is to meet its goals. Now there is talk at the federal government level that advancement of women should be a primary objective of Canada’s foreign policy.

It is noteworthy that Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Haiti -- four countries which are receiving the largest aid packages -- are most accountable for their violation of human rights and security of women.

In the western democracies, the concept of human rights is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Furthermore, western political thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote and commented extensively on the importance of human dignity. Since the late 18th century, soon after the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1787-1789), in most democratic countries, basic human rights, with special consideration of the minorities, have been entrenched in and upheld by the respective constitutions of the countries.

Furthermore, at the conclusion of World War II in 1945, a newly minted United Nations created a committee to draft a formal document addressing human rights questions. Its members were drawn from a number of countries. Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was one of its members.

On Dec. 10, 1948, with Trygve Lie as its Secretary General, the United Nations General Assembly adopted this document as its resolution, 217) (A) (111) and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration consists of 31 articles which spell out basic human rights to which all inhabitants of the planet are entitled, regardless of creed, color, gender, political conviction, race or nationality etc.

It was expected that all of its member countries would sign this historic document. Unfortunately, as of now of the 192 member nations fewer than half have signed the declaration. Secondly because it is a general assembly resolution, it is not binding on any nation. Most of the countries which opted not to sign are from Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union, the former Communist Bloc and some countries from Asia.

Notwithstanding the resolution, violations have continued even in those countries that signed the charter. In response, on March 15, 2006, the United Nations General Assembly created the Human Rights Council as its subsidiary to oversee and monitor violations around the globe. It consists of 47 member states, but is dominated by Islamic bloc countries- some African countries, Russia, Cuba, and China. These countries and regions have largely failed to demonstrate any respect for human rights. Last year, in a particular travesty, Libya was elected its chair.

There is no question that rights must correspond with responsibilities. Also, foreign policy and human rights cannot be treated with a cookie-cutter approach. National interests are equally important.

There are number of factors which influence and have an impact upon the evolution of any country’s policies on human rights, such as history, culture, religion, economics, political and colonial experience. However, it must also be recognized that some rights must be accepted as universal.

(Alexandra Fic is a Canada-based scholar and author who has held a variety of teaching, research and international aid jobs through Asia.)